- The Heart of Teaching: Empowering Students in the Performing Arts by Stephen Wangh
In The Heart of Teaching: Empowering Students in the Performing Arts, author Stephen Wangh describes an incident that should sound familiar to many acting teachers. Two underprepared students perform a scene that is clearly, and seemingly inexcusably, underrehearsed. It turns out that one of the scene partners has failed to make himself available for rehearsal and so bears the brunt of responsibility for the dismal quality of the scene. He has missed meetings with his partner, failed to communicate in a timely fashion, and when questioned and called to account by Wangh, comes across as apathetic and resistant. Wangh’s initial (and understandable) impulse is to chide and shame the errant student until, eventually, he reveals the real reason for leaving his partner in the lurch: on the weekend he had agreed to rehearse, “they were,” the student tearfully explains to Wangh, “arresting my father.”
This, and many of the other anecdotes in Wangh’s book, reminds us that, as theatre educators, we all, always and everywhere, find ourselves well outside the comfort zones of our discipline, forced to improvise new roles as social workers, psychologists, sociologists, and counselors. It is a dangerous game because most of us are none of those things, and it should not be surprising that, deep down, many of us feel inadequate to the task. This is especially true for those of us teaching in nonelite educational institutions, where students are less likely to be from multigenerational college-educated families and more likely to be weighted down by issues related to class, race, and lack of economic opportunity. Wangh is critical of what Paolo Freire has called “the banking concept of education” (12) in which learning becomes a one-way process whereby elites “deposit” their knowledge with those who have none. In its place, he favors an almost Zen-like pedagogy in which teaching becomes an exercise in restraint, humility, and the renunciation of power. Our job, as the title of his book suggests, is to empower students to make discoveries about themselves.
The author draws his pedagogical framework from Polish director and acting teacher Jerzy Grotowski and what Grotowski referred to as the “via negativa.” Acting, for Grotowski, was not really about the acquisition of skills, but “the eradication of blocks,” the stripping away of learned behavior to allow the true and genuine impulses of the performer to emerge. The via negativa is not, as Wangh states, “a negative methodology, it is a positive attitude towards teaching and towards our students, an attitude of inquiry, of openness and naïveté.” Wangh is not suggesting that we ignore the necessity of developing skills and technique, but that the learning experience is also driven by self-discovery: “There are other skills,” he insists, that students “must discover—or rediscover—on their own. But which ones are which? Often enough this is something we must allow our students to teach us” (15). In Wangh’s model, the instructor’s primary job is not so much to teach as to facilitate, with the goal of freeing the student from dependency on the teacher. Ultimately, this liberates the teacher from her own ego-driven need to control all aspects of the learning process.
At a time when college students enter the academy conditioned by the rote learning and standardized tests mandated by “No Child Left Behind,” Wangh’s approach raises some practical questions that can only be answered anecdotally. The Heart of Teaching is not a pedagogical handbook or a collection of classroom exercises, but a series of examples and case studies derived from a lifetime of successful teaching; they illustrate a mentality, not a method. Drawing on scholars from the wider field of general education, such as Parker Palmer, Eloise Ristad, Freire, and many others, Wangh divides the book into a series of short chapters on, among other topics, student-centered (as opposed to faculty-centered) questions, strategies for listening, approaches for providing effective feedback, and dealing with resistance. Wangh notes that...