Fireside Chats: Geri Clark, Syracuse University Part 1

 In Fireside Chats, theatre and drama faculty from The University of Michigan and Syracuse University will share their thoughts on the evolution of students, teaching and the industry.  Let us know if you have any questions you wish you had asked your college professors!

Today, we have part one of beloved SU professor Geri Clark’s brilliant answers to our questions.  We want to make sure you get them all, so we’ll get back atcha with round two later this week.  Trust me, you want as much Geri Clark as you can get.

What was your professional trajectory?  Was teaching always something you considered or wanted to do?

I’ve spent the last twenty-five years studying the brain so now I think I am able to say that teaching was always something I harbored in my unconscious or hidden brain.  Until I was twenty-five I said often “I will never marry—I will never have children—and I will NEVER teach!”  By twenty-seven I was married, by thirty-four I had a child and by thirty-five I was teaching.  For a long time I thought that I resisted all these possibilities of a future because I was afraid to want what I might never get.  Recently I have come to think that I was using this willful mantra to prevent me from undertaking any of them till I was ready.  I didn’t marry until I found the man I knew I wanted.  When I learned I was pregnant my heart almost burst with joy.  But teaching was a little harder self-sell.  That’s because at first I wasn’t very good at it.  (At least in my own mind.) Because I misunderstood what true teaching was.  Even after I had discovered my love of teaching I was still unsure whether it was the right direction for my life or a detour.  Then, when I was forty-four, I almost died and as I lay in the emergency room quite certain my life was over, I discovered that I in no way regretted marrying, having children, or giving in to the “safety” of teaching.  I was utterly certain that the life I had envisioned at twenty-five as an actor-director would never have fulfilled me in the way teaching did daily.  And then I lived.  And since then I have never though for a moment that I made the wrong decision.  Acting and directing were (and are) very important elements in my course of self-discovery.  But it is in teaching that all my needs for self-actualization are finally fulfilled.  And because of my years of dedication to acting and directing as well as scholarship, I actually have something to teach.  So I continue to learn constantly in order to stay ahead of the curve of twenty-first century theatre artistry.  As a consequence I am able to teach my students that, as in Frost’s poem, “knowing how way leads on to way …” that by coming to us they have begun a journey but have no idea where it will lead them to.  Therefore, it is in their interest to regard studying theatre as a preparation for life in general rather than for theatre in particular, as I will discuss in subsequent answers.

What is the most rewarding thing about teaching at a university level?  The most surprising?

At eighteen students have finally reached the age when they have enough general knowledge and enough brain development to start learning in earnest what they hope to become their life-long career.   They come believing that college study is supposed to be much more demanding than highschool.  In a year or two they will learn that most undergraduate college courses in the rest of the academy are really no more demanding than their secondary classes and, in many cases, less demanding.

By the time they learn this I have used their belief that college is supposed to be really hard to load them down with enough reading and writing that by the end of a year of study they will have had the equivalent of a year of graduate play analysis.  Most of what I teach in that year I didn’t learn until I was in graduate school.  At the same time I am remorseless in not editing my speech.  I use frequently the kind of blue language they will meet in many contemporary plays and in many contemporary rehearsal rooms.  These are words they’ve heard and, perhaps, used for many years but they have rarely heard them used by adults in authority.  At the same time I use the full breadth of my fairly extensive vocabulary and I only translate the meaning if the words are in a foreign language or they ask the meaning.  By the end of the year I hope that they will never again find themselves in a room where the discourse is above their level of comfort.  During the year the experience is for many or even most of them fairly painful.  They have increasingly over the years become children of entitlement, protected from the hard realities of life from parents and even teachers who are desperate to give them a “childhood” while the many media they have recourse to are trying to make them jaded well before their time.  Over the course of the year I hope for them to learn that none of them will fail my class if they will only do the work assigned.  Which is the biggest thing one must learn about “real” life.  Fear of failure is the principal cause of failure.  At the beginning of the year most of them feel failure is inevitable.  By the end of the year they are all awed by the amount they have learned and the degree of mastery they have achieved and, usually, how good their grade is.  If they have done the work.  If they haven’t done the work it’s a good indication they just don’t love it enough.

I have been most surprised by how pervasive the sense of insecurity is in all my students and this has become increasingly true over the years even as we have been able to choose better and better students, both in terms of potential and in terms of academic potential.  We now audition almost 900 students a year.  On the acting side we only accept students whom we have put in the first rank and there are enough of them that offers are finally made on the basis of GPA and SATs.  I’m not sure if the sense of insecurity is a function of their high level of former performance or of the degree to which their parents have protected them.   By the end of the year if they have survived all the rigors of their Core classes they are battle-seasoned warriors who know that they are, in fact, able to take on the world. 

Have you noticed a shift in how new theatre is produced and/or fostered at the college level?  At the professional level?

Fortunately, despite my early protests, I did indeed have children.  Through them I was able to observe up close and personally how their brains were developing in a very different way than any previous generation.  I was mystified by their ability at a young age to decode the incredible flood of information represented by early MTV productions.  By the time I was entering college I had seen a few hundred movies—once.  And most of them in black and white.  TV was still black and white.  Television plays were produced for early twentieth century minds and news program principally consisted of the observations of “talking heads.”  There were no computers, no computer games, little live TV, no internet, Ipods, Ipads, or cellular phones.  It was almost a media free environment if one didn’t have a personal television.  (I didn’t own one until I was married.)

My children and my students have grown up with all of the latter but without the luxury of boredom.  They have hot and cold running distractions and therefore are expert at decoding interactive environments and  fairly hopeless at the exercise of imagination until they are taught how to exercise it.  (Or exercise it again—they were probably pretty good at it when they were five or six.)

Over the years I have gradually realized that the kind of theatre production in which I was schooled is, in fact, terribly boring to the present generation.  When I was learning to act and direct I learned that while it was necessary to “stay alive” in the scene the focus was meant to go to the speaker.  This was true in films as well.

Now young people can hear what the speaker is saying, can even see his/her face in their minds eye.  Their attention is drawn to how he is being heard.  Over the last fifteen years I have worked to create a far busier, even chaotic moment to moment life of the play in which each character is the protagonist in his or her own life.  Each is  speaking constantly—either verbally or nonverbally—just as is true in life.  My mentor, Oscar Brockett, was fond of saying that in theatre every age developed a more highly developed version of reality.  I believe he’s right.  I have also learned that the older generation don’t mind terribly my more chaotic direction (after all, they are using the same eyes and ears that they use to decode every day life) and, if they are bothered they can just focus on the speaker as they learned to do “back in the day.”  I can, however, immediately decide whether I am watching an “old school” director or a “new school one” within minutes of the lights coming up on the first scene.  My students have great difficulty being really engrossed by even the best of old school direction—it’s just too “slow” to command their constant attention.  Yes, they all have a certain degree of attention deficit—but nothing is going to change that.  Therefore, how they are taught to act, direct, and even write must be different than we were taught if they are to be prepared for the theatre and film of the twenty-first century.  We “old dogs” can learn to do it and to teach it, but it isn’t easy.  Fortunately the discoveries concerning brain plasticity makes it possible for us to remediate student deficits and our own if we are willing to do that work.

More coming soon…