I’ve always valued the training I received in theatre school. It was a really rough time for me mentally, but as I’ve grown older (‘matured’?) I am able to look back and be amazed by just how many wide-ranging situations I’ve navigated by dint of those lessons..
I am continually surprised at how these various skills have come in handy here in this brave new world of traveling abroad. As I get to know myself better, and fall back in love with who I am, I wanted to take a moment to detail here how they’ve helped me on my worldwide, and inner, journeys.
I graduated with a degree in Technical Theatre. Practically speaking, I was a carpenter, designer, stage manager, stitcher, props designer, and periodically unemployed person before deciding that my career in theatre was unappetizing and way too uneven, to say the least. I wanted out, but I had no idea what to do, where to go, or how to get there. It was like coming to the end of a road and discovering that the last bridge I crossed had been struck by meteors (that I helped direct there) and the road up ahead goes off a cliff into a ravine, like the train tracks in Back to the Future 3.
For years I thought I didn’t have a hoverboard or means of escape… but I was wrong*.
I bemoaned my theatre degree for years. I made terrible mistakes. I bemoaned my life choices. I lathered, rinsed, and repeated… and instead of being an agent of change in my life, I became one who reacted, instead of acted. I was a passive, unhappy meatbag of a person.
I bemoaned a whole lotta things, and never really got objective enough to rise above the bleak, depressed person I was and achieve something brighter, something that my Self always knew I was capable of, but never let myself achieve.
But then I made a choice.
To me, this choice was to build a new dream, something with long-term value and interest for myself. (which are evolving every day). I want to get into sustainable landscape urbanism, with a strong eye toward regional environmental balance. We are social animals, and we should live within our environments, in balance… and in cities.
To survive in a foreign culture, I think that you have to be willing to embrace a certain amount of flexibility. This was definitely NOT in my personal vocabulary when I came, or at least not in my immediate brain. My animal brain knew what was up, though, and kicked into gear. And while Flexibility is certainly a skill that theatre helped hone (along with creative problem-solving and keeping a cool head), there were several skills that I discovered came from the most unlikely of places…
No one was more surprised than I to find that these skills originated in acting classes.
Seriously. I had no idea I learned anything at all in those classes, especially since I’m pretty sure I skipped half of them my Junior year. Seriously, I thought acting had nothing to do with me, or my future. Little did I realize that acting is… literally… (oh my god, I’m about to say this) …LIFE.
Let me get this out of the way, right now: even though I may have been socialized by these classes (and definitely by Theatre… I’m a late bloomer) to a degree, I do actually love to effectively communicate with another human being. There’s nothing like being on the same level with someone and having an intelligent conversation, a real back and forth where each line builds off another and you construct vast and intricate relationships out of the spoken word. These are the friendships I treasure the most.
I’m still awkward in groups, however.
With that intimate and rather pathetic introduction, let me go ahead and highlight what I view as some of the most valuable skills I learned and honed in these classes (with special thanks to Zeva, one of the teachers that I probably drove insane but who succeeded in changing my way of thinking in my final year).
LISTEN AND RESPOND
|It’s usually narcissist. There are a lot of narcissists who travel, apparently.|
If you’re not listening, you’re basically pissing in the wind. You gotta at least try when you travel, or you’re just a walking Asshole Stereotype.
An audience KNOWS when you’re just reciting your lines while secretly composing your grocery list for next week… because people do it to each other, every single day. And you know what? It’s never not annoying. You can always tell when your conversation partner isn’t listening but just silently waiting until there’s a lull so they can start reciting whatever topic they’ve been composing in their head. It might not even have anything to do with what you’re saying. Everyone hates this, no matter what culture you’re coming from/diving into. It takes energy and genuine interest to truly communicate.
You know what I’m talking about! Super annoying, right? I know, we’re all guilty of it, especially when tired, but when you’re traveling you do not have the luxury of simply communicating with your regular audiences with your typical shorthand, and expecting them to perceive your emotional/non-verbal signals and take the lead. You are often starting all over with a large portion of your conversations – who, what, where, when, why, and how are topics you might as well put on a business card and distribute to people you meet. It’ll save you a lot of time (I’ve really thought about doing this frequently, but it would be… weird. Efficient and funny, but weird).
So go on: introduce yourself. You’ll meet interesting people from all over the world, and at least a few of them will be extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, artists are my favorites – not only because I can communicate with them using a certain amount of artist shorthand, but because they are often good listeners.
In short – every scene needs a catalyst. Let that catalyst be you! And if you get stuck with a bad listener (truly, one of the most unfortunate traits), dump ’em. You don’t have time for that bullshit. Wander away. If you don’t, eventually they will.
THE ANSWER IS YES
|This attitude has led to some of my most memorable experiences here. It’s
also led to a few uncomfortable disasters, but hey, that’s life.
In improv scenes, it’s important to provide platforms for each other, motivations that propel action and reaction. No scene can go forward with denials.
The same is true of traveling. If random opportunities arise and present themselves (AND THEY WILL!), you’ve gotta jump on those like a horny chihuahua who knows he’s getting neutered tomorrow morning. Who knows what you’ll find? Who knows who you’ll meet? I don’t always say yes… but when I do I almost never regret it.
