Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD

Acting Instruction 1:  Preparation

July 24 - Who I am and how I came to be

Part the first:  What has come before

For some reason, my first semester at University of Florida, I didn't teach.  I helped one of the faculty grade papers, and I also stood around (as bored as any of the students) during "Theater Appreciation" class (a massive lecture with 400-odd students enrolled and maybe 100 showing up on a given day... to sleep through it).  Although I was somewhat envious of my classmates who were already teaching Oral Interpretation and Acting for Non-Majors, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I was able to adjust to my new surroundings; and because I was established as an efficient paper-grader I managed to hold on to that for two more semesters while focusing on only one class with actual students each term.  And the timing was even better than I thought; this year, after a review by some national board of something or other, first-year graduates are not going to be allowed to teach, so I was fortunate to have that single semester of Oral Interpretation (and no more!) during my first year.

Teaching Oral Interpretation, I embraced the curriculum, although I approached it my own way (one day I made a deliberate show of shredding the "peer evaluation" forms in the student packet).  We got some exciting, fun results-- better, I thought, than average-- but two things in particular exemplified what wasn't quite right.

One was when I presented a first round of feedback to the students.  One of them had shown great promise in her presentation, but hadn't done some of the things which I had encouraged her to do.  I handed her the paper in which I described how she could improve, and how that would improve her grade-- but she only saw the number at the top of the page and she was devastated.  This was my first big hint that "grading" is a despicable practice.

Toward the end of the semester, I encouraged one of the faculty to come see the students' scenes, which were fantastic; but when he sat in, most of the progress I thought we'd made simply disappeared.  The faculty member shrugged as he left, telling me it seemed like a perfectly ordinary class to him, but I was flabbergasted.  I knew my students were capable of incredible work; I'd seen it and been delighted by it.  How could their progress and accomplishment just... vanish?

I suspected it might be the curriculum.  I had sensed that they only worked on their projects when they had to; even though I had declined to make them do the busy-work "analysis" in the course packet, and even though they had fun doing the projects, it seemed that they were doing what they had to to get a grade, and as little beyond that as they could possibly manage.  So in those moments where they took a stab at what they thought I meant, they did some pretty awesome things; but without taking the time to really know what they were doing, it was a hit-or-miss proposition.

So the following semester, teaching one section of Acting for Non-Majors, I decided to try something completely different.  Speculating that people would respond best to something they cared about, I attempted to explore with the students what they felt acting was and how it could help them in their own lives.  I had no attendance policy.  I figured that, with each group of students, I would help them to imagine projects which were like the standard curriculum (scene, poem, monologue) but which they themselves were genuinely interested in, and that would prompt their involvement.  And I wanted each student to hold themselves to their own standard, not to do what they thought I wanted, so the projects weren't "graded"-- each of them was worth exactly one point.  The only criterion was that you actually do some project; the quality of the result rested completely on the student's interest.  It was a fascinating experiment; each day, after we saw who was going to show up, and based on the student mix (usually 4-9 people of the total 16) we'd figure out what we wanted to do.  It became the free, open, exploratory environment I'd wanted it to be; any given day, the only people there were the ones who wanted to be there, ready to play.  Each of their projects became remarkable in its own way and for its own reasons.

However, as you might have guessed, nothing about this experience actually resembled a "class".  When a faculty member came to evaluate my class, he saw one student there at the appointed time and five others filter in and out during the hour.  I had thought the class was a success because of what we'd accomplished with those six people; but he was appalled by the absence of the ten others.  The following week, he showed me the evaluation he had written... and promptly threw the evaluation away.  I can't file this, he said.  Change your approach next semester, and we'll have someone evaluate you then.

I had to agree with him.  In that semester, those who were committed were really committed, and we did some really cool stuff together; but other students were lost and confused and, despite my coaching, weren't sure what they were capable of doing (much less what they should try).  Furthermore, no matter how I might feel about attendance policies as childish and insulting, it was impressed on me that I have an obligation to the school to have those bodies in the classroom.

This brings us to last semester, when I was given two Acting for Non-Majors classes.  I wanted to give them something they could be committed to, but I knew that not everyone would understand acting well enough to invent their own project.  I needed something which would require everyone to be there, but I still detested the idea of having an attendance policy.  So I decided (again) to throw out the regular curriculum but this time I would replace it with something specific:  one-act plays.  I figured that the first half of the semester would be the "classes" to show everyone what we'd be doing in rehearsals, and then in the second half the class time would be the rehearsals where we'd actually do it.  There would be no projects to be graded-- just the final performance, for an audience, at the end of the semester.  This would mean that they'd have to be there, even without an attendance policy, because I believed they would accept their responsibility to their castmates and live up to that (and they did, for the most part).  I found five one-acts, three for each class (with one play done twice, having a different cast in each class).

And, fast-forwarding to the end of the semester-- it worked.  It worked!  The plays weren't tedious presentations that you'd sit through to "support your friends"; they were actually fun and funny and entertaining.  It was a blast.  Fortunately, I didn't have to rely on my own judgment.  One of my classmates came to see the show and expressed her surprised pleasure with the result; and one of my professors (the same one who'd thrown out the evaluation last term) said that, although they're clearly not trained actors, he'd never seen non-actors put on such good shows.  Considering he's in his senior years, and has been in theater most of his life, I took that as strong encouragement.

So here I am, heading into a new term with two new Acting for Non-Majors classes.  Lightning struck; will it strike again?  Or was it a fluke?  Only one way to find out!

Part the second:  Mucking out

My entire first year here (and for most of the second) I was baffled.  I knew I was a competent actor; I knew my classmates were also excellent at their craft; I knew that we were here to learn how to get better.

So why were our class performances so terrible?

As I and my classmates continued to struggle, as the new first-year students demonstrated their failure, as the undergraduates persisted in bad habits which should have been trained out of them immediately, as the mainstage shows suffered from an apparent lack of professional ethic, it dawned on me that the classroom process was entirely wrong for what we hoped to accomplish.  An actor, presumably, is preparing to perform roles, either in film or on stage.  And, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that nothing in the classroom process resembled the process of preparing for a role.  Here are some of the more obvious factors.

One:  Nobody learns their lines.  In the professional world the first thing you do is learn the lines.  If you haven't learned your lines thoroughly by the second or third rehearsal there's a very real possibility that you will be fired.  In the classroom, people jump from project to project so quickly that they're usually still drilling their lines five minutes before the final presentation.  And, because everybody does this, nobody learns that this is not normal.  In the mainstage production last semester, right up until dress rehearsal, there was only one other actor who wasn't still breaking character in every scene to ask for lines-- and they all thought the director was being unreasonable for getting upset about it (not to pick on that cast; this is typical).  Even if you sincerely want to learn your lines, the constant barrage of one new project after another overwhelms you and you learn to consider yourself lucky to have memorized them at all, even at the last minute.

