Arts & Theater

On Teaching Work Ethic | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, playwright and theatre Professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Welcome back to the Teaching Theatre podcast at HowlRound. Today we’re really excited to be talking about work ethic and work-life balance. To join us today, we have Marcus Lane, who is an associate professor of theatre and head of actor training at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. He teaches movement, stage, combat, acting, and directing.

Marcus, thank you for joining us today.

Marcus Lane: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Elyzabeth: And today we have Jennifer Blackmer. Jennifer Blackmer’s plays have been seen in productions across the country, including Human Terrain, the stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and Predictor, which concluded a national rolling world premiere this spring. She’s a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Ball State University where she’s taught for twenty years. Jennifer, thanks so much for being here.

Jennifer Blackme: I’m happy to be here, Elyzabeth. Thanks for the invitation.

Elyzabeth: So on this episode, we’re going to be talking about work ethic and work-life balance, but in order to really talk about these issues, we also I think have to start by talking a little bit about mental health. So I’d love to check in with you guys. What kind of mental health challenges are you seeing your students facing these days, especially coming out of the pandemic?

Jennifer: Okay, so one of the things I’ve noticed in the various sizes of classes I’ve taught—I’ve taught large classes for our first-year students in addition to our smaller classes with the playwriting studios and those types of things—our students are struggling with anxiety. They really are. And I know that college is an anxious time to begin with, and it always has been. And over the course of my career, I have counseled students and worked with them on ways to balance their anxiety and their need to do well in a business that is really competitive and very tricky to navigate and requires a ton of proactivity, if you will. The students really need to step up and do the work and motivate themselves to do it.

It’s difficult to balance that, I think, now in this era where there is so much other stuff that they have to think about in addition to trying to figure out what kind of an artist they are and trying to figure out what they want to say with their work, whether it’s acting or writing, in addition to those struggles which have always been with us right from time immemorial, now we have this external sense of, I don’t want to say doom, because that’s really… I mean that’s really pessimistic, but in a way I see my own kids struggling with it as well.

I’m the mother of three teenagers, and now that they are of college age, it’s all sort of coming together, and my parenting instincts kick into play with my students as well. So there’s just this general sense of anxiety, almost like the amplifier is turned up to eleven, and there’s this kind of hum in the background of everything that they’re trying to achieve as college students, right? They’re learning who they are; they’re learning what they want to say and what kind of artists they want to be. And in addition, it’s almost as though these external pressures that they’re hearing in the media and on social media and from their peers and other teachers are all kind of converging into this anxiety stew, I guess, and that is different since the pandemic, I think.

Elyzabeth: Marcus, what are you seeing with your students?

Marcus: Well, I think one of the most interesting things to me is I think I’d call it almost like a checkbox mentality, that it’s this really this idea that there’s only one answer, and I need to have the right answer, and that’s the only answer that exists, and so I’m just going to get this one thing, and then that’s done—I don’t ever have to worry about it again. And I think that presents some problems when in the teaching environment we’re going, “Well, that’s a answer or an answer. There’s actually multiple ways to get to where you want to go, and that’s the artistic process. It’s not the same way for everybody.” And then we get this amorphous idea really coming out of the pandemic here. When everyone made that shift to online, it was “how fast can I do it? How little can I put in?”

You get huge amounts of grace, but there’s only this one answer, and if you got it wrong, you keep answering the question over and over again, so you get it right. Then you go to the next one. And that in our art and craft, that real idea of there’s not just one way to do it and that the artistry really is in the how you do it is kind of problematic for some of them and causes stress because some of those formal years in high school, it was you just needed to have an answer, you just need to have the right answer. That’s all it needs to be. I see this from some of them, too, is “I do it once and I’m done. I don’t need to practice do it again. Why are you asking me to do it again? If you’re asking me to do it again, then I’m deficient, then I am not good, then I’m not these things”— and trying to convince a student that, no, what we’re talking about is you’re at a good level, but we want to make you to a great or excellent level, and that is our goal of engaging a process, and that it is a process. And just doing it once and being good is not enough to really get to technique, to really get to repeatability and sustainability.

And I think that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve kind of had. I get that a lot in my beginning acting classes and even in my introduction classes with students who aren’t in the major itself. This idea of “I just want to come up with the right answer and then forget about it.”

