Journal: The Craftsmen Of Dionysus - A Society Of Acting Teachers
An Actors Center Initiative
Educating the Diversity Acting Student
As an Indian who grew up exposed to many cultures through travel and life in different countries as a child, I find the question of educating the acting student from diverse backgrounds a fascinating one.I have no definitve answers yet, but here are my thoughts.
Through my own theater education experiences learning and teaching in the United States over the past 20 years i feel the most common traps for a teacher in educating a student from a different background, in what is essentially an humanity-based art form are these:
1. Assumptions. Assumptions of commonality—assuming similar conditions and values of living and of up bringing as one’s own. Or, the opposite,assumptions of certain differences (based on a superficial or inaccurate knowledge) without actually finding out the reality in each individual case.
2. Ignorance and Fear. Ignorance of varied cultural/racial/gender or sexual preference conditions and belief systems and fear of both acknowledging publicly one’s ignorance (which is natural and understandable) and fear of (doubt in?) our own ability to empathize with the unfamiliar .This fear leads one to neglect to reach across to ask,to find out, to simply learn and thereby build one more bridge across the human divide.
These two major traps can result in an individual not feeling seen, heard, addressed, or worse, an individual feeling offended. This dynamic, when present, results in an experience in the student (conscious or unconscious) of confusion, impotency, disempowerment and frustration which often leads to silence and giving up, thus, unfortunately perpetuating a divide.
I believe as teachers, it is incumbent on us to take the first step across this divide toward the student and that this is, in most cases,simple enough to successfully achieve.
If I were to list some conditions that i feel have been helpful for me as a teacher to successfully communicate with, empower and integrate students of diverse backgrounds into an acting classroom or ensemble I would say they are:
Self Knowledge. As a teacher I have found it incredibly helpful to have a contemplative self reflective practice. This allows me to know and be comfortable with my own strengths and weaknesses, my areas of experience and areas for growth, so I am far more able to both acknowledge and contain my own and the student’s insecurities around the unknown.Thus I find myself more able and more often allowing myself to openly learn from them.( It goes without saying this has been learned by me from positive role modelling from some of my own excellent teachers.)
Curiosity. A genuine curiosity and interest in human beings, individuals and human behaviours feels like a necessary ingredient as well. One thing I have learned tthe hard way is no matter how young or inexperienced an individual,every one of us,on a visceral level and at least,a subconscious if not conscious level , unfailingly recognize “lip service”.The “going through of appropriate motions” does not effectively transmit through to the human heart and as such does not engender a trusting relationship.
Intention. Education in humanity, ones own and that of others is our trade, and a delicate and messy affair as we all know.In the end,on the floor, there are no formulas because we are dealing with individuals.Failing all else, I believe as long as the intention to reach across a divide and deepen a connection is genuinely present, the teacher and the student will find their way,albeit gingerly, across to one another.
Personally,my favored language is that of the body and of movement.If we can learn to be more and more in our moving, living ,breathing bodies,it can be a way to circumvent much of our conditioned and thinking selves.When we are in our bodies, we are in our truth,even when that truth is hidden. This for me has always proven a much more direct route to communication.That said, however we may each chose to address the issue of diversity, I believe ultimately as teachers, if we can each in our own way recognize and draw out from an individual their universal humanity while,or perhaps through, acknowledging and encouraging their unique and different way of experiencing that humanity, I think there we have the most potent transformative story that can be told.
That act of faith and courage on our part, will in turn carry forward through that artist to every role he or she plays and every student he or she may in turn come to guide.
Sita Mani is a graduate of the Actor’s Center Teacher Development Program and is currently on faculty at Herbert Berghof Studio and a Guest Teacher at The Scott Freeman Studio and CRS Studios in New York.She was a founding faculty member at The Studio New York and has been a guest teacher at Mark Morris Dance School and The Feldenkrais Institute in New York.