We Need to Teach Empowerment

We Need to Teach Empowerment

Cassie Smith

I’m 21, a senior in college, and until recently, I’ve really struggled with accepting my body for what it is and embracing it for what it can achieve. But theatre has helped me change that.

Like many millennials, body image and composition has consumed my thoughts more than I would care to admit. Usually, I’m strong enough to see past the depictions of beauty that do not apply to me, but I feel like there are instances in the theatre business in particular when being a certain size, shape, or color is more favorable than others. And while some stories do require certain races or body types to make a bold, powerful statement, constantly thinking like this takes a toll on any performer.

Before my junior year of college, I did not know how to properly care for myself as an actor. By better investing in myself physically, mentally and emotionally, I became a better version of myself and even a better performer. But my attitude has not always been so self-care oriented. And while I cannot speak for my peers, this is a problem I’m sure others are facing and we as a community should be conscious of this negative mindset, especially in the early years of a performer’s career.

I think this unhealthy view of myself developed from the stereotypical high school mindset where a student believes, because of the “clique” she does or does not belong to, she cannot be artsy and something else at the same time. In simpler terms: I’ve always thought because I was into the arts I could not also be athletically inclined or physically gifted. As I’ve matured and accepted more challenges in the world of theatre, I’ve realized this close-minded approach to what I can and cannot achieve as an actor causes a myriad of other problems and I need to stop wasting time with this negative attitude.

I attempted sports in my youth and high school years. There is nothing wrong with athletics and do I see the benefits often associated with participating in them, but as someone who spent most of her time in the choir room or on the auditorium stage, I was never exposed to the idea that being physically strong was just as important as hitting high C’s. My instructors rarely took the time to explain that you get out what you put in and as a result, I developed a belief that my body was not made to do certain things so it was not worth it to try. I was not horrible at sports, but because I was not one of the starting basketball players, I taught myself to count myself out. I let the voices of teammates who were better than me bully my confidence into a hole in the ground and began to feel that because I could not do one thing, I should not bother trying another. Instead of learning how to build myself up, I tore down the part of me that dared to step out of my comfort zone.

This journey of health did not really begin until I signed up for a movement class in Ohio State’s Department of Theatre during my junior year of college. At this point in my life, I had never taken a dance class and was just in it because it was a prerequisite for other classes, so I was anxious for what was to come. But this class was one of many that introduced me to the idea of what it means to be a healthy actor. It showed me how to use my body in ways I did not think I could physically achieve, and ways to better mentally care for myself. This newfound confidence was invigorating and thrilling and I wanted more. My teachers and classmates showed me how to expand my capabilities by better understanding the tool that is my body. I felt like I was becoming a new person. I discovered this sense of empowerment that, while I had never felt it before, felt right. And it began to show in other facets of my life.

There are definitely challenges primary and secondary art educators face in the introduction of theatre to young artists, so it’s understandable that integrating the importance of physical health and movement into the normal coursework takes a back burner rot other valuable lessons. Personally, I believe it’s in the educator’s best interest to demonstrate and highlight the value in training and thinking about the physical body during middle and high school theatre programs. These instructors help mold young performers’ minds, so by consciously addressing the social “categories” outlined for their students in these age ranges, perhaps someone like me will not think that because they fail to physically excel on the basketball court they will not meet a similar fate in the world of theatre. I’m not saying we should sugar coat things and give theatre students false hope that it’s always going to be easy, because it most definitely is not, but if we can give them the foundation to prepare mentally and physically for what’s to come, they will be more willing to try new things and thus advance the world of theatre. If they understand themselves, they will develop a method of self-empowerment that allows them to maximize their potential with each new project.   

The last year has been what we will call my “Elphaba Moment.” In the Broadway musical Wicked, Elphaba (the green witch, for those unfamiliar with the show) struggles finding her voice because of how her green skin tone casts her outside the “in crowd” of her peers. At the end of Act 1, she realizes that she has the power to create her own good, and by “Defying Gravity,” discovers that she does not have to fit the mold society wants her to fit. For me, I’ve realized that, despite what I believed in high school, I’m not confined to a box of what I can and cannot do, and now I’m excited to break those boxes. If I want to be a good dancer, I should sign up for tap lessons. If I want to be stronger and take on more responsibilities, I need to make sure I give my mental and emotional health a proper amount of attention. But I should not let what others perceive my skill set to stop me from stepping out of my comfort zone or finding ways to build myself up.