Jennifer: Yeah, nuance is really tricky right now. Nuance is difficult and, I mean, that’s where we live—right?—as artists and storytellers is we live in that space of uncertainty and complexity and having to eliminate multiple sides of an argument or of a story and nuance is really tricky right now. And again, I think coming from this space of our students are anxious because they have been told right and wrong for a very long time, and so that’s what they’re looking for. And in art making as a process, Marcus, which you were talking about, you have to engage in a process that means you have to ask questions, and more important, I think, you have to be comfortable in discomfort.

Marcus: Yes.

Jennifer: You have to be comfortable in that space of not knowing. And unfortunately, and frankly, I don’t think that this is only teaching theatre. I think this is true across higher ed in general—

Marcus: I would agree.

Jennifer: Is that higher ed is under attack right now, and we see it everywhere. In particular, the humanities are under assault, and the arts are under assault as majors that are meaningless or pointless, and it’s very difficult, I think, to be a student in these fields these days and hear that and then have somebody like me or somebody like you Marcus, you Elyzabeth telling our students that they need to be okay not knowing. So it’s almost like they’re being hit by both sides. The world is saying you have to know what you’re going to be when you graduate, and you have to have a clearly defined career, and you have to have a path that will make you money and buy you health insurance. Meanwhile, what they’re passionate about, which is art making is not that, and it’s never been that and it can’t be that, right? So I guess my big question, how do you teach a young person today how to be okay with discomfort?

Elyzabeth: I’m seeing more and more overlap in a lot of these conversations with students who really struggle with discomfort and don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Jennifer: Yeah. And there’s no answer as well. I mean, especially in playwriting, Elyzabeth, as you know, there’s your play. And I get scenes and plays from my students and they’re like, “Is it good?” And I’m like, “I’m enjoying it very much, but is this the play that you want?” I mean, that’s the thing, right? Is there’s this sense of this real need for external validation in every way and that I think, again, going back to my initial comment about anxiety, I think that then feeds into their sense of being anxious because they just want to do it the right way.

Marcus, what you said about checkboxes really resonated with me as well because that is also, I think as a teacher nowadays what we’re given, I mean, we’re given checkboxes, we’re given learning outcomes we’re given… You have to fulfill this particular data point, and then based on those facts, then choices will be made moving forward. Whereas I went into education wanting those individual connections with students and wanting to make a difference in the classroom and get into the weeds with them about the things that I love about this art form, which are connected to nuance, complexity, all of the things that we’ve brought up as issues now; those are the things I love about the art. So it’s really hard, I think, to navigate that nowadays as both a teacher and a student.

Marcus: I think one of the difficult things, going back to the idea of discomfort, particularly I find it interesting in the movement class in particular when we’re engaging our bodies in a different way and that there’s a disconnect between being uncomfortable physically and being in pain and not being able to recognize the difference between the two. It is uncomfortable because you’ve not engaged your body in that way before. It’s not that you’re actually in physical pain, but not being able to tell the difference between the two really harkens back to kind of what we’re talking about. I don’t like to be uncomfortable.

I joke with my students all the time. I am a creature of comfort, so I’m wearing clothes that I feel comfortable in, but the art does require us to live on the edges in order to grow and get better, and being willing to step out of that comfort zone can be quite different or difficult, and I make them cringe. I go to this idea of math. All right, so most of you understand basic math. If I said, “Two plus two equals what?” A large portion of them are going to go, “Four.” And I’m going to go, “Is that the only way to get to the number four if we’re engaging in math?” And of course, we all know it’s not.

There’s millions of ways: we can keep it simple or we can make it super complex. And getting them to understand that we still get the same outcome, we still get to four, but the journey in which we’re engaging has to be your journey and that’s the artistry to it. How you choose to get there? Are you going to use functions or probability, fractions, algorithms? Are you going to do all that or are you going to stay simple?

And how you choose to do it says about you what type of artist you want to be. And maybe you start simple and then get more complex, and then maybe you return back to being more simple. But that always, you’re getting back to that idea that you want. It’s four, and the answer’s four. That’s our performance, our production, our outcome, our play. We are still getting to that desired outcome, but really getting them to be freer in the understanding of the journey to get there, there’s not just the one way and that they have to be kind of willing to choose how to get there. And it’s not an assignment or a step, or it’s that as they get more experience and encourage, and maybe the first eighteen billion times we try it, we don’t get to four, but eventually we will because we know that’s where we’re headed to. We know it’s the play itself or the production or the outcome that we’re seeking, but there’s got to be freedom to fail and there’s got to be freedom.

