Thursday, November 15, 2007

Say it like you mean it.

I have a new obsession: Musical Theatre. It's like an addiction: I now need a daily fix via websites like Musical Theatre Audition or Talkin' Broadway. I'm not entirely sure where my habit has come from, as I don't generally consider myself to be particularly theatrical in nature. (I am actually quite obsessive, but that's beside the point.) Colleagues of mine (should they bother to read blogs) would snort in rebuttal and they are to some extent justified—I've passed more than once across the stage and not always in the background. I will also readily confess to an avid fandom of live productions. (It's unfortunate there are so few in our small community.) But I'm not really an actor. I merely dabble. So my current daily devotions seem a disproportionately large step up into Obsessionland. What worries me is I’m not altogether certain if the inordinate amount of time I’ve been spending getting my fix will have any positive outcomes for what I actually do for a living.

I once had an extremely enlightening conversation with a professor of psychology while we both were participating in a professional development workshop. She explained that her teaching persona is very different from her private persona, and that it often poses a problem for people who encounter her in both of these spheres. She, like me, is a decided introvert, and we both had faced queries from relatives wondering what would possess an introvert to enter so public a profession. My aha! moment of the conversation came when it occurred to me that teaching is like acting. I develop a motivation (more for the students than myself, but occasionally I have those days), rehearse lines (questions for the class are printed clearly in my notes--word for word), experience pre-stage jitters, and then morph into Teaching Me as I step out onto my mini-stage. Teaching Me is (at least in the script) a confident, knowledgeable, outgoing, receptive, interactive, and engaging individual. One might consider student theatre critics with student evaluations as assessments of how well the actor is performing the role. Since Teaching Me is a people-oriented person, and I just pretend to be that person while standing in front of a room full of bodies (who seem quite happy to enter into the theatrical deception), the profession doesn't appear quite the stretch for the introvert as it might at first.

What disturbs me lately about this little revelation is how much of my identity in my own mind is wrapped up in what I do for a living. What I accomplish as Teaching Me has become a vital part of my own feelings of self-worth. My life has become decidedly one-sided: I am unmarried and have no children, I’m not particularly involved in the greater community (although I’m sure one exists outside my department), and I don’t spend time on any outside causes. (I may later decide to write about guilt this causes Teaching Me.) If what makes me Me isn’t even the real Me, am I being disingenuous even to myself?

My frequent surfing of the musical theatre pages has focused primarily on what constitutes good singing and acting. It spills over into the rest of my day—I find myself much more observant of the physicality of speaking and communicating. What value do posture, gesture, facial expression and movement really add to the content of the spoken word? That they do add value I already presume, having myself sat through one too many monotonic lectures. However, the presence of animation does not necessarily mean value added. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at what you can find on YouTube, but I have also in the past week seen many snippets of high school theatre productions in which the physicality of communication could not in any way be construed value added. I wonder how much of Teaching Me’s animation appears equally contrived.

To close the loop I really should go back to what we were doing at the professional development workshop: videotaping ourselves, watching the tapes, then engaging in discussions of not only what we (the teachers) did but also what we (the students) heard and saw. (I must say there’s not much that’s more humbling than having to sit through one of your own classes—from the other side of the desk.) And here’s where I’m beginning to think the actors have one up on us. One of the most frequent pieces of advice in those discussions was always, “Be genuine!” As if we always have a good handle on what that is. Since I’m pretty convinced that Teaching Me only makes infrequent appearances, I’m not sure what it means to “be myself”. However, it makes sense when I read that standing with posture X elicits reaction Y from an audience, but posture N only gets reaction P. I can even test it out myself; something that of course has Scientist Me rubbing her hands together with glee.

It's just too bad that reading the reviews for “Zombie Prom” haven't led me to any great new insights for tomorrow’s class on solving water flow problems using Darcy’s Law. But it just might get me into the chorus of the local production of Grease. (Auditions are a week from Sunday.)

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