Teaching & Research Statement

Colleen Kelly, Department of Drama

I have been teaching in higher education and working in professional theatre for over thirty years. I’ve changed. Students have changed. The business of theatre has changed. The purpose of theatre has changed. The need for theatre has not. With painted faces we gather in stadiums and join in rhythmic chants. Clad in dark robes and square hats we march in community procession. Those dressed in white gowns and tuxedos invite us to witness their rehearsed vows.

These, of course, are real events, but they are certainly dependent on theatrical form. The form assists us in our need to celebrate, honor and memorialize. It provides a structure that can stir chaos or provide time and space for silence. It is the connection between human need and theatrical form that is core to my teaching, my directing and my research. I am intrigued by real-life events that require heightened behavior or escalate to dramatic situations and, conversely, I scrutinize plays with the questions: Why does this need to be a play? What makes it demand theatrical form?

In daily communication, students find little need to fill a space with sound or gesture that extends beyond their personal space. Yet, both theatre and-non theatre students alike recognize that life will demand much more from them and, if they want their ideas and feelings to be heard and understood, it will take skill and practice to make that happen. Regardless of whether a student intends to pursue a career in theatre, I present a fundamental challenge in the classroom: be orally and physically articulate, communicate a specific point of view, engage your audience (listener) and be open to considering points of view beyond your experience. Be present. Be present in the world and be present in the moment. Whether or not you will be an actor, you will face the challenge of realizing many life roles.

Tolstoy observed: “Every man carries in himself the germs of every human quality and sometimes one manifests itself, sometimes another, and the man often becomes unlike himself—while still remaining the same man.”

It is my observation that current students have a narrow perception of their personal range and personal possibility. They certainly believe in the “you can be anything that you want to be” anthem, but assume this can be fulfilled through determination and steadfastness with little or no variance to behavior, circumstances, environment, or relationship choices. When asked how many life roles one currently plays, students in my undergraduate course titled Public Performance (26 non-theatre majors), were hesitant to admit that they behave differently at home than they do with their friends. It seemed to them a flaw in character rather than an asset in character. They did not see this capacity to adapt to the circumstances and personalities of different worlds a positive trait. They thought a person must be “acting” in one of those situations—one fake and one real. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they judged that those who can adapt too often and too well have no substantial core, no self-identity.

Although the idea that we all play many life roles is not a new concept in my teaching philosophy, I believe it will take a new place of importance on my syllabus. I intend to increase the practice of improvisation and deepen the experience of role-playing in order to move a student beyond a limited perception of self-identity so they can imagine new choices and realize new options—especially when they find themselves in life-dramatic moments.

Graduate and undergraduate students training to be actors need an acute sense of self-identity because they, themselves, serve as the vessel that will embody the character in a play. Their own personality—how they look, how they speak, their habits, preferences, beliefs—needs to be understood and considered when placed next to the personality of the character they will create. Actors develop characters through identifying personality traits as written by the playwright. But it should be noted that most characters are not having the best day of their lives. They are actually in circumstances that demand a testing of character. They are experiencing their own life-dramatic moments. For example, an audience never sees the Romeo that the other characters in the play apparently know. All who talk about him describe him as behaving “out of character”—except for Juliet who meets him anew.

Actors must have the capacity to imagine and embody behavior in all circumstances and be willing to cross historical, global, racial and economic boundaries. An actor must be in a constant state of preparedness—or in Hamlet’s words, “in continual practice” or to further borrow from Hamlet, “the readiness is all.” Much like an athlete, an actor masters technique for the purpose of using it in play(s). For an athlete, skill is defined as the ability to choose and perform the right technique at the right time. Both the athlete and the actor prepare for that moment in time when skill is put to the test and they must play the play. For an actor, however, this preparatory process is more complex. An actor is required to choose and integrate multiple techniques (vocal, physical, stylistic, etc.) and, unlike an athlete, an actor needs to elicit a response from the audience—an athlete may provoke a response, but an actor must. And, because the actual nature of a sport event is very different from the actual nature of a theatre event, it is imperative that an actor engage the imagination—their own imagination and that of the audience. For an actor, each play is not just a new game; it is a new sport. Each theatrical event demands that an actor step into a new world and, without judgement, embody circumstances, behaviors and relationships that are unique to the world of the play.

