What Teaching High School Has Taught Me About Theater

Article by Suzy Messerole

Suzy Messerole has a long history of education through theatre. Much of her work as a director has been rooted either in bringing to light rarely-told stories, or specifically using theatre as medium for education. Suzy and I have worked on many of these projects together, and I’m still with many of them. Her work and life have been inspirational and deeply meaningful to many many people, and not a few of them are now either patrons or practitioners of the performing arts themselves. I can think of no greater measure of success. -Wu Chen

Five years ago I transitioned from a full time artist to an (almost) full time teacher at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA).   I took the teaching job at a time when my daughter was starting elementary school and I wanted employment that did not involve weekends or evenings.  I wanted time with her.  I wanted a job with a regular schedule.    

SPCPA is unique because it is a pre-professional performing arts high school that is also a public (i.e. no audition) high school.  My job is to treat every student in the theatre program as if they are going on to a conservatory program or into the profession (even if they are not).  It is a rigorous and highly creative training program.  What has surprised me the most about teaching there isn’t how I have impacted the students, but how the students have impacted me.  When I began teaching, I was overly worried that I would lose myself as an artist.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Working with and learning from students has made me a clearer, more passionate and more creative artist.  

Here is some of what I have learned:

1.  Theatre should be fun

There is truly nothing like teaching acting for first year high school students.  It is all risk, all the time.  Ask for a volunteer?  20 hands go up.  Students are aching – literally aching – to get up and perform.  There is giggling.  There is laughter.  There are surprises at every turn.  The joy in the room is infectious.  Now containing that joy and keeping the chit chat down to a tolerable level is a whole other skill, but my point is this – these young actors love every moment.  The room is alive.  That’s what I want rehearsals to be – alive and joyful.  

2.  Learning to Pause

Teaching theatre at a performing arts high school means being surrounded by D-R-A-M-A.  Let’s just say that the young people I teach are very much in touch with their emotions.  When I first started teaching, I used to just move on with the curriculum.  Whatever I was teaching that day was surely more important than the student crying in the back.  I would hand over a box of tissues and continue the very crucial game of Zip, Zap, Zop.  Now I realize that how I encounter the student with tears is equally important as the teaching.  Some days, it’s a two minute pep talk and back to rehearsal.  And some days it is sitting with that student for much longer.  Some days, what the student is going through trumps the curriculum. I learned this from the students.  The instinct of the students is to always stop and take care of each other.  The reality is that I used to get in their way.  Now I try to balance that need for care and the need for continuing on.  There is no magic formula for when to stop and when to continue, but I find myself stopping more often than not.

Learning how to gracefully stop what is happening and address the reality in the room has helped me enormously as I grow as a director.  In 2015, I spent a year workshopping and directing a production of Aamera Siddiqui’s Freedom Daze.  The majority of the cast were Muslim actors and the play was about how the American media’s misinformation about Muslims has created a culture of fear.  For some of the actors, this issue of fear came up a lot.  And there were times in the process where we needed pauses for reflection, for breathing, for talking it through.  Prior to teaching, I couldn’t have done this.  The need to “accomplish” something tangible at each rehearsal would have been too great.  Teaching has taught me to think long-term and to realize that what happens in the pauses can be just as important as what happens in the action.

3.  Naming what is real

Students call things how they see it.  When they see or experience racism, they name it.  When another student or teacher makes a sexist remark, it gets called out.  When gender pronouns are not used correctly – its instant.  By no means is SPCPA a perfect school – all of the social injustices that occur in the outside world occur at the school (and I believe that’s true for all schools).  However, what the students exhibit is a willingness to name it and talk about it.  They are not afraid.  They are far more comfortable and willing to talk about race and racism than most adults I know.  For them, calling out homophobia is more important that making others feel comfortable.  For them, challenging gender binaries is more important than making others feel comfortable.  Inspired by them, I am practicing this skill more and more and as an artist who is passionately committed to social justice, name and challenging simply must be more important than making others feel comfortable.  

4.  It’s not a race

Sometimes as a full-time artist, I felt like my career was a race.  A race to the first Equity production, a race to get a certain grant, a race to get a certain level of recognition.  No one else put this pressure on me, but it was there.  What I have learned from teaching high school is that art is not a race.  I watch students grow over the course of four years.  They practice their craft for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months of the year for four years.  It’s astonishing how much they grow over that time.  And it requires patience.  Patience when training the body in physical theatre.  Patience in learning to understand objectives, barriers and tactics.  Patience in gaining vocal variety.  Growth happens over the long term.  It’s beautifully incremental.  No one project, class, assignment, role or opportunity is key.  The student actors often grow the most in the spaces in between – in the connections between the classes.  It takes variety.  And it takes time.  Teaching has made me a much more patient artist.   I can see the journey more clearly and am getting better at appreciating it.  There is no substitute for time in growing as an artist.

Life as a high school teacher is not always rosy.  Some days, the enthusiasm and passion of theater students can just be a lot to handle.  Some days, I wish I had a spell or potion for focusing.  But I have learned so much from teaching.  It’s given me renewed passion for the power of theater and profound optimism for the future of this art form I love.

Suzy Messerole is a teacher at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, Co-Artistic Director of Exposed Brick Theatre with long-time collaborator Aamera Siddiqui and a member of the Million Artists Movement.  In addition to theater, Suzy is currently training as a synchronized swimmer for the 2018 Gay Games.