Friday, July 02, 2010

like a dog with a bone

In Blanche DuBois' first moments in Streetcar Named Desire, she stands in front of what she takes to be her sister's home, and encounters two women, one white (Eunice) and one black, sitting on the outdoor stairs of the building, equipped for lounging, with fans and fashion magazines.

For a casual reader of the play, it can be easy to miss what a confounding circumstance this must be for Blanche. In Laurel, Missisippi, from whence Blanche has just sojourned, blacks and whites surely did not fraternize so readily. This is the "easy cosmopolitanism" Williams speaks of in his introduction. For Blanche, it is one of the first signs that she is, well, not in Kansas anymore.

It is only by projecting one's self into Blanche's mindset and looking at the situation through her eyes that we can recognize how challenging this apparently innocuous bit of stage direction is for this character. Once recognized, this bit of insight can enrich these opening moments for the actor playing Blanche dramatically.

I started new cycles of my class this week, in SF and LA, and some students have started to send me their Who-Am-I charts to review. This is a process I present to them in the first class, using Blanche's first moments in Streetcar as an example. I always draw their attention to this particular aspect of the initial situation Williams poses for Blanche, and hope that it communicates something to them about the value for carefuly scrutinizing and studying what the writer has given the actor, looking impossibly closely until the superficial starts to fall away and the depths begin to present themselves. However, the Who-Am-I charts I usually receive are almost always pretty skeletal. Actually, the three I have received so far have been better than most. But in general, the initial drafts of these assignments usually have the look of something that has been hurriedly dashed off so that it could be sent off even more quickly, safely out of sight and out of mind.

I don't really fault my students, especially not the new ones. Learning to read like an actor takes years of practice. The fact that they are putting fingers to keyboards and generating anything at all is a giant leap in the right direction. But I cannot help but wonder about why they don't approach the text as something that has to be studied relentlessly, chewed on like a dog with a bone, right out of the gate. Something that has to be forced, through dogged tenacity, to yield up its secrets. And the answer, I think, has to do with our wish to believe that things will be easy. The proposition that the work might be quite difficult, coupled with the proposition that the actor has it in her power to nevertheless do this difficult work, is quite simply too frightening to contemplate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure, and all that. It's much easier to comfort one's self with the notion that the work that lies ahead does not require much effort, it is nothing like a struggle, and there is absolutely no chance of falling short.

I majored in mathematics in college. Math had always come easily to me, and I discovered I could have a BA in it by taking exactly eight classes, which would leave my schedule open for all of the literature and theater classes I was truly focused on, and would at the same time mollify my parents. I breezed through the first two years of math classes. However, in my third year, I took Complex Analysis, and suddenly, I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Math, which had always been a matter of being shown a technique in class, and then practicing that technique over and over again in the homework, was suddenly a matter of being introduced to a new concept and then being asked to do a lot of hard, original thinking about how to apply the concept. What had always come easily to me was suddenly maddeningly difficult. I started getting bad grades on quizzes and tests. I found myself having to go nearly every day to the professor's office to ask for help with the homework, which I found to be totally humiliating. No sooner would he have walked me through one problem, then I would be asking him for help with the next one. One day, I found myself breaking into tears in his office at my frustration at finding myself unable to handle this subject with the ease with which math had always come to me. The professor was gentle, but kept pressing ahead with the problem, prompting me to reason incrementally from one claim to the next. It was poinful, and I was even more humiliated by the emotional display. At 20, I thought of myself as a mature adult(!). But we both stayed with it, eventually, I reached a point where the light at the end of the tunnel was in sight, and it was not an oncoming train. I found myself chuckling, involuntarily, from the gut, and it was not an entirely pleasant sensation. Sure, it was great to reach the solution, with help from the professor but also figuring some things out for myself. But mixed with this was the awareness that I COULD do problems this difficult, and since I could, I could no longer expect that things would be easy. The training wheels had come off, and I had continued to ride, however tentatively, and with however many falls along the way. There would be no going back to the training wheels. It's an exciting moment, to be sure, but there was a strong measure of fear as well. The fear of having to be responsible for myself.

I feel that I am up against this fear all the time with students. It's a natural fear. We all have it. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of, sometimes. But I feel like I am constantly trying to confront students with two facts at once: it IS difficult but you CAN do it. Every once in a while, one of them bravely looks those truths in the face, and forges ahead. It's in moments like that that I get to feel like a true teacher.

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