And I go back to that assessment you’re talking about. Oh my gosh, I agree with you so much that really with my students currently I go, “When you finish an acting class, it’s not really ‘are you a good actor or a bad actor by the time you’re done?’ It’s, ‘did you complete the component parts that are requisite? Did you show up on time? Did you pick a monologue? Was it memorized? Did you present it but we’re not getting to the quality of it or did your use of technique, was there better choices inside the technique we’re just going, did you engage it?’” And that’s really where we’re at assessment. And then really kind of encouraging the students to decide, do you want to be an artist or do you not? You can have a skill, but just having a skill doesn’t mean you’re good and really convincing them on that end. And it’s really hard with our current assessment model because we can’t get to that part of it.

And I think it’s difficult to convince students who have spent a long time checking the box or only having one answer or being taught to a test to go—

Jennifer: Or getting the A. You can’t advance unless you get an A.

Marcus: You’re so on it. I think back to earlier this semester, I had someone who goes, “You gave me a ninety-four instead of one hundred. Why?” And wanted me to justify. And I look at them, I go, “You had an A. What is the actual issue here? Let’s look at the assessment tool. Which part were you not perfect in?”

Elyzabeth: I knew that we had to have this conversation because I’m hearing so many theatre educators talk about work ethic and the challenges of finding a work-life balance. We’re seeing the industry having these conversations as more theatres are trying to rethink rehearsal schedules and the long hours that we work. I think we are tasked with not just training our students and their craft, but we also have to teach them how to show up and how to do the work. And that seems to be a big challenge right now, especially post-COVID.

What kind of challenges have you seen in your department with regard, I guess, specifically to commitment and student buy-in and just showing up?

Jennifer: That’s an excellent question because we are having those discussions right now as a faculty and trying to figure out how to amend and evolve, and I use that term very specifically, evolve our policies for things like participation and showing up and attendance and all of the aspects of doing this work that we kind of assumed were just no-brainers. Of course you’re going to go to class; of course you’re going to…

And again, I think we do blame the pandemic for a lot and rightly so. I mean it is such a massive disruption in the way human beings connect, using that term in the present tense. And I think that there’s so many ramifications of that that are just now becoming known. And so now we’re in that same place, I think, of trying to determine this balance between rigor and grace that we have been dealing with I think for a while. And then the pandemic exploded the whole thing. What does it mean to actually do the work?

To me, it’s a pendulum swing. I think that the pandemic not only encouraged the swinging in the opposite direction, I think it shoved it in the opposite direction because there was so much downtime and empty time and time of being in this very anxious place where you don’t know what the next day is going to bring, let alone the next week or the next month, and trying to navigate that as a student who’s expected to do things is tough.

And then add to that the demands that this business have placed on us really since day one… I mean, I think back to my time as an intern. After I graduated undergrad, I was an intern at Indiana Repertory Theatre. And I loved it. It was so amazing. I learned so much, but I worked an average of ninety hours a week, ninety-seven hours, I mean stupid stuff. I slept in the theatre sometimes. So I personally am in this weird space of reckoning with myself, I think, trying to figure out for my students what is a valid work ethic because all of us, I think, our work ethics going into this whole thing, we’re pretty screwed. I mean, we don’t want to be dishonest to our students about the world that they’re entering and about the business that they’re entering, which is super competitive and will remain so.

I love, love that my students want to change the world. I really, really do. I love that they want to graduate and go out there and not only change things philosophically for pretty much everything, but also logistically, right? They want to work for companies that don’t do ten out of twelve. They want to start their own theatres and be able to pay everybody not only just living wages, but incredible wages; and I want them to do that. I so want them to do that. I don’t know how to teach them how to do that.

Marcus: Well, I think what you’re saying is 100 percent, a lot of what I’m seeing. We have a disconnect sometimes here between that idea and action and that or a real understanding of the business side. So yes, do I wish that all my students could go out and have a company and make whatever more than the living wage is or… Of course, of course, I do.

