The Silent Head Shake (or… Audience Etiquette)

To be a member of an audience for a live performance is to hold a certain amount of power.

Think about it.

Actors prepare weeks in advance to bring the public their very best.  Their work is exposed for the audience to either praise or pan.  The energy a full house brings to the performance can lift the spirits of those on stage and behind the scenes or. . .

…it can create a bitter enmity.

The same show across multiple performances can see quiet and defiant patrons as well as laughing and appreciative audiences.  And the comments backstage will reflect the actors’ read on the participants in the seats.

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This house is AWESOME.  They get the jokes and applaud after every scene!”

or. . .

“Did you see the girl on her cell phone?”

or. . .

“Why are they SO DEAD today?”

or. . .

"Albert Guillaume Au theatre" by Albert Guillaume - Bonhams. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Albert Guillaume Au theatre” by Albert Guillaume
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

“I thought we were sold out.  Why are there so many empty seats?”

Because of the amount of work and personal investment that goes into every performance, actors, directors, and technicians tend to get emotionally involved in the response.  We LOVE a committed, attentive, and receptive patron.  We loathe the individual who strolls in late, yawns a lot, looks around, checks their social media, and leaves at intermission.

A few years ago, in an attempt to curb some inappropriate behavior emanating from our house, we published suggestions for audience etiquette in one of our programs.  Here are a few excerpts from that production’s bill:

Thank you for your attendance this evening.  We are grateful for your support of our theatre department, and we hope that tonight’s experience is a wonderful one.  In addition to our commitment to the students, it is part of our mission to inform and educate those who attend our programs.  To that end, please note the following guidelines regarding audience etiquette.  Many are not aware of the distractions that can occur during a performance that will hinder the work of the actors and/or diminish the experience of other audience members.

  1. TEXTING – Texting or checking social media is a major no-no.  The light in a dark house will catch an actor’s eye quicker than a falling set piece, and any distraction is dangerous.  It can also irritate those around you.  We also know when you try to hide it in your hand, cupped to your stomach, beneath your legs, or in your purse.
  2. HARD CANDY – Unwrapping hard candy or cough drops in the middle of a performance can be heard throughout the hall.  The sound of the plastic wrapper in your hands as you struggle to free the immovable treat takes those around you out of the illusion of the play.  It can kill an emotional moment: the lovers are about to kiss… and crack, shuffle, crack, twist, crack!  Unwrap before the show begins.
  3. BABIES – University theatre, unfortunately, is not for infants and young toddlers.  Some of our plays contain content that is for mature audiences only.  We tend to panic when we see a patron bring in his/her youngest family member.  Times are tough, and we know that hiring a sitter is not always an option.  We will be understanding as long as you sit on an aisle and exit as soon as the child becomes an interruption.
  4. UNPLANNED EXITS – Emergencies happen; that’s okay. For your comfort, we always note in the program how long an act will be before you get a break. Please look for this and plan accordingly.

    "Albert Guillaume Les retardataires" by Albert Guillaume  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    “Albert Guillaume Les retardataires” by Albert Guillaume
    Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. SLEEPING – Frankly, we’d rather you nap at home.  Not all shows are exciting all the time; we know this well.  But, we simply cannot afford to bring you an action movie in play form, and the students are working to learn the art.  Your kind attention is deeply appreciated.
  6. MAKING OUT – Eww.  No.  Just… no.  We are committed, however, to bringing you realistic kissing scenes when the script calls for it.  Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Have I seen each and every one of those happen in one or more of our performances in my time here?

Yep.

And sometimes we just feel like giving up on humanity when audiences do not practice good manners.  For example, in a recent production, a couple brought in a baby.  Our front-of-house staff tried to dissuade them from the show, explaining the loud noises and mature content (which was clearly stated on all our promotional materials and website).  The couple insisted on attending.  Our house manager asked them to please sit near the exit door in case the child should wake and cry.  They declined, insisting that the infant would sleep through the show.  They sat on the other side of the theatre, where they would have to cross the stage to exit.

"Emil Mayer 043" by Emil Mayer - Damals in Wien.   Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Emil Mayer 043″ by Emil Mayer – Damals in Wien.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This was also the one performance we had planned to film after receiving written permission from the playwright.

