One of the most transformative experiences for me as a student was in a scene study class as part of my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. The class was taught by Paul Austin and for the first semester we each worked on a single monologue, in the second semester, we kept the same character, but worked with a partner in a two person scene. It was not fun, and it was not comfortable. It was intense, difficult, and wonderful. Paul is a warm and friendly man, but when you were in his class he maintained absolute formality. He began each class by greeting each one of us in turn and by name. We didn’t chat, we didn’t rummage through bags, or check phones. It was almost ritualistic. Most importantly, however, Paul had a rule: after somebody had worked their scene and it was time for feedback, we were not to applaud or offer praise. He himself only offered critique and if we contributed, we were to do the same.
Now, if you know theatre people, we both crave praise and applause and offer it effusively to each other. Casts do need in many ways to be a temporary family (and a much gushier one than my real family when I think about it)! Hugs, encouragement, terms of endearment all help off-set the vulnerability of offering yourself up to an audience, as well as the creeping sense of competition with your fellow actors that can poison the industry, and remind you that any piece of theatre is always a collaboration. It’s easy to make fun of, but the whole lovey-dovey atmosphere of the theatre is one of its pleasures.
The restraint of Paul’s class was something totally new. It took some adjustment – the first few weeks, we automatically started to clap and were silenced. I remember a good friend of mine asking if she could say something she admired after I had presented my work one week and she was told–not unkindly and quite simply–“no.” But something remarkable happened. With praise off the table, none of us sought it. Instead, we hungrily craved Paul’s insights–and those of our peers. Every observation, every critique meant that our scene would be better next time, that we would grow as actors. It was a potent reminder that we were there to work. This was not a performance–it was a rehearsal of sorts, a workshop, a classroom. It was the place for missteps and redirections. There was no need for a cushion, because that was not the point. If it was hard, that meant something was happening.
As a teacher and a director, I have thought often about this experience and wish I could find a way to instigate that same mindset in my own classroom. I am generally pretty informal in my teaching and try always to be supportive and compassionate towards my students, but that scene study class triggered in me the suspicion that the expectation of praise and support can create a self-generating need that in turn creates the sense that critique is condemnation. We are often encouraged to adopt the “praise sandwich” (which I do) and students become familiar with this model too. They misconstrue the “constructive” in “constructive criticism” as “gently put” or “softened” criticism. Perhaps if we and they weren’t so worried about fragile egos and self-esteem, we could remove them from the equation altogether–or rather allow self-esteem to be built from a more enduring basis of working through difficulty. The classroom, like the rehearsal space, should be about process, not accomplishment. I’m not sure if my classroom needs to adopt the same level of rigor as Paul’s and I do want to identify and reinforce the strengths in my students’ work, for their own and their peers’ benefit, but I am constantly wondering how we can change the narrative around criticism, so that it becomes something desirable, as I felt it to be each time I stepped up to work in that scene study class.