Given Circumstances: What I Learned this Summer, Part 2

As an actor, I spend a lot of my artistic time considering the given circumstances of my character.  That’s all the stuff that informs the mood and disposition of my character at every point during the play.  It includes things like where my character was just before entering the stage or where she’s headed off-stage.  It also includes my character’s attitudes toward the other characters on stage, as well as their attitudes toward my character.  It must also include less obvious things like the time of year, the time of day and the weather.  All these factors influence how a character should behave in the moment of the play.

Over the years, I’ve learned that this tactic from my actor’s toolbox can be effectively applied to my work as a teaching artist (and to life in general, really).  It keeps me focused and flexible.  It’s also a strong component of teaching with empathy, which I think is a powerful method for connecting with students.  For example, I have to remember that if I’ve just gotten to the school by driving through a rainy traffic jam, then I need to take a moment to re-focus and breathe before I enter a classroom.  If I don’t, then my anger can be misdirected and I lose patience too quickly.  I have developed the character of “Ms. Weber,” the teacher, whose stage is the classroom so that I can look more impersonally at my work.  I do an actor warm up before I teach so that I’m focused only on that classroom “stage.”  That attitude has the “bonus points” of ensuring that the concerns and stresses from the rest of my life don’t come into the classroom with me.

I also use this tactic to be conscious of the given circumstances of my students. We all know that morning classes are different than afternoon workshops, that teaching in the winter is different than teaching in the spring. We also know that the attitude of students entering our classroom changes depending on where they’ve just been (lunch, test, home, last period of day) and where they’re going next. But, we also learn to be sensitive to the changes in the individual child. When best friends in the classroom are fighting, the given circumstances change. When romance blossoms or dies, more change. When there’s trouble at home, change. The child that has been participating well who suddenly becomes withdrawn has changed given circumstances. I need to adapt and adjust. It may mean having a word with the child to see what’s up or it may mean giving the child some space to return to the group when s/he is ready.

Remembering this tactic was one of my refresher courses this summer. I had a student this summer. I fell hard for her. She lives her life with innocent abandon. She is a theatre teacher’s dream. She is funny and personable and overfilled with energy. She is a complete natural at improvisation and character development. She made me laugh out loud, often to the point of tears. She was that way until 9:40 am.  At 9:40am, she changed. Completely. This 12 year old in pink turned into an angry, impatient, judgmental pain in the butt. 

One day she lambasted the entire classroom about how angry she was that everyone wasn’t participating. She gave an impassioned speech about how Ms. Weber came to school every morning with a good attitude and the other students weren’t doing enough. I tried to calm her down, but she was too angry. She rushed (with dramatic flair) from the classroom and I had to send the program coordinator after her to make sure she didn’t leave campus. Every morning at 9:40 am, give or take a couple of minutes, her whole disposition changed.

It finally dawned on me a couple of weeks into the program. “What did you eat for breakfast today?” I asked her. Whatever it was, it was 150% sugar. Ding-ding. She crashed from her sugar high every day in my class. She crashed hard. Since she was one of my star participants, it strongly affected the classroom.  I had to adjust. I decided to use the given circumstances of this kid to build ensemble. Each morning, the whole class took a moment to ask her what she’d had for breakfast. If it was hopped up with sugar, we all kept an eye on the clock for 9:40. When she crashed, we all caught her and brought her back through support and humor. Suddenly, everyone was participating.

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p class=”MsoNormal”>Given circumstances is a powerful tool for me because it requires a broad awareness of everything that is happening in the room. My lesson plan becomes elastic so that it can stretch (or shrink) to fit the circumstances of the room in that moment. The next class that walks in the room is going to have an entirely different set of given circumstances, but I’m ready. 

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