Sunday, September 23, 2012

New Student, New Year - Ben Compton

New Student, New Year
Ben Compton. 

I’m full of good intention.
I brim over with it.
Polysyllabic idealism pumps through my veins, creating a rising tide of well meaning, pseudo-intellectual chatter.
Ideas and justifications just spew out of me and ricochet around the room, pinging in and out of the ears of those closest to me.

“Am I blowing their minds with my radical ideas for non-profits?” I think to myself,  “Their eyes are glazed over. Have I impressed them into a catatonic stupor? Have I literally rewired their psyches with my lofty descriptions of the power of theatre education? Wait, I think they stopped paying attention 10 minutes ago. They’re probably thinking about something else. Should I stop talking? I’ll stop talking.”

This internal monologue rattles through my brain about 10 times a week. I’ll be out somewhere and someone will make the mistake of asking me what I want to do with my life. I answer, and I answer earnestly: “I’d like to start a non-profit theatre company that works with high-risk and underserved youth.” I’ll say, and before they can respond I’m off on a 10-minute explanation. I’m tearing up by the end, overwhelmed with my own idealistic purity.  By minute nine, I become increasingly embarrassed by my own emotional reaction and begin to back off. Before long, I’m like Marcel Proust’s Swann who makes an impassioned defense of literature and classical education, but immediately regrets that he has “allowed himself to speak, even in jest, of serious matters” the character then quickly retreats, adding ironically, "We are having a most entertaining conversation; I cannot think why we climb to these lofty summits."

            I don’t bring this up solely to drop Marcel Proust’s name into a blog entry (as legitimate as that motivation would be). I bring it up because it really easy for each of us to stand at the precipices of greatness but be suddenly undone by our own earnestness. We fear it because it can be embarrassing. We fear it because it lays us open to judgment of ourselves as artists and human beings. We fear it mostly because it makes us accountable for what we believe.
            Improv luminary Del Close instilled a three word mantra into his students – “Follow the fear.” Follow the fear in scenes where you are nervous that you will look foolish. Follow the fear in situations where you are scared of revealing too much. Follow the fear when you confront an emotional situation where you feel out of your depth. Always follow your fear. Chase it, confront it, thwack it on head, and hold it up to show it to others. Do all of this because in this fear is truth, and, as artists, comedians, teachers, and as people in general, truth should be our currency.

            I say this because I am afraid. I fear saying things like “I am an artist,” or “I am a teacher.” I fear these things because I believe in them with all of my heart, but I am scared that someone will tell me they aren’t true. But, I’m tired of ignoring these fears. I’m tired of letting them dominate me. I’m ready to follow my fears to where ever they take me.

            City College of New York’s (CCNY) Educational Theatre Program has been a great place to do this. Barely a month in, and I’ve already discovered a wonderful community of people who are relentlessly supportive and positive. Actors, teachers, writers, directors, dramaturges, stage managers, technical theatre experts, designers, practically every facet of theatre is represented in the students at this program. Each student is here to embrace their earnestness and follow their fear. Each one of us is connected by the simple idea that education (whether it be in the classroom or in an arts organization) makes the world a better place. The feeling that as teachers and theatre professionals, we have not only the ability, but also the obligation to reach out to our communities make positive changes in peoples lives unites us all.  The people I’ve met in my first month here (both students and faculty) are intelligent, committed, and eager to learn. Our classes are steeped in academic rigor and artistic play. In the first four weeks, I truly feel like I’m being activated as an artist and educator.
There’s one class that I wanted to highlight in particular. “Artistic Lab” is an informal class that meets Thursday nights and consists of students in their first semester and students who are finishing the program. Outside of being an opportunity for new students to get to know the program and see what’s in their future, the class is a time where we to explore our own art forms and share them with others. It’s a chance for us to celebrate what we do and to remember why we do it. It’s fun, silly, and refreshing.
People take risks in this program and that’s inspiring to see.       We barely know each other, and yet we’ve begun to share our talents, artistic aesthetics, and deeply held beliefs about the power of what we can accomplish. It’s wonderful, it’s educational, and it’s freeing. It’s also terrifying, but we’re learning as individuals and as a group to follow that fear and become the kind of artists, educators, advocates that celebrate earnest truth and doggedly work to bring theatre to individuals and communities who thirst for it.

            So, here I am, and I’m saying it. “I am an artist. I am an educator.”

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