We’ve all seen that moment with a student where something is holding them back. They want to control the scene because they’re afraid of being out of control. They aren’t listening because they’re in their own head. Or maybe they’re so stressed with their life that it’s affecting their ability to be present in rehearsals or shows. It’s sometimes hard to know what a teacher’s role is in these moments. Teaching, especially in the creative fields, can sometimes feel like therapy.
We see this idea glorified in any TV show or movie about an acting class. A student does a monologue and it’s a decent performance. The teacher knows something about their personal life or digs into something very private, and forces the student to talk about it in front of the rest of the class. The student then has an emotional breakdown in front of the rest of the students, the teacher hugs them and whispers to them, “Use it.” And then they do a stellar performance which ends in a standing ovation from the class.
We also probably have been in acting classes where we have been pushed beyond our comfort zone or seen this happen to others. And that makes us grow or sometimes traumatizes us.
The Struggle Is Real
To my fellow teachers, coaches, and directors, let’s remember: we are not trained therapists. But we sometimes teeter dangerously close to that line. I teach psychology at a community college in Southern California. Students often share very personal stories that relate to what we are discussing in class. I struggle between not wanting to become their therapist (super illegal) and not wanting to come across as uncaring.
We want to create a space for people to be vulnerable, without becoming therapists. But how can we do that and still create a safe, open space for learning?
The following are the guidelines that I use to help me keep these boundaries clear. I am constantly revising them the more I teach and work with performers. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just use the terms “teacher” and “student.”
Am I spending too much time with one student?
Sometimes we spend more time with one student than another for a variety of reasons. I often find myself talking for hours with one student about improv theory, and that’s normal (I think). Some teachers will talk about sports or video games with particular students after class.
Sometimes a student may spend too much time venting about their personal life outside of class. Or you might find yourself spending too much time working with a particular student. Both of these situations indicate that you might be taking too much of a “therapist” role with your students.
Am I spending too much time thinking about the student?
If class was three days ago and you’re concerned about a student’s well-being, then you’re starting to be more therapist than teacher. There’s nothing wrong with being a human being who cares about other people, but this can get out of control. The boundaries in the student-teacher relationship become blurry when a student takes up too much of your mental space. That’s rarely a good thing.
Are my notes focused more on performance or interpersonal issues?
There’s a fine line between “I noticed that you weren’t really listening in this scene” and “I noticed that you were a little distracted on stage, are things okay in your life?” Identifying performance issues is the realm of the teacher; identifying personal issues is the realm of the therapist.
What are my motivations for giving the notes I give?
As teachers, we push our students past their comfort zones. My favorite thing to do with a group is to ask how they feel about organic openings (which always gets several groans from the group). I then enthusiastically inform them that we’re going to be working on organic openings that day. Everyone LOVES organic openings. This is me as a teacher pushing past a specific boundary. This is teaching.
On the contrary, if a student expresses that she doesn’t like being hugged, and I tell her that in order to help her be more comfortable with hugging, she’s going to do a scene with everyone on the team and it will end in a hug, that’s not even therapy, that’s torture.
We are not trained to understand or deal with traumas and triggers, and it is unsafe for us to push into that territory. Even though I love hugs, it’s not my job to make my students love hugs. But it is my job to help them understand how a strong organic opening can help them as performers.
Just because a teacher made me do this, doesn’t mean that it’s okay for me to force my students to do it.
I remember my favorite exercise in my high school theater class: the massage circle. Oh man, you’ve had a long day in American Lit and then you spend 5 to 10 minutes getting a backrub! That’s the best. Completely ignoring the fact that SOME PEOPLE DON’T LIKE BEING TOUCHED THAT WAY. Your favorite warm-up is doing 10 burpees because it reminds you of that time you did Shakespeare in the park, yeah… not everybody’s going to be comfortable doing that. Be aware of the comfort level of your students. If someone needs to sit down or lean, it’s rarely because they’re not interested in what you have to say. And some people don’t feel comfortable telling an entire class about their physical limitations because ableism is a real and annoying thing.
Our job as teachers, coaches, and directors is to make our performers better performers, not better people (but if we’re really good, that happens anyway). We can’t fix the interpersonal issues that our students come to us with because that is not our job and it would be unethical to try and make that our job (in the same way that if one of our students had appendicitis, we probably shouldn’t try and perform an appendectomy… Probably).
We can still care about our students and provide support during hard days, but when too much of our attention becomes focused on one student, then we lose our ability to be effective to the group as a whole. It is our job to understand our students’ boundaries and ask questions when necessary. We should also stick to the boundaries we’ve set for the class. It also doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of emotional intelligence and realize when we’re pushing past someone’s boundaries without realizing . Or when a student is continuing to push past our own boundaries and seeking guidance beyond what we’re comfortable giving. Sometimes it’s okay to not be able to help a student.
It’s not easy and we’ll all make mistakes along the way (like the one time I didn’t realize that one of my students was blind and I almost made a joke about him bringing his guide dog to class). The important thing is that we learn, grow, and do better the next time.
Jeff has been an improviser since 2002 and have studied at iO West, ComedySportz, Second City Hollywood, The Groundlings, and UCB LA. I'm also one of the producers of the Hollywood Improv Festival.