By Lauren LeBlanc
I used to say that being a teacher was like being an actor, except your audience does not want to be there. Instead of paying to watch you perform, they’d likely pay to get to leave—if they had any money, that is. (Kids are notoriously broke.)
I spent my twenties living a non-performing life, which—okay. Big deal. But I’d been onstage since I was five years old, so taking a nine-year hiatus was an unexpected twist for everyone who knew me. Also, for me.
During that time, I went to grad school, taught middle school, had two babies, moved around the country a bunch. That era is a whole other blog post, prolly, but let’s just say I thought I’d left my performing self behind permanently. I thought you had to choose—be an actor or be a “real” person with a “real job.” Just about nothing is more real than education—the foundation on which every other profession stands—so I thought I’d made my choice. (I wasn’t unhappy with it, by the way. Just… settled into it.)
It’s a long, winding road that brought me to the bathroom that brought me to Theatre Three, but the TL;DR is I wasn’t done performing at all. In many ways, I hadn’t yet started. And that time in the classroom wasn’t nearly as unrelated to a theatrical life as I imagined it would be.
This summer, I was offered a rare, beautiful opportunity to teach again. Not parts of speech to twelve-year-olds, as I was accustomed, but advanced acting techniques to high school seniors. They’re taller than me! They’re auditioning for Carnegie Mellon! Julliard! NYU! They sometimes swear in their monologues, and they don’t look at me nervously afterward—what IS this?!
Well, it’s the Advanced Acting Learning Lab at Booker T. Washington for the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, a college-level course only for seniors who were required to audition at the end of their junior year if they wanted to take the class.
It’s also an internship. The course is a collaboration between Booker T and T3, which serves as an off-site classroom. Students are required to complete observation hours for each production, giving them the unique opportunity to watch how the sausage is made—to see a production grow from nervous table reads to confident opening nights. They get other perks, too: free tickets to every T3 show and lots of other DFW shows. Up-close access to industry professionals that are usually out of reach, including master classes in a variety of disciplines. The class culminates in a spring performance on the Norma Young Arena Stage, in which each student will rehearse and perform with a professional actor.
This year, we’ll prep their audition books and resumes. We’ll study local playwrights, who’ll actually come into class, look them in their eyeballs, laugh with them. We’ll talk about paying taxes when you’re a contract worker and what they should do when it comes time to join the actors’ union(s). We’ll build their individual artist websites. Most importantly, we’ll spend an entire unit focused on their mental wellness as artists—how to build resilience in the face of constant, certain rejection. How to self-advocate in an industry that tries to tell you you’re a commodity. How to protect your heart and spirit from work that is difficult, personal, intimate.
As a teacher, this class is a gift. Low student/teacher ratio means I can give each of them the attention they deserve. No alignment to standardized testing means I can design curriculum that is actually useful for budding professional artists. And that audition-only model means they want to be there—they are hungry to learn and ask unpretentious questions and try new things.
As an actor, it’s a strange and terrifying journey. I’m fortunate enough to be in the fierce, feminine cast of LIZZIE, the opening show of the 2023-24 season—a beautiful musical with difficult music. That means I see my students during the day and speak confidently of preparation techniques and acting choices. Then they come to rehearsal in the evening and watch me stumble through lines and miss entrances, humbling myself, lying prostrate before the work. It is pride-swallowing and sometimes embarrassing and always perfect.
My goal for my Lab Rats—a term of affection, of course—is I want them to understand what it actually takes to work in this industry. There are so many unspoken rules, so many invisible gates you don’t know are there until you smash into them face first. I can’t remove obstacles or mend the broken parts of this industry, but my goal is to show them where some of the gates are. More than that, to tell them what no one told me: their voices are necessary. They belong in these rooms. Their internal struggles are more universal than they realize.
So. If you come to Lizzie on opening night, keep an eye out for a group of eager young audience members. (They’ll probably be sitting together, because they genuinely like each other.) You may think you’re looking at a typical bunch of silly, quirky high school kids. What you’re really seeing, though, is the future of theatre, and—trust me—we’re in good hands.