In drama classes and when learning to act, students, even in the safest, kindest, of situations, feel quite exposed. Students are up there on a stage in front of their peers and a director/teacher, and that can have individuals feeling extremely vulnerable. In such circumstances as this, a student’s inner judge can start working over-time. For instance, In a workshop where the student has to put an accent different to their own, the judge can launch into a punishing monologue inside the student.
Oh, I’m no good at this. The two people who went before me are much better actors. They can do accents and I can’t. Listen to the accent I’m trying out here, it’s nothing like a real Liverpudlian accent. I’m hopeless and everyone who is watching thinks so. Especially the director. He’s actually from England, so he’ll know. Please floor, swallow me up.
The judge, alerted by a situation in which the student feels vulnerable, starts to hammer away. It recruits other people to join in: those watching and especially the teacher. Instead of being present with the acting problems at hand, the student becomes obsessed with being judged. It doesn’t make acting in front of a group and learning theatre craft easier – it makes it, in fact, almost impossible. If something does go amiss – maybe the accent goes from Cork to Kerry or falls off the rails into the student’s own accent (I’ve often haplessly gone from a bad Welsh accent into cod subcontinental Indian) – then the student might torment themselves about it all the way home or for half a sleepless night. The judge makes the learning process a sort of hell. One mistake and the judge is recruiting the entire class to beat the student until they are filled with feelings of humiliation and shame. How can a student really learn much in this situation? Or any situation like it, for it’s true of learning in many other walks of life and even in situations that don’t involve learning at all. The inner judge is there to beat us when we feel vulnerable.
Learning can be a chastening process. When we first learn to walk there’s a lot of falling over. A soon-to-be-toddler gets up, and tries again. And again. And again. Maybe it’s programmed into to them from birth to take failure to walk in their stride. Learning to talk, children move from burbling merrily, to mastering complex words and sentence structures, but in-between have to cope with a multitude of mistakes. Relatively few are put off by this to the extent that they become mute. Yet as we get older, failure gets to us in a way that it never did as a small child. And this is principally because our judge is stronger when we get past early childhood.
Students are not helped by an education system that seems to be designed to feed the judge at every turn. There are so many tests, exams, learning outcomes etc to be ‘passed’. One educational writer said these are like pulling up a plant to see if the roots are growing. Then there are the people in the situation who can be recruited by the judge, especially the teacher. Students are there with someone who (they believe) knows much more about the subject than the learner. And often, teachers, worried that they might not be taken seriously or given ‘respect’, are at pains to let the learner know they are an ‘expert’ in their subject, which may make fear of judgement even more intense in a student. To have one’s work scrutinised by an ordinary person is bad enough, but to have an expert poring over one’s efforts…! For the same reason – a desire to be taken seriously, or fearing that a class might get out of control – a teacher can take on a very authoritarian and high status demeanour which might also trigger a student’s judge – they are in the room with somebody who is very important. Put in a situation with an intimidating teacher and with tests, auditions etc that are already highly judgemental, students find meaningful learning becomes very difficult. Nobody wants to make a mistake. It would feel humiliating. But we must make mistakes when we are learning. We must fall over lots of times in learning to walk. We must mispronounce words in learning to speak. We must risk sounding terrible at an accent to be able to practice it. We must risk an improvisation drying or going in an unsettling direction to learn improvisation skills. Failure or the strong possibility of it, is part and parcel of learning. The Wright Brothers, crashed many a flying machine before they succeeded in manned flight.
For students to learn effectively, effortlessly, painlessly, they need to be in situations which do not readily trigger the Judge. So when working in the theatre with students, it can help to make the physical environment – the room or space we’re working in – informal, a bit homely, human. Not sterile and intimidating. In learning situations, it can also help if teachers make themselves non-intimidating and approachable, partly by downplaying their own status and importance. I always feel I’m there as a sort of Sherpa for student actors in the learning process. I don’t strive for ‘respect’ or ‘obedience’, from those I work with, reminding myself that self-respect is more important, and that I manage to get much done without ‘authority’, by relating to people with helpfulness and consideration. I may well be an ‘expert’ in the area in which I work. But the students don’t need to know that and besides, I’m more than aware that I really do seem to learn something new every day as a result of working with student actors, and I’m always making mistakes – it’s part and parcel….!
I work to create an atmosphere in which the judge can sleep. To achieve this, I think it helps students to know about the Judge and how it can affect their work – we call it the parrot in the drama department. Because it can sit on our shoulders and make disparaging remarks. It’s a term the course leader, Belinda introduced into workshops and rehearsals after encountering the idea at The Actor’s Space in Spain. Bringing the Judge out into the open and talking about how harshly we judge ourselves at times, can be liberating. Students catch the parrot screeching negative comparisons in their ears and recognise after a while that the bird is destroying their work. Just knowing about the parrot can help keep its head beneath the wing.
It also helps the students to know what I’m thinking, so that they cannot recruit me to judge them. I tell them, honestly, that I am not sat in class judging them and that is because I know that all people are great actors, and superb improvisers. We all act and improvise alot in everyday life. I know that after working on the course for a couple of years, this ability will transfer to their stage work. I trust it will happen, because it always does. Sometimes actors flower some years after leaving the course, but always, if they are interested in acting and the theatre, they will become strong performers. More likely, I’m afraid, I will sit in class judging myself for not running a workshop as well as I know I can. Have I clumsily made someone feel small, or put someone off an aspect of theatre work by rushing into it, or presenting it poorly?
Really, I am trying to create a place to work in where students can relax, trusting that nobody will humiliate them, or be harsh with them. This more than anything removes the judge from the room. Students can stop worrying about me or each other and start to enjoy the wonderful process of engaging with theatre and the world. Kick out the judge and the learning can really begin.