How majoring in Theatre prepared me for everything else

I started writing a comment for my friend Matt over at Must Be This Tall to Ride, but the comment took on a life of its own.

I always chuckle a little when people talk about “career planning.” Aside from a last-minute decision to get a degree in something vaguely employment-worthy, I’m not sure there has been anything about my career that was planned. I went into Education entirely as an afterthought. At 18, my intention was to major in theatre, but on my way to register I decided to get an Education degree so I would have teaching to “fall back on.” It turned out that not only do I like teaching, I’m actually pretty good at it. In the thirty years since graduating from the Faculty of Education, I have taught Theatre, English, Physical Geography, Music, Art, Study Skills, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Policy Development, Adult Learning Theory, Adult Education History, Consulting Skills, and Government Values and Ethics– to students who ranged from grade 2 to university. Along the way I also managed to wander into an extensive management career.

I did do a little theatre along the way, but– aside from a gig as a high school theatre teacher and director of a handful of school theatrical productions– nothing anyone ever paid me for. But I have never felt like it was something I left behind. In fact, in my thirty year “off-stage” career journey, I have used the things I learned in my theatre studies on a daily basis.

  1. I learned how to take direction. Taking direction well is harder, and more complicated, that just “doing what you’re told.” Taking direction as an actor means listening to what is being asked of you, trying it as many times as necessary until you achieve the desired result, and then internalizing it so that you keep doing the desired thing without the director having to check up on you constantly. Taking direction well as an employee is essentially the same process.
  2. I learned how to give direction. Directing actors in a play is all about bringing out the best in each individual and guiding a diverse group to work together effectively.  It’s about motivating people to act in a certain way to get certain results. Sounds  a lot like teaching doesn’t it? And management.
  3. I learned how to perform. In order to teach you have to be able to hold the attention of a classroom full of students. It’s really difficult to do that if you just stand in one spot and talk. A good teacher needs to make effective use of space and movement. As a manager, I also discovered that being comfortable in front of an audience was a big help in staff meetings, stakeholder consultations, and all manner of presentations.
  4. I learned how to improvise.  Good improv is not a complete free-for-all. There are rules and structures underlying the most spontaneous-looking improvisation. The better you understand those rules and structures, the more effectively you can go with the moment. Teaching and management are both highly improvisational in nature. I can’t remember the last time my day directly correlated with what was written in my calendar. The art of improvisation taught me that there are always an infinite number of potential paths from A to B, and it’s OK to take a different path than the one I had planned.
  5. I learned how to observe and respond to other people’s behaviour. Theatre is all about human behaviour and the emotions that drive that behaviour. Taking on a theatrical role is all about stepping inside the psyche of a person who is not you. As such, acting lessons are in large part lessons in empathy. It’s not a big leap from imagining what it would mean to be Lady Macbeth to imagining what it would be like to be that rebellious student in the third row. Or that employee who is struggling.
  6. I learned to be part of a team. Performing in a play meaning paying attention to the other members of the cast, responding to what they are doing, and giving back to them what they need. It also means being in a similar give and take relationship with your audience. Even when you are playing a tiny role, you need to show up for all your cues on time or everyone else on the team is impacted.
  7. I learned that the show must go on. The tickets have been sold. The audience is waiting. There are no “extensions” in theatre. You’ve made a commitment to being ready at a particular date and time, and you will therefore be ready. Even if you aren’t ready. I learned that “good enough” is often good enough, and that if you wait until you feel ready, or the circumstances are perfect, you will never achieve anything. As a teacher, my best lessons were almost always the ones that I was still fine tuning as I walked into the classroom. As a manager, I don’t get to wait until I feel fully prepared to deal with an issue if the issue is staring me in the face and interfering with everyone else’s productivity. It really does work to “fake it ’til you make it.”
  8. I learned that the audience isn’t following the script. While this lesson was certainly reinforced in my theatre training, I have to admit that I learned it first from my piano teacher. “The audience doesn’t have the music in front of them. They will only know you’ve made a mistake if you telegraph it to them through your reaction. If you hit a wrong note don’t make a face. Just keep playing.” When it comes to our failings, we are typically far harder on ourselves than anyone we imagine to be judging us.
  9. I learned that the right costume helps you get in character. There’s an adage in the business world that you should dress for the job you are striving for, not for the one you have. The role that costuming plays in the theatre taught me that, whether you like it or not, appearance can make a big difference to how people perceive you. When I first started teaching high school I was only 25. I felt like I wasn’t a lot older than my students, but I wanted them to see me as more mature, so I invested in suit jackets and introduced myself as “Mrs.” When I have a particularly challenging meeting or presentation at work, I pay attention to what I wear, not because of how I think other people expect me to look, but because of the way certain clothes make me feel stronger and more confident.
  10. I learned the value of a good stage crew. The best advice I was given when I started my teaching career was that, in any school I ever taught in, there were two people with whom I needed to establish a good relationship immediately: the secretary and the custodian. As an actor you learn that you are completely dependent on the work that is being done by the “backstage” crew, and it behooves you to show those people your gratitude and respect. That stage manager whose job it is to make sure your prop is in precisely the right spot when you reach for it is a lot like that administrative assistant who hands you the right file seconds before you knew you needed it. As an actor, or a teacher, or a manager, you typically have a lot of people backstage working hard at making you look good. Appreciate them.

