My laptop screen frames a dark, London living room. B’s baby is never far from her during class, I can hear him sweetly fussing in the background. The other three students occupy tiny, silent squares at the top of my screen; their job right now is to observe and support. B is a black woman in her 20’s with little previous training, her shy eyes are hidden behind the glare of huge glasses. I have given her a scene from “The Honorable Woman”, the role of Atika, a Gazan refugee. I ask if she knows what it’s like to feel like ‘a stranger in your own land, with no home’. She says she does, but she answers me too quickly in a good-student sort of way, closing the door to the feeling of being without a home. I tell her to let her body answer the question, instead. She takes a breath and her next words are the text, simple and true, I, as the audience now, feel the effortlessness of her connection like a hammer. At the end, I ask the class what they saw. “I liked her anger,” one says. “Yes” another agrees, “there was a moment when she dropped into her vocal resonance that was so powerful.” B smiles bashfully, jostles her baby, soaks up the encouragement she needs to hear to know her process has been witnessed, to know she is not alone. That is the foundation of an ensemble.
As a student of intergenerational trauma--my undergraduate thesis was on the study of trauma survivors and how abuse affects the matrilineal line--, I use the classroom as a space to develop students' resilience and wellbeing in the face of emotionally challenging scene work. I look for what comes easily to students and for where there is resistance. The resistance almost always indicates a protective mechanism which will hinder embodying a character’s vulnerability. Together, we work on transforming these ‘safe’ but detached tendencies into a daring creativity.
S is a woman in Liverpool with a dark curling mane in her early 20s. I’ve given her Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones 609, where Sansa is confronting her brother, Jon, after Ramsey abused her. ‘Do you know what it’s like to feel helpless?’ I ask. The color changes in her face; she nods gravely. ‘Do not give up,’ I tell her. Do not ask for him to believe you, take the power back by telling him so that there is no way he can deny you. Play the outrage.’ Together, we resist a version of this scene in which she slides into being the victim. The gangly girl in Liverpool is transformed into a warrior princess, and a scene that could normalize a rape survivor’s passivity becomes a space instead for the character’s, actor’s, and audience’s resistance to unfurl.
Crucial to students’ resilience is a demystified understanding of the nuts and bolts of the acting world. Having trained and performed in New York City, Hamburg, and London, I am uniquely positioned to show students the geographic variations in industry rules, standards, and cultures. I am also poised to teach in-person, virtual, and hybrid classes, and to utilize the digital as an opportunity for training in screen work. Throughout the pandemic I have taught online classes multiple times a week, assigning challenging new scenes to each actor five days in advance and critiquing their self-tapes after every session. My teaching practice is also a reading and listening practice--when I am not in the virtual classroom you will find me reading screenplays and listening to industry podcasts.
I strive to meet the actor wherever they are in their process to help guide them towards a performance. An actor/muso from Argentina, G, in his early 20s works on Jimmy from Boardwalk Empire. “They called me a hero,” his face is hard, tears well up in his eyes, “but I didn’t care anymore.” G connects to his emotions effortlessly but I push him to clarify his character’s needs and aims, “How will you know Nucky’s heard you?” This crystallizes G’s objective and opens him up to try various tactics; now that he’s got a specific image of what winning will look like he can throw himself into the fight. I ask him to make a wider frame with his camera so that he can use his physicality to express his frustration and create close ups when he wants intimacy.
Taking the leap to become a teacher has been rewarding beyond measure. I am running workshops that prioritize the wellbeing and resilience of students from all backgrounds, supporting socially engaged artists, and facilitating the individual potential of every actor.