Two:  Rehearsing without a director is ludicrous.  Yes, an actor should learn to "direct himself", but you can only do that when you fully understand the function of the director, when you have all the tools you need for self-evaluation, and when you have the time to fulfill the necessary tasks of the director.  It's hard enough for a graduate student who, even if they understand these things, barely has time to accomplish it; for an undergraduate with no experience it is hopeless.  But even if someone is fully capable of working on a scene with a partner, this is not something they'd ever be asked to do.  In the real world, if it's discovered that you are rehearsing with other actors (without the director), you're risking termination-- partly because the director is the only one who can see whether the scene is going in a direction which supports the overall play, and also because when actors try to work without a director they invariably and unavoidably create undesirable power issues.  But in the classroom, the teacher (who is the only available directorial figure) sends you away to work on your scene.  Without a director.  On purpose.

Three:  Results don't matter.  When a scene is poorly done, the teacher allows it to be bad.  Why?  Not because the teacher is vicious, careless, or incompetent-- rather, with a curriculum that demands a new scene every two weeks (or even every week), there isn't enough time to make it better.  So the class talks about why the scene didn't work, and how it could have been improved, and then nobody touches it again.  From Day One to finals week, a student can produce nothing but awful scenes and still get an A in the class for "doing the work."  But an audience doesn't give a flying frog about what you "could have done" to make it better; they don't care about your "work".  They want to be entertained.  A student actor doesn't want to do a lousy scene; they want to do well, and they want to know why and how they did it.  It makes no sense to move from one failure to the next failure to the next failure; in that case, the only model for how to succeed is luck or "talent", neither of which can be trained.  The student therefore gains no expectation of being able to learn anything.

Four:  The scene is "graded."  Everyone-- the teacher, the performers, and their classmates-- are so busy trying to make the scene a "good scene" that nobody pays attention to technique, exploration, discovery, and basic mechanics of acting.  I fell victim to this constantly before I finally figured out what was happening (after two years!).  Everyone's effort is so totally focused on the needs of that week's scene, and what the performers can do to "improve" that particular scene, that it becomes too specific. Once the scene is done, the performers are left with very little (if anything) that they can transfer or apply to their future work.

I'll stop there, even though I'm really just getting warmed up.  I have to say that I'm not entirely sure whether the instructors are aware of these problems.  Some of them-- including one in particular whom I greatly respect as an educator and performer-- have explicitly said to me that they don't believe "young actors" are capable of doing well; they think that it is a matter of talent.  I don't honestly see how anyone can legitimately draw that conclusion when, as far as I can tell, everything about the system is designed to work against the student actor, and to make them fail again and again and again, regardless of their potential (or even their existing abilities).  In these two years, I've seen some of the undergraduates drop out of the program, saying that now they hate acting, or that majoring in theater simply showed them that they didn't have the talent they thought they did.  As with so many things in education, I grimace and rail that it's not the student, it's the method.

Part the third:  Drawing the baseline

In the context I'm given, one thing is clear:  I won't have time to teach my students anything.  Techniques that are necessary for becoming a trained actor-- use of voice, use of breath, use of body, in-depth script analysis, deep characterization-- these require intensive development, time, and dedication which we simply don't have.  Fortunately, I can believe in one truth which has proven itself to me repeatedly:  everyone already is an excellent actor.

I discovered this truth during my second semester of teaching (the unstructured class).  As one of their "point" assignments I had asked them to tell everyone something that had happened to them.  I don't now remember why I had asked them to do this, but I don't know if I'll ever forget the result.  Every single one of these stories was a fantastic monologue.  It was stunning; without exception, each of these perfectly ordinary non-actors made "dramatic choices" and expressed themselves in ways which, if you thought you were watching an actor giving a monologue, would have blown you away.  In the two classes last semester, I asked them to do the same thing, with the same kind of result; each student not only told their story with truth and honesty, but communicated it in a way which would make the most seasoned actor insane with envy.  Everyone-- everyone-- is a "talented" actor.  In my class, I don't have the time to teach them acting technique, but I can show them how to employ what they already know how to do.

The challenge for me, of course, is figuring it out:  what exactly are they doing?  And how can they do it with someone else's words and a totally fictitious situation?

This is what you'll be reading from me in the days to come.  I do have a plan, and I've learned from mistakes I made last semester.  One thing which immediately strikes me is how very little time there is.  I think about that in comparison to the ordinary acting-class curriculum; here I'm going to spend the entire semester rehearsing 10-minute plays, and I am fearful of having barely enough time to do it well.  In acting classes, they do a new 5-minute scene (or monologue) every week or two and honestly expect to achieve performance level (and when they don't, they tend to blame the students' lack of "talent").

Knowing this, part of my task in the coming semester is to find plays which we have a hope of doing well.  This isn't easy.  First, because I'm dealing with a total of about 36 students (and I don't want to do more than 3 plays in each class), anything with fewer than 6 people is out.  Plays that involve deep characterization or anything but the most superficial relationships are not good choices-- there isn't enough time-- and writers of short plays simply love "character studies."  Absurdism is possible, but only if it's totally mechanical and literally obvious; fortunately I found one of those last semester, but most absurdist plays try to be ambiguous and thematic.  Right now I have a backpack bulging with one-act anthologies, and I've got another three dozen of them on hold at the school library.  All I need is six.  I scoured many books for the six I used last semester, but I'd rather try something fresh and new than run the risk of trying to recreate anything.

I'm looking forward to distributing the roles.  Last semester, convinced as I was that everyone was a good actor, I distributed them completely at random (with respect to gender); I wrote the name of a character on each script and dealt them out face-down.  At the end of the term I found I had to ask the students if I was remembering correctly, and that I really had given the roles out randomly, because everyone fit their roles so perfectly (they assured me it was indeed so).  I'm looking forward to doing this again.  In a teaching situation, I don't think I'd want to do otherwise.  If I were to make deliberate casting choices, I'd probably want to put the least experienced actors in the most demanding roles, instead of the other way around; it's actually much harder to do a small role than a large role because you have a lot less to work with.

Coming up next, then:  the structure of this semester's class, and what I think I've learned from the mistakes I've made.

July 25 - Did I err?

