Teaching as performance art

When I set out to write, produce and perform my original one woman show about the classroom experiences of a Minneapolis French teacher, Pardon My French, for the Minnesota Fringe Festival last summer, I had three goals that would help me know I’d been successful:
  1. Have fun
  2. Have supportive friends in the audience
  3. Avoid puking on my shoes in front of everyone
I don’t have a lot of acting experience. I entered the lottery with the full knowledge that my fan-fluttering chorus girl experience from my high school production of The Pirates of Penzance wouldn’t be much help. To prepare I took improv classes at the Brave New Workshop, but improv and scripted solo performance are definitely not the same beast. With the help of my friend and director Elisa Korenne, I planned and prepared a one-woman show that would bring an audience into a staged high school classroom. With over a dozen years of experience as a classroom teacher I decided that playing to my strengths was the only way to achieve anything reasonably good. No one was more surprised than I when four of my five performances sold out at The Playwright’s Center. It has since occurred to me that my years of teaching experience much more effectively gave me the foundation and reflexes I needed to do my show than I realized. I’m still an enthusiastic novice of an actor, but here are some internal qualities I believe teaching and acting have in common.

Animated Storytelling

Teachers and actors are storytellers. Our enthusiasm initiates from an inherent passion for what we’re sharing with the audience. Love shows on our faces and in our body language when we can’t help but share what comes next. I’m as likely to get excited about the nuances of using the subjunctive in a paragraph as I am to tell a story about the scandalous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. And despite the fact that my students didn’t know they’d find it interesting at the beginning of the year, they hang with me. If not out of a thirst for knowledge, at least from curiosity about how Madame Campbell got so worked up in the first place. There’s something really great about geeking out on language: I animate a good French accent and intonation so my students can reproduce it effectively – and sometimes to hilarious effect. If you haven’t seen Alec Baldwin’s French teacher skit on SNL, get thee to the Google forthwith.

Using Space

As a teacher or as a performing artist it’s necessary to be completely in tune with my space. I have to know where things are in my classroom. Environmental props are crucial. I have French knick-knacks, posters, flags, and books that I know exactly how I’ll use when the opportunity arises. Flashcards for the Chapter 4 vocabulary test: Second shelf from the top, wooden cabinet in the back of the room. Laminated posters and postcards of famous Impressionist art works: Beige file cabinet, bottom drawer. Need that picture of the Château d’Angers to perfectly illustrate where the Plantagenet dynasty began to flourish and why there are so many French words in the English language: Bottom shelf, right next too the door. When my students look around the room, they know why they’re there and they know I mean business.

Presence, Focus, and Authenticity

The thing I struggled with most while doing my one-woman show was how much more difficult it was for me to stay present with the audience than it is to keep a class engaged for 55 minutes at a time. I couldn’t ask everyone to stop looking at me for a while and do exercise D on page 72. I confess, during my show, I had moments where I wanted to sit down at my desk and stop talking for a few minutes while I reviewed my notes. When I think back to my first year of teaching I had a similar anxiety: Are they buying this? Do they know I’m a hack? Because I’m an artist, visions of the catastrophic doom that my work is being poorly received come to me more quickly than vertigo atop the Eiffel Tower. And when I’m teaching and my performance is crappy for a day, I’ve got to see the same people again the next day and the next – all the way through a 176-day school year. The stakes are different. One thing many people forget is that teens have the best bullshit detectors on the planet. They’re much less forgiving than adults when you aren’t giving 100% and in a classroom they’ll let you know when you don’t have them hooked. Brain research has shown that young learners do best when their emotions are engaged in the classroom. Knowing when to comfort, when to challenge, and when to get them up and moving around to shake off the afternoon blahs is when I really have to trust my instincts. As I’m teaching, if I’m stuck in my head and distracted by what I’m going to do about that tire repair or whether or not I remembered to pay a bill on time, I’m going to lose them and spend the rest of that hour doing damage control – also known as worksheets. I offer chunks of information about how to produce language. I then contextualize that language to their real lives and give them the opportunity to practice. It requires fluid thinking and the ability to reach back into my sometimes-dusty brain files for cultural and historical references that might make our current context more relevant. Authenticity in my teaching persona is central to both developing a relationship with my students and to performing an interesting lesson. Being in the zone keeps me honest. The process of instruction requires that I read the room, control classroom dynamics, and have fluid mental access any information I’ve got that relates to the questions they come up with as we go. When I don’t know the answer for something, I can’t just make shit up, as much fun as that would be.

Timing is Everything

You’ll be glad to know that I didn’t puke on my shoes during the Fringe or during the second run of Pardon My French. It’s a show that pokes fun at what everyone brings into a classroom and every performance I did felt very different. It was really interesting how some audiences laughed at my jokes more than others and I had a hard time adapting my performance on the fly. Every class hour is also a unique experience. I start out with a plan that may go the way I want but I’m constantly prepared to adapt it depending on how it’s being received. Keeping the flow of a lesson and knowing how to make smooth transitions is important. As a teacher, I know that being fully invested in creating a good experience for my students is the only way to keep them hooked. I’ve got to be ON, especially when I’m presenting new material. Keeping them engaged is the best possible strategy to fix new words and concepts into their brains. And just like performing for an audience, a well-timed joke often releases the anxiety in the room and reminds all of us that this serious business of learning is only worth it if we’re all in this together.
Headshot of Michele Campbell
Michele Campbell
Michèle Campbell is a high school French teacher, writer, and performer. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Hamline University and believes that doing a show for the 2010 Fringe was the most fun she's ever had on summer vacation. She thinks you look fantastic today and would love it if you'd visit her website: voixdemichele.com