Testimonial #24: Susan Chase, Actress/Playwright

“Here’s the amazing thing. . . I got past my crippling shyness and began to enjoy performing, enjoy telling a story in a way that moved my audience.”

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?
This is such a great question — and it really takes me back! I was a terribly shy child, a straight “A” student, but I was terrified whenever I had to speak in front of my peers. In 5th grade I had the distinct good fortune to be placed in Mr. Cardinal’s class. Mr. Cardinal was an unusually demanding teacher. Not only did he require the quotidian research papers and essays, but he insisted that we do in-class presentations on all our papers. He even graded us using a “performance” rubric. It is so long ago, that I don’t remember every element of the rubric. But I do recall “Has good posture” and “Makes eye contact with the audience” and “Uses a range of emotions and colors in his/her speech.”

This was all absolutely horrifying to me! I worked so hard on my papers and continued to get “A”s on my written work. But this grade would be averaged with my presentation grade — and I found myself receiving “B”s for the first time in my life. Speaking in front of others was sheer torture for me. I could only do it by staring out into space and mechanically delivering the words I had memorized.

After a month or so of accepting my fate as a “B” student, I finally determined that I would rise to the challenge and meet the requirements of the performance rubric. At first I did it artificially — I would arbitrarily select moments to raise or lower my vocal pitch; I would contrive an emotion and try to sustain it during a section of my presentation. But here’s the amazing thing: eventually this became natural! I got past my crippling shyness and began to enjoy performing, enjoy telling a story in a way that moved my audience.

I don’t reflect on my 5th grade experience all that often. But when I do, I always find myself thinking, “I bet I never would have had the skills or confidence to go into theatre if it hadn’t been for Mr. Cardinal.”

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?
As an actress/playwright, I am fortunate to be a frequent “artist in residence” in my local schools. This has afforded me a unique vantage from which to witness children growing and flourishing. It is certainly challenging to select just one or two stories from the many transformative moments I have witnessed — but I will try.

Several years ago I staged a play with a group of students in a special school for children with psychiatric issues. One of my lead actors was a young adolescent who came from a tragic family background. His father had been killed in a car accident, leaving his mother so profoundly depressed that she was unable to care for her children. This boy came into the classroom very sad and very angry. But working day-by-day on a character allowed him to explore his positive emotions. He played a variety of characters, all of them strong, noble, good-hearted. His mother attended a performance. After watching her “troubled” son’s performance, she decided that he wasn’t so troubled after all and that she was ready to take him back home with her. This family re-unification was facilitated, in part, by the son’s growth through the arts and his mother’s observation of that growth.

I will share one other story — different — but equally compelling. A few years ago I taught in a locked facility for juvenile sexual perpetrators. In a class of young men aged 17-20, I was somewhat intimidated until I bonded with Nate,* the alpha male of the group, who instantly fell in love with acting. One day a group of students were improvising a scene and I could not fully understand them because they were using urban dialect — completely appropriate to the scene, but sadly inaccessible to me. Without saying a word, Nate moved himself next to me and calmly, quietly, without the slightest trace of irony or condescension, translated his friends’ dialect into standard English so I could understand and respond to it. He single-handedly blew away the barriers of age, race, and socioeconomic status! This showed remarkable awareness and sensitivity on his part. This is all the more stunning when one considers that this young man was a sexual perpetrator. One of the common assumptions about sexual perpetrators is that they “lack empathy for their victims.” Yet in this instance, Nate* recognized and empathized with my discomfort and was able to ease this discomfort by bridging the gap between me and my students.

In both these instances, in fact, in every school residency I have completed, the remark I heard constantly from the classroom teachers was, “Thank you so much for letting me see my students in a new light.” These teachers, who daily confront learning disabilities and behavioral challenges, were thrilled to have a guest in their classroom who elicited their student’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

* Name changed

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