By Todd Squitieri
Todd Squitieri holds a BFA from New School University and an MA in Applied Sociology from William Paterson University. He has taught in over 5 countries, and currently resides in Da Nang, Vietnam where he is writing a book about his experiences, called How to Teach Without Going Insane, soon to be released at Kindle stores near you! Follow him on his journey: www.ToddSquitieri.com.
Action! What Teachers Can Learn From Theater Training
When I was studying musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), we were often instructed on the best practices for walking into an audition room and captivating casting agents with our charm, our glow, and our dazzling performances. Here are some lessons that apply directly to teaching:
- Smile when you enter a room
- Wear colors that show off your face and personality
- Provide a beat or a second of time before you launch into your piece
- Provide a beat afterward before ending the piece
- Thank the audience for their time
In the theater conservatory, we were also provided with lessons on selecting monologues for the audition room. Use them when planning your next lecture.
- Find a piece with a lot of action
- Find something where you are trying to get something from someone (introduce tension or conflict)
- Find something two minutes or less.
- Find high energy/ high stakes pieces
- Find something with a range of emotion
- Find something that isn’t overdone
- Find something that shows off your talent and your “type”
If you keep your emotions flat, you won’t resonate with students and they won’t find you or the topic “fascinating.” Keep it short and be emotive so that students fully understand what you are communicating, while staying riveted to your performance. A rollercoaster of emotion is part of the theater student’s repertoire, what they are trained to deliver in audition rooms and ultimately, in the rehearsal space and eventually in performance. Theater people are trained to captivate, to strike even when the iron isn’t hot, when the world is totally indifferent and uninspired. They are trained so that no matter what kind of a day they are having, good, bad, or ugly, they can always revert back to their training to see them through. And so it is with the teacher who wishes to enthrall and inspire.
I mentioned “finding something that isn’t overdone,” as one of the primary strategies of an auditioning actor. When you teach, it’s hard to bring the same energy to every lesson. Finding novel lesson material can be useful in this regard. Be on the lookout for new stories, surprising facts, shocking headlines, funny memes, and other real-world connections to your material. Even content that feels old can be freshened up by talented edutainers. Instead of teaching that next math lesson straight from the book, do some role-playing, with you and some students acting out a few word problems. Keep it short, introduce some conflict, make it emotional and action-packed, and the novelty alone will be sure to keep students’ glued to their seats.
Finally, like actors, teachers should play to their strengths by showing off their talents and considering their “type.” In the theater industry, there are shorthand phrases that we use to refer to “type.” There’s the “character actor,” who plays doctors, professors, pizza deliverymen, and often odd or strange looking characters. Robin Williams comes to mind as being a prominent character actor of the last century. We also have the leading man, who is usually the handsome, debonair type who tries to attract the leading lady, or the young beautiful woman and “the damsel in distress.” Brad Pitt is often considered a leading man, while Heather Graham is considered a leading lady.
While many people don’t want to admit it, the way you carry yourself does have a lot to do with the way you are perceived, but many different “characters” can find success in the classroom. Some students respond well to the big goofball clown, while others thrive under the direction of the academic-and-widowed school librarian-mage type. Still others are motivated by the exotic beauty with blond hair and blue eyes who smiles at them electrically and lets her students know that they can do no wrong (as long as they’re doing the work). Some students respond best to charismatic and authoritative leading-man types.
Being an edutainer is a lot like being an actor. In fact, let’s face it: it is acting. You have to smile, emote, and keep the energy up even when you don’t feel like it, even in front of a skeptical audience. This is work and don’t let anyone tell you differently. It takes practice and discipline to be “on” all the time, and it is exhausting. It takes a lot effort for a person to take all of that energy and bring it to the classroom every day.
It’s a pretty remarkable character, the edutainer, almost like a fairy tale character in his own right, providing salvation for those students who just don’t believe in themselves or what they are doing, or why they are doing it. It is this performer, this artist, who is likely to be recalled fondly in the timeless stories we tell ourselves as humans striving for greatness.