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Winter 2003

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Thinking in 3-D

Carolyn Anderson knows what it takes to be an actor—she’s had the training. But when it comes to theater work, she’d rather do just about anything else, including directing, writing, and stage-managing. “Acting is frightening work,” she says plainly. “I don’t have the guts to be onstage, standing up there vulnerably in front of people….”
Prof.Carolyn Anderson
     Last September Anderson had to overcome her stage fright to deliver Skidmore’s Convocation speech, which she was asked to write upon receiving the Ralph A. Ciancio Award for Excellence in Teaching. Established in 2000 to honor English professor Ciancio upon his retirement, the award recognizes a faculty member who demonstrates teaching rigor, effectiveness, motivation, knowledge of subject matter, and dynamism. Anderson, who’s been teaching theater at Skidmore for twenty-three years, was “humbled” by the recognition, which, she says, “made me think even more about what I do in the classroom”—which is train theater students within the context of liberal arts learning. “A lot of students come here with a background as performers,” she says. “One of the challenges is to help them readjust their thinking—to learn the intellectual, theoretical, and historical components of theater, to learn what their context is as a total theater artist, rather than just the star of a show.”
     What’s especially enjoyable about teaching at Skidmore, Anderson says, is “bringing students to a new level of understanding and connection with the world around them.” Among the courses she teaches are History of American Theater, Women in the American Theater, and playwriting. Directing is one of her favorite subjects “because it helps students think on a three-dimensional level. They have to think as theater artists, not just about something on the page. It’s the hardest class I teach.”
     Anderson’s approach to theater—in class, on stage, and in her own playwriting—is always a collaborative one, involving set designers, actors, composers, and other writers. “Theater is a human venture; it takes humans to create the humans on the stage,” she says. “In class and in rehearsal, we have a lot of intellectual conversations about what we’re doing and what it means. Collaboration is about interchange; it’s about being critical, giving another eye to something. As a director, you have to have a vision, but a lot of times that vision comes from how you work with other people—it’s a collective vision.”
     Finally, Anderson asserts, “In the theater, you cannot be a couch potato. You’ve got to engage in all the things around you.” She herself is inspired by art, music, dance, museums, plays, novels, newspapers—and her students. “They keep me going with their youth and enthusiasm,” she says. “They’re committed to the process. Learning should be hard, it should be challenging—but it should be fun. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t fun.” —MTS

Analyze This
Facing a semicircle of nine groggy-looking students in her morning directing class, Carolyn Anderson is a bundle of energy (even though she’s been up late, directing Lanford Wilson’s play The Mound Builders). The students have been reading The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. She instructs them to spend two minutes writing down everything they know about the playwright—whatever comes to mind. “Remember, as a director, you’re being a detective,” she coaches. In the ensuing discussion, Anderson remains animated, tapping her moccasined heels and toes on the floor, removing and replacing her eyeglasses, gesturing her approval when someone makes a good point.
     So, what about Tennessee Williams?
     Student: I’m guessing he drank a lot…
     Anderson: You’re right—alcohol and drug abuse was a big part of his life…
     Student: Wasn’t “Tennessee” not his real name?
     Anderson: That’s correct—Thomas Lanier was his real name… What else do we know about him?
     Student: He was American.
     Anderson: Yes! And that’s a very important point. We have a very short American theater history, starting with Eugene O’Neill in the 1920s—which wasn’t that long ago. Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie in 1944. He’s one of the great American playwrights. Why has he stood the test of time? Because his characters are benchmarks in American acting. They are memorable characters we can relate to.”
     Student: With all the characters—you despise them, yet absolutely love them…
     Anderson: Yes! The characters are maddening!
     After a bit more discussion, Anderson breaks the class into three groups, instructing the first to analyze the economic, political, social, and religious environment of The Glass Menagerie. “Look at dialogue,” she tells the second group. “What are the choices of words, phrases, images; what is the structure of the characters’ lines and speeches?” And the third group is to look at ideas—the meaning of Williams’s play, in title and content.
     When the students reconvene, it’s apparent that Anderson’s assignment was a success. The students have been considering much more than a script: they’ve been thinking in 3-D and learning what directing is all about. —MTS

 


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