While pawing through one-act anthologies, I also got hold of a copy of The Actor In You, which is both incredible and perplexing.  It's incredible, because I look through it and I find that in many ways it's the book that I would want to write; it covers the topics which I agree are critical, and explains them in ways which I completely agree with have even found myself saying on occasion.  It's perplexing, though, because I find it so... well, what is the right word?  Dull?  Thick?  Inaccessible?  Boring?

I say quite sincerely that the author has done a wonderful job of enumerating and explaining the most necessary tasks of the actor.  If you wanted a basic grounding, this could be an excellent go-to book.  But... I wonder.  It's been my consistent experience with acting books-- including the acknowledged powertexts An Actor Prepares, Respect for Acting, The Art of Acting, and their peers-- that I have only truly understood them when I have already learned, from my first-hand work on stage, everything that they want to teach me.  Acting is an experience, not a lecture.  The only acting books from which I have been able to learn something new (and substantial-- more than just tips) are Impro, On Acting, and Audition, each of which share one common feature:  they are presented in story form.  In these books, everything is shown with examples from the classroom; we learn through the eyes and ears of the teacher and students as they explore together.  Although An Actor Prepares is also told mainly in story form, there was no commentary on the stories; they were presented as self-evident, which (as I remember my initial encounter with the book) it seems they are not.

With that perspective, I look at The Actor In You and it seems as though the author was determined to suck the life out of the art.  Each of the necessary skills and topics is addressed with the objectivity of the clinician, with each component dissected and splayed for impassive examination.  In other words, The Actor In You is written as a textbook for an acting class.  I can very easily see how each of the "sixteen steps" in this book could be addressed in each of the sixteen weeks of a semester-long acting course (a deliberate manipulation on the author's part, perhaps?); each week, even a novice teacher could have her students read the chapter introduction and then spend the week doing the recommended demonstrative exercises.

But this is, I think, one of the mistakes that I made last semester, and one of the common mistakes of education that I so frequently complain about:  the cart is firmly before the horse.  Last semester, I thought it would be a great idea to take the first half of the term and "teach" the necessary concepts by using clever exercises, just as this book's exercises are designed to do.  I figured that it'd enhance and streamline the rehearsal process if the students had already learned what they were supposed to do-- that way they could just start doing it.  But as we neared rehearsal process, I was shocked to discover how little of anything was retained.  The exercises may have been understood as exercises, but even when they had been conceptually understood, applying the same concepts to the rehearsal process was perceived as an entirely different thing.  As soon as I recognized this was the case, I stopped the "classes" and began rehearsals immediately.  Within The Actor In You, is it possible that their sample scripts (from Cheers, Death of a Salesman, and others) are enough to help the students apply their knowledge?  Or, as was my experience (because I also used sample scripts), would there be a separation between the intellectual learning and practical application, so that everything would have to be learned a second time?  I do wonder if the "story form" books are a more effective way to teach acting if performance training must be encapsulated in a book.  Perhaps the use of stories makes it clear how the practical application is to be accomplished.  Or maybe it's just me.

In either case, last semester helped me sort out which things I can do before the rehearsals and which things I can't.  I've also been made aware of which exercises can be done before rehearsals provided that the students already have their assigned role in mind (and a script to work with).  Specifically:  I can begin by demonstrating the acting skills they already have (but don't know they have), and once the roles are handed out we can approach the analysis.  What I can't do is explain anything which I expect them to discover in the rehearsal process, because it will just have to be explained again.  And where last semester I originally scheduled ten weeks of "classes" and five weeks of rehearsal, this time I'll have five weeks of "classes" and ten for rehearsal (where the sixteenth is performance week).

The five weeks of "classes" are necessary.  I'll be describing them in further detail as I actually do them (I expect what I write should become more interesting as I move out of this expository phase and into the actual meat of the rehearsal experience)-- because what I need to do is to establish the "common language" of the rehearsal process.  During the process I'm bound to suggest that someone could try "a different objective"; I may ask them to "split the idea", or "change the relationship", or "hold the impulse", or "take it into your body", and these phrases (among others) need to be understood by everyone.  I need to illustrate my function as director, so they know what to expect of me and (even more important) what to expect of themselves and each other.

And among all this is the dad-blasted attendance policy.  It was clearly a mistake, during that first semester of Acting for Non-Majors, to have no attendance policy and no set structure.  Although it did accomplish what I intended, there were definitely some students who needed more structure and guidance than my loose suggestions; it was evident that they took advantage of the lack of attendance policy, not because they didn't want to be there, but because they were embarrassed and uncomfortable at not knowing exactly what to do.  During the following semester, rehearsing the one-acts, I was mostly right about attendance.  I did my best to impress on everyone that there was no "padding" in this process; every session was critical, and it was necessary for everyone to be there to rehearse.  And most of them understood this and supported each other very well-- but those times when they didn't were terribly destructive.  As little time as we had, occasionally we'd lose an entire rehearsal because we were waiting for the full ensemble to assemble and finally had to give up waiting.  And I couldn't complain because I'd set it up that way.

So, in the coming semester, I'm going to have an attendance policy and use it as a bludgeon.  This isn't because I think students won't show up-- I know that they will-- but because the times they went missing last semester were times when they simply weren't thinking about it.  The new attendance policy will make sure that they aren't careless:  for every class period they miss, with no "grace period", they will lose a full letter grade... unless they call someone in advance and let them know.  If they're late to class, they lose a third of a letter grade... unless they call someone in advance and let them know (either me or a classmate).  I'm flexible enough in my approach to the rehearsals that I can work with whatever I happen to have... provided that I know what I have.  Even if I get surprised by a phone call five minutes before a rehearsal, it still means that at the time the rehearsal begins I know whom we have to work with.  So the attendance policy isn't really as draconian as it sounds; it just means that everyone should remember to keep in touch, and nobody will casually leave all their castmates (and me) in the lurch.

July 26 - Spare the rod

Another mistake I made last semester was being lenient with students who hadn't learned their lines by the designated time.  I had said to all the students that anyone who hadn't learned their lines by the end of Spring Break (before we began rehearsals!) would be penalized by a full letter grade.  In the same breath, though, I assured them that it was an empty threat; I just wanted to startle them and underscore how essential it was.  And for most of them, that was enough.  Out of 33 students, 27 had their lines fully memorized when they were supposed to, and half of the remaining six did have them, if inconsistently.

Those "remaining six" were scattered among four of the six plays-- meaning there were two casts whose members had all learned their lines in time.  The effect was striking.  Since they weren't struggling with lines, they were free to develop character, play with relationships, explore rhythm, invent costumes, work with props, get silly, and basically go to town.  One of them shared with me his astonishment at how easy it all was once the lines were out of the way.

