Lea Wait, here, and remembering. As a high school student, I was one of the nerds. Shy, desperate to have friends, but unsure of how to do that, I was self-conscious about my appearance, my clothes, and my intelligence. I ended up being the editor of the high school’s newspaper, and the others on the staff (all boys and all nerds, like me) became my friends. We didn’t go to the prom, but we did win a Scholastic Press Association Award for publishing the best high school newspaper in New Jersey.
I looked forward to leaving New Jersey. I chose a women’s college – Chatham, a small academically strong school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But, arriving there, I was still shy, easily intimidated, self-conscious, and unsure of myself.
But academics weren’t a problem for me, and in the second semester of my freshman year my advisor suggested I take an advanced course, designed for juniors and seniors. I’d worked at a summer theatre in Maine for four summers, and thought a course in drama would be interesting. I was signed up for Philosophy of Drama, and it changed my life.
The professor, Dr. Jack Neeson, had two doctorates (one in theatre) and also taught acting and directing, courses I hadn’t taken. On the second or third day of our class I sat on the floor of the college’s green room with seven or eight women who were drama majors and who’d taken other courses from Dr. Neeson.
I don’t remember what the topic of the day’s discussion was when he turned to me, pointed, and said “Act ‘to overcome.’”
I froze. I had no idea what he meant. I sat, frozen, as he repeated his order, time after time. Within a few minutes I was in tears, frustrated, and still totally ignorant of what he was asking me to do.
Finally, he turned to another girl in the class and said, “Help Lea.”
The girl got up, came over to me, and said quietly, “Stand up.”
Dr. Neeson nodded in approval. “Good. You’ve overcome your fear.”
Relieved, I sat down again, still unsure of what I’d done, but glad I was no longer the center of attention.
Later I spoke with him, and eventually I took his courses in acting. He believed in dividing scenes into motivations. Every character wanted something in every scene. That overarching motivation might stay the same through an act, or even through an entire play, but there were secondary goals, too, which changed often. All of them were defined by action verbs.
In his acting classes I first learned to have the courage to get up in front of others and to act out the motivation I was assigned.
After a few weeks, Dr. Neeson pointed out something I’d never known about myself. “Lea, every feeling and goal can be acted out, or acted in. You always act in.” He was right. I realized I did that not only in class, but in life. If I was angry, I clenched my fists and jaw and tightened my body. Others yelled or threw things. If I was sad, I looked down, ignored others, and walked into a corner alone. Others cried or screamed.
Understanding the different dynamics of actions encouraged me to try different ways of expressing emotions, and become more comfortable with them.
After college I went on to take improvisational theatre classes in New York City, produced and was on-camera for a daily closed circuit corporate television show for two years, and spoke to large audiences in person and on national television as an advocate for adoption of older children. Today I speak about writing at schools, libraries, and conferences.
And I write characters who have goals and motivations.
Thanks to Dr. Neeson, who taught me “to overcome.”
And changed my life.