In almost every theatre I have spent much time in someone makes the claim, “This building is haunted.” Mournful ladies in white linger in windows after nightfall. Old directors return to their favorite seats to watch performances. Lights, thumps, strange smells, laughter in the rafters. Ghosts seem to creep in at every door left ajar, every crack in the plaster. Every theatre is haunted.
Another Halloween passed safely by, but I am still thinking about the one ghost I believe with certainty does haunt all theatres. Fear. And I doubt that fear is limited to the theatre’s studio spaces alone. I think we could find it in every classroom at Luther College.
For an actor as for any other student (and all good actors are eternal students, by the way), fear is that which prevents us from expressing. It asks us to hide, to blend-in during class or rehearsal. It whispers warnings to wait and see what others will do or say. It advises us to stay safe by withholding our creativity, ideas, thoughts, and questions.
A hundred thousand reasons, no doubt.
Although, I think many of those reasons boil down to some form of this: we fear being known. We fear being known for our flaws, our imperfections, our bad ideas, our mistakes. We fear being known for our needs, our passions, our foolish delights, our deep loves. We fear being known for failings.
We fear being known for being human.
Fear follows us into our classrooms and studio spaces, so we must find ways to deal with it. This is where we tend to fall into a trap. We think that we must exorcise the spirit, find a way to identify and then banish it. But how long do we wait? What do we miss while we wrestle with our fear? Life continues, class discussions move on, opportunities to act pass by. We can’t wait for fear to leave because it never will as long as we are actively engaged in being human.
Let us instead find courage. Embrace risk. Act in spite of fear rather than hoping to act in the absence of fear. Accept that courage is not a matter of erasing fear, but contributing ideas, asking questions, offering suggestions, and risking even as it whispers in our ears to do otherwise.
How, then, is this achieved? How do we encourage courage in our classrooms and studio spaces? How do we create a safe space for risk? How do we limit the influence of fear while knowing it will still be there, like cold water finding any open space we give it.
I don’t know for sure. But I do have two ideas that, in my experience, seem to bear fruit.
In my classes I try to make it safe to fail many times exclusive of an actual failing grade given. I try to assure students, and I hope they believe me, that this is not my sadistic humor delighting in their shortcomings. Rather, I believe that we learn far more from making attempts or venturing guesses that turn up short than we ever would if we simply waited for moments of inspiration to yield perfect results.
I’ve never seen perfection. I’m not sure it would be all that interesting.
I much prefer to see the student who will try something, see where it is deficient, find creative solutions to fix those deficiencies, and try again. Guess again. Venture a new idea. And refine and refine and refine. In order to encourage students to view their time in class this way, they must be comfortable with the feeling of coming up short. It takes courage to try, fail, and try again. But, if we trod through this territory often, a well-worn path emerges. We grow accustomed to facing our shortcomings courageously.
This is the beauty of many, many rough drafts.
If the classroom becomes a safe space to fail, then the students can take comfort in failing together. We can begin to take joy in the exploration of our ideas on a subject – half-baked though they may be at first – knowing that missteps and revisions are part of the learning.
Improvisation for the theatre, as with all great acting, requires a generosity of spirit from the actors in order to sustain itself. It requires that no idea be discarded out of hand (your own or someone else's), and that all actors bring something to the table. It evolves through a constant negotiation of "let's try your idea, let’s try my idea."
I encourage my students to apply this beyond improvisational exercises, especially in discussions. Our input, our thoughts, our questions are gifts that we give one another freely. We are all enriched by one another’s generosity as we pass gift after gift back and forth. As with improvisation exercises, we are only diminished when we withhold from one another. It takes courage to share these gifts because, yes, they may be just as flawed as we are.
Which leads to perhaps the greatest gift we can give one another in our classrooms and studio spaces:
Often students (and I am as guilty as any) talk about giving trust once it is earned. They will open up once the class has earned their trust. They will make a bolder attempt when the class has earned their trust. Later. Always later.
I’d like to suggest that the more courageous choice is to give our trust freely, to reach out without assurance that our trust is well placed. That we risk.
This is a true leap of faith. And it requires practice. Practice and opportunities to practice.
Our fear needn't be driven out of us before we act. We simply need to employ strategies for developing our courage. Fear, then, truly is as immaterial as the ladies in white of a hundred old buildings. Perhaps there, perhaps not. Never able to touch us. Never enjoying any life that we don't give first.
All images by Robert J. Vrtis, from Masha, 2008.
Before joining Luther’s faculty in 2013, Robert Vrtis worked in Eugene, Ore., as a director and teacher. As a director he has most recently directed Cabaret, boom, Fahrenheit 451, The Highest Tide, and Masha (an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s work). He teaches courses in acting and directing for Luther's theatre department, and is excited to be structuring the acting sequence to include classes in performing Shakespeare, Meisner Technique, auditioning, improvisation and clown.