Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Freehold Experience: Taking Acting Classes to Improve my English by Bernardo Rivas

Communication is hard enough in your own language.

I was born and raised in Mexico City and Spanish is my mother tongue. I’ve taken Step I: Intro to Acting to Step III: Basic Scene Study at Freehold in order to improve my proficiency in the English language. Before coming to the USA I thought I could speak in English properly, but the truth is, I couldn’t.

Like most middle-class Mexican kids, all my education was bilingual. That means that, all the way from pre-school to college, I took half of my assignments in English. Then, in college, I decided to major in Computer Science. All textbooks and papers that I had to deal with were in English. In order to graduate, I had to take a “Test of English as a Foreign Language” which I absolutely aced with a ridiculously high score.

On top of all my education in English, people in Mexico are heavily exposed to American entertainment media. Music, movies, TV shows, books, magazines, videogames, etc. So I grew up acutely aware of the American culture, their colloquial expressions and their use of the language overall.

The one thing that I didn’t get was actual English conversation time. In Mexico, nobody actually talks to each other in English. Why would we? We speak Spanish.

When I moved to Seattle in 2009, the first thing I noticed was that I was having a hard time building my phrases and pronouncing words properly. Also, people in real life don’t talk like they do in the movies, they have accents, they talk faster and they use words that I hadn’t even heard before.

My first months in my new job were terrible! The fact that none of my coworkers was American and they all had heavy accents didn’t help either. I had to learn really fast how to decode the Indian, Chinese and Dutch accents in order to survive. Whenever I had a conversation with a coworker I would miss half of what they had just told me. Sometimes I would send them an email asking for a summary of what we had just discussed, you know, “to have it on record” or “in case I missed anything”. If they were gracious enough to write one and send it to me, then I could connect the dots and figure out what words they said and how they pronounced them and most important, what they meant.

They were having a hard time trying to understand what I was saying too. I used to think in Spanish and talk in English so half the time nothing I said made any sense. The way phrases are built differs a lot between both languages. So, to make myself clear, I had to re-think in English everything I had just said and then repeat it. This was unsustainable and even when I had got my grammar and structure right, I would still mispronounce most words rendering any of my communication efforts useless.

I decided to take acting lessons to solve this problem. Also, I had always wanted to give stand-up comedy a try and I had heard that most comedians took acting lessons at some point of their lives, so it made sense to join a theatre school. I found Freehold online. It was easy to enroll in Step I online so I just did it.

Step I and II were an amazing experience. I took both with Meg McLynn. She is by far one of the best teachers I have ever had in my life. When you start in one of these classes, they ask you what your goals are and what do you want to learn and take away from it. I told Meg about my poor English and my interest in comedy. I was very happy to see that she made everything in her power to make me push my limits in that respect. She gave us exercises to relax our jaws and tongue twisters so we could improve our pronunciation and make it easier to pronounce words and deliver our lines. That proved to be extremely helpful to me because, to this day, there are many words that I don’t know how to pronounce and through those exercises I am now able to figure out how to do it on my own.

In Step I we did mostly improv exercises that allowed us to get familiar with acting, interacting with our fellow actors and listening and reacting to impulses without following a text. We learned to keep eye contact and to communicate just with it. This actually helped me improve the way I engage people in conversation in real life.

In Step II, however, we were grouped in pairs and actually given the script of a scene in a play. This was going to be the first time ever that I acted anything from a script. Meg chose a scene from Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” for me and my partner in part because it contains words and expressions that are not common and would force me to deliver every word on its own breath and really learn how my body had to change and move to pronounce them properly. It also featured a character whose attitude would be particularly challenging for my partner, given her own personality. So in that sense, the scene was almost tailored just for us so we could learn and push our limits.

We worked really hard on the scene for most of the course. For me, it was also the first time in my life that I would have to meet outside of class with my partner to rehearse a scene of a play. It may sound silly but I felt like a real actor, warming up and repeating my lines on my own before meeting with my partner.

During our rehearsals we learned a lot about our characters that’s not written in the text of the play. We had to make our own decisions about the gaps in their pasts that are not explained. We had to come up with reasons for them to feel the way they felt about life, themselves, each other and their particular situation. This is one of the most full filling activities I’ve ever done. Figuring out a character beyond what the text says about it is what got me hooked with theatre and acting.

We got feedback from our classmates and we got to see their scenes too. It was an amazing experience to see the evolution of their work from their first attempts at their scene to the final result, which was in all cases wonderful. I loved it when somebody discovered something they didn’t know about their characters while performing right in front of us. I loved the look on their faces, the “A-ha!” moment and how their performance changed completely after it. I had a couple of these moments too, very full filling as well.

After our final presentation, I had a sense of accomplishment that I’ve been craving ever since. I wanted to do it again. To meet a new character involved in a situation. To find out who he is and what he wants. And with that, fill in the blanks with what I feel he needs to be who the author intended him to be. And then just let go and see him be on stage.

With this in mind, I enrolled in Step III, with Christine Marie Brown. It has been a privilege to meet her and to be her student.  There is something about being a master of acting that I find very compelling. I am fascinated by the powerful yet calm and loving sensation that Christine projects in her words when she is talking about theatre.

Once again, I was asked about my goals, got a scene and a scene partner. Christine chose a scene from “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” where I am Johnny and I have to talk a lot and, at times, really fast. So there is my language challenge for this course, I couldn’t be happier with it.

In class, we are working to discover who our characters are and let them be on stage. But more important, we are learning to take in what our partner says, what they mean, and let it sink in before reacting. This changes completely the way we deliver our lines. We are not just waiting for our turn to talk anymore, we are actually letting our characters' feelings dictate what we say and how we say it. Paying attention to this has changed completely how a team delivers the scene from one try to the next one.

I know it changed the way I say my lines. For example: in our scene, there is a moment where we are watching through the window a couple having a fight. The man is hitting the woman and she is just taking it. Christine asked us to try and feel what it is like to see a man beating a woman, what feelings would that trigger within us, and then say our lines with that in mind. Well, the scene went from me trying to be funny and her being dismissive to us being all shaken up and really intense as we say our lines. I can’t wait to explore the rest of the scene letting the emotions change how I say my lines.

At this point I feel a huge improvement in my English. We have been practicing some tongue twisters just like in Step I and II, but this time, I noticed that as long as I know the meaning of what I’m saying, I’ll have no problems saying it. There are a few occasions where someone uses a word I’ve never heard before, but I know now that I can just ask them what that means and move on. Learning my lines became easier this time around too. It helps that “Johnny” is closer to my time than “Astroff”, so his expressions are more familiar to me. But I do feel the impact of all this acting training in the way I engage people in conversation and my overall confidence while speaking. In that sense, I feel like I’ve accomplished my initial goal of improving my English. Now I have new goals that involve acting and theatre. I look forward to explore those at Freehold and see how far I can take this new found passion.

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