And Gladly Teach

“And Gladly Teach”

[1994: I have always been eager to find new ways to function as a teacher and an actor, and this is why I joined the Arts in Medicine program at my university’s Shands Teaching Hospital. The premise of AIM was simple: artists—actors, singers, painters, dancers, storytellers—had much to contribute to the health and well-being of patients. Their presence in hospitals could be something more than “mere entertainers.” When I left my position with children on the Bone Marrow Unit (the subject of my book A Fish in the Moonlight), I was transferred as Artist-in-Residence to the Teenage Psychiatric Unit on the hospital’s eight floor, a lonely place where seriously troubled teenagers lived for extended periods while they received treatment. It was a young patient who would teach me much about the theatre.]

As an Artist in Residence for the Arts in Medicine Program of Shands Teaching Hospital at the University of Florida, I gave a two-hour acting workshop once a week for teenagers housed on the hospital’s Youth Psychiatric Unit. I worked in collaboration with Maggie Hannan, a recreational therapist, along with psychiatrists and physicians. Because their illnesses were so serious, these teenagers had to live at the hospital, their stays ranging from a few days to months. There were schizophrenics, psychotics, young people suffering various forms of depression and anxiety, anorexics. There were manic-depressives. Some had been committed because of violence, or incest, or various other forms of abuse. More than one was the victim of self-mutilation. Removed from the mainstream of the hospital, the eighth floor on which the Unit is located is a lonely place, a world unto itself where visitors have to pass through numerous security checks. For the residents, trips to the outside are rare. Inside the Unit lives are regulated by a very strict schedule; for the teenagers, there is a complex system of merits and demerits governing behavior. This system was even extended to my acting workshop. The more a teenager participated, the more points he or she received, points that could later be turned in for favors, from extra desserts to attending a performance of my improv company in the Theatre Department.

In the acting workshops I purposely did not try to make links between the theatre and the real lives of the patients, nor did they directly use the theatre as a “mirror” for their problems, laudable as this function may be. I am not a psychiatrist or a mental-health practitioner; I have no skills in these areas. Rather, I conducted the workshops as if the patients were theatre students I was loosening up for a rehearsal.

This conservative definition of my role, I discovered, proved useful. Whatever their illness or its severity, I noticed that the teenagers generally had lost confidence in their bodies and their voices. No longer taking pleasure in their own persons, seeing themselves as “different” from normal people their age, they moved and spoke tentatively. Fetal positions were common. Their voices sounded bland, purposely so, as if to commit themselves to any texture, any rhythm, to search for the right word, to convey any emotion through their expressions would somehow expose them to the very world they feared, that “stare” of others as the existentialist might say. Whether on sedatives or not, they moved slowly, lethargically, as if putting a foot forward or raising a hand to gesture would likewise put them at risk. I have had teenage children of my own, know more than I want to about their style in speaking and moving, and also know how difficult a period these transitional years can be. But these young people had no such style. Unlike teenagers on the outside, they were not separating themselves from the adult world, defining themselves in opposition to embarrassing parents. Rather, they were afraid, and in that fear had withdrawn the body and voice, those extensions of the personality first greeting the world. A corollary was that they also withdrew from each other, had lost even the most minimal of social skills. I learned from the therapists that there was almost no social interaction among the kids, except for angry outbursts when someone stole from or insulted a fellow patient. Together for months on the Unit, they barely knew each other. Each existed in a very private world, in A Kind of Alaska, to invoke the title of a play by Harold Pinter.

Nothing, I reasoned, could be more appropriate for such physical, vocal, and social withdrawal as the warm-ups, theatre games, and exercises that constitute an acting workshop. For these activities are designed precisely to make one aware of the body, call attention to the voice, stretch the imagination, and develop an ensemble mood among actors.

We always started with an exercise called “Names,” where each person makes a gesture or some movement accompanying his or her name, something physical that captures the way you feel about both your name and yourself. Shouting out “Ted,” a boy might spin around like a dancer; “Cathy” could be signed with an outstretched fist. Once this is done, everyone else in the circle shouts out the name, along with its physical sign, three times. Afterwards, I would point to a particular person and have the rest of the group, on that cue, make his or her sign. With these teenagers, saying someone name, literally seeing how each felt about that name, was a small step in their thinking of something outside the self, responding to each other, developing that sense of  “the company” actors cherish.

The first hour of the workshop would be devoted to physical exercises, stretching various parts of the body, pitching an imaginary baseball while forcing an “ah” sound from the chest as the ball leaves the hand, and so on. After that we would do vocal exercises: for example, jogging in place while making the consonant sounds in rhythm. Or doing all those tongue twisters and speed deliveries actors use to stretch their “instrument,” as they call the voice, from the generic “red leather, yellow leather” to one of the kids’ favorites, “The big black bug bit the big brown bear, and the big brown bear bled badly, but he didn’t bleed blue blood.”

From there we would move to exercises that force one to move outside the self and towards others. In “The Mirror,” for instance, two actors face each other. “A” begins moving his hands or legs, or both, in some sort of graceful pattern, and it is up to “B” to imitate A. If A’s palm draws near B’s face, then B’s palm does likewise with A’s face.
After these exercise we tried actor’s games that stress dependence, that working in concert with others essential not only to actors but, as I soon realized, valuable to asocial, troubled young people. For example, in “Panel of Experts” five or six people stand in a row; the audience then asks them a simple question, such as “What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?” Starting with the person on the right, the five participants answer that question in a coherent sentence, each person adding a word. Thus, if the sentence begins “The first thing I do in the morning is shake all the cobwebs out of . . . ,” then the first person says “The,” the second “first,” the third “thing,” and so on. The object here is to sound like a single person answering without gaps or fluctuations in rhythm, and with a common “voice” having a recognizable and consistent quality and texture.