Jennifer: Yes, go do it.

Marcus: There’s this real disconnect to the idea of how much stuff costs or what is truly a living wage. I had a student who. they were doing a fight contract, and it was literally for them in the room, it was ten hours’ worth of work, and they paid him a set amount, and I said, “How much did they pay you?” And he’s like, “It was $500.” I was like, “Okay, so what’s your complaint here?” And he’s like, “Well, I need a living wage.” And I went, “Well, the job was three days of rehearsal, how many hours?” And he is like, “Well, it was like ten hours total.” I’m like, “Okay, well how much prep time did you have to put in? So how much did you make an hour?” And he’s doing it out. I’m like, “That’s more than I make as a professor.” I mean, you’re not getting health insurance, you know—

Jennifer: Don’t get me started on that one.

Marcus: But it’s kind of putting some things in context. And I was like, “If you were working a forty-hour week, how much is that a year?” And kind of thinking in that, and it’s like, I don’t want you to not make that money. But then there’s a real disconnect between, well, you’ve been out of school for two years; here’s the amount of money you’re making. Here’s someone who’s been working for twenty, twenty-five, thirty years who has a lot more experience with you; what kind of money should they be making? Is this a viable, workable model? And understanding it’s business. I think there’s still a disconnect between that idea of yes, I think we all want that.

We’ve made the switch here. You brought up technical rehearsals. I started it last year and we just finished the tech process again this year that we’re not doing twelve out of twelves. We’ve made a switch…

Jennifer: Yeah, we’re not doing that either.

Marcus: We’ve expanded tech, so there’s more days of tech, but we’ve capped them in the weekdays. It’s like three days at three hours and then two days on the weekend where it’s six hours and we do a straight six if it was an equity contract. So it’s actually five hours of work and an hour break kind of in there and trying to figure out can we still get all the work that we do, but we’re still making sure that everyone gets sleep, everyone sitting in the water, we’re checking in on people. Nobody’s to the place where they’re super fried. And that’s not just our students. That’s really us, too, because I do think that we go back to—

Jennifer: Absolutely. Yes.

How can we now help you figure out the way to work that allows you to be successful?

Marcus: One of the pandemic issues is I remember that for me, one of the biggest struggles was now I’m not just teaching in one or two different levels at the same time; I’m now also doing that for three different modalities—in an online, a hybrid, and an in-person—and trying to engage learners who learn multiple different ways and not just sticking to one way of teaching and the stress that that really kind of puts into the process, too, that really looking at an instructor’s mental health in that process as well, that I think that some of our students still miss in the process too. They’re very keenly aware about their experience during this but are not very cognizant or aware that they weren’t the only ones who experienced this and that this was a global issue and that everybody experienced this and that we’re all negotiating. How do we come back, and how do we engage?

And I do think that there’s an awareness. I know that most people I’ve encountered—the two of you really are included in this, getting to talk to you—is that there’s an awareness and a desire to engage, but not a clear path to remedy. And I think that that’s part of the exploration for us, that going back to the tech schedule here, for me, I’m trying something different. One of my other peers is going to engage this model the next time, but I do have another peer who’s like, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” So they’re going to get experience with both, which is going to be really, I think, good in some ways. So it’s not this big surprise when they get out because I’m looking at a lot of major regional theatres. Some of them are trying to change, but some of them aren’t.

Jennifer: Yeah, yeah.

Marcus: And how do we negotiate that, and how do we function? And I go back to mental health: one of the things I am, as instructor, I’m really consciously trying to engage is it’s not denying that you maybe have a learning disability or anxiety or some other mental health issue that maybe prevents you engaging the same way maybe some of your peers do. It’s going, okay, you have this. How do we engage it? How can we now help you figure out the way to work that allows you to be successful? It’s not denying it, it’s not anything like that. But it’s also understanding that in this industry, if you choose to do it, the play opens on this date, right? That’s not moving. That’s the day we’re open. So the work needs to be done by this timeframe. How do we help you find a way to work in which you are successful giving these items that you need to negotiate for yourself? Or whether that’s mental health, physical health, physical limitation, anything like that, how do you now engage that?

And that part of your college experience has to be engaging that idea, but inherently that means you’re going to struggle. You’re going to fail unless you’re that lucky person who the first stab you get it right. I’m not that person.

