My Favorite Teacher

It feels appropriate that my first blog on Drama Notebook is a tribute to my mentor, Dr. Tom Gressler. He’s a wiry little man with wild white hair and piercing blue eyes. He looks like Einstein…or a magician, and he has the creative genius and magical ways about him to match.

I had the good fortune of studying with him at a small college in rural Oregon, USA. In the early eighties, Linfield College was the educational home to 1,200 students; perhaps twenty were theatre majors. Our classes were small, and held in a large black space that used to be the library in an historical building.

On the first day of Beginning Acting, we (the students) arrived to the empty ‘theatre’ and sat in relative silence, waiting for the instructor. Suddenly, a scrawny man dashed into the space and asked, “Is your professor here?” We shook our heads ‘no.’ He rushed back out, but immediately hurried back in. “What about Tom? Is he here?” Again, we indicated ‘no.’ He sighed and left, only to return again. “What about Dr. Gressler?” No. He thought for a moment. “The Lover. Is he here?…What about the Friend?”

Now we were really confused.

The man slumped and left the room. When he returned, he strode with authority and planted himself squarely in front of us.

“I am the professor. I am Tom. I am Dr. Gressler. I am the Lover, and I am the Friend” he said. “I am all of these things and more. Within each one of us, within each of you…there is a whole array of characters and emotions. In this class, we will uncover hidden parts of ourselves and reveal them to each other. Being aware and vulnerable in this way is what makes us good actors.” He told us that he would lock the door every day at nine-o’clock and that if we were even a minute late, we would miss the class. It may have been an unnecessary discipline measure, because I was sure in that moment that none of us wanted to miss a second of what he had to share.

And I was right. As the weeks unfolded, Tom made us laugh, he made us cry and he delivered harsh truths when we needed them. He broke us down and he put us back together. And he made us love each other. When members of our class would see each other on campus outside of class, we would exchange knowing looks; and I’m sure that after meeting Tom, none of us were ever the same.

His method of teaching focused heavily on gaining self-awareness and developing intuition and the imagination; concepts that inform my work to this day.

I have stayed in touch with Tom over the years. When I ran my drama outreach organization, I invited him to a luncheon to meet twenty or-so of my teaching artists. I wanted him to see first-hand how his work was being perpetuated in the world. He was so happy that he cried. But then again, he cries all of the time. We discovered that there is a word for people like us. Lachrymose. It means ‘to cry easily.’ I believe it is the mark of a good teacher.

That, and humility. When I first started teaching, Tom gave me a golden piece of advice. He said that in order to lead others, I should fully accept myself. (I’m still working on that.) But it is a simple idea that carries a lot of weight. As a drama teacher, your primary job is to guide the students into really knowing themselves and believing in themselves. In order to do that, you must start with yourself…scars and all. Make your flaws your friends, and you will win the love and respect of all who learn from you.

I am deeply grateful to Dr. Tom Gressler for teaching me not only how to properly project my voice, ‘cheat out,’ and block a show, but for truly seeing me, believing in me, and for putting me on a path toward self-acceptance.

Oh, and I can guarantee you, he will cry when he sees this.