In theatre, you typically don’t do one thing for very long. You learn a role, perform it for a while, and then move on to another role. I’ve carried that craving for variety into my non-theatrical career. I gravitate to the type of work where each day can be expected to bring something new. Admittedly there are times when I wish I knew my lines a little better and my entrances and exits were a little smoother, but so far it’s been a good run. There has even been the odd moment for which I could have sold tickets.

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Why I teach

school booksThat. Right there. That little furrow on your brow. The way you scrunch up your eyes and let your mouth fall open because you are thinking so hard– trying to make sense of something you’ve just read, or I’ve just said. That flicker on your face that mirrors the firing of your synapses as a new insight gropes its way through the tangled web of memory to find a familiar toe-hold. To take root. To make your mind its home.

And that, too. That particular blend of delight and anxiety in your eyes as you wave your hand frantically in the air, desperate for me to call on you because this time you know you’ve got it, but you still need me to hear you say it so I can reassure you that you were right to be so sure.

The energetic buzz that fills the room as you and your classmates dive head-first into the group task.  Every pause. Every scratchy notebook scribble and rattle of laptop keys. Every burst of laughter.

Even every burst of anger. No, that’s not quite right. I should say especially every burst of anger. I teach for that moment because I know that anger means you are poised to learn something important. I have to stand back and wait while your learning rips off the secure Band-Aid of a long-held assumption, and uncovers a new insight that is raw and fragile and scary.

That point in your assignment where you write that one, perfect sentence. The one that tells me that you have passed the point of telling me what you think I want to hear, and all you care about now is making it your own.

That question you ask. The one that I can’t answer. The one that sends the whole class tumbling and racing and chasing after a new truth. The one that causes me to set aside my carefully crafted lesson plan because now we are really learning. All of us.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Daily Prompt: …If you’re in your dream job, tell us all about it — what is it that you love? What fulfills you?…

The Olympics ate my Brain

I’m not what you would call a sports fan.

Back in my days as a theatre teacher, I once scheduled a matinee performance of the school drama production on Grey Cup day, because I was completely oblivious to the Canadian Football League schedule.

I am equally oblivious to the National Hockey League schedule, such that I am apt to get caught up in ridiculous traffic jams or overcrowded restaurants, just because I am unaware that it is a game day.

I don’t understand why the Golf Channel even exists.

I did go to a professional football game once. I fell asleep.

So I don’t fully understand this thing that happens to me when the Olympics start.

Canada's Justine Dufour-Lapointe celebrates after taking the gold medal in the women's moguls final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics
Canada’s Justine Dufour-Lapointe celebrates after taking the gold medal in the women’s moguls final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics

Suddenly I care.

Suddenly I am glued to the TV, rooting for my team.

