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The need of a special FYE program for Theatre Majors

What are the competencies that students, graduating from a theatre program in acting, expected to have? Looking at the competencies published in the NAST Handbook for BFA in Acting, students are expected to possess and demonstrate a strong body of knowledge, both theoretical and practical. Most, if not all, colleges and universities (even if they are not members of NAST) subscribe to the idea of the competencies listed in the handbook. Looking through the NAST Handbook and researching competencies published separately by individual educational institutions, I notice that little is said about learning basic life skills such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence. It is one thing to possess high performative skills, but it is an altogether different thing to be in possession of the skills essential for managing life and career. Learning these skills is often overlooked by the departments and programs, but it is an essential aspect of the education of a theatre student. Educators must consider if the student is prepared to live a healthy life and to contribute to the profession not just as a performer, but also as an active citizen of that profession. It should be the responsibility of theatre programs for where else would a student receive this critical teaching training. To a performer, learning how to contribute positively to a work environment, solve problems, and have effective communication skills is necessary. Critical thinking and emotional intelligence need to be an essential piece contained within the competencies of every theatre program.

I believe that these skills must be addressed up front at the beginning of a college career, and taught by addressing what I call the Five Vitals: effective listening, tackling insecurity, managing self-consciousness, learning to work cooperatively, and promoting a relaxed, effective physical communication. By examining these particular emotional and cognitive traits, students will grow to have the tools at hand to become more emotionally intelligent and substantial critical thinkers. Insecurities, self-consciousness, lack of listening skills, inability to work in groups, and the lack of any real physical expression would often be interpreted as some behavioral or personality quirk. Something that exists in the hard wiring of a student and cannot be unlearned, or something that only time and experience can tame. However, this notion only promotes teaching half of the student. Theatre departments must think holistically and deliver to the world a graduate who will be a lifelong learner, an engaged citizen, a human being. To be, as Abraham Maslow described in his theory of hierarchic Needs, a self-actualized person.

I have been an equity actor for over 25 years. I have also directed professionally for the same amount of time. Early in my career, I was deeply unsatisfied with the process of working and I can quite understand why. I was stuck in some myopic loop of self-centeredness. I lacked good coping skills, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence skills which served to block any satisfaction and growth. Of course, I never learned these skills at any level of my education, high school, college or graduate school. Learning to play in the same sandbox with others was a challenge for me until I began to read about critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence. It was then that I became aware that I needed to practice these skills to engage with the world as a total human being, and not just as a person of moderate talents. I needed to think like a scientist when it came to managing my life and my personal self within the context of my profession. That I had an obligation to the performers who were on stage with me, as well as to the whole industry itself. It was then that I began to feel a sense of satisfaction.

In 1995, I helped to start a small SPT Tier 8 theatre in the Midwest. I was the Artistic Director, and we were a theatre company that provided good, solid, and interesting work for the professionals in our region. We also provided that first important stepping stone for young persons graduating from higher educational programs. It was in that role of Artistic Director that I began to see a pattern in performers fresh out of programs, as well as in some older professionals (a pattern that I recognized in myself at one time). Time and again, while navigating through the script in rehearsals I also found myself having to traverse a landscape of self-consciousness, insecurity, poor interpersonal skills, listening issues, discipline issues, and a lack of collaborative connection with the ensemble. Issues not easily spotted in an audition. Eventually, to counter these aberrant situations, I began, when a company gathered for the first read, to recite a little speech about how we are to conduct ourselves. I would speak about working stress-free, committing to the ensemble, and knowing how to interact in a positive manner. I found that I needed to speak the speech as it were so that we could rehearse in an effective and productive manner. Our time was tight, so work process was important. There was a moment when I thought that maybe our company was an anomaly; that there was something inherent in our structure that caused behavioral issues to pop up. But then it came to me one day that the speech I was giving was one that I heard before, back when I was an actor traveling about the country working at various LORT companies. While we sat at the table before the first read, there was always the speech. Why?

