About a year ago, while watching The Actors Studio on television (Bravo station), I saw Glenn Close in an interview. She spoke about the “chemistry” of acting. You’re in the audience watching a play and you are moved to tears, or to joy, or even anger. Reason tells us that the actor is not the role he’s playing; that the words he is saying are not his own and that he has probably said them a hundred times in rehearsal. Yet, we are caught in a moment when his performance belies reality, when we are swept away. According to Close, it’s chemistry, it’s molecular. The catalysis created by the actor on a stage generates energy to affect emotional reactions and physical manifestations in the audience. Behind that moment, we find not only actors, but playwrights, dramaturgs, directors, producers, designers of sets, costumes, sound, lighting an entire community of folks committed to the ideal production magicians of illusion, the alchemists of drama.
This unit begins to explore that alchemy with particular focus on the the actor’s instrument and the inner voice of the writer. Theatre and Literature, however these arts may be qualified, have as there common denominator, communication: the exchange of information. Because communication is an exchange, it requires a sender and a receiver. On the sending end, we convey our thoughts in speech, signals, writing, and behavior. On the receiving end, our senses sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are the conveyors of such information. Each of our senses functions in a physically mechanical way in order to relay information to our brains. The eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth and tongue, and the skin act as transmitters carrying various communications in the form of energy light, sound, chemicals in air and food, pressures and touches to a central receiver, the brain. The brain then interprets such signals analytically and emotionally.
Perhaps ironically, what sparked my interest in this particular seminar Professor Apfel’s Sound and Sensibility: Acoustics in Architecture, Music, and the Environment was our school’s mainstage production this past year of The Miracle Worker. For many of us, sound is something we take for granted. Through the course of a day, we respond to bells and alarms marking time, we make conversation, we listen to honking horns in traffic made in the vain attempt that such noise will somehow make cars and trucks move faster, we turn up the volume on our favorite songs, and for the most part, we don’t give sound a second thought until something goes bump in the night What’s that? But imagine a world without sound, as was the world of Helen Keller. Then this sense of hearing becomes far less ordinary and sound, even the cacophony of a school cafeteria at lunch time, becomes precious.
The ear is an extraordinary conduit for sound from its outer fleshy cup to its intricate interior. And for those of us lucky enough to have two of them in relatively good working order, sound not only enhances our lives, but our ability to hear and interpret sound, instinctively protects us as well. Therefore, understanding the “fundamental scientific principles underlying the behavior of sound,” as well as “human responses to sound” (as stated in Professor Apfel’s summary of the seminar), make up the spine of this curriculum unit upon which creative writing and theatre pedagogy are fleshed out in the areas of: voice, prose and poetry writing, and reading. Through the arts, which by their nature are interdisciplinary as they encompass history, language, science, and mathematics the unit focuses students on “real world” targets with “real world” activities, where students are given ample support to explore a variety of resources and to “experience” their learning. It is my hope that they will gain the kind of bone-marrow learning that results in critical as well as creative thinking, evocative and provocative exposition and persuasive and articulate speech.
Tuning the Instrument for Actors and Writers is designed for 7th and 8th grade Theatre and Creative Writing classes. As these are elective classes, topics are introduced yearly at my discretion. However, Science and Language Arts teachers may find some of the lessons useful as they relate to their curricula with regard to anatomy, and reading and writing respectively. Under Title II of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act which acknowledged the arts as core subjects comparable in importance to traditional content areas an arts program, such as ours at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, should be aligned to certain criteria as set forth in the document, National Standards for Arts Education (published in 1994). This unit covers four main sections: Hearing, Sound, Listening, and Voice in accordance with Connecticut Language Arts Content Standards: reading, writing, speaking, and viewing. Cultivating the whole child, building many kinds of literacy, developing intuition, reasoning, and imagination, are some of the aims of this unit that align with the arts program standards.
Children, like most of us, enjoy being entertained. More and more, teachers are met with the challenge of distilling the information age into a tantalizing elixir that can be swallowed easily and savored over time. It is our mission as educators, not only to build a strong foundation for knowledge by teaching students how to learn, but to help them to develop their innate talents so that they may bring their special gifts to the world. For Creative Writing and Theatre students, both writing and acting (as well as the arts in general) are activities that endeavor to establish intimate connections with people. In so doing, we come together in sharing our darkest moments and our brightest. It is this communion that reminds us how precious and fragile is our humanity.