Fireside Chats: Geri Clark, Syracuse University Part 2

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 two of SU professor Geri Clark’s brilliant answers to our questions.  She is a gem!

What have your students taught you?

Everything.  I don’t know what I really believe is true until I teach it and I can see whether or not the knowledge resonates in their lives and in their performance practices.  I spend every summer continuing my pursuit of behavioral psychology, social psychology, cognitive science, communication theory, rhetoric, and kinetic communication.  Then I incorporate everything that I believe has promise into the next year’s curriculum.  If what I have learned “works”, I keep it.  If it doesn’t’ I discard it.  This has been the process of my own artistic and academic development over many years and the one I teach to my students who will go on to train the students of the future.

What is an exciting piece of theatre you’ve encountered recently?  What excited you about it?

Syracuse Stage recently produced The Brothers SizeIt was a truly astonishing piece of theatre, partially because of the way a very young writer used Brechtian theatre practice to make an already unusual set of characters even more worthy or attention and because of the bravura performances of the actors.  (They are presently touring with it in South Africa.)  This was the most exciting theatre I have seen in many years. 

As a professor, how do you find the balance between education in the art of theatre and preparation for the business of theatre?

I don’t pay very much attention to theatre education throughout the country.  Finding and maintaining that balance has been part of the mandate of Syracuse Drama since it became a BFA program associated with a professional theatre in 1974.  It has attracted professors who are both highly educated and/or trained and working professionals.  Each of us strives to maintain our professional currency.  I have acted, directed, and written for Syracuse Stage so I bring to my classroom both knowledge of the art and the business and I try to teach my students what they owe to both.

What is your connection to the professional world?  How do you balance that connection with your commitment to academia? 

I have been fortunate enough to have received virtually every honor the university confers on teacher/scholars during the last few years.  But all of those honors were a direct outcome of my commitment to my own professional development and the way in which I have taught students over the years.  In short, there is no balance.  In me and for me they are one.

Describe your proudest moment(s) as a professor.

I assume my students would believe it happened a few weeks ago when Aaron Sorkin gave the graduation address at Syracuse and honored me with a gracious mention in his speech, attributing to my introductory class the basis for his ability to write with stucture that most students don’t learn until graduate school.

However, that wouldn’t even come close.  I didn’t even bother to go to the ceremony.  Not because I am not a fan of Aaron’s acknowledge brilliance (I am) but because whatever pride I felt in his work came when I was teaching him.  My proudest moments happen a hundred times a year in class when the “penny drops” and I see the light of understanding shine in a student’s eyes.  I know at that moment that they have in some tiny way been changed forever.  That is the constant reward that I receive from teaching.  No one every has to write to me to thank me for my help (though I get many such letters both from present students and those long graduated.)  They paid me in the moment for everything I ever gave.  And that’s why, as long as I am able, I will continue to teach one way or another.  I hope I die with the chalk (or the laser pointer) in my cold dead hand.

Talk about your experience with The Araca Project in it’s inaugural year.  What excites you about it?  Where do you see it going in year three and beyond?

Except to the extent that several of the students involved have written plays in my classes or learned a little more about direction or production from me I have not been involved at all in the Araca Project.  I would hesitate to help one student more than another so I resist requests to help them formulate their proposals.

At the same time I think it is one of the most exciting projects at work in the space between professional and academic theatre today.  I know the founders, Hank and Mike, well.  They were my first personal assistants on a play and performed in one of my most difficult plays.  The inimitable Danielle von Gal has continued the tradition of apprenticeship to me.  I know how capable they are of continuing the project.  Hank and Mike were also taught by my former husband, Jim Clark, who taught them based on everything he had learned when we foolishly became founding members of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  Every member of that founding core except for me became producers and/or artistic directors.  Not because we were smarter or better trained than others we went to school with but because our foolish decision made it possible to learn everything about the business of producing from the ground up.  That’s what the Araca project does but it does it with young people barely out of the egg.  We were all graduates of a prestigious doctoral program.  I think the Araca project, especially if it is franchised by other producers with graduates of other good professional training programs, is going to be the same kind of source of exponential development in professional theatre that the repertory experience was in the last half of the twentieth century. 

We can’t thank Geri enough for her thoughtful and insightful answers to our questions.  Look forward to more Fireside Chats coming soon!