The Intersection Between Acting and Teaching

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By Emma Björngard-Basayne

As an Old Hollywood nerd and an introverted instructor who dislikes public speaking, I have come to wonder where the intersection between acting and teaching lies and what I can learn from it. Watching Marlon Brando appear so confident in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Natalie Wood connect so powerfully with the viewers in Rebel Without a Cause, I ask myself: how can I hold my student audience captive like they do? I decided to investigate this question further by talking to Wayne Trembly. Wayne is not only an Academic Specialist for CETL at UConn, but he is also an actor and director.

photo of the author emma bjorngard
Emma Björngard-Basayne recently received her doctoral degree in Philosophy at UConn, and together with Kristi Kaeppel she is doing research on the role of women’s friendship in navigating male-dominated work environments. Emma is an Academic Advisor and Program Coordinator in the UConn School of Business. She also adjuncts for the UConn Philosophy department and teaches First Year Experience courses.

The Actor’s Tools in the Classroom

When the subject of acting and teaching comes up, there is often resistance with cries from instructors that their job is not to be an entertainer. Wayne agreed and said that “although our job is not to entertain, if we are entertaining and if we understand something about performance and what actors understand about connecting with an audience, we can have a tremendous impact on our students.”

I asked Wayne if he could talk about how instructors can establish such a connection with their students, and he explained that we can do so by utilizing the same tools as the actor does on stage. In a CETL workshop Wayne discusses the tools as being: one’s face, voice, body, enthusiasm, energy, concentration, timing, use of silence, and humor. “We can apply these tools to connect with our students in the same way actors use them to connect with their audience.”

“Use your facial expression to showcase your excitement and interest for what you are teaching.” Our body also reveals our emotions: we can smile in happiness or puff our chests out proudly, and we can use our voice to keep our students’ attention.

As an actor, “I know that I need to move my voice around in as many ways as possible,” something which instructors can do too by “increasing and decreasing the volume of [our] speech and playing around with intonation.”

After all, he notes, “the worst teacher is the person who speaks in a monotone voice and never changes their volume.” “We know that enthusiasm and energy are very contagious in the classroom. Every director in the world will say things like ‘show me your energy, show me some enthusiasm.’” The same is true of instructors–we should express the excitement we feel toward our subject often since it will most likely rub off on our students.

Just as actors “need to stay focused while on stage or they might miss their line, instructors need to concentrate while lecturing or they might forget where they are headed.” Actors also “talk about timing all the time.” Actually,  Wayne says, “acting is nothing but timing.” Unsurprisingly, it is important in the classroom too. “If I’m building up to a point, I might put in a pause just before I hit my main idea, or I’m going to change my vocal intonation.” Moreover, silence can be used as a tool to build tension. “It certainly does so on stage, and can do in the classroom as well.” Wayne says that if you stop talking right before you reveal a main point in your lecture, the students will be left wondering: “Why did the instructor stop talking?” and this will engage them.

Lastly, humor, both in the classroom and on stage, relieves tension, increases attentiveness, and gets the students to connect with you more completely. “If students know you are going to say something funny, they will pay attention because they don’t want to miss it.” “In this 21st century world of ours, students are living with great tensions, and most likely we cannot fix the problems behind their stress.” However, “for a little while we can get them to laugh and forget about it.”

Using Improv in the Classroom to Build Connection

Wayne does a CETL workshop on improv too, so naturally I was interested in  how I can use improv with my students.

“We know with younger kids that sometimes they can say things in character that they can’t say as themselves. And with shy or introverted students, even at the university level, improv can give them a chance to speak in a different voice and say things they could not say in their own voice.”

Further, improv is a great activity to do at the beginning of the semester “to help students get to know each other, loosen up, and realize that your class is a ‘user friendly course.’” Using improv is not a way to make your class less academically rigorous: “We are going to do all the things we need to do for 3 credits, but that does not mean it has to be miserable and boring. Improv can help lighten things up!”

As we all know, sometimes tension arises in the classroom. Wayne explains that “a short improv activity can break that tension and make your students feel more comfortable and closer to each other and to you.” Improv, just as the actor’s tools above, helps you create a connection with your students. “We know that students do better when they feel some sort of connection to the instructor, and using improv is a way to make that connection.” Not only does improv “take you out of yourself and your worries for a period of time,” which can be beneficial to the stressed out student, but it also creates an opportunity for the instructor and class to have fun together.

A simple improv activity Wayne suggests is the following: Start off class by having your students walk around the classroom in character. Ask them to “walk as someone who is angry, walk as someone who is happy, and walk as someone who is late somewhere.” Wayne likes to begin with this exercise “because it is low stakes and it is a group activity, so people don’t feel like they are on the spot, and there is no right answer; it is just nice and comfortable and relaxed.”

How Acting Can Help with Charisma and Nerves

As an introvert I was curious to know what Wayne had to say to instructors who do not feel like they are naturally very charismatic or entertaining. Wayne explained that you do not have to be an extrovert to be a great teacher and that we can take small actions to bring humor into our classrooms. For example, create folder on your computer and begin to “stuff things in there: when you see a funny cartoon, video clip, or image put in the folder, particularly if they seem like they will be relevant to one of your lectures.” Next, incorporate the cartoons, videos, or images into your presentation, because these “things can speak for you so you don’t need to have a spontaneous sense of humor.”

Another piece of advice Wayne has for introverts is “just to make the connection.” Even though you may not be “comfortable saying a lot about yourself, you have to give your students a little bit. What’s your passion outside of work? Are you a gardener, do you take apart car engines for fun, or do you have a cute pet who takes up a lot of your time?” He cautions, “don’t bore your students with stories all the time, but once in awhile a funny story will make them feel more connected to you and they will be looking for it.” They will start “asking about your pet, or how your tomatoes are doing this year.”

I also wanted to know if Wayne had any advice for what to do when you get so nervous teaching that your voice and hands get shaky. “The first thing you do is walk to your class, and if it is in the same building, walk outside and walk around the building. Just the exercise and extra oxygen will help you relax.” As the shakiness happens in class, do the following: “You stop, you do a little walking in character and take a couple of long deep breaths as you are doing it–on stage it will look like the director put it in, and in class it looks like you are thinking about what you want to say.” Next, we all hold tension in certain parts of our bodies, with many people holding it in their abdomen, right above their eyes, or in their feet. “Wherever it is, find that spot and the next time you get nervous focus on relaxing the muscles in that area. It helps tremendously!”

“Don’t fight the tension, find ways to abide it.” If you tell yourself you are not nervous, or shouldn’t be nervous, you will get more nervous. “Instead take the deep breaths, relax the tension where you feel it, take a couple of steps and chances are you will be fine. Lastly, acknowledge your nervousness to your students: be vulnerable. Say, “I don’t know what happened to my voice, it just got so shaky. I guess you are scaring the heck out of me.” Doing this, usually makes “them laugh and that laugh will help you relax. Humor can be an incredibly successful tool to deal with stress both for you and your class.”

Even though I might never be a Marlon Brando or Natalie Wood of teaching, after my conversation with Wayne, I feel confident that by using a few acting tools, not only will I be able to establish a greater connection with my students this fall, but I will also feel more comfortable doing so.

To read more about improv as a teaching tool click here, and for a discussion of fascinating ways to use drama in the classroom click here.