Dennis Henry

Actor, Director, Instructor

Teaching Philosophy

While an undergraduate, I was employed as an assistant in my former high school’s speech and drama department where I worked with hundreds of students on their acting, writing, and public speaking.  Possessed with more enthusiasm than skill, I learned many things on that job. The most important lesson was how much teaching others was teaching me. Acting concepts such as “being in the moment” or “making discoveries” that were only impulses or vague thoughts lingering at the back of my brain, had to be concretely explained in order for others to understand. By striving to articulate such concepts I was reinforcing them in my own mind and was able to apply them to my own work.

 

Just as teaching informs my artistic practice, so too, have my artistic skills improved my teaching. My work as a director helps me to understand that every individual student needs to learn in her own way, just as each actor processes notes in her own way. As an actor I have learned the importance of listening and responding to my acting partner, which has taught me as a teacher to have a keen awareness to students’ needs. Is the student expressing everything with words, or do I need to listen to the subtext to get at the real cause of the confusion?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This idea, of learning from one course of study principles that apply to many others, is the heart of higher education in theatre. When tasked with devising a piece of theatre during my last semester of graduate school I chose Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.  From this text the cast and I created a piece called Prometheus Forgotten, which bridged ancient text to a modern commentary on pop culture and discarded martyrs. When teaching “Introduction to Theatre,” I routinely choose Lynn Nottage’s Ruined for the class to read so that I have the opportunity to open students eyes to horrors of the ongoing war in central Africa and the western involvement in the conflict. Theatre is great as an entertainment, but great theatre can entertain, inform and make an audience think and feel.

It was with the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) where I began to discover the techniques that could engage a group of students whom I had never before met.   I spent several years working with the ASC in Staunton, VA as an actor, director and, for several years, the education coordinator of the ASC on Tour. This position involved developing and teaching workshops for dozens of colleges, universities and high schools throughout the United States on a variety of theatre and Shakespeare related topics.  Each workshop was designed to be interactive and participatory. I got students on their feet as much as possible. One particularly effective workshop, originally developed by ASC Executive Director Ralph Alan Cohen, includes an exercise in which ten students are each assigned one syllable from a line of verse. The students shout or whisper their syllable depending on if they are in a “stressed” or “unstressed” position.   Why just talk about verse when you can make your students into a line of human iambic pentameter?

My directing classes have a heavy emphasis on “doing,” supplemented by informed discussions in which students can give feedback to one another. I encourage students to talk to each other and let them know that I am not the only one from whom they can learn.

The most essential element, however, in all my classes, is enthusiasm. Both my enthusiasm and student enthusiasm must exist for effective learning to take place. As an actor I know that I can’t control my audience’s state of mind, (perhaps the laughs aren’t coming because the traffic was awful on the way to the theatre) I can only control my performance. Likewise, the only thing I can control 100% of the time in the classroom is my own preparation and enthusiasm and strive to sweep up the students in my excitement.

I have a particular affinity for teaching college students, since they are people who are just finding their independence and voice in the world.  They are infused with a simultaneous arrogance and self-doubt that can be delightful in its contradictions and create dynamic, though often rough, art. The college theatre environment allows for quality work that is intellectually stimulating and artistically satisfying and I know that, as I teach, I am learning from them, too.

Courses that are in my skill set include: Directing, all levels of Acting, Script Analysis, Shakespeare as Literature, Acting Shakespeare, Period Styles, Acting for the Camera, Renaissance Staging, Audition Techniques, Theatre History and  Theatre Appreciation.