At the Shakespeare Tavern, it’s trial by fire.
I am a teaching intern this year for the Summer Intensive for Teens, or SIT. SIT lasts three weeks; in that time the group of teenagers that were chosen from auditions held in the spring prepare a full-length Shakespeare play and take master classes in theatrical skills like mask work and combat. This particular group of fifteen students put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the help of two brilliant teaching artists, Mary Ruth Ralston and Chris Rushing. The whole three-week process is an exercise in trust and in releasing inhibitions. The way to succeed is to dive in full force, make bold choices, and support scene partners’ bold choices. Trial by fire.
I participated in SIT twice as a teenager, and I liked it so much I came back to experience it from the other side. I assumed my time here as an actor would prepare me for the next step. I should have known better: if I’ve learned anything from SIT it is to expect the unexpected.
In true Tavern fashion, I was thrown headlong into something both scary and inspiring. Mary Ruth and Chris put an unbelievable amount of faith in me. They, and the education department as a whole, believed me capable of teaching and directing long before I believed myself capable of those things. On the first day of SIT, Mary Ruth and Chris split the characters into three groups. They each took one group to direct and left me with the third. Here I was on the very first day, in a cramped back hallway of the Tavern attempting to direct a battle between fairy royals so powerful that their fighting literally alters the seasons. I was terrified.
The amount of trust present on all sides was what made it work. Not only did my directors trust me, but so did the students. After all, it was their first day too. They knew none of their peers, they knew nothing of me, and some of them weren’t even familiar with the Tavern or with Shakespeare. It made me grateful, proud, and relieved that they were willing to put their faith in me and jump right in. If everyone else believed in me that much, I had no choice but to believe in myself. They were already taking the leap; there was no other option but to be there to catch them.
So in this way I was tricked into being a confident teacher and director. I began to volunteer to direct scenes on my own. I brought in a movement exercise that I had learned in a dance class and taught it by myself. I taught warm-ups and improv games. By the last week, I was confident enough to direct the lovers’ quarrel all on my own, a scene that had interested me since day one but that I had been too shy to tackle.
I also acted as a student. I participated in workshops and games. I watched closely as Mary Ruth and Chris led text classes. I learned how to talk to students when they get discouraged, or how to gently but firmly enforce rules. I learned from my students how to handle mistakes or embarrassment with grace, and how to imbue a text with new life.
When I started the summer, I thought I would make a smooth and logical progression from student to teacher. Little did I know, the progression from student to teacher is anything but smooth and logical. The line between the two is often blurred. Everything I did took on double significance – it is not even fair to divide my time into teaching and learning. They melted together. Any single action contained elements of both. Teaching my movement exercise was learning. Learning to direct by asking questions was teaching.
The most gratifying moment of SIT was the day I realized my own favorite vocal warm-up, which I had taught on the spur of the moment one day, had become a tradition. On the last day of performances, the students requested I lead it one last time. They were going to miss it, they said. I happily bequeathed these young actors something that works for me in my own acting. It was the simplest, most tangible example of my student to teacher transformation.
Trial by fire works for the teenage students. I already knew that much from my time as an actor at SIT. I didn’t know, though, that it works for everyone. It works for teachers just like it works for students, because there’s really not such a black and white distinction between them anyways. Trial by fire works for anyone who wants to learn. Dive in. Don’t hold back. Trust yourself to be great enough to walk through flames.
Submitted by Amanda Lindsey McDonald
Social Media Specialist