If I had been less lenient about learning lines, everyone could have enjoyed the same advantage.  The three people who "sort of" had their lines found their final performances stopped short of where they could've been, which was a lost opportunity; but there were two people in the same cast as each other who truly didn't know their lines, and this had a devastating effect on their show.  In that show, we wasted far too much time watching the two title characters stand and stutter and blank and break and giggle in every single rehearsal, right up to the end; the rest of the cast, whether or not they knew their lines, was (for one) contaminated into having the same lack of commitment, and (for another) ignored-- because I was so focused on these two, I was only able to give the other five a fraction of the time that they deserved.  We still had fun with the rehearsals, and it was overall an enjoyable process; but in the final performance, these same two actors found that they still didn't know their lines... and, sadly, the audience knew it.

The third fellow who didn't know his lines was a more interesting case, because he honestly thought he had learned all his lines.  During rehearsals, I hadn't complained about his needing his lines in hand because, as a Narrator, he had to memorize practically the entire script, which I knew was a daunting task; it seemed only reasonable to give him more time, and he did seem to be coming along.  It was only when we started trying to run the show in the very last week that we found out that, although he did know his lines, he didn't know them well enough.  Once he started having to remember the lines and the blocking and the through-line (because he carried the story, he was the one who brought us into new situations, so he rarely had any explicit cues to remind him of what he had to say next), he just couldn't do it.  And it came as an unpleasant surprise to us both.  If I had been stricter about his knowing the lines, then we would have seen this much earlier; instead, the performance was now just a few days away, and it was evident that he would not be ready in time.

It was in this situation that I discovered how the class structure had changed my responsibility to the student.  If this had been an ordinary "class", my response would have been simple-- give the student a B (or, more likely, a C) for having "failed", blame him for being lazy, and dismiss the whole thing as a bad job.  And indeed, my first reaction was to blame him.  I showed him my frustration, potently, in front of his castmates.  Then, suddenly concerned at how upset and defensive I had made him (as though blaming and embarrassing him would make him want to cooperate!), I backed off and sent his castmates away so we could talk about it.  And we had to talk about it.  Because I'd set up the program of one-acts, because we had four cast members and a future audience that were depending on us, I wasn't allowed to penalize him and kick him aside.  I was forced to collaborate with him to find an effective solution.

And we did-- by recording the Narrator's lines.  Then he was able to have fun with all the other work he'd done on character, voice, and relationship, which was fantastic.  In the feedback I wrote to his cast, of his performance I said "You never seemed lost or superfluous; you maintained a presence that was at once significant and non-intrusive. And when you stepped into each of your individual characters, the transition was always seamless; you became a new and interesting person whose voice and physicality created a strong relationship to the scene."  Some of the audience members told me that they thought the Narrator's lines were supposed to be recorded, because he was constantly active and involved even when the recorded words were speaking for him.  And to think-- if I'd thrown him away for "bad effort", we never would have seen this success!

From this I saw that, as an instructor, it's not enough for me to be a supervisor.  I had already decided that it was not my function to "grade" some subjective quality of a student's effort, but I hadn't considered how important it is that I care about the quality of our mutual achievement.  I knew that I was learning from them and they were learning from me, but what this incident made me see is that through the whole process we're all using our newly-acquired knowledge to solve problems together.  I don't just hand out tools and dispassionately watch the students build or break, making red checkmarks on my little pad to mark their supposed progress along some arbitrary path; we're all contributing on different levels toward a shared goal.  What makes it a "class", then, is that reaching that goal requires us to learn how to get there.  Together.

July 29 - Left to write

"In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays."

- C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

All non-theater students taking theater classes at this school (Theater Appreciation, Acting for Non-Majors, Oral Interpretation, etc) are required to go see all of the school's productions for that particular semester.  The main reason for this is to boost the number of people in the audience.  Otherwise, naturally, everyone in the theater department would come, and some of the performers' friends would come, and perhaps a handful of interested "townies" would also turn up--  But this would only fill the larger theater for a night or (possibly) two.  Most people very rarely attend actual live theater, especially amateur theater, partly because they never think about it (when was the last time you said "I think I'll go to a show tonight" and didn't mean a movie or a music concert?), and partly because when they do think about it, the performance, more often than not, is woefully dull, which diminishes their interest in going to other shows in the future.  I just recently re-read a quote which makes the point, which I'll paraphrase here:  "Would that the stage were like a tightrope, that no amateur would dare tread upon it."

Unfortunately, to justify the "class assignment", students are compelled to write a paper about each show.  On the face of it, a nifty little test to discover if the student can apply their newfound knowledge of theater to an actual production.  In truth, it becomes a reason to make students dislike theater all the more.  As you probably know by now, I think tests are deplorable and anti-educational.  As I've illustrated before, and as is widely known regarding the ever-increasing national emphasis on standardized tests, the curriculum becomes so strongly focused on passing the test that any meaningful experience or learning is rendered impossible.  Going to a live theater performance is, ideally, a highly personalized experience; it seems monstrous that I should attend any artistic presentation and, upon departure, be impelled to recite what I believe is your opinion of it-- and to be subsequently told that I'm wrong, and be penalized for my guesswork!  Preposterous.

Even so, this is one aspect of the curriculum that I was not (and will not be) allowed to discard.  My students must attend the shows, and they must write a paper about it.  I initially thought that my function was to help everyone write a "good" paper; in my Oral Interpretation class, that first semester, I wrote a detailed outline of things to look for and report on (depending on what we'd just studied), and I provided a skeleton of how to structure the "two-page paper."  As you might predict, this led to a lot of my words being returned to me verbatim, and not much original thought besides-- in other words, a perfectly normal result.  I suppose it's possible to be satisfied with that much; I could have been pleased that the student was able to see that these words applied here, and "grade" them accordingly.  But none of these papers told me a blessed thing about what the student actually saw, heard, thought, and experienced during the show.  The following semester, this was my solution:  each paper would be worth exactly one point, and there would be no length requirements.  Write one word, or write fourteen pages, I said; I don't care, just say what you want to tell me.  Although this decision arose out of the unstructured class approach, it was so successful that I repeated it last semester, and I'll do it again this semester.

On the one hand, it cuts out all the bull.  One of the "papers" I received last semester was nothing more than this:

I thought [the play] was pretty good. The stage setup was really nice. I also thought the acting was done really well. Compared to the play [we saw before], I thought their lines flowed a bit more smoothly. I could pretty much follow the play. I was just a little bit lost at the beginning, but overall it was a good play. Well done.

