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.

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