True, many of the people I meet are awful and I’d never really choose to pursue them for any kind of social relationship… at heart I’m still an introvert.
But if I’d said no… I never would have:
- Had so many beers with my neighbors
- Tried fried fish bones
- Taken a spur-of-the-moment weekend motorbike trip
- Gone to a soccer game in another province
- Eaten half the things I’ve had put in front of me
- Witnessed a kick-ball team of ladyboys put on a drag show on a rooftop at a French birthday party (that was surreal, thank god I went… even though it was a school night)
So yes. Yes is the answer. Practice your lines in front of the mirror, and soon you’ll have it down. It’ll be that much easier to respond when you’ve got the answer down pat.
BE CURIOUS, AND BE POSITIVE
|The best way to find out is to ask. No matter how shy you feel or how taboo
the subject in your own culture – what are they going to do, deport you?
Active curiosity is an absolutely essential tool in your toolbox, and one that I first honed at wedding receptions, where it proved useful… especially for an introvert like me.
This is a new world that you’ve traveled to, with an invisible cultural landscape to navigate. Use your curiosity like a bat uses sonar, and you’ll avoid trouble and have more fun.
You can bet people will be curious about you (at least the ones that count)! Memorize a few phrases, and do your best. And for the love of god, be curious back.
I have found Vietnamese to be aggressively curious about foreigners, and they’ll go on a question spree if the situation is right (i.e. you are not at work). Here, it’s totally fine to ask about their job, their income, their family life, their rent, their ancestors, their favorite TV shows, are they married, why they’re not married, and if they’d like to meet a beautiful son/daughter/niece/nephew/cousin/sister/brother, who is looking for a good husband/wife (this is typically the first 10-15 minutes of any conversation with any Vietnamese over 15 years old). Totally acceptable. Just because these are sometimes taboo subjects in the west doesn’t mean that you are being rude by asking – there are strange, magical mysteries that surround you every day, below the surface, and there’s only one way to find out.
And you know what? You have permission to be just as inquisitive. The culture you find yourself in is probably much different than yours, and one of the main rules of acting in a scene is discovering the rules of that world. You’re now in a different world, and you need to know the rules… there is really no better way to do this to be a curious mofo and just put it out there. I guarantee you’ll learn something interesting
And don’t worry, you won’t look stupid – you’ll look like someone who cares. This is something that people generally respect. Try to discover your partners motivations and passions, and you’ll never have nothing to talk about.
True, as an American, I’m generally uncomfortable with silences (which my Euro friends seem to be much better at handling), but I’m usually not filling it with meaningly babble. Be curious, and everything else falls into place.
(And can I drop a great tip here? No one wants to hear you bitch about the culture you find yourself in. It gets so old, so fast. WE KNOW IT’S NOT [YOUR COUNTRY]. IT IS CLEARLY A DIFFERENT PLACE. YES, IT’S HOT. YES, TRAFFIC IS SCARY AT FIRST. YES, THERE ARE WEIRD CUTS OF BEEF IN YOUR SOUP. YES YES YES, GET ON WITH IT. Ugh.)
and one I’m still working on…
|I‘m usually wearing Woody’s face when someone says
the words ‘party’ or ‘Bui Vien Street’.
The bottom line is that you can’t learn to do ANY of the above without first putting yourself in situations where you need to utilize these skills.
Yeah, I know, I know… how can I improve at life if I don’t make myself social? I get it. I’m working on it. It’s a tough nut to crack.
This was a hard one for me to learn, because it goes directly against my natural inclinations. But the theatre world is extremely small and incredibly compact (and incestuous) – it’s a truism that there are ‘only 6 people in the industry, and they all know all about you.’ That’s – frankly – terrifying. Everyone knows about you, and gossip, good or bad, is inevitably attached to your image. Your reputation precedes you at every turn.
Now I have the opposite problem – no one knows about me, but… no one knows about me. This must be what it’s like to be a civilian. Weird.
The fact of the matter is that my best friends I’ve ever had I’ve made through theatre. There’s something about the pressure cooker of Limited Edition Theatrical Art that glues people together in ways that ordinary experiences just can’t replicate. I’ve had a difficult time making REALLY good friends (with the wonderful exception of my Nature Museum friends – I LOVE YOU) after leaving theatre because there’s no external forces pressing people together and altering your mental makeup to form a cooperative situation. In Theatre, you get along and cooperate, or your work is crap (and let’s face it, about 70% of theatre productions are just godawful anyway, god bless ’em).
So yeah, making friends in the real world is something I’m still struggling to master.
Overall, these are the most important things I learned from Acting Classes. Were classes a drag? Totally. I hate memorizing lines, and I hate being told what to do. But did I learn incredibly valuable social lessons through them?
*To my eternal disappointment, I still don’t have a hoverboard.
Stay tuned for more life and travel lessons I learned from Theatre School! (Seriously, there are a lot. Theatre grads are exceptionally well-rounded people.)
What did you learn that has helped you in the wider world, outside of your chosen discipline?