by Greg Snyder
The Performance Studies class, taught by faculty members Ms. Kathy Akiyama and Mr. Mark Woolman, currently has six seminarians in the class as well as theology professor Dr. Katy Leamy. Among the students is Chad Hill, a College 2 seminarian from the Archdiocese of Seattle. Hill said that priests who are more confortable in public situations will likely be more effective in their ministries.
Chad Hill explained that the goal of the performance studies class is to use acting and improvisation games as a means to help seminarians learn the skills of public speaking. These activities help one to grow more comfortable being in front of a crowd, which is integral to the life of any Catholic priest.
The class helps students to think on the spot and react appropriately to other people; it also helps them to learn to change their speech according to the feedback they are getting from the audience. Learning to perceive the audience’s reaction is important in helping one become an effective and engaging speaker. Additionally, this class is designed to help students learn how to be loose and relaxed in tense situations.
The class practices games and skits to help grow in familiarity with being at peace while in these situations. Hill said, “When we are up in front of others, we naturally have a fight or flight mechanism that we employ in various ways that can either hurt or help our performance.”
He explained further, "For someone who is not familiar with being in front of a crowd, their physical disposition will tend to be tense and so learning the skills necessary to maintain control over our bodily response will help us deliver the messaging that we desire.” During class they do physical exercises that train the body to be relaxed in the speaking posture and use different stretches or body positions that help loosen any tension build up, for example, realigning the neck, spine and head.
Hill described a game they act out: "We take an object, putting it into the middle of the room and pretending it is something that it is not and use it in a different way, to repurpose it so you learn to think outside of what it actually is, to expand the scope of your imagination and reactions.” They also act out game shows, giving them an opportunity to test the waters and use some of the physical loosening skills that they may have picked up along the way in class.
Another skit they like to practice to boost their improvisational acumen is one where two students start a scene or situation of their choice and after a few seconds they freeze and other students take their place, repeating the process to keep the creative juices flowing. The goal, said Hill, is that scene changes should be quick in order to get students to think on the spot and move in the moment with ease.
Tension in the body can manifest itself in the tension in one’s voice, and the more tense one is, the more likely it is that one will make mistakes in one's delivery, as well as compromise the ability to react positively to audience feedback.” Hill stressed the point that “being tense is a trigger to stuttering.”
Jerome Jay, a fourth-year college seminarian from the Archdiocese of Portland, described how improvement happens rather quickly: “After playing a game for even a half of the class, you could feel yourself improving by leaps and bounds. As new games came up, it becomes easier to jump into them and succeed.”
The selected textbook, Confessions of the Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, speaks about psychological factors of which people should be aware. Primarily, the book is about an individual, the author, and the journey he took to becoming a good public speaker. It is about practical steps of repetition, of trial and error. In the book the author also talks about the role of technology and the fact that it is important that one have a good grasp of how it works. A complete grasp of your content beyond the medium of technologies is critical so that if technology fails, one can still deliver the content competently.
At the end of the semester, the class will put together a small production that is designed to showcase the abilities and improvements of the students in acting, improvisation and speaking. The performance is open to the whole hilltop community when announced.