I want to step out of character for a moment and, essentially, step in character. The professional hats I wear are radio talk host, freelance writer and theatre instructor. It’s that last one that gets attention today.
Although I rarely talk about it here, most people who know me understand one of my great passions in life is teaching acting and voice to young people. And to that end, I have the privilege of working at Stages Theatere Company, a wonderful professional children’s theatre company here in the Twin Cities.
The Acting Conservatory
Within the theatre, there is the Acting Conservatory. For 18 weeks every year I have the opportunity to collaborate with aspiring young actors on everything from Shakespeare to learning how to breathe properly. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they arrive from vastly different backgrounds throughout the Twin Cities area. But there is one thing that ties them all together: Their love of theatre.
I teach Track III, or year three. On Saturday, April 25, we had our last class for this year. Typically, it’s a day that’s hard on most everyone, both students and instructors alike. But this particular day – this one was harder than any other I’ve ever had.
Every group of kids I’ve had at Stages Theatre Company has been wonderful. Talented, energized and eager to push themselves beyond what they believe they’re capable of accomplishing. Each group is unique from the other but always special in their own way.
This group, however… this group was different. They had a certain magic to them that was hard to pinpoint. Were they talented? Yes. But it’s more than talent. It’s tantamount to the actor that walks on stage amidst a dozen other actors yet for reasons you can’t explain, you watch that actor more than any other. That actor has “it.”
This group of 14 – Abbie, Allison, Bridget, Christine, Erik, Ingrid, Kendall, Natalie, Nikki, Piper, Sawyer, Thomas, Tony, Victoria – they had “it.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that the year of Conservatory ends as the seasons are changing. From a cold Minneapolis winter to the rebirth of spring, the endings and new beginnings are in step with one another.
These classes are collective journeys of creativity and discovery. But what we learn, individually and collectively, goes well beyond the stage. We learn about ourselves. We learn about each other. And we learn where we intersect. What moves us, what stirs our passions and what gets us off the fence all comes into focus.
In a few weeks it’s likely most of these kids will have forgotten the abundance of tears and hugs from the final Saturday. Emotionally, they will have moved on. And that’s exactly how it should be. Chapters end and new ones begin. Like the seasons.
At the beginning of that last class the kids presented me with a card – it was lovely and it was moving. Included was a $100 gift card to a local restaurant that is a favorite for my wife and I. These scheming little detectives found out I liked this particular restaurant by doing a classic end-around. Translation: They fooled me into giving up valuable restaurant information. Clever to the end, they were.
But it wasn’t the gift card that got me.
It was the simple fact a group of 13 to 17-year-olds don’t fit the image people my age want to place on them. Selfish, indifferent to the world around them – not these kids. If anything stands out about all of them, it’s that they care about a lot of things. Most notably, they cared about each other in class. They rooted for each other, wanting everyone to be as wonderful as their creative reserves would take them. That’s something no instructor can teach.
Ultimately, that gift card told me the class made an impact on them. It told me the class truly meant something to them. And that, more than anything else, means everything to me.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any greater satisfaction in life than having a positive impact on the lives of young people.
The instructor side of me feels an incredible void. I won’t get to work with these kids again and on a certain level, the sadness is deep and it is tangible; as a teacher, you really do get attached to the kids. Teachers everywhere understand this only too well. But at the same time, I’m very excited for them. They have stronger, better-equipped “instruments” (voice – access to emotions – physical freedom on stage – technique) than they did last fall, they no longer are afraid of tackling Shakespeare and they are infinitely more confident in themselves. Victories across the board.
With every class I’ve ever taught, there is always one moment – one statement – that stands out among the rest as the lasting image of that particular year. For this wonderful group, it came in the way of a very simple sentence from one of the 14: “Thank you for making me feel important.”
They are important. All of them. They matter.
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.