Philosophy of Teaching
As I reflect on my philosophy and style of teaching, I realize that I seek to incorporate the many attributes that I have admired in former teachers. I feel strongly that learning happens best when there is a relationship between teacher and student. The sharing of knowledge, the give and take of exploring concepts, should trigger and delight both. It is important to work on the side of affirmation, embracing the hopeful, discovering the gifts God has placed inside each of us. Here is where we find the joy and the exhilaration in teaching.
When I left graduate school, I realized there were a lot of things I wish I had known about the marketplace. Many times I have been driven to teach students by trying to fill in some of the gaps in my own education. I don’t want them to ask the question, “Why didn’t somebody tell me about this?” So I stay current; I encourage my students to stay current. That means taking four different theatre journals or magazines, checking the theatre listings and news in Playbill On-Line and other Internet sources, reading new plays, etc. This brings a freshness and an immediacy to my instruction. It also creates an understanding that this discipline is constantly changing.
These forces have also been responsible for my instruction providing the brass tacks or the rules in the various subject areas. I knew a colleague who felt completely lost in his graduate work because he was never provided the basics for directing. His MFA program began the work by breaking the rules – but my colleague didn’t know what the rules were. Undergraduate theatre students often want to emulate the form of something they have seen professionally done but do not know the process to go through to achieve that. This is what they must learn during their time with us. The instruction I give leans heavily on acquiring the basic rules and applying them in tangible ways before moving to the next step. For instance, an actor must learn the basic character analysis skills before he is able to play subtext. A director must learn rudimentary composition and use of silhouette before she attempts complex crowd scenes.
But this means that we teach not only in the classroom. Every play assumes the status of a laboratory experience. Learning must happen elbow to elbow during crew and rehearsal times. Learning should be happening every time a student steps into the theatre. It means that learning has to be hands on. Students can only learn to direct when they are directing. They can only learn to act when they are acting. Theory is lifeless without the doing to breathe life into it. And this requires guidance. Mentoring. That means that students are not left to their own devices; instead, professors are sitting beside them or standing with them coaching and critiquing and challenging and affirming. It is through this personal connection that students can move beyond the mediocre and discover real moments of theatre.
This individual attention reveals the particular gifts the student possesses. His creative center connects with craft. When a student is able to apply his learned skills and then assess them through critique, he is able to respond to the work as art rather than just emotionally or personally. This makes heavy demands on the professor as well. The professor must be truly present and fully aware to give the student the helpful critique she needs. This sort of work goes far beyond being “prepared for class.” The teacher must be ready to encounter the work with his whole being – mentally, physically and spiritually. The professor and the student both become seekers of truth. These are the times when great things can happen. Parker J. Palmer in his book, The Courage To Teach, explores this idea when he refers to “the grace of great things” -- a phrase from Rilke:
"The community of truth is an image that can carry the educational mission because it embraces an essential fact: the reality we belong to, the reality we long to know, extends far beyond human beings interacting with one another. In the community of truth, we interact with nonhuman forms of being that are as important and powerful as the human--sometimes even more so. This is a community held together not only by our personal powers of thought and feeling but also by the power of “the grace of great things.”
Through the community created by the theatre staff and students I am seeking these truths, and by the power of “the grace of great things.”
Integration of Faith and Art
The Abilene Christian University Department of Theatre is committed to providing quality training and opportunity for the disciplined theatre artist in a nurturing environment that models Christian values.
The integration of faith and art reflected in the above theatre mission statement is of paramount importance to me both as a Christian artist and as a teacher. After I assumed the chair of the department, my staff and I with the help of the Visiting Committee arrived at these specially chosen words. To that effect, I have incorporated the following elements into the department.
- Established a weekly theatre chapel. Open to all students but especially geared toward Christian artists, the group focuses on the subjects such as the artist’s vocation, worldview, creativity, solitude/silence/Sabbath, along with discussing hot button issues such as language, nudity, script choices and maintaining faith.
- In all my courses I incorporate the ideas used by Christian artists into the curriculum of the class. It is important that students are aware of the thinking and influence of works by Greg Wolfe, Craig Detweiler, Calvin Seervald, Madeleine L’Engle, Richard Niebuhr, Gillette Elvgren, Frankie Schaeffer, Nigel Forde, Brian D. McLaren and others.
- Promoted ACU’s ties with Christians in Theatre Arts (CITA), a national organization dedicated to promoting and bringing together Christian artists. I attended CITA national conferences as well as regional conferences. In February of 1998, the theatre department hosted the CITA Regional Conference here at ACU, with an attendance of approximately 150. Fifteen workshops were offered, ranging from performance, design, sketch-writing, and the artistic imagination. Also featured was keynote speaker Nelson Coates, Hollywood production designer and ACU alumnus, and performers Curt Cloninger, David and Donjalea Chrane, and Jeff Berryman. Dusty Pedestal, an original piece written by theatre major Thomas Ward and chosen as a CITA national finalist, was presented as part of our Studio Premiere series. The conference highlighted ACU’s theatre program in addition to providing students and area artists with encouragement and resources.
- In a further effort to challenge our students as Christian artists, I created a January short course taught by former faculty member Jeff Berryman, in 1999 which continues today and is team-taught by Berryman and Ken Cukrowski. The course, Arts and Culture: A Christian Aesthetic bears this description: The arts from a Christian viewpoint as both practitioner and audience/patron, applying biblically based strategies to assess, enjoy, and participate in the forms of art prevalent in the culture while remaining faithful to the call of Christ. The course is now in its 5th year drawing students from all disciplines.
- I am committed to promoting quality scripts by Christian authors. I have directed several new scripts including Arthur: The Hunt by Jeff Berryman and remounted it as an American College Theatre Festival entry. I discuss various Christian aspects of The Hunt in my article written for the Summer 2004 CenterStage. I have also directed Paper Wings, by Gillette Elvgren, Joyful Noise by Tim Slover and For Such A Time As This (The story of Esther) by Robert Conatser. I have fostered student written productions such as The Cost: A Tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Jonathan Wade and Dusty Pedestal, by Thomas Ward. The Chosen Daughter, by Jeanne Murray Walker, a professor at the University of Delaware, allowed us to collaborate with English Department to bring in Ms. Walker to lead a panel discussion of her work following the performance.
- In my Beginning Acting class students are required to read 10 plays during the semester. In their analysis they are to discuss the worldview of the playwright as seen through the play and how this agrees or conflicts with their own worldview.
- In Playwriting, I emphasize that we are to tell our stories well using elements of hope and positive values based on spiritual principles.