I’m sure you can guess what happened.  And instead of carrying the infant out the two times he cried, they turned to their fellow audience members and proclaimed, “We’re not leaving.”  The video?  Ruined.  The performance?  Strained.  The audience?  Antagonistic towards this couple.  Our faith in humanity?  *silent head shake*

All this is to say, we do this, in large part, for you—our audience!  We would be nowhere without our patrons.  We thrive on your attendance and participation.  We listen carefully to your feedback and response.  We pour ourselves out for you in the hopes that we can awaken an appreciation for the art form, for the issues addressed in the text, and for the talent and growth seen in the students.

Without you, our work is just another rehearsal.

And respecting the work . . . that’s just good manners.

TEL

The characters who change us

The conversation usually starts out like this:

“What types of books do you like to read?”
“I only read nonfiction.
Fiction is a waste of time when there is so much to learn from nonfiction.”

or worse –

“What kind of books do you read?”
“…I don’t.”

Quite honestly, the latter seems to be the more common response. Both of these responses worry me, and no, it isn’t just about job security. Recent studies have done work to confirm what we fiction readers have been experiencing for decades – reading fiction changes you.

via Book HavenOne of the more recent studies that found a correlation between fiction and empathy was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York. Using a variety of Theory of the Mind techniques, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction, specifically, enhanced the reader’s ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. There is much debate about what constitutes “literary fiction” and the study authors are hesitant to pin down their own definition, but the study seems to suggest that readers learn empathy skills from novels that focus more on the psychology and emotions of the characters themselves. Whereas popular novels tend to be plot-driven with formulaic characters, literary fiction presents us with characters who challenge our stereotypes, interrupt our perceptions, and teach us how to understand those who are different than ourselves.

Reading fiction allows us to experience other worlds from a safe distance. When we are immersed in the lives of characters, we can listen in on their internal dialog. Where else are we invited to eavesdrop on the inner conversation that takes place in someone else’s mind?

The Bearing Rein – Nature vs. Art in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

Oddly enough, as an animal lover one of the first books I can remember reading that helped me “experience” the life of another was not that of a human, but that of a horse in Anne Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. Told in the first person voice of a horse, I was around age ten when I read the story for the first time and I’ve never been able to forget Beauty’s description of the use of a bearing rein:

“York came round to our heads and shortened the rein himself — one hole, I think; every little makes a difference, be it for better or worse, and that day we had a steep hill to go up. Then I began to understand what I had heard of. Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs…Day by day, hole by hole, our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on, as I used to do, I began to dread it.”

Since then, my reading has branched out to considering the stories of humans. When I read Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, I was forced to grapple with the desperation of a German single-mother living in Nazi Germany. I felt the pangs of hunger coupled with the intense desire to exert control when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s telling of a young girl’s excruciating battle with anorexia in Wintergirls. When my children’s lit professor wanted us to know what it felt like to be a student with ADHD we were asked to read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even now, as I’ve wandered the roads of East Texas in the past month I’ve entered the world of Noa P. Singleton, a women awaiting what she refers to as X-day as she sits on death row, as she tells me her story via audiobook in first time author Elizabeth Silva’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. In fact, I’ve noticed in recent years that especially when I listen to audiobooks, I get so involved in the character’s story that I often find myself making the same facial expressions that I imagine the characters would have while telling their story. Again, odd, but what can I say? These fictional characters somehow become a part of me as I read them.

books_23Another study conducted by Mar, Oatley, and Peterson (2009) also explored the connection between reading and empathy. When observing the relationship between narrative transportation (the ability to “lose” ourselves in a novel’s world) and empathy they stated the following: “It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental states.” The authors point out that more research is needed, but for now, it seems that reading fiction has “important consequences.”

Honestly, the list of fictional characters that I’ve learned from or reference when I encounter a life experience different from my own could go on and on. These stories stay with me in a way that influences how I interact and empathize with the people around me. One of my all-time favorite literary characters taught his young daughter about empathy when he asked her to think about what her teacher must have felt like on her first day of school:

“You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

- Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

d8a2f6aba69c3cab4037e74dd53d6eb9Reading fiction allows us to try on the “skin” of a character and walk around in it. For every time that I rejoice in a student’s new-found appreciation of a scholarly journal article or climb on my soap box about the value of information, there is an equal part of me that gets excited to talk to people about the place that stories should have in our lives. The next time that you find yourself struggling to understand someone different than you, I encourage you to find a work of fiction with a similar character. The people in our world need us to read fiction so that we can feel with them.

