Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Theater Class Yesterday

I have now, in my capacity as judge, observed five prize-nominated classes over the course of the last two weeks: Photography for Non-Majors (studio art), Drugs in U.S. Society (sociology), Cartography (geography), French composition, and an advanced acting class in the theater department, which I attended yesterday.

In the acting class, the students spent the hour in a movement exercise. Put into pairs, with the person who is also their partner in a scene they're working on from Hedda Gabler or Orpheus Descending, they had to walk around the room, at first in a seemingly random way, but later on with more and more precise instructions from the teacher, while keeping in character for their role and reacting to their partner's movement. It was fascinating. I kept writing notes. This instructor, Emily Harrison, was one of those teachers where every utterance from her lips was worth scribbling down on my pad of paper, and trying to apply to my own work as a writer and to my whole entire life.

Her first instruction: "This is not a thinking exercise, it's a doing exercise." That made me remember the advice cited by Rebecca Stead in her Newbery acceptance speech last year for When You Reach Me: "Don't think!" And it's actually how I've been writing my current novel, with much less thinking than in my previous books. I'm not thinking it, I'm just doing it.

In every scene in a play, Emily told her students, keep focusing on the question: "What does my character WANT?" Excellent writing advice, that.

And how is this for brilliant writing/life advice. As the students progressed in the exercise, which seemed at first to be going on too long, but then it seemed that the length of the exercise was precisely part of the point of it: "If you start thinking you are falling into a pattern, start doing the opposite. See what it feels like to make a different choice." Oh, Emily, I have fallen into so many problematic patterns! I need to make so many different choices!

Or: "Play with tempo. What is your character's internal tempo? Keep in mind that people in positions of power tend to have a slower tempo. The world waits for them." Hmm: my internal tempo is fast, fast, fast!

Or: "Don't be afraid of stillness. Stillness is beautiful at times."

And this wonderful closing line: "Human beings are notorious for automatically creating narrative. We are narrative-creating creatures."

Um. . . wow?

I love lines like that. I love classes like this one. And I love having a job where I get paid to attend them.