I teach college acting classes to non-acting majors at three different college sites. One is a traditional four-year liberal arts college with students whose basic Maslow’s needs are well-met. The other two take place at two separate academic centers for one statewide Community College system. The first of these is in a relatively urban area and filled with nontraditional students who may be resettled refugees or recent war veterans, and the second is in a distinctly rural and blue collar county with a majority of first-generation college students, former factory workers, and single parents.
Each acting class that I teach at these colleges – Acting 1 and Fundamentals of Acting, respectively – have distinct student populations. And because they are essentially the same class, I use the same syllabus with all of them. The students I teach don’t take acting class to learn audition skills, the business of theater, or how to land the perfect role; they are in my class to fulfill a graduation requirement. Traditional or non-traditional, they tend to be awkward and intimidated in front of groups. They don’t make eye contact. But, over the course of the semester, they learn self-confidence, improvisation skills, empathy, character analysis, courage, how to overcome stage fright, and constructive critique. All of these will help them nail job interviews, make a sales pitch, direct actors, write believable dialogue, be impressive on first dates, and trust their instincts in stressful situations.
So how do I teach them to use their imaginations when they have spent at least twelve years of schooling quelling their creative spirits in order to get the “right” answers on high-stakes tests? The majority of my college students – whether traditional or non-traditional – have forgotten how to be creative. Some were so disillusioned with education from an early age that they are scared to go back to school and fail again. My job is to help them trust the power of their imaginations.
My methodology stresses that experience and talent are far less important than participation, self-discipline, and improvement. We don’t need to be good actors to benefit from the acting process. Studying the craft of acting not only provides a necessary foundation of skills, students also discover increased self-expression and self-awareness. They craft and hone their acting skills onstage in order to become more astute human beings off stage. And by “stage,” I mean lecture hall, lobby, or classroom with tables and chairs that must be folded up and stacked so we have room to move.
I use many of the same warm-ups with my college acting students as I do with the 5th graders in my theatre for bullying prevention residency. From traditional theatre games like Yes, and… to Theatre of the Oppressed games like Emily’s Morphs, my approach is the same with the 19 year-olds as it is with the 11 year-olds: even making a small choice is a choice. Even doing nothing is something. Whether you’re a bystander in a bullying situation or a bystander in your own life, the more interesting (and healthy) choice is to take a creative risk.
And when they take creative risks, they loosen up and have FUN! My god, the students think, learning how to act is FUN! They may never have had fun learning in an academic class until now.
The syllabus of my acting class works from the inside out; we start by investigating the way they walk through the world: body awareness, posture, non-verbal communication methods. We then move to character analysis: writing and performing an original monologue from the perspective of a character in the play we read that semester. The course culminates in students’ performances of scripted scenes they have analyzed, directed, rehearsed, memorized, and received feedback about from other students via Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. By the end of the semester, they learn what Stanislavski meant by the “magic if”when they act out Margie’s first scene in the Good People, understandAustin’s given circumstances in True West, and embody Theresa’s physicality in Extremities. They empathize with other characters whose experiences are vastly different, and then learn how to more fully live their own lives.
One of my favorite lessons to teach is about GORTE, an acronym for how an actor approaches any role – Goal, Obstacle, Relationships, Tactics, and Expectations:
Goal – What do I want?
Obstacle – What is standing in the way of what I want?
Relationship – With, for, or from whom do I want it? How can s/he help me? How can s/he hurt me?
Tactics – How am I going to get it?
Expectation – What will I do when I get it?
GORTE is fully applicable to everyday life. Many traditional students haven’t taken the time to think about their goals and objectives; some scooted through the high school-to-college pipeline without really stopping to think about what they want. One the other hand, community college students may be clear about what they want but they haven’t strategized their tactics. Or, they are so invested in their tactics they don’t know what to do when they get that thing they’re striving for. Some are so used to being beaten down by life, family, work, and circumstance that they don’t have the confidence to try different tactics when one has proved unsuccessful. Under the guise of a character, new acting students practice employing other tactics – charm, threat, intimidation, kindness, rationale – when met with a “no.” And soon this strategic awareness transfers into their daily lives.
I give an in-class written assignment on the last day: How have you grown as an actor in class this semester? How has acting helped you outside of class? Here are some of my favorite responses from my traditional college students:
“I have increased self-confidence performing onstage…. Outside of class, I have applied this comfort and opened up to more ways in which I may present myself to achieve specific goals.”
“After taking this class I’ve realized acting is much more than playing pretend. Outside of class I have developed the habit of extreme people watching. I observe the way people move, speak, and stand. I can now recognize when/what tactics I’m using to get what I want.”
“I have grown in the way I express myself physically. I have something called NVLD, which makes it difficult to understand nonverbal cues. This class helped me understand more about my surroundings and know how to react to certain situations.”
“Acting has helped me outside of class by allowing me to see who I really am, and how I can work on bettering myself.”
“I have gone from zero to actor in the course of this semester.”
And from my community college students:
“I haven’t acted in easily ten years. This class has helped me with expression I didn’t know I still have both in and out of class.”
“I have increased my own abilities to empathize with a character, and share the character’s thoughts and perspective. Acting class has also helped me become more aware of my body, gestures, voice, and different mannerisms. I am better at articulating and communicating with other people.”
“I used to be petrified of improvising. I was very shy and have become much more comfortable acting in front of everyone. Acting has helped me be more outgoing outside of class.”
“Acting has helped me learn things about people I didn’t see before.”
“I feel more connected to my words and actions. I have become more open in my interactions with people, and understand another’s perspective more fully.”
“I have a deeper understanding on the mechanics of acting like the Magic If, Given Circumstances, internal dialogue, psychological gestures, and so much more. Outside of class, I have more compassion for people who communicate differently than me.”
Teaching college acting to non-acting majors allows me to help them find strength in being vulnerable. College students are as uncertain of the world as the rest of us are; they just act like they have confidence. The stage is an empowering place to find one’s creative courage.