I’ve just scratched the surface on the stories that have influenced me. What about you? What stories have you read that have helped you empathize with someone?

EDP

Everyone Is a Critic (or… Respecting the Work)

“You’re only as good as your last blog.”  Those are the words ringing through my head right now as I fight writer’s block.  That’s not a good sign when you’re only on blog #4.

Those words echo what I hear every time I select and direct a show.

“You’re only as good as your last show.”

I know exactly where those words come from.  I know they aren’t healthy and, furthermore, that they aren’t the truth.  Ironic as it may sound, I *know* my self-worth is not found in my performance.  But what I feel… that’s a different matter.  Heart over head sometimes, right?

Most times, actually.

We live in a day and age where everyone is a critic.  With the advent of the internet, anonymous vitriol is as easy as the click of a button.  Don’t like a restaurant?  Leave an anonymous review.  Displeased with a doctor?  Write a scathing diatribe against her practice.  Inconvenienced by a store clerk?  Send an email to his boss.

And if you’re in the entertainment business?  Boy, oh boy.  Everyone is an authority.

In my twenty-five years as a director, I’ve heard some doozies.

One patron, after a three-hour show, complained as she was leaving, “Why did it have to be so long?  At least they could have told us it would be that long.”  We did.  It was written in the program.  What else can we say?  Sometimes we do shows that are classics.  And the classics tend to be long.

One didn’t like a rug we used as part of a set design.

One didn’t care for the playwright.  Found her annoying.

One said I was “still learning my craft.”  At this point, I had two degrees and twenty years of experience.

As recently as a few years ago, I heard a young patron exclaim in the lobby at the conclusion of a show,

“Well, that was awful!”

I was standing right next to him.  And I felt the rage climb up out of the dark recesses of my heart and find its voice in my own.  I zeroed in on him with cold precision and said, “You need to leave.”  He looked at me in complete disbelief.  I repeated myself, lest he misunderstand.  “You need to leave… now.”  Then he understood.  Then it registered all over his face.  He immediately stammered out, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

“Well, you did.  Leave.  Now.”

He did.

Not my proudest moment.  But I did not want my students to hear that.  And I did not want my heart to hear that.  We had just finished five weeks of 12-15 hour days to launch the show.  We had fought budgetary limitations, casting woes, calendar conflicts, rental costume mistakes, and a ton of multimedia issues.  Memorization alone was deeply challenging for several of the actors.  Sleep deprivation had claimed most of us, but we pressed on; for every minor victory, there seemed to be some major setback.

The play was tough material, to be sure, but worthy of examination.  It asked the audience to engage their minds, to sit up and follow the subtle clues dropped by the playwright, and to ask hard questions in the end about life, responsibility, and reality.  It was meta-theatrical and self-referential.  It’s textbook canon, for crying out loud!

Either this patron wasn’t up for that… or we failed in our attempt.

Did we fail in our attempt?

I don’t know.  We seem to forget the kind things people say.  Though I am sure there were several for this particular production, I can’t seem to remember them.  I remember the putdown.

But it taught me something.  It taught me to respect the work no matter who the producing company is.  It reminded me to stop and look at the minutiae in the piece.  Someone typed that program.  Someone designed the artwork for the poster.  Someone painted the detail on that set.  Another hung and cabled those lights.  Still another stitched the trim on that gown.  Another choreographed the fights.  Another braced those platforms.  Who collected the props?  Who styled the wigs?  Who sound designed or stage managed or directed the show?  How long did it take to memorize those lines?  It is such a hugely collaborative process that the amount of man-hours invested would be near impossible to count.  And that amount of work–that crushing and unyielding amount of work–I will respect that.

How many details can you discern from a single photo from a production?

How many details can you discern from a single photo of a production?

Admittedly, we may not like the end result.  And I believe differing opinions are valid and healthy.  But I will not speak unkindly in their house.  I will not speak unkindly in their house.

TEL

Wait a second…HOW big did you say?

