I have been an actor for most of my life. Starting in high school, I had a series of fantastic drama teachers. Some focused more on the basics of theatre, some theatre history, some about musical theatre or costuming. But most important for me were two amazing teachers that taught me the craft of acting. One of them was my college acting professor.
When I’m asked about my favorite teacher, I often cite my high school acting teacher – who was as fantastic as any teacher in an MFA program. When I cite the very best teacher I had, I usually mention a teacher I had for my Advance Placement History class, which led me to the highest possible score on the AP History test. (For those of you not familiar, this is a program wherein high school students take a college-level class. At the end of this year, a national test is administered and if a student does well, they credit that will transfer into college.) Mr. Kotsovos definitely had a huge impact on me, on my critical thinking abilities and my curiosity about the world. It was an exceptionally hard class, but I didn’t mind a minute of it.
But really, when I step back, I think I’ve been missing someone on my list. Suzanne Bales was…. Almost indescribable, actually. Powerhouse comes to mind. She had been, among other things, a Contralto on the European Opera scene. You don’t play those roles without being powerful. Just as you’d imagine, she was solidly built, had a loud, strong voice and opinions to match. In a different way, Suzanne’s acting class was just as hard, if not harder than, the AP History experience.
I spent one year with Suzanne. It was her first on campus and in an odd way our class bonded deeply with her. Odd because she was not an easy woman. Actors have fragile souls, you know. So we crave the approval of our director. We await their feedback so that we can tweak our performance and get ever closer to the ultimate “attaboy.” Suzanne did not give positive feedback often. She was at times harsh and brusque. You’d end a scene and she’d grumble about a lack of effort or moments not ringing true. Not a lot of kudos or strokes to the ego.
Seriously, one of the highlights of my time acting was the last day I performed a scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I was Blanche. It was a scene with her would-be suitor Mitch (played by my friend John, who was tremendous), and in it Blanche completely breaks down. Her desperation is palpable and her descent into madness is hard to watch. Real juicy stuff for an actor! But we’d been working on it a while and Suzanne was frustrated. She knew I could do this and was angry that I could not reach the depths I needed to. She uncovered my fear and displayed it to the world. She let me know how disappointed she was. I seem to recall that she had a walking stick and would pound it on the ground to make a point. On this day, she had and pushed me hard – harder than anyone had ever pushed me. I think there was a lot of pounding of the stick.
So I dove into the scene. I was a bit battered and bruised from the harsh feedback. But this time, I took all of that emotion and I used it to drive me deeper into Blanche’s pain and desperation. At the end of the scene I was literally on the floor, spent as if I’d run a marathon. For a ten minute scene! I was afraid to look at Suzanne, afraid I’d bared my soul and would be criticized again. When I finally gathered myself together enough to look at her, she was beaming a thousand watt smile that I’d never seen. Looking at me for a moment, she said simply, “Well done, lady.”
Odd as it sounds, this simple moment was almost life-altering. She’d taught me to work hard for something, to display honesty and use my fear rather than succumb to it. She wasn’t one given to platitudes, and as such her simple nod of approval was enormous. It has stayed with me to this day.
I am a big believer in feedback, in encouraging and rewarding people. But when I think back to that moment, I wonder, do we over-play the “atta boy?” Does it become rote for us? If so, does the positive feedback lose its power? I don’t advocate being as stingy with the positive feedback as Suzanne was, but it is worth considering whether we need to get more focused and targeted with our kudos.
But back to Suzanne. Probably the most telling example of her character is this: The whole year she was with us she was battling bone cancer, and not one person knew it. Not one person in her LIFE knew it. Going through treatment, wearing wigs, the whole shebang. But not once did her energy flag or her focus soften. It was an enormous surprise when – far too late – we learned that she was terminal. Already in the hospital, unconscious. Even in death, she made an enormous mark on me. This lesson was more of a cautionary tale. While I marveled at the strength it took to accomplish this task, I couldn’t get behind the idea of suffering in silence and not letting people offer support. It just seemed a little sad. A real life lesson.
