Why I Teach

“Making honey out of Stage Left”

Why do I teach?: small miracles from the theatre.

Orion Couling

On WYNC’s Radiolab they were discussing language. According to their scientist, kids do not develop actual connections between your commands and the task being commanded until year 4 or 5. That day, as I steered one of my junior ensemble members back to his spot for the umpteenth time, I recalled that scholarly debate and added my own two cents with “no duh”. 

There is always a point while working in theater with young actors where I wonder if I am making a difference. If what I am doing is merely “advanced baby sitting”. Then I always sit down and make a list of what I believe actually is being taught. I thought some of you might enjoy seeing that.

  1. I am teaching social skills. I am taking a young mind and not putting it into a “herd” but into a “pack”. Terms like “teamwork” & “team building” seem cliche but the power of a like-minded group has been a necessary jump from the American Revolution to Emma Goldman. We are the Rats! We are Elephants! Let’s play together
  2. I am increasing cognitive relays. This is a script. These are words. Why learn to read? So you can understand your script. These are songs. By listening to them and reading them, we study them. These are tools to tell a story.
  3. I am teaching motor skills. By being in this shape, by raising that hand we can change the feeling of our bodies. When we do warm-up stretches we condition that body for play.
  4. I teach body awareness. Where are you physically? How do you take up space? Now where are your companions? How do they share space around you?
  5. I teach ethics and accountability. There are rules. Rules are there to enhance play. Not to bind us but to make our play better. Learning that is the key. Now breaking those rules has repercussions. Never upheld in anger – but upheld none the less.
  6. I teach communication to parents and caretakers. I ask that the student works directly with their caretaker. Furthermore, I request that a parent steps out and (of their own initiative) talks to me.
  7. I teach a way through aggression. Violence does not intimidate me and I can redirect that natural urge into something productive.
  8. I teach repetition and exploration inside of a rehearsed Idea. Why “do it again” is never “because I said so” but because we left unexplored achievement. “We can do better” is another phrase, for there are always options untraveled,
  9. I teach performance skills. How to make my students understood through volume, articulation, facial sculpting and stature. Then connecting that to an idea you’re passionate about.
  10. I break down apathy. Why get off your butt? It’s time for adventure! “We” want “you” to play with “us”. “They” want you to play for “them” What could be more fun?
  11. I teach reflecting. Self analyzing. Through creative homework assignments and the forge that is putting on a play, the actor is forced to realize that time spent on their performance away from class matters

This is my list. And when I am really tired and frustrated I remember this story:

I was blocking Jungle Book Jr for the first time (I’ve directed it 5 times now) out at Gymkhana. The whole ensemble was blocked to run around our palm tree stage left. Cue Music. Actors go! Julia, my youngest, is stage right doing …something.

“Okay gang let’s give that another go! Remember, we skip around the tree.  Lyrics are ‘the bees are buzzing around the tree to make some honey just for me’. Okay?”

Cue music and go!

25 actors light up stage left with raucous buzzing. Julia remains stage right. So the group looks at me and I return their confused glance. I mosey over to Julia.

“Hey, monkey butt (what I call my lil ones). Um whatcha doin over here?” She looks at me as if to say isn’t it painfully obvious?

“I’m making honey”

“Oh…um…right then!" 

The Lyrics. The bee’s are buzzing around the tree to make some honey just for me. She has a different “operative word”! Honey rather than buzzing 

She blinks at me with those deep brown eyes through these Coke bottle glasses. All the answers you would ever need brought forth in this six year old zen master. Blink, blink, smile.

“What if you made honey stage left?”

“Okay!” and Julia moves stage left.

I smile. The group smiles. One of my older actors scoops her up in a hug.

Sometimes we gotta make honey. It’s imperative. That sweetness is the difference between willful disobedience and childlike exploration

Let’s never forget that.