Monthly Archives: April 2013

When you forget that there are no grades

In the physical theater class I just finished taking, I had two good days out of the eight sessions. The other days weren’t bad or un-fun; they were full of hard work and mixed feedback from teachers, like workshops are supposed to be. But I want to explore what made those two good days so good.

The first good day was when I had a bad cold. I’d been taking cold medicine that suppressed the cough and possibly my higher cognitive functions. My body wanted to stay in bed instead of catching an early train to Wicker Park. I went anyway — I was there to absorb whatever I could, even if my brain was too fuzzy to understand.

The second good day, our teacher Marc had us run a relay race, and I was supposed to be a wheelbarrow for the fourth lap.

I was not a good wheelbarrow. Somehow, probably because my abs aren’t strong enough, I ended up sprawled on the ground, winded, unable to talk or move due to a crazy-sharp pain in my back. Five minutes later, I was back to normal, except that I thought — maybe it would be ok if I didn’t nail every Lecoq movement. Maybe it’d even be ok to look like this guy:

Our teachers looked for two main things when they watched us go through these movements: technical precision and presence. I was getting so wrapped up in mastering the technical movements that I was missing the bigger picture of being present with the audience.

Paola theorized that this overthinking — in improv parlance, “getting stuck in my head” — is because I was a good student for 17 years of school. And now I teach Latin.* My default is often to be concerned that I’m getting everything right.

She said something like, “Alyssa, sometimes you try to understand before you do. You are trying to get an A, and you forget I am not giving grades. This is not good. You stop and say you are confused? Do not tell me you are confused! Confused sounds like you should know already and you feel bad because you don’t. Instead, say you don’t know, and do something anyway. There is nothing wrong with not knowing as long as you do something. Understanding is for later. ”

The wheelbarrow day and the cold medicine** day, I had no energy to judge myself. I’d given myself permission not to understand, not to master everything, not to get an A. I was there; that was all. I was shocked when I got better feedback on my work those days than at any other time during the session. Apparently, just being there was better than whatever I was doing before.


*What’s more, I teach introductory Latin, where the students don’t yet have enough mastery to exercise creativity in their translations. An answer is right or wrong, and there is nothing subjective. Or subjunctive, either, because they haven’t learned the subjunctive mood yet.

**This is probably why some performers drink before shows. Buzzed people tend not to be too critical of themselves, which is good. However, they also lack self-awareness and timing, which is bad. Your teammates need you open AND sharp.

Trust Falls and Red Noses

I sat in on one of Paola Coletto’s Red Nose workshops a few weeks ago, just to watch. The performers were practicing trust falls.

I’ve led versions of trust fall games in the interest of developing trustworthiness in the catchers. But one thing I’d never thought to look for in a trust fall was the facial expression on the faller.

In the Red Nose class, Paola had the performers pair up and take turns falling backward into one another’s arms. She pointed out when a faller clenched up her jaw, or forgot to breathe, or shut her eyes. Then the player unclenched her jaw, or breathed, or opened her eyes, and tried again to fall without letting that falling feeling hijack her whole face.

Then, Paola asked the players to take turns standing in neutral while the class cheered. If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s a confusing emotional roller coaster to be on stage without having anything to say or do.

If you haven’t done it, think of that moment between the time you step on stage and the time you get a suggestion from the audience. You don’t have a character yet, you don’t have anything you’re supposed to say or do, and your body is trying to deal with the fact that people are looking at you.

A priest recently told me that the scariest part of preaching was the time between the end of the Gospel reading and the beginning of the sermon — that is, the time it takes to walk ten feet from the side of the stage to the center of it and say, “Please be seated.” It’s only a few seconds, but it’s when the adrenaline hits, and there’s nothing to do but be looked at.

Think of spreading those three or four seconds out to a full minute, and that’s how it feels to stand in neutral wearing a red nose. It feels like falling.

Which is why it makes total sense that a player’s “I’m falling” face is usually the same as her “I just walked on stage what on earth am I supposed to do?” face. Clenched jaws, held breath, and closed eyes are coping mechanisms a player uses to shove down feelings she doesn’t want, to close off and protect herself from the audience. At least, they’re mine. And I don’t have any idea I’m doing them unless I make a conscious effort to pay attention.

It’s not as simple as relaxing your jaw. Because when you relax you jaw, you find that you’re holding your breath. And when you take a deep breath, you notice the tension has all moved to your hands, which are now balled into little fists. You release your fists, but now your hands are shaking and your fingers are numb. The tension doesn’t really go away, it just moves from one place in your body to another. By the end of one minute of this, some players are laughing uncontrollably; others cry; others have to sit down so they don’t pass out.

And then, the next class, you do it again, but you notice all of these things yourself instead of having someone else call them out for you. Once you feel them for yourself, you can play with those feelings.

So that’s the benefit for the faller: to learn to recognize that feeling so that you can manage it on stage without throwing up a wall between yourself and the audience. Or just without throwing up.