The Alchemy of Teaching

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picture: Sean T O’Meallaigh

This week I have been thinking a lot about teaching theatre, about the dynamic exchange between student group and teacher. Learning theatre, learning practical theatre is one of the most powerful things you can learn; its encourages confidence, develops voice, imagination, body and feelings in every individual student. It can be utterly transformational.

I am really loving my classes this year; University, freelance and Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops; students who really want to ‘find out’ , to explore and develop. It is not always the case. Sometimes when we teach we have to manage expectations, deep resistances and fears of individuals at the same time as minimising the detrimental effect that the student in question might have on the group learning: because in theatre, though we can develop and learn individually, much of our learning comes from the interaction of the group. 

Of course it is up to us as teachers to create the environment where development can grow but occasionally circumstances can be challenging. This is especially true teaching theatre when students come up against their own limitations. Training for sport provides a similar challenge.

The interaction between tutor/facilitator/teacher and the individual student is paramount. It requires a strength and at the same time a huge sensitivity to the student’s needs. There is a wonderful moment in the Michael Chekhov Masterclass DVDs produced by MICHA where Joanna Merlin is explaining Psychological Gesture, an element of the Michael Chekhov Technique where we physicalise our intention. She says something like, ‘if I was to make a gesture of teaching what would it be?’ She makes a generous open-armed gesture, offering towards the students.

When I have asked (in teacher training sessions) teachers and lecturers to show the group a gesture/statue which suggests teaching, there are sometimes surprising responses ; closed finger-wagging gestures, stern faces, standing on the back foot. For me what Joanna demonstrated with her psychological gesture is exactly what teachers should aspire to be. The thing is that sometimes there is a need for kind firmness as well as coaxing and when you get a challenging response from the student it can be quite hurtful because you have to stay open at the same time as being firm. I am lucky that challenging responses have happened rarely but when they have, and there is always a potential for it, it can be unnerving. You have to remember that whilst you may be partly to blame for a student’s defiance, awkwardness or accusations of injustice, their response may have little or nothing to do with you but more to do with what is going on in their lives at that moment. This happened  more to me when I was teaching Ensemble and Devising, because individuals sometimes resisted the fact that in ensemble work, the group is paramount. Because theatre training is challenging anyway their reactions can be strong.

For this last year though i have felt truly blessed with my students and what is amazing is that the more committed they are, the more you can give. The energy, like a performance, is not one-sided; it is completely reciprocal. It is a moving energy from you to the student and back again. In Michael Chekhov terms it is radiating and receiving. Many students do not understand this; that they also carry responsibility for the efficacy of a workshopSONY DSC.

In addition to my university teaching, I am especially looking forward to my two weekend workshops for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland. Just my Imagination, working with Chekhov Technique. (October 18-20) and Good vs. Evil :The greatest Polarity of All – working with King Lear. (Nov 29th- Dec 1) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  to book your place. check our website www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland@gmail.com

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