Jennifer: Right. Well, and that’s always us. Yeah, that’s always a misnomer too. Even if you get it right the first time, chances are that’s luck. That’s not—

Marcus: Is it repeatable? Is it sustainable?

Jennifer: Yes, exactly. And I think that that’s so many great points and what you just said, Marcus, it’s an attitude shift. So, it’s not like we can fix everything for them. I think the question is doing exactly what you were saying, Marcus, about how do we engage the concerns that they have, the issues that they have, and encourage them to confront them, work with them, not try and change them necessarily, but acknowledge that the work is what it is? We can change it maybe a little bit, but at the end of the day, what you’re talking about doing isn’t necessarily making theatre. So we’re looking at trying to encourage the students to aspire to do the thing that we love and that we want them to love and engage with as well, and to work through the barriers that they have and to assist them as much as we can in navigating those barriers, but then also understanding that that’s a part of your individual process, that that’s what this is going to be.

And the other thing I’ll say about this is that, again, going back to how much I love my students and how much I do want them to change the world, the point I want to make about this is that theatre artists, whether we’ve been doing this forever or whether we’re first starting out, in my view, we’re all in this together. We are all in this together. There was a beautiful thing actually on HowlRound that brought up Zelda Fichandler and some of that and just this sense of we are all artists and have been doing this for so long, and we love this so much; and really the conflict we have is not with each other, but it’s with external perceptions of this industry that, in fact, we should be willing, because it’s a passion project, and we should be willing to work eighty-seven hours a week on this.

And frankly, I do. I mean, if you count the time that I spend thinking about the work I’m doing and trying to solve in my brain and that sort of background energy that we all have trying to solve these problems, maybe I’m not actively thinking about them, but they’re always there, right? If you try and put a dollar amount on that, it is my life. Yes, I am consumed by what I do because I love it so much, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth less, right?

Elyzabeth: You guys have both sort of touched on shifting the way you rehearse and taking away rethinking the ten out of twelve. What other strategies have you or your departments put in place to help address some of these issues in terms of getting students to show up or balancing that work-life balance or their mental health? Are there any other changes that you have made within your departments to help make it a healthier environment?

Marcus: I think there’s two things: one within the department and then one I’m kind of doing on my own that’s spreading a little bit. I think the first one is we’re really trying to establish this idea of clear expectation and establishing the idea of when you complete a task or you finish what you’re working on, the next things that happen is you come to the person and go, what’s next? And so you’re constantly going, “Well, what’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” that even if you’ve completed this, there’s always something else. And that’s the expectation and being clear in that.

I think that some of my students, when I first get them, they like to engage in the what I’ll call the wiggle room on that. It’s like, well, you didn’t clearly communicate or you didn’t say what the thing is. And they’re like, “It’s on your syllabus, man. Can’t get any clearer than this. It’s simple sentence structure.”

But I think that being super clear as a process over time, so looking at what we’re looking at is really our first engagement maybe in a freshman year. How do we engage that sophomore year, how do we engage that junior year, a continued progression of this idea of what’s next. Coupled with that, one of the things I’m trying to do right from the get-go with my students is really encouraging them to be selfish in their education and collaborative in their art.

So selfish in the education is really why you’re in the room, working in that class, is not allowing other people in the classroom to pull away or take awa.y letting their anxiety, letting their issues or they’re letting… they’re more worried about what’s going to happen after class or that night or this weekend, infect you in that manner and allowing that for the fifteen minutes or an hour and fifteen minutes that you’re in the studio classroom with me, that you are really engaging for that amount of time and then engaging those other things outside of the room and that when we get to the rehearsal space, you are then shifting from being selfish to being collaborative.

And that understanding the difference between the two and those spaces, and it’s something I’ve really tried to engage. I incorporate into the rehearsal process. I talk about it all the time, and it’s really about goal-making and that really understanding in the classroom space, the moment you step in, you have to have a goal for that day, and that the goal for that day doesn’t have to be huge. It’s really if you squeeze both your fingers together, like your thumb and your index finger, no matter how tight you squeeze, there’s still space. And that over time, if you did that much improvement every day over a calendar year, you have measurable improvement, and that they talk to me. Sometimes I get repetitive, and I’m like, “I’m repetitive because I need you to believe me, and you don’t believe me yet. You will eventually because you hear it all the time and that you’re seeing it not just and hearing it, but you’re getting it in practice, you’re getting it in the classroom, you’re getting it in the rehearsal room, you’re getting it in interactions in the lobby where we’re talking about this exciting thing we just saw,” and that, really, that two-fold thing I believe will work.