If you think that forcing this student to write a full two pages would somehow cause them to have a more sophisticated insight into the show, or prompt them to think more critically and specifically, or to do anything other than struggle to pad out these simple thoughts into two pages of empty doublespeak, then I respectfully disagree.  From this brief passage, I learn a hell of a lot more about this student, their experience in the theater, and what they've learned about acting, than I would from two pages of teacher-pleasing gobbledygook.

Of course not all the papers are "good."  Some students are too well-trained, and still attempt to show me what they've "learned" by repeating my words back to me.  Other students, like the one I've quoted, have an incomplete understanding of what we're doing, and the brevity of their writing reflects that.  One student decided to have fun by handing in a fourteen-page paper... with only one letter on each page.  Another student wrote four full pages solely about his attempts to get into the theater without a ticket after the show had started.  I welcome them all, because each and every one of them is honest.  As an acting teacher, it is far more important that I understand each of my pupils than it is to force them to understand me.  If a student has only absorbed enough knowledge to write what I've quoted above, then they need more from me!

Those who have learned something can't help but write about it, because it has become an inextricable part of their theater experience.  And when they do, they don't write a desultory laundry list of demonstrative catchwords, but express genuine enthusiasm and surprise that their awareness and understanding of live theater has changed.  That's as much fun to read as it is for them to write, and it's wonderfully rewarding for us both.  And that's not to shortchange the others, either-- the Lewis quote above refers to the fact that a poorly-written story is far more valuable, and has a deeper and greater reality, than any well-written but soulless essay.

And in every case, I learn something critical:  how the student communicates.  I never bother to correct grammar or spelling; I don't even remark on the worst error.  This is mainly because I know that writing "correctly" is a direct function of reading-- if (for example) you've never encountered the word "jodhpur" in print you'd never know how to spell it-- so there's no point in my penalizing a student for their reading habits.  That has nothing to do with my goals.  The essential adjunct effect to this is that once you release your need to see "correct" grammar, "bad" grammar becomes fascinating and informative.  The fact is, we write how we speak, and we speak to communicate our ideas.  If a student wants to communicate some idea that they either don't have the words for, or which is too complex for the grammar they know, then they will invent something to get their point across.  By accepting "bad" grammar as legitimate communication I gain further insight not only into how a student honestly thinks, speaks, and expresses themselves, but also into the nature of their inventiveness and problem-solving strategies.  This, in turn, helps me understand what they're trying do on stage, and how I can work with them specifically to achieve greater truthfulness.

So today I was wondering:  if I get so much out of reading (especially between the lines), why don't I learn anything from books about acting-- unless I already know it?  And why does The Actor In You, despite its apparently splendid content, seem to me to be so ineffective and impotent?

I think I have an answer-- if a partial one which will continue to be developed over time.  It came to me as I was reading today a chapter from Stanislavski and America (sorry, no link; it's long out of print) featuring both Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, both of whom were revered teachers of their craft, and whose philosophies of acting I deeply respect and appreciate.  And perhaps it was the chapter title, "The Reality of Doing," which made me recognize that in the entire chapter, neither Meisner nor Adler were doing anything.  They talked about the consequences of their techniques, they talked about the effectiveness of their methods, they talked about problems they'd solved by applying their craft.  In short, they presented information about acting.  They didn't actually tell you how to do it.  The specific examples they gave of how they did this scene in that way were not practical instruction to the actor-in-training; they were used principally as references and touchpoints for broader, philosophical, abstract and intellectual statements.  As I consider the acting books that I didn't learn anything from, I recall that each of them failed to reach me for the same reason:  they generally persisted in talking about acting instead of saying simply "do this now."

You can talk all you want about acting (or anything you want to learn, really, but I'll stick with acting) but ultimately you have to do it.  And when you're there to do it, just as I found after teaching my "classes" last semester, everything you've supposedly learned goes right out the window because-- obviously--  you've never done it before.  Stella Adler's famous book, for example, appears to give specific instruction, because she goes on in such deliberate and specific detail; but through all her eloquence and insistence she is mainly describing what you are supposed to do.  If you're not actually in a position where you are doing it, under the direction of a person who can accurately and adequately explain how the philosophical concept applies to the practical work (Meisner's method in particular is horribly maligned by its "teachers"), then you will be unlikely to learn acting from a book.  I might conclude that I was right in speculating that "story" books about acting succeed because of the stories; the author first says, this is what you're supposed to do, and then he shows you how it's done in practical application.  By paralleling your own experience with the attempts (and failures) of the representative actors, you can inform your own efforts and learn directly from the book.

This answer made me ask myself:  Why am I so willing to beat up on The Actor in You?  Each chapter seems to be exactly what I'd prescribe-- a conceptual discussion followed by practical exercises.  It seems to be all about "do this now."  I suppose I am deliberately being ungenerous because of the stuffy, detached, passionless tone of the book, which rankles; but I suspect that my issue with it is that it is all discussion about acting, exercises about acting, analysis about acting:  you could do all of these exercises, do them exactly according to the dictates of the book, and at the end of it be not the least wiser about acting than you were at the start, because you haven't actually done any acting.  I'd say this seems to result from each concept being presented as an end in itself rather than as a natural consequence of the acting process.  The segmentation of topics into chapters is somewhat responsible for this; the exercises only underscore the impression that each of these topics is a thing that can be considered, comprehended, and cultivated into its own independent life, when in practical action they are all deeply interrelated and all greatly inform each other and, to be sure, have no purpose if not applied to acting.  Furthermore, in being objective instructions instead of exploratory dialogue, the book makes it possible to fail.  Both explicitly and implicitly, the exercises are to be done correctly-- but the instant you try to do something "correctly" in theater, instead of living truly in the moment, you've lost.

There's some irony in the existence of this book.  As I've mentioned, I think highly of the content of the book-- in my opinion, it covers the most necessary topics and (mostly) thinks of them in the same ways that I do-- but because of its structure and these exercises, I suspect it's most likely to be put into the hands of a teacher who will follow its chapters literally, chronologically, and prescriptively, and judge their students on their ability to follow the exercises "correctly."  And that, I'm reasonably sure, is not how a student can learn to act.

July 31 - All creatures grade and small

However much I don't like grading, the fact remains that I must assign a grade.  I've already said (in a roundabout way) how I'll do that, but I have two ways to make it completely explicit:

Philosophy.  The grade will be assigned for doing what is necessary.

Quantitative.  The grade will consist of five "points":

- three "papers"
- learning lines on time
- doing the final performance.

