If you were in Harambee Hall with the Department of Theatre Arts and Film at Kenyatta University (KU) yesterday afternoon during my two-hour acting class you would have heard me shout ‘This is why I live!’ I yelled it impulsively, honestly, and with great passion. A few of the students laughed. It was a pure moment. I meant it. If a teacher in a film yelled out ‘This is why I live’ it might sound false. But I now know how to play or direct such a moment with absolute truth.
During my first two weeks of teaching in January at KU I taught classes in Viewpoints training, an American actor training developed by my friend Anne Bogart and members of the SITI Co. The training is physical, improvisatory, and teaches actors a vocabulary to create in time and space as an ensemble. I have been teaching Viewpoints since 1997, for 17 years, and I will never tire of sharing the power of listening and responding experienced by actors going through Viewpoints exercises. It always ‘works’; Viewpoints training always produces profound results.
Until January in Nairobi. My Viewpoints training classes failed to ignite. It was a failure and I was a failure. The students lost interest. Connections were not made. The results were immature and lifeless. I saw zero light bulbs going off in the minds of students. They looked at their cell phones. They wandered away. They laughed at each other. They didn’t get it. It was too foreign. It had no relevance, and without experienced students in the room to model good use of the training, I floundered as I have never floundered. I couldn’t fix things with my words. I stopped the training, dispirited and upset.
I gave an exam last week in the course, and half of the students in the course wrote about the Viewpoints training classes as the most influential. They spoke of spatial relationship, of tempo, and of shape. They spoke of using repetition in other projects. They spoke of the power of using soft focus when on stage in an ensemble piece. Damn. They had learned!
My barometer of assessment had clearly failed in the culture of newness I was first experiencing in January.
I decided to offer one more Viewpoints training class. I wanted to offer two last exercises, my enthusiasm for the material so great that I didn’t want to finish this experience without making possibilities clear to those who were interested.
Yesterday we made it to an exercise called ‘Lanes’, and we did our first ‘Open Sessions’. Et voila! BOOM! There it was!
However, the first three quarters of class was just as rough as in January. They still laughed at each other. I couldn’t get them to stand and watch each other. Some wandered away, and cell phone use was constant. Getting 9 people to volunteer to work was an exercise in futility. I felt the same resistance as in January, and I was frustrated again.
And then BOOM! In the last 15 minutes of class, they sat quietly on the floor at one end of the room, and the magic began to happen on stage. Lanes opened new possibilities. I joined a group and did the lanes exercise with my students. We ended with ‘open sessions’, open improvisations, and they were grounded, connected, present, surprising, and open. There was listening and receiving in the moment with Cirque du Soleil providing the powerful soundtrack. No one was talking or laughing or looking at their phones. I heard the audience gasping and clicking/tsking (Kenyans make this cool ‘tsk-tsk’ sound when they approve of something) and I heard myself yell ‘THIS IS WHY I LIVE’. Whew.
I felt like Sisyphus who had just rolled the boulder to the top of the hill. I gloried in the success of the moment.