I just graded 15 final exams.
I sat in a theater, and I watched 15 students—a class I’ve worked with once a week for the past 11 weeks—perform a 20-minute theater piece we created together.
That was the exam. The performance was the exam.
Just like students before any exam, they were super nervous. Just like students before any exam, they were cramming right before (lines and movement notes, in this case). Just like students before any exam, they were stressed.
But unlike most other exams, they were also really excited. Unlike most exams, they had invited friends to watch them demonstrate what they had learned. Unlike most exams, they were in it together, all dependent on one another and carried along by one another, too.
It was so much fun to watch. And they taught me so much. Holy crap, y’all.
The whole trimester was about presence on stage with a focus on movement. I could tell you the schools of movement I drew from or the pedagogical scaffolding I was going for, but the question we were really trying to answer was this:
Are you willing to be seen?
It’s sort of a funny question to ask in a theater class. You’re on a stage, which means people in the audience will be watching you, which means that you’re agreeing to be seen. No one forced you to take the class, so we might assume you are, therefore, willing to be seen.
But the truth is that all of us who perform have a whole bag of tricks—some conscious, most not—that we think allow us to hide in plain sight. For most of us, it’s some version of one of these two things:
1: We close off, disengage internally, slump our shoulders, cave in our chests slightly, focus on the floor about 6 feet ahead of us when we walk. It’s don’t-call-on-me posture.
2: We move—a lot. We fidget. Our hands rotate in front of us or slap our thighs to make a point. We tug at our shirts, tuck our hair behind our ears, tip and lean and nod and shrug and basically do anything except stand still.
For the past 11 weeks, as we created this new performance piece about distance across space and time and relationship—a topic they were curious to explore—we were working to shine a light on those behaviors that allow us to hide in plain sight. To notice them. And then to either make them a choice—or let them go.
We were working on our willingness to be seen.
And sweet mercy, they were amazing. The stillness they found. Their eyes on the horizon. The openness that made me want to look at each of them, to see what they were experiencing, to hear what they were saying.
Which is the whole point, after all.
The willingness to be seen.
In our careers, and in our lives. Because these students will have some important contributions to make to our world, and I want them to be able to share them.
So do you. In your life. You have important contributions to make, too.
Where are you distracting from what you have to share?
Where are you looking down and rounding your shoulders to avoid?
Where are you creating extra movement, business, action to blur focus?
As I said in the syllabus: we are—all of us—creators, storytellers, communicators, and we’re getting comfortable with being seen in these roles.
You, me, these kids, all of us. You are not alone.
PS: This writing would not be complete without a shout-out to my husband, an extraordinary and beloved teacher of theater, literature, and design/systems thinking, who was unfailingly generous as I worked to apply my ensemble training experience to a more formal teaching experience this fall. As his students say, “Thank you, Sampy.”
PS again: Transitions are a particularly important time to work on this stuff. The willingness to tell your story with clarity, without extras. Both literally and metaphorically. You can give me a shout if you want to work on that. I will help you.