From here we would progress to actors’ games that make even more demands. For instance, in “Playing the Sub-text” two actors are given six to eight innocuous lines of dialogue: “Hello”; “How are you?”; “Fine–and you?”: “Fine–but you’re late”; “I know”; “Why?”; “I just am!” They develop a situation and subtext. For example, the person (B) entering the room is three hours late for an important appointment, but A, who bends over backwards in life not to judge others, tries to hide her anger. The fact is that B has purposely arrived late as a pathetic way of demonstrating her power over A who is everything in life B wishes to be but is not. Despite the banal dialogue, it is the group’s job to guess the sub-text, what is really happening beneath the otherwise inane dialogue.

The final exercise, “Freeze/Unfreeze,” was the most difficult, and the one the teenagers, once fully engaged with this world of playing, enjoyed more than any other. Two people get up and start an improvisation. At any moment, someone in the audience can shout, “Freeze,” and while the actors do so by holding the exact physical position they were in when the call sounded, that person comes onstage and taps one of the actors on the shoulder. As the actor takes a seat, the new person assumes his or her exact physical position. When the audience shouts out, “Unfreeze,” the actors begin an improvisation based on the present stage picture, but on an entirely new topic. And so it goes, with participants shouting “Freeze” for a variety of reason. Sometimes a particular physical position will suggest an idea for an improvisation. At other times volunteers go up blindly, throwing themselves into the situation to see if they can come up with a new skit. Very often the new person would rescue a fellow actor struggling with the material, or having run dry of ideas. The last reason the staff found especially telling: the idea of jumping into the fray to help someone else.

Improv is, I think, the hardest type of acting and makes actors especially dependent on each other. The best actors in improv develop a silent communication with their partner, know where the material is heading, steer each other away from dead ends, pick up on cues or suggestions dropped by the other. When it is most successful, an improv sounds like a scripted play that has been thoroughly rehearsed. The fact that the material is being created on the spot only enhances the audience’s pleasure in the playwright-like creativity of the actors. By the end of the workshop most of the teenagers knew how to work together in this exalted fashion.

It was a teenage girl–I will call her Nancy–who as an actor became my teacher, showing me just how powerful and useful the theatre could be. Nancy had been on the Unit six months and in all that time had never spoken a word. Severely depressed, having suffered unspeakable harm from her family, she had withdrawn deep into herself. She would always stand next to me during the workshop, yet remain totally silent. No one on the staff had every heard her speak; she seemed beyond the reach of all. Sometimes the other patients would taunt her unmercifully. Nancy was alert; that was certain: her eyes followed every gesture of her fellow actors. Still, she never took part in the warm-up exercises, let alone volunteered as an actor in the games. It was an eerie situation: this beautiful silent girl, there and not there.

Then, one day during an improv, she suddenly shouted out, “Freeze,” her voice clear as a bell. Everyone stopped. Therapists and staff silently formed a line at the rear of the room; the teenagers were stunned. The boy with whom I was working and I promptly froze, as in a very controlled, decisive way Nancy rose, walked to the center of the make-shift stage, tapped my improv partner on the shoulder, and took his place. We were so shocked that the group forgot to give the cue to resume and so I had to shout, “Unfreeze!” As was the rule, Nancy began the new improv. Now, thanks to having performed with my own company at the university, Strike Force, I was experienced in doing improv, yet I am happy to admit that Nancy outplayed me. She was the model partner, setting me up, swapping cues, helping us both devise a funny skit. The group let us go on for four minutes or so, an inordinately long time to be onstage for improv. For the rest of the hour, Nancy was up and down, shouting out “Freeze,” complementing any partner lucky enough to be onstage with her. The other actors relieved her only with reluctance; she was that good.

The end of these afternoon workshops was always a sad occasion. The teenagers needed a father figure, and I, for better or worse, filled that bill. My moment of departure was an awkward affair. An attendant would stand in one corner of the room to manage the teenagers, while another walked me to the door on the far side. There was, in effect, a no-man’s land, a demilitarized zone reminding all of us that the teenagers would stay on the Unit while I would go back to my wife and children, to that real world outside the hospital. The kids would stand there forlorn, reminding me to “be back next week, OK?” One fellow even asked poignantly, “You won’t forget me, will you—please?”

On this day, “the day Nancy blossomed,” as a staff member later described the occasion, I was halfway to the door when Nancy called out, “I supposed you’re wondering, Sid, why I talked today, after six month. The first time since I’ve been here.”

“Sure, Nancy, I did wonder why.”

“You oughta know the reason.”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Well, you see, the reason is because this theatre stuff you do doesn’t frighten me . . . the way all the rest does. You know what I mean?”

“I think I do.”

“See, the theatre is real, but not real. It’s about halfway to life, just like me. So, it’s real but it’s not as scary as life. And that’s as far as I’m ready to go now. That’s why I spoke. You can understand–right?”


As I walked toward the door, this precious student who had become my teacher called out, “You’ll be here next Friday?”

“You can count on me.” Glad would I learn, and gladly teach.