Theatre has provided me a safe outlet to grow as an individual to, as Elphaba says, “trust my instincts and leap,” if you will. Being Heather Duke in Heathers the Musical forced me to find a confidence I had never experienced before: I had to change the physicality of my walk and the way I thought about myself to figure out how to embody one of Westerberg’s coolest girls, and because I had not experienced my movement classes yet, I became incredibly self-conscious about the things I was doing on stage. But I now see the importance.

My mime class taught me how to better engage and comprehend what my body is doing and it literally taught me how to step out of my own box. By learning the techniques of Marcel Marceau, I discovered that I have hips and that I can move them. I had no idea I could segment movements in my body to pull off some of his most famous illusions, nor could I have fathomed the idea that I would love it so much that I’d volunteer to movement coach a production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid this summer for my theatre company. I’ve hated dancing at weddings since I was little because I feared the judgments being made about my movements, and the other day I gave instructions to a cast of 30+ about how we should move so it looks like we’re under water without relying on Heely shoes. And it’s all because of the instructors who took the time to teach the importance of getting to know your body and experimenting with things and doing so in a productive way.

Cassie Smith Photo: Savannah Florkowski

Cassie Smith Photo: Savannah Florkowski

I understand the importance of being healthy in a well-balanced way. I’m not going to start some crazy diet or work out a million times a day to gain that “perfect body,” but I will do things that encourage and inspire me to become a better person and actor with every new opportunity I explore.

That’s not to say I’ve completely eliminated the struggle. I still have my insecurities, but this new mindset has allowed for self-exploration, which brings new depths to the characters I create. If it were not for this understanding of how to embrace what I’ve been blessed with, I do not think I would make a very good Aquata (one of the mersisters in The Little Mermaid), nor would I feel comfortable tackling any role that requires more suggestive content. I would not have this new sense of bravery or courage to take leaps of faith in my career and educational paths, but I can enter projects ready to experiment rather than sit on the side lines and fear my choices are wrong because of my perceived “inability” to do something.

Maybe it’s because I’m older and have a better understanding of what I can do and what theatre can do for people. Maybe it is the fault of the educational system in which we tell younger actors that they cannot “be” certain things because of who they are. Maybe it is this business that looks at my resume and says she can play the jealous-best-friend type and that’s it. Regardless of the reason, I think it’s in our best interest to build up our younger performers and teach them how to care for themselves so that when they look to enter the theatre business, they really know how to embrace what they have as well as where they could use some growth without having a million unnecessary mental breakdowns.

I’m excited to demonstrate some of the ways I’ve grown over the last year and a half, and I get tot do that for the Millennial Theatre Company’s presentation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid with Kent State Trumbull Summer stock. And while most people won’t understand why I’m really excited to be in this role, that’s OK because theatre has helped me discover how to be comfortable in my own skin, how to better love myself, embrace all of this, andas a result, give better content to the world, and that’s a journey I think each actor has to make on their own. And while my journey was not the greatest wat to find body peace, I now understand the importance of discovering and understanding my body so that I can approach roles in a healthier mindset. Because of the professors, I’ve been fortunate to have at Ohio State and the directors who offer their wisdom on and off the stage, I value finding the balance between a healthy physical, mental, and emotional investment in shows that challenge me to go for those roles that slightly terrify me. These people have shown me how to embrace what I’ve been given, discover ways to improve it and figure out how to use that as I venture out into the real world.

Though I may never be completely pleased with my appearance, I know I am physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of stepping out on to the learning curve and accepting whatever challenges lie ahead. Theatre has provided me with a way to feel empowered about my body, and taught me the importance of investing in all aspects of myself. Let’s start learning how to better care for ourselves so we can create even better art and appreciate the bodies we’ve been given.

~~~~~

Cassie is a senior at The Ohio State University, where she studies Theatre and Strategic Communication. When she's not on stage, you can find her serving as the Public Relations Liaison for the Millennial Theatre Company and the President of the Boo Radley Society. She's not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, but she's certain the stage will continue to call her back time and song again.

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