In addition, letter grades can be lost for being absent or tardy without warning.

So basically, missing one of these "points" gives you a B-minus, and missing a second one gives you a D.  Why?  Because if you don't learn your lines, or show up for the final performance, it screws up everybody else.  Likewise, if you're absent or tardy and nobody knows about it, everyone ends up wasting time waiting for you; it's disrespectful to the people involved and harmful to the rehearsal process.  You've got to know your lines on time, and you've got to be there when you're needed, or we don't have a show.

It might seem surprising that the only things which I deem necessary are learning lines and being present.  What about script analysis, or character development, or any other preparation work?  Well, the way I figure it is this.  If a student chooses not to do any preparation, there's one result:  they will get out on stage and look like a talentless ass.  I assume that they do not want this to happen, and I do everything I can to help them give a fantastic performance.  And if last semester is any indication, then by letting me help them, every student will give a fantastic performance.  But I do not have the time or the energy to help someone who refuses to be helped; I don't want to waste any of my life "evaluating" their level of effort or trying to figure out how to motivate them.

In other words, I assume that everyone wants to do a great job, so I do everything I can to help.  And if they find that they don't care and don't want to do well, then it's my responsibility to make sure they don't make life miserable for the rest of us.

And the net result is this:  the only people who could possibly find their grades in jeopardy are those who are inconsiderate to their fellow students.  That's the bottom line.

August 1 - Nothing new under the sun

Last semester, I spent a full weekend in a fit of depression.

In coming to this school, two years ago, I was eager to write a book.  I believed I had discovered an approach to acting which nobody had ever thought of before, and I hoped the school environment would be an excellent testing and proving ground for my theories.  Once I began teaching, that's exactly what I got to do; I was doubly thrilled because not only was it fun, but my ideas were working!  But then, for my "Diversity in Acting" class (the curriculum was not what you'd expect from the title), we were encouraged to read An Actor Prepares.  That book hadn't made sense to me the first time I'd tried to read it, but at the instructor's urging I figured to give it another go.  And the more I read this book, the more shocked, distressed, and frustrated I became.

The book didn't show me anything I didn't already know... and that was the problem.  It showed me everything I already knew.  I was fully aware that my approach to acting had been derived from Stanislavski (in the modern era, how could it not be?), so it didn't bother me to see the same principles and philosophies that I espoused.  What bothered me was finding, in this book from the 1800s, many of the same exercises that I used in teaching, done in exactly the same way-- exercises that I honestly believed that I'd invented!  Although I could, grudgingly, find some cheer in the fact that I must have understood Stanislavski's principles quite well to have "invented" the same methods of conveying them to students, I began comparing what I was reading in An Actor Prepares to all the other methods I knew, and the conclusion was inescapable:  every single acting teacher since Stanislavski-- and probably long before him, besides-- has been teaching exactly the same thing.  The difference is merely in how they've communicated the material.  This was intensely depressing to consider:  If everyone's been teaching the same thing for centuries, I sighed, then what possible difference could I make?

Fortunately, a conversation with my voice instructor turned me around.  Because I'm also interested in teaching the Lessac voice method I've been studying, we were discussing why so many students of the method seem to understand Lessac so poorly (more on that later, you can be sure).  Among the topics we touched on, he told me that he didn't worry if not every student understood the material-- because, he assured me, not all students will understand the material.  Every vocal technique that exists teaches essentially the same thing, he told me; the difference is that different people will respond to different explanations and different approaches, and no method can be all things to all people.  The value of any particular method, he said, is that it finds a way to reach people where the other methods don't.

This specific point helped me to stop wallowing and think more practically.  If I accept that my goals are the same as everyone else's, I wondered, how then is my explanation different?

Don't mistake me-- there's definitely something different.  I have plenty of anecdotes now to tell where I have witnessed, on the professional stage, unfortunate failures which would have been completely avoided by using my core strategy.  These are trained, talented, experienced actors-- in one case, a duo who had performed their particular show literally hundreds of times over-- and as I've watched them and other actors struggle and strain and stretch while their performances fell further and further into a hole, as I've seen entire shows go flat and fizzle, I would think to myself, all I'd need is ten minutes with them and they would never have this problem again!  Just ten minutes!

And this is where I discovered the difference.  All of these actors I could talk about had been trained, at one time or another, to know the same principles that I have to convey; but they learned them and understood them in a vague, touchy-feely way.  My contribution is that of taking abstract techniques and making them so practical that you can understand them in a matter of minutes, and use that understanding immediately.  Sure, it takes a little practice to get the hang of doing it, but from the very start you have total clarity.  You know what you've done, versus what you were shooting for, before anybody gives you a word of feedback.  This is why the non-actors in my classes were able to perform well; this is what I hope to capture in writing here.

Through my teaching, I have learned considerably more than I thought I would.  When I arrived at the school, I was focused entirely on the concept of pacing.  From the classes I've taught (and three of the classes I took) my understanding has evolved and expanded into a more complete picture of acting, and has now additionally encompassed other typically-nebulous terms like energy, chemistry, relationship, character, stage presence, and listening.  In my own lexicon, I have a precise definition for each of these things, and as the semester proceeds you'll hear about every one of them... plus more as they occur.

August 2 - A brief note

One of the most tedious and annoying times in a performer's life is when, after a rehearsal, everyone is gathered around to "get notes."  Every performer sits glassy-eyed (and often exhausted) while the director goes through a laundry list of observations from the presentation, until finally the director stops and everyone dashes gratefully for the exits.  Sometimes the performers write down the notes; other times they nod in acknowledgement; much of the time they protest and argue; but no matter what, the main thing is that nobody really wants to hear "notes" in this way.

But even if they did want to, what's the use of giving notes at the end of a rehearsal?  Even if the performers dutifully and attentively write everything down, the chances are good that by the next rehearsal, either the notes or the rehearsal or both will be entirely forgotten; and even if they're not forgotten, remembering second-hand instructions from a piece of paper is not at all the same as having explored with your own body on stage.  The best time to give notes is at the beginning of a rehearsal-- specifically, as close as possible to the beginning of the scene(s) for which the notes are relevant.  Not at the end, and definitely not in the middle.  I'll be writing more on that later, when I address it with my students; for now I'll just mention that, in my opinion, the only reason a rehearsal scene should ever be halted is when it's clear that the entire scene is heading in a totally unproductive direction.  (Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule.)