My approach to teaching acting is Stanislavski-based with a specific focus in principles of physical action. In addition, I employ a variety of exercises beyond Stanislavsky to enhance and expand physical principles. I find character mask work, for example, to be a very efficient means to prompt actors to work outside of their own life habits and experience profound transformation. Although I certainly value non-narrative theatre, I teach acting with a strong focus in text work. Whether the play is classical or modern, whether the language is prose or verse, whether the concept is familiar or fantastical, I guide students toward embodiment of text. I urge actors to be curious about language, accept the responsibility to physically own the words they speak and commit to targeting their ideas so those ideas land and resonate with the receivers. I challenge actors to delve into textual research and deepen their ability to intelligently discuss a text from an informed perspective. I encourage an actor to engage in imagining—not only in the creation of their own work, but also as a means to understand and execute the vision of other artists: I expect an actor to be a creative collaborator.

As director of the MFA Professional Actor Training Program, I am especially focused on the relationship between educational theatre and the profession. Since 1998 I have worked within higher education institutions that have shared missions with professional theatres. Since returning to U.Va., I have solidified the relationship between the Drama Department’s MFA Acting Program and the Heritage Theatre Festival (the summer professional theatre at U.Va.) and forged a professional affiliation between the MFA Acting Program and the Virginia Repertory Theatre in Richmond, VA. Our graduate students have already greatly benefitted from these professional connections in areas of performance experience, networking opportunities and membership affiliation with Actors’ Equity (AEA). However…

Although it is certainly necessary to train students for the profession, it is my observation that training programs can no longer look only outward toward the professional arena to determine what should be taught in the university curriculum—the relationship has become much more symbiotic. I believe that the vitality of theatre in this country is in the hands of educational theatre. As professional theatre organizations reduce budgets, programs, staff and seasons, educational theatre finds itself playing an integral role in advancing the art and becoming, in essence, the caretaker of theatre. This role, which is both a privilege and a responsibility, inspires a broader, more active mission for educational theatre. It requires that theatre departments look beyond serving the existing professional norm and invite student-artists to accept the charge of defining the future of theatre—to determine what stories will be told, what technology will be integrated and what business models will be employed. Moving forward in my teaching, I intend to integrate scholarship, technique, creativity and practical experience for the purpose of empowering students to create theatre that can make a difference in the world—to accept a role of ownership in the direction theatre will take and become practitioners who write, perform and produce art that entertains, educates and provokes community dialogue.

I have worked professionally as an actor, director, dance choreographer and period styles movement coach. Primarily, however, my expertise is in the field of stage combat. I value the physical vocabulary stage combat provides—a safe, technical and creative vocabulary that not only allows powerful and important stories of human violence to be told, but also brings us the slapstick, humor, and silliness that balances life. I have to admit there’s something very thrilling about staging a good ol’ fashion swashbuckler, but as one of only four women who have earned the professional designation of Fight Director from the Society of American Fight Directors, I am most proud of the work I have contributed to the genre of contemporary violence. Specifically, the development of physical techniques for staging scenes of intimacy, abuse and sexual assault.

When I began researching this topic, which primarily focuses on women and violence, I imagined its sole purpose would be for the stage and would only be of interest to theatre practitioners. Unexpectedly, that was not the case. I was asked to speak about my work and lead workshops for women’s organization as well as invited to collaborate on projects sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Institute on Violence and Survival. Although my career and recent research has been focused on Shakespeare’s original staging practices, I am compelled by current stories of assault and violation to advance my research in the area contemporary violence—especially as it relates to the truth of real violence and the aesthetic of staged violence.

The creative energy I invest in staging theatrical violence, directing a play or teaching acting may not always make a difference in the world, but I continue to make the investment because it may make a difference. I believe theatre matters. In good times theatre allows us to celebrate–to speak from our hearts, renew our souls, see beauty in the world, sing with joy, dance the night away, enjoy a moment of distraction or revel in an evening of entertainment. In times of need the theatre gives us hope and helps us imagine the future. Theatre helps us survive. It reminds us that we must stay alive. It stirred us to dance the jitterbug and throw our bodies airborne in the midst of World War II. It gathered us in silent communion after 9-11. It educates us about the human experience. No textbook can mirror the Great Depression as well as a Woody Guthrie song, a performance of The Grapes of Wrath or photographs by Dorothea Lange. Theatre provides a common language. It crosses global, racial and economic boundaries. It connects us to our past. It has been present as an essential part of society since some caveman acted out his hunt and kill. It preserves our ancestral stories and can show us how to be good global citizens—to do things better and (maybe, just maybe…) not make the same mistakes.