A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
When I was a child growing up, I told everyone I wanted to be an “actress-writer.” No one knew what I meant. My grandfather said, “Why don’t you do something you can make some money at?” My parents…and their friends…and just about every other adult said, “Why don’t you teach?”
I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to act and I wanted to write. Novels, that is. I loved to read. And I was good at it. I read the Little House books in the second grade and Oliver Twist when I was in the fourth. But I decided to pursue acting first. I could always teach when I got old if I needed to, I thought. Then I would also have time to write.
Ha. Time to write…and teach? Even J.K. Rowlings says she could never have done that.
When I first started my teaching life, it was as an MFA graduate acting student for a public speaking class I had never taken, let alone taught. The poor professor in charge was under duress from a publication deadline and never came to observe. He assigned me the class textbook as he was writing it, handing it out chapter by chapter, week by week. I had no idea what he was talking about. In desperation, I sought out the mentorship of another professor and spent hours observing his classes, designing my own curriculum, and reading another speech book. I got my class on track by mid-semester.
In the working life of a theatre professional, you never really know how hard other people are working unless you try out their jobs. The actor thinks the director just sits around and tells them what to do. The director gets frustrated when the actor hits an emotional wall. The scenic designer with all his incredible artistry barely gets noticed at all. And everyone knows a teacher only works until 3:00 p.m. and then gets to go home. It isn’t true. But how do we find out what it is like for these people? How do we walk in their shoes?
By walking in their shoes.
It’s a good idea to try out both sides of the footlights—or the camera lights. If you’re a director, audition for something. If you’re an actor, direct a one act. And everyone should pound a few nails into a set from time to time. You will develop compassion. People who know you have it will hire you over and over again. One of my fondest memories as a teacher (It may not be his) is when one of the acting students I mentored in his first directing project came to me in frustration and asked, “How do I get these actors to show up to rehearsal…and on time? “ I laughed and said, “Welcome to my world.” But as a teacher, I know it isn’t easy to be a student either. It’s a different head space. I’ve had some nice reminders lately because I’ve taken a few classes myself this year. It’s good timing, since I’m just about to start teaching a college acting class again. I know the students will be fearful and hopeful. They will bounce around in their confidence. Some will work hard and some will be lazy and there will be reasons for all of it. I will be the firm yet compassionate mentor. And I know how.
I’ve been on both sides of the lights.
 The prolific author of the Harry Potter series.