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.

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?…

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.

chucky (2)chucky

I hope you don’t change

I was 29 years old when I acquired my first management job. Management wasn’t something I ever thought I aspired to. I was a teacher. But when the position came up I was in the mood for a new challenge, and so I applied. I was the youngest to take on a management role at the school where I had taught for several years.

For the most part my colleagues were supportive — even though many were older and had more years in the classroom, and some had actually taught me when I was a student at the school twelve years earlier.

There was one notable exception.

“Dee” was one of my fellow teachers, hired around the same time I was, but about ten years older. Shortly after my appointment to the management role was announced, she sat across from me over lunch one day. She congratulated my on my new job, and then looked me in the eye, her face a picture of earnest concern, and said, “I hope you don’t change.”

I was baffled. I spluttered that I wouldn’t have sought out the opportunity if I didn’t want to learn new things, and wasn’t learning all about change?

Years later, after several different management positions, I am still unpacking Dee’s comment– still trying to grasp the assumptions underlying her words.

Assumption #1: Change is bad.

I need to stress that Dee was not only a teacher, she was also a counsellor. I have never understood how one could engage in either teaching or counselling without believing that people can change, and that change can be positive. But clearly by saying “I hope you don’t change” she was conveying her belief that not only was I at risk of changing as a result of this new job, I should be doing everything in my power to resist such a horrible fate.

Assumption #2: Change can be avoided.

“I hope you don’t change” implies that it would be possible to take on a new role and learn new skills without changing. The question I still wish I had thought to ask her is, “Have you gone through your entire career without changing in any way? Do you teach exactly the same way today that you did the day you first set foot in a classroom?”

Assumption #3: Different work will make me a different person.

I can entertain the possibility that she actually meant the statement as a compliment. Perhaps she felt that as colleagues we shared a deep connection that we would no longer share now that I was Management. Not that we had ever been best buddies.  And I would still be doing some teaching, so it’s not like we wouldn’t still have things in common. But somehow her comment implied that simply stepping into the management role was going to transform me to the core of my very being.

To be honest, I was hoping it would. I have always been a person who learns by doing. I had been teaching the same course for several years, and was starting to feel a bit like I was caught in an endless feedback loop of grade eleven English. I was craving the opportunity to take on a new challenge, and learn all the new things that I imagined that new challenge would bring. But Dee clearly had a darker view of what I was about to learn.

Assumption #4: Being a manager will make me a worse person.

Dee’s tone made it clear that by “change” she did not mean “improve.” Saying “I hope you don’t change” indicated that she was unable to entertain the possibility that taking on a management role might change me for the better. That it might mature me — teach me new relationship skills — make me wiser. I really don’t think she could imagine anything of value that I might learn from my new job.

Assumption #5: All managers are bad people.

In the end it comes down to this, doesn’t it? Saying “I hope you don’t change” conveyed her surprise that I chose to take on the management role in the first place. Something about Dee’s mental picture of who I was as a person was incongruent with her mental picture of who managers were as people. All managers. My choice to take on the new role was the moral equivalent of going over to the dark side.

Perhaps if it WAS the dark side, management would be a lot more straightforward...
Perhaps if it really WAS the dark side, management would be a lot more straightforward…

I’ve spent more than 20 years here on the “dark side,” and I can honestly report that it’s been anything by dark. In truth, it’s been very enlightening. It hasn’t been easy, but then the kind of real learning that brings about deep personal change never is.

Miss Miller draws a tree

I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit.  The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported  the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.

Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.

But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.

I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.

A small forest of lollipop trees
A small forest of lollipop trees

“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.

“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing.  “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”

And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.

“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.

It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.

My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree
My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree

But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.

The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.