Frankly, I try to avoid "notes" completely.  Countless post-rehearsal battles and arguments will attest to the fact that most actors feel that "getting a note" is emotionally equivalent to being told "you screwed up."  Plus, if the actor doesn't agree with the director's assessment, there's instant bad will, disrespect, and even power struggling that didn't need to happen.  I try to keep my thinking and feedback on the structural level whenever possible.  If an actor understands what's going on and knows their function within that event, then they will naturally do what is appropriate and necessary.  If they do something that doesn't fit, then I need to figure out where the misunderstanding is and help clarify the scene so they'll want to invent something else.  I can't just tell them to "stop it"; that means their effort on stage becomes not doing, which kills the scene.  If they are overlooking important actions, then either they don't understand what's going on or they honestly haven't seen how the actions will enhance their performance, either of which they will be pleased to discuss.  The main thing I look for is whether the actors are telling the story effectively.  If they are telling the story that I want to see from the play, then I let the actors do it their own way.

Now, I have to admit that I am not yet very experienced as a director, so my approach to notes could change completely; but this has made sense so far.

August 3 - Born to lose

One of my classmates loathes Sanford Meisner.  Because she and I (and our other five classmates) took all the same classes, all day every day for two years, I gradually teased out her experience with "Meisner Technique" and her understanding of its purposes.  And it was all wrong.  I was fascinated each time we discussed it, because each time she revealed a new perversion of the technique.

I'll spare you the details-- especially if you've never heard of Sanford Meisner-- because the problem can be summed up fairly handily.  When people think of Meisner Technique, they usually think of a collection of exercises (his "repetition exercise" is the best known).  But Meisner's exercises are only the introduction to his technique.  The exercises are unnatural and extremely directive; each exists solely to demonstrate a point.  The whole purpose of doing his exercises is so that you can get the point, stop doing the exercises, and begin acting.  Unfortunately, my classmate's "Meisner instructor" believed that doing the exercises was Meisner Technique, and pushed his students to do the exercises as the main goal-- but, as my classmate discovered, this only leads to bizarre and unnatural attempts at acting.  She, quite rightly, despised it.

What I mean by "extremely directive" is that an instructor who tries to teach Meisner exercises really has to bash students over the head before they start doing it correctly.  I have never-- not once, in over 18 years of observation-- seen an actor attempt the Meisner repetition exercise who didn't immediately transform themselves into the exact and total opposite of what the exercise is supposed to teach them to be!  My classmates tried the repetition exercise, but without an iron-fisted supervisor it was a complete failure.  Meisner's book is jammed full of instances where he tells his students to stop, stop, stop, you're doing it all wrong, try it again.

This is one reason why I have such strong emphasis on natural learning.  Sanford Meisner was able to get fantastic results through his exercises, but only because he knew exactly what it was for and how to force his students to use it correctly.  If you do not have an instructor who is intimately familiar with the Meisner philosophy, and who can police his exercises with a heavy stick, the exercises will fail.  They must fail.  They are unnatural and indirect.

By contrast, one of my other classmates led a session on Anne Bogart's Viewpoints-- a system of expanding natural awareness-- and I was intrigued to see this work producing the results that the Meisner exercises were supposed to have done.  Bogart succeeds where Meisner fails, because her approach relies on the student's awareness rather than the teacher's cleverness.  Even so, Meisner was clever, and the principles I learned from his book help form the basic foundation of my technique.  I'll explore them more fully with my students once the semester begins.

August 7 - Three ring circus

One of the problems with writing so much is that I tend to forget when I've already said something.  Fortunately, I was re-reading Phase 10 and discovered that I have already written a big chunk of what I was about to write here.  It's a good thing, too-- classes don't begin until the 23rd.  I'll probably write only this one article before then, because I'm still in theory mode; given what I've already described about only learning acting through practical work, I'm relieved to rehash as little theory as possible, but naturally I do need to lay down some basic conceptual foundations.  In this case, the most basic foundation of acting is how do we communicate?

I believe that Meisner's philosophy of acting could be described by basic semiotics.  As I understand it, the semiotic model of communication for any given idea is:

1. formulate
2. encode
3. transmit
4. receive
5. decode
6. comprehend

Although this appears to be a simple formula, the actual process is so subtle and complicated that it borders on the magical.  Fortunately, I don't have to explain it; I only have to apply it to acting.  My application is made easier by the fact that everyone already understands this process perfectly.

But, for "good acting", the entire process has to be consciously executed.  The main problem is that everyone understands this process so deeply and instinctively that nobody is consciously aware of what they're doing or how they're doing it.  The next biggest problem is that because prepared entertainment (scripted or improvised) is an unnatural form of communication, people automatically approach the task unnaturally.  And the worst part is, because the audience is also totally familiar with the semiotic process, they can detect when a performer is failing to complete it, and thus instantly recognize "bad acting" even if they have no idea why.  Once my classes begin, you'll see me working with people to attack these problems directly; today I'll deal solely with formulation and encoding.

The core of everything is the idea.  I've found that we formulate and encode three different kinds of ideas:  language, music, and movement.  It's not a coincidence that the major divisions of artistic performance are acting, singing, and dancing, and it's not a coincidence that a performer can become a "triple threat" but never a "quadruple threat".  There are definitely three distinct modes, and there seem to be only three.

First I considered the three idea-types separately.  It seemed accurate to say that a language idea is a literal concept, and a musical idea is an emotional concept-- but then, I wondered, what is a movement idea?  I asked dance instructor Ric Rose:  what does a dancer communicate to the audience?  He replied, the dancer isn't trying to communicate to the audience as much as with the audience.  Dancing, he said, is a flow of energy through which the dancer's body connects directly to the audience.  I concluded that a movement idea may be a visceral concept.

I noticed that each of these idea types can only be expressed in its natural mode.  Language ideas must be expressed with language; musical ideas must be expressed with musical sound; movement ideas must be expressed with form and gesture.  In saying this, I make a sharp distinction by using the words expression and description.  I can describe the idea of a "spooky interval" using language, but only the musical sound actually expresses it.  You're probably already familiar with "Peter and the Wolf"-- this famous composition describes a story full of literal ideas, but it's impossible for the music to express the story literally.  And if I use language to describe the gesture "I swing my fist half an inch from your nose", it doesn't create your body's experience of my actually doing so.

Another example may clarify the "movement idea."  Imagine holding up your index finger to represent the number one (as in Charades); this is using movement to describe a linguistic idea.  Now imagine using the same finger to tell someone "just wait a minute!"  Do you feel how differently your body engages itself in each type of idea?  Can you imagine the different effect of each on your "listener"?  When you hold up a finger to say the number "one", you are impassively presenting information; when you make a person wait, you are actively using your body to affect theirs (to make them stop moving).  When your finger says "one", they receive the idea literally in their mind; when your finger tells them to wait, they receive the idea viscerally in their body.