I haven’t forgotten all the reasons these Olympics are problematic–the host country’s record for human rights abuse– the ridiculous amount of money that gets spent that might have gone to making the lives of the local citizens better–the politics– the controversy.

But it is easy to set all that aside for the moment when the camera zooms in on the face of a nineteen year old from Quebec who has just won gold. Against the reigning champion of her sport. With her sister standing next to her on the silver side of the podium. Under those circumstances, I would be screaming ecstatically too.

From where I sit, the Olympics are different than other spectator sports. They engage me. I want to know what the score is, and who is winning.

I am interested in the athletes. I want to know their stories. I am mesmerized by the interviews that offer little glimpses into the journey that has taken these young people halfway around the world to measure their strength and skill against the best of the best.

I am interested in the effort. The sweat. The sacrifice. The camera panning the crowd and zeroing in on the competitor’s family looking down with tense anticipation.

Olympic competition feels real to me in a way that professional sporting events never do. So do the competitors. When I look at Olympic athletes I see real people who have worked hard to reach an incredible goal. When I look at professional sports, I just see highly paid entertainers.

Maybe I just fall victim to the hype. But that wasn’t hype on Justine’s face yesterday.

That was real.

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Snow Day

I live in a place that has been nicknamed Winterpeg, Manisnowba. I was born here. I learned to drive here, ice ruts and all. I have five decades of “remember the blizzard of [insert year]” memories. I think it feels “not so bad out” when the wind chill is -20° Celsius. But the scariest snow storm I ever travelled through was on a highway in the Maritimes.

We were on our way from the university town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia back to Moncton, New Brunswick to catch a flight home. The plan was to drive first to Sackville, New Brunswick to visit friends (a trip of about 2 1/2 hours), spend a night at the friends’ home, and then drive the half-hour on to Moncton the next day to catch an early afternoon flight. It should have been a leisurely trip.

The snow started falling a few hours before we left Antigonish. I had learned from my previous visit to Antigonish a few years earlier that, unlike Manitoba snow that keeps accumulating month after month until we can barely see over the snowbanks, Nova Scotia Snow can come and go completely many times over the course of a few winter weeks. And when it comes, it’s a different consistency than Manitoba snow. It’s wetter.

This storm was less like falling snowflakes, and more like raining slush. The result was a highway surface with the properties of a giant slip-and slide coated in cooking oil. After about 5 minutes of white-knuckle driving on this traction-free surface, I chickened out completely and turned the wheel over to my partner. He didn’t last much longer. By the time we had reached the New Glasgow exit we had both decided that this was not a good day to die, and so we pulled off the highway and checked into the first hotel we slid towards.

We called the Sackville friends to explain our plight, and arranged that we would stop there for a quick lunch before driving on to the Moncton airport. We entertained ourselves Christmas shopping at the mall across the street from the hotel, ordered a pizza, and went to bed praying that the storm would let up enough in the night so that we would be able to make our flight the next day.

Morning came and a call to the airline confirmed that our flight was still expected to leave on schedule, so we bundled our luggage back into the rental car and set out down the road.

The highway no longer felt greasy, but the snow was still coming down, so our progress was slow. While my partner drove I distracted myself by calling the airline at 30 minute intervals. Incredibly, they were still holding firm to our departure time. Finally it dawned on me that the chipper young woman who kept reassuring my that our flight was definitely on schedule was NOT looking out the window of her office tower at the swirling white. It probably wasn’t snowing at all in whatever city was home to her sunny call centre!

As we approached the outskirts of Sackville, I calculated that at the rate we were travelling we could not risk stopping for lunch. I phoned my friends and sadly conveyed our regrets. The nearer we got to Moncton, the deeper and heavier the snow became. We reached the first airport exit and discovered that the snow was so drifted in that the exit was completely impassable. We kept on chugging through the blowing snow until we finally reached a second, plowed (hooray!) airport exit.