Why was it necessary to remind one how to comport oneself in a professional setting? Had we suddenly lost the ability to conduct ourselves properly as professionals? Was this sudden or has it always been gnawing about at the edges? I understand that rants, tirades, bad behaviors and bursting egos have been the accepted background noise of our profession. History describes it so. In some ways, we relish stories of egomaniacal demagogues and divas, and delight in the stories of their raging sandstorms of dysfunctionality. But why? We do not expect doctors, pilots, lawyers (just to name a few professions) to act in an unprofessional way. In fact, we are deeply shocked and taken aback when they demonstrate anything less than compassionate behavior. When we receive services from some minimum wage workers at a drive-up window, we expect that the service should be a pristine, near joyous experience, filled with smiles and ’thank you’ and ‘please come again.’ Nevertheless, in our profession, we allow and excuse gaps in human civility. Why? What is the cause? I would argue that it is the inability to really listen as well as an ego, plagued by self-consciousness and insecurity. It is an inability to trust others and work cooperatively. It’s related to not feeling secure in one’s own body and not knowing how to freely express oneself physically. It is the Five Vitals, unbalanced and out-of-control, blocking any critical thinking or any emotional intelligence.

In 2007, I took a position as Director of Theatre at a small private university in the Midwest. It was there that I encountered head on the problems I saw as an artistic director and actor only in its rawest form. Freshman and sophomores, having left home for the first time, were lost in a weedy tumult of insecurity. The compass points of personal responsibility and value judgments, now without any prompting from parental figures, were redefined and pointing toward a cynical self-preferentialism. Juniors and seniors mired in the bad habits of comparison and competition with other students in the program (habits that existed from high school). Upper-classman felt exposed and abnormal like a herd of Holden Caulfields, milling about and worrying about how they will live a normal life when the four-year theatre party finally ends.

It was there, in that position, that I came to believe that the current state of actor training in higher education, at the undergraduate level, just may be wrong. That we may have it backwards. That we are creating graduates who are well versed in replicating outcomes of whatever performance theorist is taught in a program (from Stanislavsky to Chekhov to Meisner to Viewpoints training), but we have not always explicitly addressed the basic life skills of that student. That for the most part, students graduate with a mimetic acting process that merely echoes the personal aesthetic of a particular teacher or a program. Not all, but many programs are stuck in perception and not process. The perception of what makes a student a good performer, as opposed to a process that celebrates and nurtures the individuality of the student: to let the students think for themselves, Cogito ergo sum.

Theatre programs and departments need to teach students how to be life-long learners, engage proactively with the society as a whole, as well as with other smaller communities and networks they encounter in life. They need to instill in the students the value of having a healthy physical, emotional, and intellectual lives. This teaching should not be left to some campus-wide first-year program, it should be taught within the theatre department itself. This learning of appropriate life skills should start at the beginning of a college career to address the Five Vitals: listening, tackling insecurity, managing self-consciousness, collaboration and personal physical expression. Addressing them before any intensive training begins would provide the proper foundation for growth in critical thinking and emotional intelligence that would serve the student beyond graduation. Students must be taught consistency not only in performance on stage but in how they conduct themselves in a professional setting. Students must learn that existing positively within a profession that is chaotic, inconsistent, and emotionally burdensome requires perspective and measured thinking. Theatre productions and the theatrical organizations that produce them not only require good acting, but require, as well, professional conduct that is ethical, positive, and proactive. Being professional does not just mean your union card alone.

Now I understand that educators would argue that they could address and work on the five traits mentioned above while at the same time learning an acting process. That learning an acting process actually addresses these traits. However, I would argue that this is not the most productive process, and may force students into acquiring bad habits and inhibit coping skills. The reason being that actor training has an output of assessments: rewards, accolades, and favoritism. A performer’s self–esteem is inextricably attached to the approval of the instructor and to what, if any, reward, accolade, and favoritism are meted out. Students perceive, through an emotional lens, what a director or teacher may like or dislike. Misunderstandings are inevitable and become exacerbated by the tribal nature of the classroom or rehearsal and the resultant competitive hierarchy that forms.

Students at this early part of their college career are still motivated by what Abraham Maslow calls “the deficiency needs.” They are: physiological, safety, love, and esteem. According to Maslow, all of the deficiency needs must be satisfied before a person can act unselfishly. It is at this stage that bad coping habits may form and inhibit value judgment, interpersonal communication and cooperation. These behaviors risk becoming a permanent part of a student’s personality matrix. This cannot help but be true given the fact that students at this age are yet to develop fully, a prefrontal cortex. This is an important fact to understand.

The prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning. Executive functions are a set of supervisory cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention. These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it. Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility, all of which could undermine judgment and decision making. Fairly recently, child psychologists have been given a new directive, which is that the age range they work with is increasing from 0–18 to 0–25. In a Washington Post article by Arthur Allen, published on September 1, 2014, he quotes Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor addressing the late adolescent brain development, “When people are around 15 or 16 years old, many brain cells in the cortex die off while others are created, and new connections form among them. A lot of the basic cognitive abilities — advanced reasoning, abstract thinking, self-consciousness — rapidly expand during this period. The connections within the brain don’t fully branch out until age 22 or so. The kinds of capabilities that connectivity contributes to — emotion regulation and impulse control — probably plateau in the early to mid-20s.”

Exposing freshman and sophomore undergraduate students to the rigors of a training program without first teaching them the skills of listening, working cooperatively (giving to the ensemble,) managing insecurity, enhancing self-consciousness, and how to express themselves physically (not as a character but as themselves) might be asking too much. Students should be provided with preparation for the actual training of any specific performance technique. Not only would this approach benefit a student’s overall maturity and ensure that bad habits are not formed, but it would also greatly benefit the individual programs and the instructors by providing the gift of an early insight regarding how a student is learning. It would present an opportunity to gauge the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development), otherwise known as the zone of proximal development. Obtaining this knowledge and foresight would only increase teacher performance as it would be like having a road map to the cognitive traps and potential of any particular student.

A good example of what I am arguing for can be seen in the preparatory process going on in most colleges and universities today. In a report by The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board entitled “Beyond the Rhetoric Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy” they state that, “every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies.” That said, how many high school theatre programs actively teach any of the Five Vitals as part of an active curriculum? Who is the responsible party to teach basic life skills?

In 2011, The McGraw-Hill Research Foundation released a Policy Paper entitled, “Engendering College Student Success: Improving the First Year and Beyond”Robert S. Feldman and Mattitiyahu S. Zimbler of University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They argue for a more robust approach to First Year Experience (FYE) programs and courses. “Benefits of FYE courses are not limited to the classroom. Survey data show that students who enroll in FYE courses acquire skills that help them thrive in many aspects of college life. For instance, a large percentage of the surveyed institutions report that students who take FYE courses connect better with their peers are more satisfied with their collegiate institutions and with their faculty, make better use of campus services, and participate more often in campus activities. These findings show how successful FYE courses are in achieving objectives that relate to the non-academic challenges of college life. Overall, the research demonstrates that FYE courses can play a significant role in helping undergraduates succeed in college. Most obviously, they help students during one of the most difficult periods of college—the first year. But successful FYE programs have been found to improve a student’s college experience all the way to graduation. FYE courses help individual students adjust academically, socially, and personally to the challenges of college life. Just as importantly, they help build cohesion among first-year students by bringing them together with the faculty in a shared experience with their first-year peers.

Providing students with a set of cogitative tools that allow for a deeper, more meaningful learning experience puts them at an advantage beyond college because they have had four years to practice and refine good critical thinking habits. Although incoming freshmen in theatre programs are enrolled in campus-wide FYE courses, I would argue that theatre departments and programs need to create their own discipline-specific FYE programs and apply them to their first-year theatre students. Here are the reasons why: theatre students must deeply mine their very own intellectual and emotional depths, they must come to terms with their body image and just what their bodies can do, and they must learn to work in an ensemble, which means your commitment to your fellow performers is not based on being a ‘best friend’ but on being a kind and courteous professional. The professors and instructors in the department are fully aware of the unique aspects of actor training. Therefore, it only makes sense that they teach an FYE type of program. As stated previously, this would benefit the instructors, providing them with insight on how their students learn. For the students, they would have a more energized and focused learning processes.