I have not yet had the opportunity to watch the new version of Cosmos that Fox put together this year, but earlier this week I saw that it is now on Netflix, so I have added it to “my list” for viewing in the near future.

Pale Blue Dot

Source: Wikipedia “Seen from about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40 astronomical units), Earth appears as a tiny dot (the blueish-white speck approximately halfway down the brown band to the right) within the darkness of deep space.[1]“

Upon first hearing that Cosmos was going to have new episodes, I thought about the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photograph. I don’t recall the exact time, but at some point in my youth I was made aware of the existence of this photograph and how it had been taken as the request of Cosmos’ original host, Carl Sagan.

Now, this is not meant to be a discussion over Sagan’s particular viewpoints, although I do find it amazing that given the exact same evidence two groups of people could be so absolutely sure of two polar opposite possibilities (deists and atheists). Perhaps that is another discussion for another day.

This post is about our place in creation.

As much as the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph and Carl Sagan’s famous speech from his audiobook of the same name puts all of human existence in a small place, this video, which I came across just this week, makes us seem even smaller in the grand scheme of things:

The above video takes the idea of the “Pale Blue Dot” and literally multiplies it infinitely.

Why bring this up?

Last week I wrote that Alan Huesing, myself, and everyone else that has experienced God’s influence should make a point to “write it down” as a testament to future generations. Well, in KINE 1301 Intro to Kinesiology (mostly freshmen), I try to get the students to think about how many books their total life’s story would actually entail. That part is easy for most of them…they realize that such a collection would, even at 18 or 19 years-old, be so expansive that no library could contain it. Then, I literally ask them to look at everyone else in the room, emphasizing that each of THOSE individuals also has a life’s story that is already near-infinite in nature.

To Kill a Mockingbird” taught me that to understand people you have to walk a mile in their shoes. To foster any positive change, regardless of occupation or God’s calling for your life, understanding people is a bare minimum requirement. That said, to walk a mile in others’ shoes you have to realize that the complexity of all of the factors in someone else’s life is just as complicated as your own.

Beyond the person next to you in class or working with you at your job, there are over 7 Billion people currently on the Earth with untold others before, and each of THOSE people also has or had a story that would fill entire libraries.

Here is the point: We have no concept of the expanse of God’s creation.

When made aware that they live on “a fraction of a pixel”, some people might feel overwhelmed or worthless. However, while we may be only a teensy-tiny part of creation, we are not insignificant.

Students must understand that regardless of their stature (relative to the rest of creation) they are important cogs in God’s creation. “The body is not made up of one part but of many.” If I can help students reach that state of mind and accept it, I have succeeded in part of God’s purpose for my life.

WW

What Not to Say to Your Professor

One of the things that we talk about a lot in leadership is trying to be empathetic and understand the perspective of those you lead.  I normally have a pretty easy time putting myself in other people’s shoes and I really value diversity, so this is typically a fairly easy exercise for me.  In fact, sometimes I think I make concessions that I shouldn’t make because I feel for the other person.

But today is not one of those days!

Today, I’m tired and busy.  And one too many student has said one of those things that really, really frustrate me.  So, since this is supposed to be a reflective blog…I’m going to reflect aloud to the world in an attempt to gain some empathic perspective.

Here are the things I’ve heard today that have just nearly sent me over the edge (along with my personal interpretation & my attempt at an empathic hearing):

1.  Did I miss anything in class on Monday?

  • What I hear: I couldn’t be bothered to come to class on Monday, but now I’d like you to do double the work by teaching all of it to me again.
  • What you probably mean: I’m trying to make sure I haven’t missed anything and would like to double-check that with you.

2.  I’m not going to be in your class because I’ve got to prepare for another class.

  • What I hear: Your class is not as important as this other class I have.
  • What you probably mean: I’m making the effort to tell you that I’m not going to be there because your class is important to me and I’m hoping you’ll be understanding.

3.  What do I have to do to pass this class?

  • What I hear: I’m looking to do the bare minimum in your class, but want to make sure that I come out okay in the end and I need you to make sure that happens.
  • What you probably mean: I’m just trying to survive!