An actor, singer, or dancer will typically train themselves only in their preferred mode.  Actors learn to tell a story; singers learn to produce beautiful tones; dancers learn to move expressively.  And because each art is usually presented in its own compartment-- plays, concerts, ballets-- that's usually enough.  The performers never need to stop and wonder if they might be missing something.

But they are missing a great deal.  Although I describe the three idea types separately, in our everyday lives they are tightly interwoven.  A performer who successfully employs the full semiotic process, but does so in only one mode, is recognized as "competent" or "good" or even "above average."   But a performer who enriches the semiotic process by communicating with all three idea-types simultaneously-- this person is a master.

Perhaps, at some time in your life, you've heard an excellent actor described this way:  "He does not merely tell the story, but also communicates his emotion and creates a deep connection with the audience."  In other words:  he uses language, and music, and form and gesture.

I can give you a quick example of how an actor can use a musical idea.  I've mentioned elsewhere how the Lessac vocal system trains an actor to deliberately exaggerate the inherent musical qualities of language sound.  But you can also use musical sound to create specific emotional communications.

Part One:  If you've listened to Diana Deutsch's Track 22 then you know that speaking is singing, but nobody notices the musical part as singing.  But did you ever notice that you yourself speak "in key"?  Pay attention to yourself the next time you're talking, and you'll notice that you have a tonic tone which you return to when you reach the end of a statement.  You can keep an audience with you just by ending your statement on a tone other than that tonic.  They will wait attentively for the musical resolution.

Part Two:  Actors who want to express emotion often get louder or more emphatic, but vary the pitch only slightly (if at all).  This may increase intensity, but it doesn't communicate a musical idea.  An actor who has to speak the words "C'mon, Mom!" could also use a major seventh to demand resolution, or a major sixth to express longing, or a perfect fifth to preface a rational argument.

I can't as quickly explain how to use form and gesture, mainly because my own understanding of it is still growing.  But I do see already that form seems inextricably linked to musical expression.  In my summer voice workshop I discovered that our voices express what our bodies feel.  When I'd shape my body into a particular state, I was amazed to discover that the sound which emerged from that physical form did so as a naturally coincident musical idea.  Anyone could hear exactly how my body felt, because the feeling was fully expressed in that musical idea.  Something tells me there's much more to be discovered there.

August 15 - Lead us not

I don't try to win arguments.  I think it's a waste of time to try.  The basic problem is that when someone "wins" an argument, the "loser" knows it.  The actual logic of the debate doesn't matter.  When the argument's over, the loser continues to believe he's right, because he knows it was the winner's arguing power that did it-- not the weakness of his own losing position.  Even when the winner maneuvers the loser into agreeing with statements that seem to prove the winner's case, the loser continues to think "I have to agree when you put it that way, but you're mixing it all up, so I'm still right."

When I'm at my most effective, I coax my opponent into confusing themselves.  I don't take a position to be argued against.  Instead I ask them questions which are reasonable responses to their statements, but which they can't answer without undermining their own premises.  Yes, this is manipulative, but it's not disingenuous.  It’s even likely to turn a potential argument into a friendly collaboration.  If their premise is legitimate and correct, then I will be pleased to receive a sensible answer which shows me I'm wrong; if the premise is faulty, then they'll be forced to think about it before they can answer me.  In either case, my opponent is re-evaluating their own argument. 

Once I explicitly recognized this as my argument style, it dawned on me that it's also my teaching style.  But I didn't think for a moment that my style was in any way new.  The idea of teaching-by-asking sounded familiar.  Could it be I was teaching by Socratic Method, and didn't know it?  A quick search suggests that, according to the stated philosophy of Socratic Method, I am indeed.

However, in that same search, I've discovered that Socrates' method, like Meisner's (and sometimes Lessac's), has been thoroughly perverted by those who claim to teach it.  Each method has been twisted into a vicious mockery of its original intent-- superficially correct, but philosophically corrupt.  My classmate actively rejected Meisner Method as harmful, and the perverse version of Socratic Method has also been rejected and vilified.  But these are not the true Methods.

I think I see here (and from its sister page) how any method could be easily perverted.  A "method" reflects a master practitioner's philosophical understanding of their discipline.  A method's directives and exercises are tools with which the master communicates their philosophy to a student.  The basic mistake of the would-be teacher-- and the first giant leap in the wrong direction-- is their assumption that by meticulously following a method's directives and exercises, its philosophy will be magically realized.  In the case of the Socratic Method, it appears that its abusers adhere pathologically and mindlessly to the statement "you must only ask questions" as though that were the method, without having the slightest understanding or explanation of what questions are truly supposed to accomplish.  This math-class example is "perverse" precisely because it is totally scripted; the questions are not designed to stimulate critical thinking, but to deaden it!

In my own teaching I do sometimes ask rhetorical questions.  Rhetorical questions are useful when I want to show that an answer is self-evident.  Whenever I ask a rhetorical question, I always announce first, "This is a rhetorical question!  Do not answer it!"  Then I ask the question, and I wait one moment for everyone to realize that of course they know the answer, because it really is totally obvious; then I go ahead and say the answer anyway so if there is anyone who didn't already get it, they can stay anonymous and not feel dumb.

But never, ever, ever, ever ask your students to respond to a question for which you already have the answer.  Never.  Not once.  Not ever.  I find no exceptions to this rule.  John Holt made me aware of this situation, and a moment's reflection makes the it stunningly obvious.  When you ask a leading question, you have instantly created a lose-lose situation.  Either the student already knew the answer, in which case the question was pointless; or the student doesn't know the answer, in which case their failure to respond makes them feel fearful and stupid.

Leading questions are a hindrance to the teacher as well.  The perverse Socratic Method is gaily compared to "playing charades"-- but if you've ever played charades yourself, don't you remember how frustrating and aggravating it is to be forced to keep inventing totally roundabout ways to get people to read your mind, when you could get the job done in two seconds just by blurting out the words?  If you know information that you want a student to have, give it to them.  Leading questions are a dishonest conversation, a failure trap, and a total waste of time.

the coming days you'll see that much of my teaching follows a basic formula.  I question what a student is doing so that I can figure out how to cause them to experience what they could do, and I simply ask them to notice the difference.  If they recognize that there is a difference, and they prefer the new experience, they will be eager to know why.  If they don't recognize the difference, I try again with a different approach.  It's my job to enable them to make an informed decision.

Continue with part two