I recently came upon a copy of what I said at the memorial service, and thought I would share it here. Among other things, I think it shows that I was passionate about learning from the get-go.
Suzanne was not my first acting teacher, and I suppose she won’t be the last. Nevertheless, she was and is the best mentor I could have asked for. From my first acting teacher, I grabbed all the free samples he offered. I blindly stored them in my mind and said, “Ya, that sounds reasonable.” I ended up with the basics and a lot of instinctual maneuvers. Suzanne gave me a gift. The only problem was that I had to go on a scavenger hunt to find it. I mean, I knew it was there, and I knew her gift went beyond the basics, but I could never really put my finger on what it was or where to find it.
Now, after her death, I know what it was she wanted to give me. I can see exactly how she was preparing me to take her gift and run with it. And I AM running with it. Like most performers, I’m a perfectionist. So the other night, I was talking with Sharon and my frustrations about the play I am in came to a head. I got upset and talked about how I felt I was disappointing Suzanne. After all she taught me, I was doing this and this and this wrong, and what I needed to do was this and this and this.
Sharon turned to me and said, “But you see, at least you KNOW what is wrong and what you have to do.” Suddenly I realized that what Suzanne had been giving me was an awareness of the gift that was already inside me. She taught me to teach myself. As she said to us once, “I’m not always going to be here to hold your hand.” Even so, she has taught me to hold my own hand. For that, I owe it to her to push myself just as hard – if not harder – than she pushed me. For now, all I can say is, “Thank you Suzanne, I hope you’ll be proud of me.”
Suzanne knew that there was a difference between teaching and learning. She knew the difference between teaching us about Stanislavski’s character development process and helping us learn to feel the difference between a hollow performance and a deep one. A fact vs. an experience. She was a mentor, a guide along the road of self-discovery. In my simple 19-yr-old brain, I was able to see that she had taught me to “hold my own hand.” Self-efficacy.
Theatre is a truly collaborative sport, but the experience of standing on stage, baring your soul is also a deeply personal one. There’s a constant feedback loop associated with it. How will people react to it? If you are paying attention, you get immediate feedback from your cast mates. Is your work “landing” with others? Is the audience responding? What does the director have to say about it? Being an actor, you learn to take feedback – both positive and corrective – and incorporate it at a deep level very quickly.
Actors love, sometimes hate and often fear directors. Sounds like a lot of employee-manager relationships I know. We need directors to provide that outside eye to a performance. The director’s message – or the delivery of it – is sometimes harsh. Not all directors are good communicators (nor are all actors, by the way). But by and large, we desperately seek approval and we long for feedback that will shape our performance.
This is also true of your average employee. Employees long for, and usually expect, to get feedback that will properly shape their performance toward the business goal. Are we providing that feedback? Is the message too harsh to be heard? How many horror stories have we heard about someone being surprised (or they may say, “ambushed”) by negative feedback at annual review time?
Actor’s become used to getting this performance feedback and we develop a pretty thick skin listening to it. As an added bonus, most of the feedback comes in a group setting, called “Notes.” At the end of a rehearsal you sit in a group and the director reads line after line of notes she/he has taken during the rehearsal. Many of those notes are positive, like “Good job in Act 2 Scene 3, it’s really coming along!” That’s a good reinforcement, and honestly it makes the “corrective” feedback go down much better.
Imagine what would happen if we did group notes in a typical weekly staff meeting! Because so many managers avoid feedback, and so many give feedback in harsh ways, employees tend to be afraid of any comment on performance. The annual review ambush comes to mind again. While some companies have evolved to make the annual review a low-trauma, collaborative endeavor, far too many still use the annual review to surprise their employees with issues and areas for improvement.
So in summary:
- Strategically timed kudos can have a drastic difference in performance and confidence.
- Ponder whether your learning program promotes or cultivates self-efficacy.
- Talk to an actor about how they approach the feedback process. How do they get such thick skin?
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Shakespeare