During my first year as Director of Theatre at a small liberal arts university, I found it necessary to experiment with my teaching strategies. I did this initially because the students’ knowledge of and experience with theatre differed widely. Many students came from small towns that had little or no organized high school theatre. Others came from larger communities whose high school programs had a heavy production schedule but no serious classroom work. I felt like a lone cowboy trying to corral wild horses. Most of the students were innately talented, but the totality of that talent was blocked by fear, misplaced ego, feelings of entitlement, and a lack of understanding of the importance of giving all to the ensemble. By the end of the first year, I was exhausted and frustrated. I knew I had to directly address  the obstacles that thwarted a deep and meaningful education.

That summer, at a teaching conference, I attended a workshop on multimodal teaching strategies and course design. From that workshop, an idea emerged: what if I were to take a series of acting exercises from varied pedagogies and then use them, not to teach acting per say but instead to speak to the Five Vitals. For example, if one is going to focus on learning to listen deeply to each other, not just with the ears, but with the whole body. You could have a kinesthetic modality like The Twelve/Six/Four exercise from Viewpoints. Approaching the same topic using different modalities, like the Meisner Repetition exercise or Del Close’s improvisation exercise, “Fifty.” Add a modality like the partnering exercises developed by Steve Paxton. Rubrics could be written along the lines of how the student engages in the exercise, and how the student synthesizes the learning that is promoted in each exercise. Assessments would be based on feedback from students, and discussion of principles and importance. But most importantly, this multimodal based approach would impact all learners.

Developmental physiologist Howard Earl Gardner in his classic work, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences” posits the notion that people have different strengths and intelligences.

“… that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth.” (Gardner 1993: xxiii)

A majority of the faculty in higher education, I believe, understand that the landscape of learners in any classroom is uneven. Not every student gets the same instruction because they absorb information based on their own types and levels of intelligences. Gardner stresses that it is the interaction between the different intelligences that is fundamental to the workings of the mind. Therefore, I knew it was important to find various delivery methods for the same piece of information or idea. Additionally, working with multiple modalities allowed me the space to address how the students were processing information. Jean Piaget, who was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development, considered that we inherit a specific method of functioning, a manner of thinking. It is not that we inherit what we think, but how we think. It is as if we are born with a basic pattern of intellectual structure, which allows us to adapt to our environment. We adapt to the environment by modifying ourselves, and this is done by two mechanisms: assimilation and accommodation.

Teaching with a multimodal strategy and working on the Five Vitals allowed the students to adapt, absorb, and react to the actual information and not on the way it was being dispensed. Students did not compete with each other, but instead worked with each other at becoming proficient at problem solving. What became prevalent in the classroom was the idea being taught. It was the message, not the messenger.

As I applied this multimodal strategy, cooperative learning in the classroom soared. Students were beginning to find the confidence in themselves that they thought they never had. They were discovering the humanity within themselves and how to project it onto others. An example of this happened in one class session while we were working on how to listen with the body—how to live in an empathetic mode. I had two students, who I will refer to as Student A and Student B, sitting back-to-back on the ground, arms locked around each other. The task was that, working together, both would rise to a standing position without unlocking their arms or falling over. They could take as much time as they needed. For a bit of background, when I started working with student A, she was very unfocused, aloof, and not connected with anyone in the class. Student B, on the other hand, was an over-aggressive overachiever who was always looking at every exercise as a competition, as opposed to a learning moment. During the exercise (as with all exercises), the rest of the class was sitting in a circle around student A and student B, observing them. The exercise began, and for fifteen minutes it seemed as if students A and B were in a Sisyphean struggle. Two independent-minded students were unable to read or cooperate and were working against each other. The room was hot, and they were sweating, clearly frustrated and barking orders at each other, both trying to solve this exercise independently as if it were a nuisance. I stepped in and asked them to stop and to try again, and this time without talking and just intuiting the other person. Learn about them by listening with your whole body. After a long moment, they both, without prompting, closed their eyes and remained still for quite some time. Gradually you could see them, back-to-back, almost fold into each other. They started to breathe in unison. Then slowly and seemingly without any struggle, they rose up to a standing position. Immediately, they both burst into tears and hugged each other. The students who were sitting in a circle, watching them, spontaneously stood up and went to hug the two students. In the discussion that followed, all the observing students commented on how they could see Students A and B slowly peel back the protective layers that guarded their individual personalities and gave into each other. Students A and B both said they cried not because they completed the exercise, but because of the intense joy they felt inside when they opened up to each other and really listened. It was like receiving a wonderful gift. To this day, students A and B, both of whom now lead happy and successful lives, talk about what a revelatory moment that was and how much they learned in that class.

