The Role of Mentor

Austin Actors Teach by Example at St. Edward's

Teaching acting -- the phrase conjures up images of classrooms in which instructors lecture on the importance of breath control and ways to break a line into beats, in which young performers dutifully present scenes from The Duchess of Malfi or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, then receive detailed critiques involving objectives and motivations, hand gestures and diction.

These are a few of the ways acting may be taught, but there are others, too, ways which take place outside the classroom. A lot of the teaching of acting happens where it counts, on the stage. Mostly, this is colleague to colleague: a director helping an actor find a way to reach a particular emotional level, two actors working through ways to achieve a desired dramatic effect.

In the theatre department at St. Edward's University, this latter form of instruction is an integral part of the training program for young actors. In addition to more traditional classroom teaching, the department hires one or more professional theatre artists -- actors, directors, designers, composers -- to work on each production that it stages. The idea is to expose students to practical aspects of the theatrical profession as well as the technical ones. The school's aspiring professionals have the opportunity to work with real pros: artists who have established careers in the field and can pass along the tricks of the trade. For actors, these run the gamut from tips on what to do at an audition to how to utilize a director's notes to the secret of a good head shot.

But while a guest actor at St. Ed's is certainly involved in teaching acting, he or she doesn't exactly function as a teacher, in the formal sense of leading a class and providing instruction in a set subject. A guest actor is hired primarily to serve on the production team and contribute to the show as a member of the acting ensemble. That suggests this person is more a colleague of the student performers, yet because the guest actor has been brought to St. Ed's specifically for this project and specifically to provide the students with the benefit of his or her professional experience, she or he is not exactly a colleague either. The role the guest actor plays at St. Ed's is somewhere between teacher and colleague; in many ways, it's more the part of mentor.

Michael Harlan and Sheila Gordon can tell you just what playing that particular part is like -- and how tricky it can be, every bit the challenge of fleshing out a Tennessee Williams Southerner or a Shakespearean clown. These two Austin artists are the latest in a long line of guest actors to perform alongside student actors in the Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Ed's. Both are currently involved in the 1996 Summerstock Season at the university, with each appearing in two of the season's three shows. They have extensive experience working with young actors -- Harlan as a drama teacher at McNeil High School in Round Rock, Gordon as a teacher at UT and other universities in the United States and Europe, as well as her own local studio, The Actors's Place -- which served them well in their interaction with the students, but there was still room for surprises.

"This is the first time I've worked as a guest artist in a college production," admits Gordon. "And to tell you the truth, first and foremost, I'm an actress; the first thing that came to my mind when I was hired was, `Great! Employment.' It didn't occur to me until after I got the job that there was a mentor-ship hat for me to wear. So it was a real shock to me when I went into the callback auditions and a couple of kids came up to me and shook my hand and introduced themselves to me. It was a new experience for me; it was like Robert Duvall walked into the room or something. I liked it, but it was unexpected. It's not the treatment I'm used to getting. It was then that I realized that, `Oh, this is a little bit more than just being a hired hand here.'"

Harlan wasn't caught off guard that way this year; he had the benefit of a previous guest stint in a St. Ed's show. But that didn't stop the students from giving him something of the fish-eye initially. "At first, they kind of checked me out from afar," he reports. "But it didn't take long for them to gravitate toward me."

Of course, nothing takes long in St. Ed's Summerstock. The season is eight weeks long, which allows each show only two weeks of rehearsal before its two-week run. Once the first show is up and running, the company fills their days rehearsing the following show. That production will open a mere three days after the first show closes. And as soon as that second show opens, rehearsals begin for the third show. With considerable understatement, Michael Harlan notes that "the schedule is pretty challenging."

It's in just this kind of production situation, with no time to waste, that an artist mentor can provide valuable leadership to a company of student actors. "The way I can be their mentor best is to really jump on the horse from the get-go, the first day of rehearsal, and try to give the director what he wants, try to help the director achieve his vision of the piece," says Gordon. "That to me is the best thing they can see a professional actor doing. You know, not putting up resistance, diving in there and making your mistakes. Be as big as you can and let the director pull you back or ask for something else or whatever. You can always find delicious stuff out of that, and you can always peel the nonsense away.

