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January 20, 2005

Learning From the Pros: Theatre’s Artists-in-Residence Program Puts Local Actors in Classroom, on Stage

In the mirror exercise, two people face each other. One person makes smooth, rhythmic motions, while the other tries to mimic the action in sync. When done correctly, an observer cannot distinguish who is initiating the motion.

Doug Mertz, a teaching artist-in-residence, sprinkles this exercise throughout the courses he teaches in the theatre arts department.

The exercise is difficult because people have to focus and trust their gut, said Mertz, a seasoned actor who has appeared on nearly every major stage in the Pittsburgh area.

“At first some students laugh because they are uncomfortable – they’re standing close to someone they don’t know well.” Besides helping with aspects of performance, the exercise can encourage students to trust their instincts, not to over think and to focus on the movement of another person – reinforcing a sensitivity than can play well outside the classroom.

Mertz and four other full-time artists-in-residence teach the essentials of performance, whether it be for aspiring actors or any student looking for better presentation skills. Also, the teaching artists perform with students in Pitt repertory theatre productions and the Shakespeare-in-the-Schools program, an arts education outreach program in Pitt’s theatre arts department.

The program, established in late 1998, has continued to add artists as more sections of performance classes are added to meet student demand.

In addition to Mertz, current teaching artists-in-residence include: = E. Bruce Hill, who has performed with every professional theatre company in Pittsburgh.

= Doug Pona, who has taught for the last 20 years at the Pittsburgh High School For the Creative and Performing Arts and Point Park University.

= Kathryn Spitz, who has acted, produced and directed in a number of Pittsburgh productions in addition to acting work in Los Angeles.

= Elena Passarello, a half-time teaching artist-in-residence, works as a teaching artist with City Theatre and Gateway to the Arts, a non-profit Pittsburgh organization that presents arts programs to students and workshops for teachers in schools throughout the region.

The theatre department created the teaching artists program in part to counteract the loss of graduate teaching assistants, said Attilio Favorini, department chairman. Because of budgetary constraints, the department was pressured to cut back the M.F.A. in performance program, he said. Ultimately, the department dropped the M.F.A. concentrations in acting and directing, (leaving only the M.F.A. concentration in performance pedagogy), losing graduate students/teaching assistants and a couple of faculty positions in the late 1990s.

However, just as Pitt was losing theatre faculty and graduate teaching assistants, student demand for performance courses began to rise. At the same time, the number of professional actors calling Pittsburgh home also increased.

It turned out to be a happy coincidence for both Pitt and some of the local actors.

According to Favorini, the dean’s office in the School of Arts and Sciences agreed to replace the lost teaching assistants with two teaching artist-in-residence with hard money. Subsequently, the teaching artists proved appealing to individual and foundation donors.

Thanks to an endowment funded by donors Richard Rauh and Philip Chosky, both long-time patrons of local theatre, Pitt’s theatre department was able to expand the teaching artists program. (Favorini is working to raise money to bolster the program to cover the salaries and benefits of six teaching artists instead of the current 4.5 positions.)

For a few of the local actors, who typically perform in two shows a year, the teaching artists in residence program meant a full-time salary and guaranteed benefits, not the norm for actors who generally work only part-time in their profession.

A program featuring professional actors teaching in a university theatre department doesn’t seem to be too unusual. Artist-in-residence programs abound but a professional artist’s ability to teach varies, according to Favorini. That’s why Pitt’s teaching artists are required to take class performance pedagogy workshops before they even step into the classroom. He insists that Pitt’s program is unique because the actors have to teach, really teach, University-evaluation-every-term kind of teaching.

Why the emphasis on instruction?

Because the theatre department needs seasoned professionals to instruct a burgeoning number of undergraduate performance classes. This fall, 18 sections of Introduction to Performance and 5 sections of Acting 1 are expected to be filled, according to Favorini. “If we had more money, we would add more classes,” he said.

Surprisingly, the bulk of the students are non-thespians — engineers, business students, people interested in bolstering their personal presentation skills regardless of their field. Increased interest in performing arts program was spurred by a combination of factors in the late 1990s, according to Favorini: After the School of Arts and Sciences changed its creative expression requirements, more theatre performance courses became eligible for degree fulfillment. The department increased the quality of basic performance classes by initiating some commonalities among the classes of all instructors and required all instructors to take a pedagogy workshop. Word of mouth helped too, he said.

“Students see the value of taking a performing arts class if they are going to be out in the world where they need to have some self confidence in interacting with people,” Favorini said.

The theatre department teamed the Katz Graduate School of Business M.B.A. program last fall to enhance students’ presentation and interpersonal skills. Katz Dean Frederick Winter said he wants his students to have “confidence in their abilities — the kind that you find in people who have been trained in the theatre arts. Perhaps a good example of that is Ronald Reagan.”

Whether it’s speaking in front of a group of people or selling your abilities to a prospective employer or engaging in a balanced conversation, performance classes can enhance the presentation. There are many enduring skills and qualities to refine in the practice of theatre arts, according to Kathryn Spitz, a teaching artist-in-residence and artistic and education director of Shakespeare-in-the-Schools. In addition to her involvement in the Pittsburgh theatre community, Spitz worked in Los Angeles with such actors as Lisa Kudrow, John Ritter, Charlton Heston, Raquel Welch and other stars in a number of television shows.

“No matter who I’m teaching – a business student making an impression at a job interview or an aspiring professional actor or just somebody who’s looking for a seemingly easy credit – the most important thing to instill in the students is the ability to listen and respond.”

Such skills seem deceptively simple. They aren’t, according to Spitz: “If you review your day and think about your conversations, how many times do you find yourself tuning out another person and not connecting in the moment to what another person is saying?”

To teach students how to listen and respond more effectively, Spitz employs a psychological approach: “It’s very important to clear your head of all distractions and voices.” To listen and respond well, Spitz advises students to relax so they can respond to what an acting partner, or another person, is giving.

“I encourage students not to sound like robots, to bring their personalities with them to, say, a job interview. When you’re tense, you’re unable to bring your personality.”

To get students to relax, Spitz opens many of her classes with breathing exercises. “My technique is to get the students in a neutral position, get them physically comfortable – so they’re not twitching.”

Becoming comfortable in your own body and voice is essential for presenting yourself, according to Mertz. “One of the things I stress to students is that a painter has a canvas, a musician has instrument and an actor only has himself. You have to learn what you have and be comfortable with what you have.”

Mertz teaches this brand of self-comfort in small steps: One exercise involves paring up students who interview one another. Then, each student gets up in front of the class and talks about the student who he or she interviewed.

After the exercise is over, students often say they weren’t even nervous, according to Mertz. “That’s because they were focused on something else. They don’t have time to think if they look stupid. “

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