Thank you, Joanne
I think of Joanne as my second acting teacher. Skip, the first. Really, though, she co-taught that first class – Shakespeare – right along with him. That first class about acting that changed the course of my life in inexplicable and lasting ways; lessons that go on informing what moves me, and orienting me in the presence of critical decision points all these years later. When not knowing is an insufficient alternative, the choice that gets made might, if we could trace such things, very well wind back through relationships and neurons and labyrinths of previous choices, back and back to adolescent experiences during six short weeks in summer of 1988.
Skip enjoys pride of place in my memory because his teachings were overt. The exercises and explanations spoke largely to who we were already. He knew how to have fun while imparting knowledge to us. His teaching felt seamless; a natural extension of our identities. Joanne, however, aimed her work at who we were expected to become. Namely, self-directed performers responsible for our own growth on stage and, more, our meaningful communion with others. She wasn't about fun, and we were all terrified of her because of it. Learning from her felt like work. She generated within each of us something akin to the trying relationship that a reptile might feel for its body as it sheds dry, clinging, catching skin.
Part of the resistance surely was that her activities felt obscure; minimally connected to playing a character. What I know now is that she was encouraging us to engage something far more complicated than a fictional being. Joanne was getting each of us to grapple with a self: the deep core and wellspring beneath truly purposeful acting. She was trying to show us how to pose useful questions, and to creatively provoke our hearts and minds.
So there we all stood one warm afternoon, in a circle in a darkened classroom. The chair-desks used as a matter of course for conventional classes during the school year now all shoved and stacked at the margins. The only light coming from the sun, but filtered through a canopy of leaves and then diminished by tinted windows before reaching our strange ceremony. We were supposed to keep our eyes shut. Nobody was doing that very well, thanks to equal parts defiance and boredom. Whalesong echoed as clearly as it could from two meager speakers attached to a boom-box at the periphery. Besides not peeking, our objective was to join the haunting echolocation with the hum of our own voices. We weren't charged with anything as complicated as matching pitch or following rhythm. “Just sing with them.”
I don't know how I slipped from trying to conform to my peers' mockery of the moment, to keeping my eyes persistently shut. I'm not sure in what second my jaw dropped and allowed breath to carry my voice unhindered into the space. But at some moment I joined, and the floor and the walls and buildings around the walls and the few young years that accident upon accidental happening brought me to this place and nothing short of time itself…it all bent and then gave way. And maybe I breathed for the first time since I'd stopped breathing, as humans do when they acquire language. Now I had breath and a language both. I took the one in deeply and let the other out readily, without suppressing – without forcing – either direction.
As my heart rose up, my body stumbled with wooziness. I puzzled at my clammy palms and humid brow; my arteries pumping forcefully into my ears. Yet my eyes remained dark and my voice available up above, until the moment that my legs began to crumple down below. Destined for the cool floor. But I didn't hit the floor. Joanne, who in my recollection could have been doing nothing other than anticipating my collapse, caught me. She pressed a bottle of water into my hand and, whispering so as not to contradict the whalesong, instructed me to sit and drink.
Thereafter, when my teenage cohorts complained about the worthlessness of Joanne's time with us, I said nothing. Skip charmed me with his endless passion. But Joanne earned my respect with her conviction. Although I think of the former first when thinking about my life with in theatre, in truth they are together my first teacher.