Both Sides of the Lights

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

Katie cheese cake at age 9 cropped

My cheesecake pose at age nine, Oregon Coast. Photo by Samuel T. Bennett

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[1] 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.

Kate Bianca Petruchio and the Widow

My commedia costume concept against Terry Rohse’ beautiful set. Kate taking Bianca and the Widow to task in my show The Taming of the Shrew, Salem, OR.

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.

15 f

Nick Roberts and Christina Ingalls’ lighting design for my production of Antigone, Ontario, OR.

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.


[1] The prolific author of the Harry Potter series.

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2 Responses to Both Sides of the Lights

  1. David Loftus says:

    Lovely. This reminds me of something a local “impresario,” Grant Turner of NW Classical Theater Company, said in an interview I conducted with him a little over six years ago (the late lamented review and local theater discussion site “Follow Spot” was not my blog; I just guested as an interviewer in this instance): “I’m of the mind frame that every actor living should run their own company, or at least produce their own production of something. I think it’s illuminating to see so many different facets of how a play gets put together. As a producer/actor/guy who does a little bit of everything, you develop an appreciation for what other people do.” He goes on to talk about how little stage managers and costumers are acknowledged, typically. To see the entire interview, go to:

  2. Cosma Davis says:

    This is great advice. It is so easy to get stuck inside your head and caught up in your own experiences. You will never really know what something is like unless you are brave enough to experience it for yourself. Plus, branching out usually helps you with your main area of focus–as you have found out by playing the roles of student, teacher, actor, director, and writer. This inspires me to get involved in different ways in the theatre department next term. Maybe I will volunteer to do some directing since I have only done acting so far. I am sure it will give me a good perspective to stand in another person’s shoes.

    P.S. Such a good Harper Lee quote!

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