"I'd seen all the students in the auditions and I saw Go Back for Murder before I started rehearsing with them, so I knew their abilities and their potential, and I know there is some real phenomenal talent in the group. But I think when you're at that age, there's a carefulness at your first day of rehearsal. You sort of hold back, and you're sort of scared of making a mistake. You're afraid of doing a dialect or being goofy or really making eye contact with another actor. On the first day of rehearsal for The Diviners, the students were just exhausted, they had just opened a show, and here was this new director [Michael Costello], who had really been talked up -- everybody knew he had been classically trained, that he was really good, a big professional guy, and so on -- so that first day was sort of tentative for most people. Now, I had a very small part and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with it, so I came in and just did up the accent and the character and really made a lot of contact with people in the scene and brought a lot of life into it. And it seemed like that loosened the atmosphere up a little bit, that it got the students to realize, `Oh, this can be fun. Oh, okay.' After that, the character actors in the group really went to town and showed their stuff."

Harlan believes a similar tentativeness affects some young actors the day the show opens. They feel that their performance is supposed to be "set" by that point, and they are hesitant about continuing to develop their characterization in subsequent performances. But experience has taught Harlan that important discoveries about a character can be made by an actor well after opening night, and that sometimes an audience's reaction provides the most valuable clues to how to play a part. So, when Go Back for Murder opened, and the veteran actor felt his portrayal of Philip Blake was incomplete, he continued to tinker with it. "My character changed quite a bit after opening night," Harlan says. "During the run, we found many more fun things to do with him and brought more humor to him. And the kids saw that, and it made them realize that a part can grow even after a show opens, that we can explore it, flesh it out a bit more."

In addition to onstage lessons, the actors have found themselves passing on lessons of experience backstage. One of Gordon's regarded the silver lining in the dark cloud of a small house. "One night we had a real tiny house," she recalls, "like 30 people or something like that, and a couple of the kids were backstage kind of bemoaning the fact that we had so few people. And I was really excited. I said, `Oh, I love small houses,' and one of them said, `How come?' And I said, `Well, because you can go out there and relax and just find new things. So the next time you have a big house, you've had this chance really to play and give it your all.' And they were like, `Oh, yeah, that's a good idea.' It's interesting for me to pass on the little things that you learn along the way that they haven't learned yet. It's fun seeing the eyes open."

Harlan agrees, and he's believes it's important for him to contribute some of the instruction that isn't always covered in a university theatre course. "I'm able to offer them some expertise, some pointers about the profession they might not get otherwise: read as much as possible, take care of yourself, make contacts constantly, keep in touch with people."

Both of these longtime actors admit that some of their motivation in communicating what they've learned came from seeing reflections of themselves in these younger students. For Gordon, that aspect of playing mentor moves her, but it's also something about which she must be careful. "There are pieces of myself I see in a lot of the students. I think the first person I saw myself in was Alexis Clark. Her connection with her body and her willingness to explore and push the buttons reminds me of myself at that age. What's hard for me is to step back. This is where I really want to play teacher and it's where I really have to catch myself and just focus on what I'm doing as an actor and as much as possible try to make contact with her and establish a relationship with her, and allow her the room to find what she finds. Because she finds it. The closer she gets to opening, the more she finds." And it's right for her to be the one to find it.

Both artists have found playing mentor to be invigorating on the artistic side -- Harlan notes, "To act is such a treat and the kids are so nice that it's fun to work" -- but the experience has been even more inspiring for them as teachers. "Everything I do, I'm contantly thinking, `How can I use this at school?'" says Harlan. "I try to take everything that we do and find a way to apply it to my work at McNeil." Gordon is equally adamant. The experience, she says, "set my mind on fire about teaching. Seeing how these kids can make something blossom within two weeks' time -- they have so much that is there. They have all these un-mucked-with resources and that's exciting to me. I see where they're going, and I want to help them go there." n

The Diviners runs through June 30 at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the St. Edward's University campus. The Triumph of Love runs July 3-14 at the MMNT.

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