4.  Is there extra credit?

  • What I hear: I can’t be bothered to do my work, but I’d like you to do extra work to create some way for me to get the grade I want.
  • What you probably mean: Ouch! That test was harder than I expected it to be and I just didn’t prepare adequately.

The reality is that as a teacher or a leader, I often do understand where you are coming from…but I have feelings too.  And sometimes the things that are inadvertently conveyed to me begin to pile up and take their toll.  I think there’s a lesson for all of us here as both leaders and followers:

Think twice about what you’re saying and how it might be received. (Tweet This)

-ep

P.S. And for any students reading this who want to ask the questions above, I’d suggest the following instead:

1.  “I’m going to miss class on Monday (meaning you’ve contacted your professor several days ahead of time), I see in the syllabus that we are covering ___________, how can I best make sure that I learn the material you’ll cover in class?”

2.  Please, just don’t say this.  Prepare early enough for your other classes that you don’t have to tell me that my class is insignificant and unimportant!  Professors do understand what it’s like to balance multiple classes and that everyone has a crazy day, but because we too go to multiple classes & have to be prepared for each of them every day, it’s really hard to hear this from you.

3.  “I have struggled up to this point in the semester and would like to see this through and really learn the material.  How might I adapt the way I’m studying/writing/preparing? And do you think it’s possible for me to get out of the hole I’ve dug for myself?”

4.  Okay, so I can’t think of any other way to say this, so maybe go ahead and ask.  Maybe just don’t count on extra credit all of the time. :)

 

When Empathy Backfires

I almost never get angry in the classroom.Bashaw

I place a high value on empathy and understanding, so in most stress-inducing situations involving students, I make myself stop and consider perspective of the student. For example, if a student has forgotten to do his journal assignment three classes in a row, I tell myself, “Perhaps this was a difficult week for him.” Or if someone makes a belligerent comment towards me in class, I reassure myself, saying, “Perhaps her family environment has developed this trait in her but she means no harm.”

But yesterday, the classroom empathy that I take great pride in, finally (and with finality!) failed me. I experienced a boiling fury—the kind that starts as bubbling acid in your belly, spreads like poison through your shaking limbs, and results in a red-faced, hyperventilating eruption—and I almost spewed fire and sulfur (of the Sodom and Gomorrah type) all over my Biblical Interpretation students.

she-hulk08pic2Roughly two-thirds of my class had not done their reading OR their homework!!! The reading schedule was on the syllabus and I had even reminded them of the details of the assignment during our previous class meeting. And yet, thirteen of my (Religion!) students showed up completely unprepared for class. I was shocked and hurt and angry and I wondered, “What went wrong?”

It was then the great spirit of empathy I had patiently practiced, which usually resulted in a renewal of hope and optimism in my heart, showed me that last thing I thought it would…reality.

As I stared into the eyes of my slacking students, I felt what they felt. They did not do their work because they knew, from their former experience with me, that I would allow them to turn in their work late, even very late, with only a 10-point penalty. And they had decided that the lack of preparation was worth the penalty.

I realized in that moment that empathy in the classroom is not always a good thing.

I went to sleep that night with a clawing feeling in my stomach. I had always thought that mercy and empathy were the twin pillars that made me who I was as a person and a teacher. And I liked those characteristics in me. Those were pillars I constructed to emulate Jesus’ life and characteristics. But it seemed that those pillars were crumbling at the cracks and I did not understand why.

Then today God showed up to spackle and buttress my pillars.

As is often the case, God encouraged me in a mundane, unexpected moment. In preparation for another class, I watched a short video by Daniel Goleman about leadership and the three kinds of empathy. A good leader, he explains, practices all three kinds of empathy:

1) cognitive empathy—the ability to see things from another person’s perspective

2) emotional empathy—the ability to feel another person’s feelings

3) empathic concern—the ability to help another person to do better and be better

And it became clear what was wrong with my empathy.

I  had been passionately practicing the first two kinds of empathy, seeing the perspectives of my students and feeling what they felt, but I had not begun to help them to be better or do better in my class. I was not showing the third kind of empathy, empathic concern. My “merciful” policy about late work and my deep “understanding” of extenuating circumstances had worked to my students’ detriment.

So what God taught me this week was that being an truly empathetic teacher means being an abler for my students…not an enabler. May God give me the strength to do just that.