Cognizant of the fact that we were cutting our check-in time mighty close, we sprinted from the rental car drop-off to the airline counter, where we were once again assured that the flight would be leaving on schedule. While I had been willing to concede this folly to the far-away call centre lady, such a stance seemed less credible coming from the ground crew.

“Have you looked out the window?” (I confess to being prone to sarcasm in moments of stress.)

But the computer (which was clearly taking its direction from someone who had NOT just spent half a day driving through a blizzard) said we were leaving on time, and so the staff faithfully checked our bags and issued us boarding passes.

Having driven past our lunch, we decided we had just enough time before boarding to get something to eat, so I secured a table at the airport food court while my partner went off to procure a couple of burgers. While I waited, I watched another prospective passenger in heated argument with an airline clerk who was trying to explain that he could not bring his enormous box of live lobsters on the plane because it was leaking profusely. I also watched Winnipeg musician Steve Bell and his tour manager check in, along with 32 big plastic storage bins full of gear.

I had only taken two bites of my hamburger when the voice on the intercom asked that all the passengers on our flight report back to the airline counter.

“So…,” said the windblown young man in the airline-issue parka, “So here’s the thing. We tried moving the plane into place for loading, and, well, it seems that it’s really slippery out there. Like, the plane was sliding around like crazy! So, yeah… we’re going to have to cancel the flight.”

And one by one they passed us back our bags, including all 32 of Steve Bell’s storage bins, as we negotiated new flight times and hunted up hotels in Moncton and cabs willing to brave the roads to take us there.

It took every ounce of self control I had left to resist the urge to phone the lady at the call centre to tell her our flight had been cancelled.

Enter, Chucky

Not all middle school classes are created equal. Teaching grade eight requires nerves of steel. Teaching grade eight Art requires the reflexes of a prima ballerina and the fortitude of a linebacker. And teaching mandatory grade eight Art to the big guys at the back table who are in grade eight for the third time takes a special kind of crazy.

And then throw in a chicken.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was my first teaching job, and I was far from home— a city kid who found herself in a small town school. In a small town where my colleague, having lived and worked there for thirteen years, was still considered the “new guy.” So it was pretty much a given that I was going to be subjected to some sort of initiation ritual.

For that reason, I wasn’t really surprised when I came back from lunch one day to find a small “house,” cleverly constructed out of a cardboard box, sitting on the floor next to the table at the front of my art room. The little house had a cut-out “doorway” over which was mounted a construction paper sign sporting the word “Chucky.”  Sitting on the table was a construction paper booklet with pages cut out in the shape of a chicken–its craftsmanship clear evidence that the kindergarten teacher was in on the prank. The booklet was an instruction manual, with information about how to care for “Chucky.” On the chalk board at the front of the room, an anonymous hand had printed “Hi! I’m Chuck! I want to stay please.”

My initial response was: “Oh isn’t this cute. They’ve even gone to the length of tying one end of a piece of string to the table leg and sticking the other end through the doorway into the box so that I will think there’s actually a chicken in there. How amusing.”

Did I mention I was a city kid?

I don’t know what finally prompted me to crouch down and look, but when I did peer into the darkness, I discovered to my amazement that Chucky was real.

I may be a city kid, but I know a chicken when I see one.
I may be a city kid, but I know a chicken when I see one.

Now, mandatory grade eight Art is a classroom management challenge at the best of times. But mandatory grade eight Art right after lunch and with a live chicken strutting its stuff around the front of the room is… well…interesting!

It was a long and somewhat surreal afternoon. Fortunately the Art room came with an ample supply of old newspapers, because Chucky was most definitely not house-trained. As the afternoon wore on, I began to feel a little anxious about what I was supposed to do with Chucky when the school day ended. I mean he was cute and all, but was I supposed to take him home?

My fears were allayed shortly after the final bell as, one by one, the perpetrators appeared in my doorway to ask how my afternoon had gone. Chucky went home with his rightful owner–a high school science teacher with a hobby farm just outside of town. I got to keep the house, the instruction manual, and a handful of feathers that I still have, pressed into the pages of a photo album.

And the warm feeling that comes of being well and truly welcomed by one’s peers.

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