Doing theater raises a big question
We’ve finally finished auditions for James and the Giant Peach, and while I’m headed full steam ahead into the most stressful season of my year, it provides me an opportunity to reflect on the question we must always ask when purposefully putting ourselves into stressful situations, “Why?”
Why take on stress?
I’m looking at long days, sleepless nights, and big emotions—not only my own, but belonging to the students involved in the show, the production team, and anyone who happens to cross my path. So the question stands, “Why?” Why put ourselves into these situations? Why do we go out of our way to encourage students to undertake a potentially stressful project? And, the bigger “why” question: Why do we strive to create something that will exist only for a moment, and then dissipate as suddenly as it appeared?
I am happy to say there is a point to all the craziness. A beautiful fruit comes from theater and the other performing arts; it is called social emotional intelligence.
Every aspect of performing teaches us how to understand and control our emotions and how to navigate emotions between others.
In acting classes, we learn self-awareness. While studying the works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and other like-minded acting experts, we learn where emotions sit in our bodies. Through psychological gestures we learn that not only do emotions manifest through our body language, but that we can actually change our emotions by choosing different physicalizations. In class, we learn to recognize our own emotions and how they affect our thoughts and behavior. We find our strengths and weaknesses, which builds self-confidence.
Three rules for improv…and for life
In our eighth-grade enrichment class, my colleague, Abigail Pryor, and I place a strong emphasis on improvisational acting. We believe that improv—which requires acting without a script—develops self-management, a basic life skill.
The three rules of improv we encourage students to take with them are 1) Yes…And; 2) Make Statements; and 3) No Mistakes, Only Opportunities! These three skills teach even seasoned improvisational actors to start with an open mind and that their own ideas are worthwhile. They teach actors to come up with solutions, not to look for problems. Finally, they teach that every mistake, no matter how seemingly overwhelming, is just an opportunity to move forward in life.
In improv, we learn we are able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage our emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.
Taking the audience on a journey
Meanwhile, performance pieces, such as plays and musicals, teach us about social connection. It is not enough to only understand our own emotions and how they affect us, we must extend that understanding to the audience. As performers, we are asking the audience to trust us to take them on a journey they’ve never experienced before. In order to build that trust, actors must be authentically interested in the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people. It is imperative that actors are able to pick up on emotional cues and feel comfortable socially.So, what is it all for? What is the “why” behind choosing to undergo a season of stress in order to put on a transitory performance? We do this so our students can learn vital life skills, which come around to be the very antidote to the aforementioned stress: self-awareness, self-management, and social-awareness.
Producing positive outcomes
How can students—and everybody else—develop and apply these social emotional intelligence tools?
For starters, enroll in an acting class! We have several at Providence, covering the gamut from singing, dancing, and acting to learning the technical aspects of performance, including lighting design, set and prop building, stage management, and stage makeup (offered as a TRIAD course in the May third term).
More practically, remember, God has given us emotions to guide us through life.
Start with self-awareness. What am I feeling right now? Where am I holding this emotion in my body? If it is anger, you might feel your jaw clench. If it is fear, you might feel your heart race. If it is happiness, you might notice a lightness in your step.
Then, look to manage the emotion. For example, anger serves as a call to action to eliminate injustice, while fear directs us to find safety.
I have built my performing arts curriculum around recognizing, understanding, and expressing emotions. The benefits of having the language to identify your emotions and the skill to appropriately control them is a rarity in many adults today. It is a priceless skill to develop during the school years.
Finally, find the connection. We have a tendency to only share the emotions we find “good” and “acceptable.” To live authentically, we must honor ALL the emotions we’re experiencing by allowing others to understand us on a deeper level.
All arts, be it performing, visual, or other, are about connecting with others.
And, isn’t connecting at the very heart of the Gospel?