In the summer before my senior year of high school, I was one of 29 acting students at the New York State Summer School for the Arts, or NYSSSA. NYSSSA hosts various summer conservatories for high schoolers and it is meant to help teenagers grow as artists, as well as offer insight into what a professional education in an artistic field is like. Also, the teachers will get really mad if you call it a summer camp. In the four weeks that I spent there, I learned a lot about being a performer, but also about being a person.
1. People are not who they are on the internet. But they totally are.
About a month before NYSSSA started, a Facebook group was made for everyone who was going to attend. Some people (me) were super annoying. Some people were cool. Some people didn’t really post anything in the group at all. My “oh, shit” moment happened the minute I walked into the dorms and a bunch of people already knew my name and seemed to have opinions of me. I immediately wondered if I had been obnoxious on Facebook (I was) and whether I could convince people within the next four weeks that I was a nice person who just said snarky/mean things sometimes. As the program went on, I realized that those three categories – annoying, cool, mute – were just the versions of themselves that people had chosen to make public. Annoying People (once again, me) had become overzealous and showcased their worst, most annoying attributes. Cool People had only shown whatever they knew would make people like them. The people who didn’t post anything were just awesome and wiser than all of us, probably. Or they didn’t really care until NYSSSA actually physically happened.
2. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we try something else.
That is what our acting teacher told us on the first day of class, and it was immediately the most freeing thing I had ever heard. In too many acting classes, there is a certain pressure to pick the right thing the first time. The right objective for your character, the right tactics to use, the right emotional process. At NYSSSA, we had entire class sessions devoted to trying out our scenes a hundred different ways. This way, we were able to find out what worked and what didn’t work. The fear of “making a bad choice” was gone, because if it happened, it wasn’t a big deal. And when you’re not afraid of the wrong thing, you can really commit to finding the right thing. And when you are able to commit like that, the right thing ends up being pretty amazing. When you make an active choice to be okay with failing at first, everything becomes a lot less terrifying. Even better is when you progress from not feeling terrified to feeling empowered when you do or find the right thing.
3. Crazy shit happens everywhere because you make it happen.
Don’t get me wrong. NYSSSA completely changed me as a performer and as a person, and all for the better. I improved in both areas by at least a billion percent. That being said: when we auditioned, when we got there, at least once a week, we were told, “This is a professional environment. You are training for the professional world. You need to behave like adults.” And a lot of the time, we did. But in the final week of the program, the girls heard a rumor about the boys threatening to prank us, so we all ran into their rooms in the middle of the night and initiated a shaving cream war (it was a war fought with shaving cream and tampons). At our final voice presentation, one girl read a poem she had written where she mentioned the shaving cream war and we all cried.
Also, everyone gathered in this one girl’s dorm to wish her a happy birthday after we were supposed to be in bed, and we all got caught, and the counselors got really mad, and we all cried.
Also, on the first day, our first group activity was to go around in a circle and tell stories about our lives that were important to us, and most people said a lot of really sad stuff, and it was 10am, and everyone cried. If anything, going to a month-long theatre conservatory made crazy shit even more inevitable.
4. Crazy shit happens everywhere because the people in charge make it happen.
One night, Jon the counselor said to us, “Tomorrow, you will be taking a class in Russian movement. It is very intense and you need to eat breakfast.”
“What’s Russian movement?” We asked.
Turns out, Russian movement (also known as Droznin movement) is a widely respected form of movement training that involves putting actors into stressful positions on top of each other. I was a table on top of another person who was also a table. At one point there were three people-tables stacked on top of each other. It was very cool and very scary.
The counselors neglected to warn us about the next day’s workshop, which was referred to on the schedule only as “capoeira at 10am.” As is turns out, capoeira means “Brazilian martial arts that also qualifies as dancing sometimes.” Once again: very cool, very scary.
5. Embrace the crazy.
When something crazy happens because somebody made a decision, your goal should not be to stop this person from making decisions. Don’t go up to Jon the counselor and say, “Never make me be a table again.” Obviously, this rule does not apply if the crazy decision involves something unsafe, severely unwanted, or otherwise harmful. But if the situation is really not sanity-threatening or life-threatening, there is no reason to turn an unconventional or unexpected event into something negative. When given a reasonable choice, go for the positive. Laugh instead of rolling your eyes. If you feel the impulse to contribute to the craziness, don’t sit on that impulse. Do what they tell you to do in every improv class and say “yes, and…”