When I was a young actor I believed Shaw’s maxim, “those who do, do, those who can’t, teach.” That was of course because I was completely unaware of the deep learning relationship that exists between student and teacher, even though I had some wonderful teachers and had those deep relationships with them. It was not until later that I realised the full value of those relationships. I have been teaching acting and voice for the best part of 25 years to young people, 16-25 primarily, though I have taught many groups outside that, and have directed (and directing is a kind of teaching) both insiðe and out of that age range, with professionals, youth theatre and students.
Teaching is an art form. Though I did not need reminding, I was touched and impressed that Ridley Scott spoke movingly of the influence of his teachers when he recently received his BAFTA award.
There is something about directing a play with a group of young people which requires a spectacular number of skills; director; acting teacher; voice teacher; administrator; limit-setter; counsellor; manager. All of these roles exist for a director at all levels, it is simply that in the professional context, there will be different emphases. This myriad skill set needs to be taught to would-be directors if they are considering directing as a career. A stint at performing is vital too.
In the educational setting, a production allows the teacher/director increased contact time. An intensive period for a production, working with students every day for a few weeks, bears out the reality that contact time counts; that the amount of time you spend on the show gives the work depth and allows a more meaningful contact between teacher and student. For instance, in the recent production of 12th Night, I was able to support students in voice technique, Michael Chekhov work, and a lot of technical skill, and, because we were doing it every day, rapid progress was made. Many taught courses are at best a few hours a week and whilst it is perhaps not as economic for the institution, it has to be said that working intensively and for more time produces a powerful learning experience.
All third level theatre courses, whether academic or conservatoire, require a combination of academic courses which give the student space for reflection and examination alongside more intensive practical performance work.
Theatre art is experiential. And experiential learning and performance is not to test academic discovery, but for its own sake. After all, that is what happens in the real world; we experience it and through experience we learn how we will manage our lives. As an example, during the 60s and 70s in the UK when drama was being brought into the curriculum in English secondary education, there was a school of thought that drama was a tool for teaching history or geography instead of something that had its own intrinsic value.
Theatre can be a truly transformational experience. All of us who explore theatre with students/actors/performers know this is overwhelmingly and beautifully true. In addition to learning a myriad of skills, there is something about the alchemy of sharing your feelings, your energy, opening to others, and creating a world together through the conduit of playing a character in a play (or improvising and devising) which is extraordinary.
Ultimately when you work on a production the show is a creation of the whole company. Existing and reacting within this creative atmosphere is expansive and educational. The group dynamic itself becomes one of the tools that enriches a powerful learning experience. Like most things meaningful, you absolutely have to experience it for this group dynamic to ignite your creativity and learning in a deep way. But when you do, and not all groups gel in the way my recent group did, the learning can only be enhanced.
A young actor said to me recently, ” you have been central to my development as a performer and a person, giving me confidence and self-belief.” As a teacher, I cannot ask for more.