I just think it takes time of changing that culture. We’re still so early in figuring out that culture that it’s not permanently in there yet, but I see a difference between maybe our juniors and seniors who are really at the heart of COVID classes versus maybe our incoming freshmen who are much more like, “Oh, okay, yeah, I’m not going to let… I want this, and if I want to do this, then I need to…”

We’re seeing some of that difference, so that culture is starting to change, but it is… I wish it was like how they see it: one and done. I finished the thing, so now I’m done. And this idea of repetitive nature to it, as we all know, is process, and that over time process wins out. It gets us to where we want to go.

Jennifer: Marcus, just like what you said, I do feel like it’s improving a little, little bit in terms of, I think the students that we’re getting now who, yes, they lost a lot of stuff during the pandemic, but they didn’t lose as much of the quintessential stuff that I think those initial few classes lost. High school graduations, those moments of transition, and those really human rituals that you sort of need to mark that moment when you cease becoming a kid and start becoming an adult. I mean, that’s not to say that it’s a checkbox, and now I’m an adult today, but do you know what I’m saying? I mean, I think there was just a lot of that that was taken away, and that was really acute for me and my family because my oldest was a member of the class of 2020, and so in addition to kind of navigating his struggles through all of this, I was able to get a wider view, I think, of what some of our students were dealing with as well.

So, regarding what we have been doing to address some of this, I think yes, absolutely Marcus what you were talking about and looking at the notion of process and using that as an anchor to really encourage the students to stretch and be okay with those places of discomfort. We have attempted to be more intentional about not only the number of projects that we do, but the time that those projects take. And rather than moving everybody in and out and in and out and in out, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, we’re trying to offer a little bit more space within those projects that we do.

And additionally, we even took away a show, and since this is a podcast you can’t see, but I’m using air quotes: we “took away” a show, a production, and we offered that space for new works events. And so those are less taxing, of course, on our production areas, but they also offer opportunities for students who write plays and devise and create work that have not been there before. So in essence, by “taking away” a more traditional production process and using that space that was created to serve a different community of students, that has been kind of a win-win in a number of ways.

Now, we’re still kind of in the process of trying to define what that means, but I think the intention is really good. And the other thing I’ll say is more of an attitude that we’re trying to foster more so than we have in the past. It’s always been the intention of our program to really teach the whole person. And part of that requires an understanding that there’s a tension always between competition and collaboration, especially in a big program where there’s X number of opportunities. You get all the acting students and they’re, and it’s like, “Who’s going to get what role?” And blah, blah, blah.

And there’s this sense, and I think going back to that checkbox mentality, Marcus, you mentioned earlier, there’s this sense that what we do, particularly in the acting and musical theatre worlds, it’s a zero-sum game, that if somebody gets something, then I didn’t get it, right? And it’s a sacrifice for me in order for this person. And so we’re really trying to emphasize the collaborative aspect of this business and how we are all in this together, and we are all making art, and we’re all trying to navigate our own competitive natures when it comes to this. And so what do you do, how do you handle it when you don’t get what you want?

Because the fact of the matter is that’s 95 percent of your time in this industry is you don’t get what you want. You get the rejection. You get the “no”. You hear no all the time. And so really being conscious with our students about what it means to navigate those worlds, as well as the other stuff, that that’s a skill that you will take with you into the industry, and what better time to start learning that than now? But there’s a way to do it that’s graceful. There’s a way to do it that is uplifting. There’s a way to do that that can become a part of your story.

So I think those are two things we’re doing here. Logistically, we’re experimenting in classes with no screens, which in an acting class, of course, it’s kind of a no-brainer. You have no screens. But we’re also experimenting in our script analysis classes, in our history classes and the playwriting classes. What does it mean? Yeah, let’s print stuff out again. So when we bring it into class and we’re actually looking at the words on the page, we’re not distracted by so many other things.

