Tuesday, June 27, 2017

by Kathryn Hnatio Vicere–Adventure Theatre MTC

Many parents today are raising their children to be more culturally aware and realize that every encounter is, in a sense, a new cultural encounter.  However, there is one person in the room who stands out the most, and that is me, the teacher. Regardless of how hard I try, I cannot (nor want to) hide the 70lbs and 20+ years of experience that make me stand out from the joyous kids who enter the classroom.

After all, it is my job to lead the group, not mix into the fray, right? I must be the Other /a.k.a the Teacher, in order to appropriately impart my vast wealth of knowledge.

But these differences, and the socially accepted dynamic, are actually of great value to me in furthering my purpose as a Director, and when leading an acting class.

Erving Goffman, a Sociologist who studied group behavior in the 1950s, likened the social interactions of people to that of the theater. From his vantage as dramaturgist, Goffman observed that people, whether advertently or inadvertently, spend much time “acting” in a manner that they sense is appropriate so that they are accepted within a group. Goffman referred to individuals’ behavior as “identity work” – that is, the things people do, behavior they adopt, and way they present themselves to the “audience” helps to create a sense of importance and makes them feel (as individuals) significant to the furtherance of the group’s collective “plot”.

I read portions of his research when I was a young master’s candidate, and because as a theater person, I so enjoy theatrical metaphors being utilized by, well, anyone… I remembered Dr. Goffman’s work. As it turns out, when trying to collect my thoughts on Otherness for purposes of writing this blog,  I realized: I’ve drilled down this process of identity work that Goffman says we all do, and use my Otherness to its full advantage in order to facilitate exploration of character in my acting classrooms and rehearsals. AND, better yet?  I do this on a regular basis.

So, let’s take this concept, theoretically, out into the field: The production is Fiddler on the Roof, Jr. I am tasked to assist forty-five 3rd graders with capturing and portraying the personal journeys and experiences of a forty-something man, his wife, five daughters and the townspeople living in a provincial Russian village in 1905. Lest we forget, our protagonist in this story struggles to keep intact those traditions of his culture and heritage that are being threatened. This all happens amidst musical production numbers that yes, do require students to simultaneously sing and execute a perfect jazz square, to boot.

On the surface, here, my task is daunting: This is a big concept, not only for me personally to relate to, but also, I will assume, for these middle to upper class 3rd graders living in 2015 in the fast-paced, suburb-topia of the outlying D.C. metropolis.

The kids bring their own individual and group experiences with them when they enter a space. But, and here’s the catch: so do I. Collectively, then, can we facilitate a conversation? Can we frame it as character development in order to do some “identity work”? Can’t I facilitate a discussion about how we are different and what we each bring to the collective plot in order to dramaturg life experiences, and get my young students to apply those stories to their characters?

For example: Golde in Fiddler on the Roof is a Mother, so am I- I allow my actors ask questions about my personal experiences to help inform theirs. The 9 year-old student playing Golde in my student production can now listen to anecdotes about an experience different from her own to help inform her character choices within the play. She has done some “Golde identity work”. Gleaning from some of my life experiences, she can now (more accurately, we hope) present her version Golde to the audience and contribute to the collective plot of the story.

In reverse, I also teach my students to utilize their own personal life experiences and their established norms within their group to help them inform and shape their character or role: “Who has a sibling? A sister? You? Great! Tell me about that. You have one sister. It’s a lot I know… but what if you had 4?”

“Who has attended a bar or bat mitzvah before? You? Great! Can you tell us what that was like? What was everyone doing after the ceremony? Celebrating? Dancing? Great! How is that like a scene in our show? What are we celebrating in that scene? How do we feel? Let’s put that on our feet and do a dance together as we sing!”

Being open and talkative about experiences (common or not), and using that discussion as information gathering/character research is where we, as actors, teachers, directors, find value in the Other, using the sharing of perspective to our advantage to create artistic work. In this way, we create a culturally inclusive classroom where all of us are able to recognize, appreciate and capitalize on diversity so as to enrich the overall learning experience. Being open about Otherness allows for the development of personal contacts and effective intercultural skills.

Post note: I have absolutely no way to discuss the experience with fiddling on a rooftop, whether through Dr. Goffman’s work, or through my life stories, so I’ll always just have to wing it when staging that part of the show. Maybe one of my kids will have a story to tell about being on a rooftop at sundown, randomly, and with a string instrument under chin, and may we always be grateful that we have Others with those kind of stories to tell.

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This post is part of an ongoing series about The Teaching Artist and The Other: Exploring Perspectives in Community Engagement

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