First Days

When I was in high school I was an actor for Looking In, performing scenes about social issues throughout Connecticut. Part of the training process involved listening to a range of speakers discuss the various issues we were creating scenes about. One of the speakers I remember most vividly was a therapist who talked about alcohol abuse in adolescents and mental health issues. He told a story of a professor he had in graduate school, who asked the classroom of psychiatrists-to-be what they thought the goals of a first therapy appointment ought to be. The students discussed a range of agendas a mental health professional might have as they began work with a new client and there was a heavy debate about which priorities were most important. After the class discussion the professor offered this insight: The goal of the first appointment is to get a second one. Period.

That statement has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve applied the notion of getting a second meeting in a lot of the work I do. When I direct a play, I want to get the actors clear on what the schedule is, get a taste of the culture of this process we are embarking on, and get the juices of ensemble flowing. Ultimately all the planning I do for the first rehearsal revolves around the question of how to get these actors ready for the second rehearsal. I don’t really have a set icebreaker I always use or an immovable rule that every rehearsal requires that staging begin or even a read-through necessarily. Each production is different and this makes each first day different– but the plan always revolves around the question of what are my performers and production team going to need immediately next. Does everyone know where the bathrooms are? Is there an activity that will most develop a collegiality among (often) relative strangers who’ve come together for this particular production? Is there an image or idea I can share that will help those in the room see what most touches me about this particular piece, and can I present that in a way that will plant a seed of deepening interest in the project?

I have a similar approach in teaching. With my college students I spend a huge portion of time going over the syllabus on the first day, and in the past I found myself frustrated that that would take away time from activities I had in mind to “get started.” But just as elementary school teachers know that investing extra time on establishing rules and classroom management that first month of school makes all the difference in the students’ behavior the rest of the year, adult students, too, need their hands held a bit before getting their feet wet in a new course. Its an investment in the rest of the course, but particularly for the tone that second class will have.

Question for the World: What do you like to do on “first days” or rehearsal, school, or work? What approaches to the getting-ready-to-go phase of collaborative activity  have you found effective, and what approaches did not?