And that is a struggle sometimes for those of us who are teachers as well, because we want to be accessible, we want to follow the rules, we want to save paper and blah, blah, blah. But at the same time, we’re trying to meet our students where they are, which is distracted 100 percent of the time, but we’re also trying to encourage them to do other things and different things.

I try to cultivate a sense of this all the time, but what that also means is that you can be hurt, you can be rejected. Vulnerability can be really tough. But it’s also the way I think to live a really big life.

Elyzabeth: Well, I want to thank you both for offering up your time and your experiences today. This has been a great conversation.

As we wrap up, there are so many challenges and transitions that we’re dealing with, and I think trying to find healthy solutions for… what would you like your students to take away from their time in your program, and how do you hope that their training will serve them both on and off stage?

Jennifer: I talk about the… Sometimes I say it’s a love affair with this business, that you have a love affair with this business, that sometimes it’s great. And I like to say that the vast majority of time, it’s great, but then there are also times when you’re arguing with your significant other, which in this case happens to me doing theatre, right? And not only is doing theatre process, I think that the life of an artist is also a process. You’re navigating your time in this world, and you have chosen to do it as an artist, and there’s no greater gift. And it’s also very, very challenging too. And I encourage them at every step of the way to resist the checkbox, to resist the it is fill-in-the-blank or “I am fill-in-the-blank always and forever.” And when you establish it, then that’s what it is.

And that is… that’s not life. A feeling of safety, uncertainty. And you can feel safe in places where you know what’s what or where you think what’s what, but having been on this earth longer than my students, and I don’t want to be the old fart saying “get off my lawn,” but at the same time, the joys of my life, the absolute passion that I have for being a storyteller and all of the amazing things that have happened to me are because of, I try to cultivate a sense of this all the time, but what that also means is that you can be hurt, you can be rejected. Vulnerability can be really tough. But it’s also the way I think to live a really big life.

And so yeah, I will do everything I can to help you with the issues that you are facing in terms of mental health challenges and anxiety, and all of these new ways we have of talking about are struggles, and those are so valuable, and they’re so real that I also don’t want those struggles to prevent you from engaging fully in the gorgeous life of being an artist.

Marcus: I think one of the things for me, I come back to, I talk to a lot of my students about this idea that perhaps by the time they’re ten years out from graduation, there’s not as many people still engaged in the art or craft as there were at graduation day, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And that’s part of the journey. And really what I want them to take away from here is this idea of living a life on purpose, and that it’s this idea that as an artist we do, we have purpose, there are things we are trying to accomplish and do and speak to and engage. And that you can do that as a teacher, as a banker, as an accountant, as “insert other job here.” And that the skills that you’re getting here when we’re looking at communication, empathy, the ability to function in an environment that’s not a solo environment and working with others, you have all of those skills.

And in a lot of cases, when you walk into an interview space or anything like that, you’re able to run laps around so many people who maybe have a different degree track or started out their journey a little bit different than you. But the key is really, are you living that big life, as was said? Are you living as afterthought or as the forethought? Are you moving towards something or letting things happen to you? And one of the things I really want them to just function, it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to pick yourself up and reinvent yourself and do the different things, but in order to have the chance to live that extraordinary life, you have to try, you have to do, you have to live a life of purpose. You got to move forward. You can’t wait. And I really want them to take that, even if it’s not ultimately in theatre or in film, or in our art and craft, but I just believe the skills that they get are so marketable across so many different things.

There’s not a single, I’m thinking back through—I’ve been at this university for fifteen years. I was at CUNY Kingsborough for almost five. I was at the University of Alabama for three years—that I can’t think back to a single student that didn’t engage and engage purpose and try and do it, who doesn’t have success in some way, shape, or form. I don’t see failure there. Maybe it took a longer journey time to get to where they wanted to go, but they’re all successful, and it’s just convincing them or getting them to believe or buy in that they can.

Elyzabeth: Well, I want to thank you both so much for sharing your time with us. I think this is a really important conversation. It’s one that I feel like keeps coming up time and time again, so hopefully others can find some inspiration in what you guys have shared with us about your experiences in your programs.

Jennifer: Thanks, Elyzabeth.

Marcus: Thank you very much.

Elyzabeth: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and oother HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to this digital commons.




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