Tough Love

I’ve recently seen the movie Whiplash, in which a verbally abusive music teacher (J.K. Simmons) pushes a pupil and class to the absolute brink mentally (and sometimes physically) in the hopes of bringing out greatness within them. It’s an incredible film and really makes you think about how hard you need to work to be good at a certain craft. It also makes you ponder where the line is drawn when it comes to how far you can push someone. Watching the movie I thought of the tactic that the teacher was enforcing, which was a higher intensity version of tough love. Basically, you’re brutally honest and strict yet supportive and caring in your attempt to make that person or group better. All in the hope that they’ll rise to the occasion (or walk away because they aren’t mentally or physically strong enough to take it on). It reminded me of an improv class I once took.

About two years ago, I took a class at a prestigious training institution in Chicago. It was an ultimately an improv class, but one that had a focus on acting. I had heard going in that the teacher gave honest notes and would call you out on your bad habits. I was excited and wanted to see how I fared in terms of my acting abilities within the confines of an improv scene.

8 weeks later…

This teacher was not one to mince words. At least not for me he wasn’t. He destroyed me every single class. No matter how well the scene went, he had something to say about it. Good, bad, or otherwise, there was always something to work on and always something that I could have done better. In my mind, I could do no right. He said my object work sucked and then forced me to start every scene doing object work. I’d start doing object work and he’d ask me where I was. I’d show where I was and he’d ask me who I was and what my motivations were. It was trial by fire and I felt like I didn’t know about improv, acting, or anything in between.  I felt like the Mayor of Garbage City. I started to really dislike him (mainly because I thought he hated me due to the amount of notes I was getting every class). I started hating the whole process because it made me lose confidence in my abilities. I didn’t want to go to class, but I didn’t want to fail out either. It was mentally taxing and got so bad sometimes that people would put their hand on my back and tell me “it’s alright, he’s just trying to make you better”, but I didn’t see it that way at the time. It was hard and I felt like I was at a crossroads at times. Then, I started trying to prove him wrong, which led to more notes. “What is that character?” “Who is she to you?” “What are you holding?” “Where are you?” “Start over.”

Finally, we had our last class. As everyone exchanged those awkward end-of-class goodbyes, I slipped out the door to freedom when he stopped me.  I went from relief to panic within seconds. “Are you walking towards the train?” he asked. I mumbled, “Yes” with my head down and he replied, “I’ll walk with you.” In my head I thought, “Great he’s going to rip me apart one last time. Hasn’t he done enough!?” That walk and conversation would end up being one of the most informative ones I would ever have. It taught me a valuable life lesson. It was during this walk that he informed me why he was so hard on me during the class. He said it was because he knew I could take it, because he knew I was better than what I was putting out, and because he thought I was good and was only going to get better. He said I was very funny and he saw that I was getting stuck in routines. He told me there were habits that needed to be broken and it was through this approach that they would be broken. It was tough love at its finest. None of the past 8 weeks had made any sense until that conversation on the way to the train.  Looking back at the progress I had made, it was groundbreaking. It made me work harder and despite knowing it at the time, it was making me much better. It made me think in ways I had not been thinking before and covering areas that had not been touched. I was improving every time I stepped into a scene, but the harsh notes made me think otherwise. The funny thing about life is that some events never make sense until after the fact. 20/20 hindsight they call it. That brutal honesty will stay with me forever. It ended up being one of the best classes I’d ever taken.

Which brings me to my next part.

In my opinion, tough love in your given field or profession is what’s going to make you better. Embrace the tough love. You don’t want someone to hold your hand through classes, pat you on the back, and say “good job” after a mediocre scene or set when you didn’t actually do a good job. Everyone says “good job”, but do they actually mean it. Hearing that over and over without any notes, you aren’t improving or growing artistically. Most importantly, you aren’t learning from your mistakes. I’ve taken classes at iO, Second City, and the Annoyance in Chicago and the most I ever learned was when my teachers broke me down and called me out on my mistakes. In fact, there is always something to be learned. If you have a teacher who is laying into you, don’t take it personally. Listen to their notes and know it’s coming from a positive place that’s focused on making you a better performer. At times you might get upset and you might want to quit, but that’s good. That means it’s struck a nerve and now you need to work on whatever that thing is so that doesn’t happen again. Always get back up and try again.

If you’re a first time coach or a teacher, you might think, “but I don’t want them to dislike me.” Not being honest and not giving them the appropriate notes to make them better is what’s going to ultimately make them dislike you. Maybe not even remember you. They’ll look back at your class and they might say, “I didn’t learn much” or “I don’t really remember” and the class will just be a bullet point on a resume. Nothing more. The best teachers out there and the best coaches aren’t pulling any punches. Give it to them straight and everyone benefits.

 

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