Over one academic year (two semesters), the class, which was a mixture of freshman and sophomores, met twice a week, each session being 90 minutes long. I also added several pieces to complement classroom instruction. Rehearsals of a production became an extension of the classroom. I planned every rehearsal meticulously—meaning, I had an exact game plan of what we should accomplish in the rehearsal, and the exact time we have to do it in. This meant that everyone from the stage manager to the performer, everyone had a stake in making certain that the rehearsal was highly productive. Because of the exactitude of the schedule, we could assess progress and pinpoint any issues that may arise, much like a project manager. I added a group warm up to the top of the rehearsal, and a group cool down after the rehearsal wherein we summed up what we did or did not accomplish, and if needed, what we could do as a group to help one another during rehearsals. I also projected what I call soft power to help sharpen discipline. Everyone who teaches agrees that it is important to create a safe learning environment wherein students can take risks and make mistakes without the fear of admonishment. When it came to regulating behaviors in the classroom and a production setting, the same idea was applied. As with all college syllabi, I published what was expected in class. I also outlined the circumstances if expectations were not met. I had the students sign this section of the syllabi—this was our contract. I repeated the same idea for rehearsals. The expectations were centered solely on personal responsibility, decorum, and discipline. If expectations were not met, circumstances were summarily dealt with devoid of any high emotions. It never was personal; it was merely correcting agreed-upon behaviors. In essence, I was instituting a variation of Faye and Cline’s “Love and Logic.” The final piece was that theatre students had to perform volunteer service on behalf of the theatre department. This not only benefitted the department regarding its outreach to the community, but it also placed the students outside the curtain call and ovation, and into a conscious act of giving without expectations.

By the end of that academic year, I saw real progress in the maturity levels and the work ethic of the students. Because the students were exercising positivity and preparedness, the department was able then to scaffold off the preparatory instructional efforts, towards more complex and challenging material both in the classroom and on stage. Earlier, I said that there was a significant uptick in cooperative learning, and this seemed to be the greatest outcome of the preparatory class. Students began to feel a great responsibility toward each other and the department. Not only did they help each other in class but in rehearsals and productions as well. A new feeling of professionalism emerged within the department, which was promoted by the students. I used to say that, “For me, as a professor, to impact your lives you must want to learn. You must always meet me half way. I cannot bring the horse to the well as it were; you must want to be here.” They did, and together we worked to graduate well-prepared students. It was a gestalt.

Personal experience and practical application have demonstrated that successful engagement with the Five Vitals at the beginning of a college career does make a difference. Students are better off when they know how to manage themselves within the context of their own disciplines. An important illustration of what I am advocating for can be found on the bookshelves in libraries and bookstores all across this country. Business books that focus on the urgent need to develop adroit critical thinking skills and a strong emotional intelligence argue that a strong, highly productive worker is one who can manage life and business stress.

Businesses throughout this country try to create work environments that build self-esteem and promote collaboration, thus increasing creativity and productivity.

sychologists in article after article tout the need for life balance and personal empowerment. This is what every theatre program and department in this country should be doing. To understand that there is a solemn obligation not just to mentor a fine performer, but to guide a student toward empowerment and enlightenment. Around the world, businesses are begging universities to provide them with well-rounded students. A recent new employer survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities strongly suggests that employers want recent college graduates to be broadly educated. The surveyors interviewed 318 employers with at least 25 employees, wherein, at least, a quarter of the new hires hold either an associate or a bachelors degree. Here are some key findings:

·      93 percent of employers said that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate's undergraduate degree.


·      95 percent say they prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.


·      80 percent of employers agree that regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in liberal arts and sciences.


·      95 percent of those surveyed say that it is important that new hires demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.

hese are also the exact skills required for any sustainable growth to occur in the theatre industry in this country. We need to teach forward and imbue students with the notion that they have a responsibility to themselves, and to the growth of the art form. The process toward that growth begins with a strong mind, open heart, and a healthy body. It is time to include in the core competencies of all theatre programs and departments, the ability to think critically and have strong emotional intelligence.