visceral imagination, imagination, Possible Slow Fuse Series

Theater & Teaching - Possible's Slow Fuse Dialogue Series #2 with Kevin O’Neill

April 12, 2019

By Samuel Chen

Session 2 of the Possible’s Slow Fuse was another full house as Dr. Kevin O’Neill led an interactive dialogue on the often-used analogy between theater and teaching.  There was an amazing turnout, with cross-Faculty representation.

Kevin explained that the idea for the session came from reflecting on how while pre-recorded learning materials have the benefit of being accessible anywhere and anytime, students may not be inspired to work through them and persist when they find them challenging.  This made him wonder about what has always been valued in the “live” experience of theatre, and what implications this may have for teaching in any modality (face to face, online, or a blend of the two).

Right from the get-go, we had some excellent discourse around the appropriateness of the analogy, as Michael Ling interjected, “But if teaching is like acting, does that imply that the teacher is faking it, or is disingenuous?”

Kevin acknowledged that analogies are usually chosen due to the similarities between the base-domain (e.g. theatre) and a target-domain (e.g. teaching). However, understanding the dis-similarities or mis-mappings is equally important to coming up with new insights or seeing the target with fresh eyes.

Live teaching shares many of the required skills of a performer on stage, like movement, gesture, and projection of the voice.  Teachers also regularly experience performance pressure and stage fright. As part of his research preparing for the session, Kevin had been drawn to the work of Seymour Sarason, who spoke of teaching as a performing art.  No sooner had Kevin started quoting Seymour than he was interrupted by a case of deus ex machine, as Seymour came on screen expounding on his reflections!

Kevin seemed pleasantly surprised by the timely interruption of Seymour. Responding, he quoted scholars of education and theatre:

“Acting is not pretense.  It is used not to deceive, but rather to vivify.  Teachers act in order to gain attention, to clarify, and to stimulate.  They do not attempt to portray something they are not, but instead to convince by dramatizing.” (Rubin, 1985, p.117)

And as the Russian theorist of theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski suggested “acting is a matter of being truthful in imaginary circumstances” (Gillett, 2014)

Subsequently, Kevin encouraged us to have a small group discussions mapping the similarities of theater and teaching as well as their implications for our own thoughts about teaching.

Some of the interesting insights we discussed included the importance of emotional engagement in the teaching and learning process.  We also spoke about how this process is energized by story and relationship.  Furthermore, as in theater, teachers need to learn how to respond, adapt, improvise and create space for the unexpected.

A point was raised that, this is especially important for long-running plays where the actors may struggle keep the performance fresh.  Kevin pointed out that Sarason once made a related about teaching: “the burned-out teacher tends to be the one whose performance has been routinized, like an actor in a long-running play who…goes through the motions.”

We proceeded to discuss reasons why theater goers still go to the theater today, when there are so many excellent recorded performances.  This helps us to understand why there is continued value in live teaching versus online or pre-recorded learning.  We had scarcely begun the topic when another ghost in the machine hijacked the conversation:  the actress Martha Plimpton came on screen and started sharing what she values in live theatre.

We then had the opportunity to explore dissimilarities / mis-mapping of the base and target domains:

Some of the dissimilarities discussed included how the teacher’s story line needed to be flexible and adaptive compared to the script of a play.  Also teachers, unlike the performers in a play, may not have the same level of support structure that a performer has.  Often they need to fill the role of playright, audio-visual, director and performer, making preparation all the more important.

We also spoke about the fleeting community in theater versus the longer standing relationship of a teacher-student relationship. This provides the opportunity for second chances and the possibility for greater interactivity.

The conversation and interaction was so engaging that we had reached the end before we knew it.  Our designated discussants Kavita Hoonjan, Nic Fillion, and Michael Ling had a last opportunity to comment.

If this session was modeled after theater, it would be more akin to improv theater than a Broadway performance because of the immersive participatory experience.  One only realized as they walked out the door that Kevin was in his own right an excellent actor, worthy to perform in any theater.  The great spontaneity of the session (including the ghosts in the machine, which in the end credits we found out were impersonations by Kevin’s family) required great preparation.

I am inspired to read Kevin’s article recently published in the Journal of Curriculum Studies, To Be Genuine in Artificial Circumstances: Evaluating the Theatre Analogy for Understanding Teachers’ Workplace and Work.