BWW Blog: Agreeability, Community and the Pandemic
College is going to look a little different next year. Specifically, for those in highly interpersonal fields, such as the performing arts. The stream of COVID-related emails from university heads are foreshadowing transitions in both quality of life and the way classes are operated. For many, these changes will prove to be surprisingly positive. Elements of college that are traditionally difficult to navigate for specific types of students, will now become a breeze and allow them to focus on their craft. For others, these changes could generate disruptions to their education and mental health in ways that might be hard to recover from.
Most industries are working tirelessly to put procedures in place to create an environment that is both protected and productive. What makes universities a little different is the perpetual balancing act of being simultaneously invested in the state of the world and separate from it. In general, universities want to be a part of the world. They want to contribute to the discourse through breaking edge science, and provocative art. University groups, such as sororities and fraternities take part in their communities, and run philanthropies aimed at making the world a better place. It is in university's best interest to contribute to the world in positive and intellectual ways to better future generations. At the same time, universities also aim to isolate their students in a bubble to encourage innovations in craft and thinking. It is tradition for undergraduate students to live, work, eat, study and play on campus. School's create a self-sustaining ecosystem for students, with the hopes that they focus their energy for 3 to 5 years on a craft. As a result, privileged students spend their time at school with few responsibilities outside of self-betterment. This is what I mean by isolation. Universities create a bubble, and students use that bubble to quickly increase their abilities in their chosen field.
Performing arts students, as a whole, hunger for a bubble. When I was auditioning for musical theatre schools, every program I visited spent most of their time touting a highly focused student-driven experience. Theatre students are told that the best programs are filled to the brim with hands-on training, boundless masterclasses, weekend commitments and countless performance opportunities. This style of education created an entire genre of training with the "conservatory-style" program. Students in these programs live with performers, study with performers and perform with performers. For 4 years they have to think about nothing but musical theatre. At the end of the 4 years, they emerge a highly skilled artist who is well-versed in a variety of live-theatre techniques.
Today, every top program is either "conservatory-style," or works very hard to emulate "conservatory-style" programs. For most theatre majors, this is an incredibly positive thing because of the type of people that performance majors tend to be. In psychology, there are 5 dimensions of personality that dictate behavior. They are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. The last one, agreeableness, is the amount a person's actions are dictated by the opinions of others. Agreeableness tends to impact empathy, compassion, communication, and susceptibility to peer-pressure. Many theatre people tend to have a high agree-ability, because agreeableness is what makes so many people great at theatre.
Live theatre is all about communication and collaboration. The ability to listen on stage, and work through scenes with a director and cast, is all affected by agree-ability. Performers with high agreeableness are able to receive positive feedback from affirmation and utilize it for a better performance. This is what performers mean when they talk about "feeding" off of the audience. If an especially extroverted person feeds off of the presence of others than an agreeable person feeds off of the feelings of others.
High-achieving performance majors tend to be agreeable by nature, and program heads are aware of this. The "conservatory-style" program uses this personality trait to create better performers. Performance degrees are full of positive/negative responses. Acting, dance and voice classes are designed around student feedback loops. There is rarely a scene performed or a song sung in college when there is not a room of people to respond. This is important for agreeable performers. They are able to not only rate their performance on their own standards, but also the sensed response of the audience. An agreeable performer can feel the energy from the room and adjust accordingly for an intended response. Agreeable performers, by nature, are incredible skilled at creating a relationship with an audience, and as a result, they grow faster when an audience is around to have a relationship with.
Agreeable people also tend to be people-pleasing by nature. Agreeable performers want to make their audiences happy and will base many of their choices on what will receive the most positive response. This does not mean that agreeable people are push-overs, but instead that they are highly tuned into social systems and are able to navigate them in ways to further their own success. "Conservatory-style" programs take advantage of this trait with peer-driven productivity. Student-driven theatre companies, and shared practice spaces create a social environment that encourages productivity. Isolated practice is not the only important way to grow for agreeable performers. It also takes peers that are willing to listen and provide feedback. This is the advantage of student run production companies and student masterclasses. Highly engaged programs create focused students that are able to use their personalities for vast improvement in their craft.
There is, however, a double-edged sword to the "conservatory-style" training. Not all performers are agreeable. Some are surprisingly disagreeable. All of the aspects of these programs that are successful for agreeable performers, tend to be less successful for the disagreeable performer. Disagreeable people are known for being harder to read, and sometimes less compassionate. In reality, they are simply less attuned to the energy produced from others and are as a result unaffected by them. While most performers find incredible advantages in being naturally agreeable, there are also skill sets only attainable by being noticeably disagreeable. An agreeable person can feed off of an audience and adjust for the best results. A disagreeable performer is entirely uninterested in the needs of the audience, and instead can hone in on the needs of the narrative. They are able to go to places emotionally and physically that others might not be able to. Disagreeable people don't need others for feedback, and on the contrary, are easily drained by both positive and negative feedback.
Disagreeable performers tend to feel best when they feel like no one is paying attention. They tend to be highly textual and extremely detail oriented performers. Disagreeable people are not always introverted, but simply do not want others to impact their choices. As a result, these performers often have a hard time at "conservatory-style" programs. Many spent their time at high school using theatre as an escape. Theatre is something to master that no one else knows enough about to correct them on. In college, disagreeable performers are suddenly forced to face an onslaught of feedback and expectations. In rare cases, this will discourage a disagreeable performer from growing, as they no longer feel that their art is private. Many highly skilled and friendly performers who burn out quickly at these highly competitive programs might be disagreeable people. It is not that they are lazy, or not committed. Instead it is that they are overwhelmed by feedback. There are several programs that are oriented towards disagreeable people, and most of these performers find a safe haven in film/tv or specific types of theatrical environments, but the "conservatory-style" programs that focus on musical theatre tend to be exhausting for this type of person, even if the craft is inspiring.
It is important to note that the level of a person's agreeableness does not make them a good or bad person. It also does not make them a better or worse performer. Instead, the personality traits that dictate the ways we naturally respond to the world, are important indicators to understand the way we grow. Most programs are oriented towards agreeable performers. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is simply a phenomenon of the trajectory of an industry. The thing is everything is about to change.
My peers and I (across hundreds of theatre programs) are in the midst of anxiously awaiting various changes that will be put in place for next semester. To combat coronavirus, many theatre schools are going to be producing audience-less shows. Masterclasses will be broken up and will have to abide by strict social distancing procedures. Many of our non-performance classes will be moved online, and student driven theatre will be making dramatic changes to follow rules placed by the school. Theatre school will no longer be a peer driven environment. It will transform, temporarily, into a much more solitary experience where students work alone, study alone and receive little to no feedback from peers for most of the first semester. "Conservatory-style" programs are about to become a lot lonelier.
For the agreeable performers, who were deeply drawn to interactive learning, will struggle. When there is no feedback for an agreeable person, it is easy to lose inspiration. What is the point of theatre if there is no audience to enjoy it? Agreeable performers will need to work extra-hard to stay motivated to practice and grow. Their skills will not deteriorate, but their mental health might. Self-motivation is hard for agreeable people, who depend on a culture for fuel. Agreeable performers will become more easily exhausted. It will be important for agreeable performers to acknowledge the needs of their personality and try to engage with others in a more active way than they had to before. Agreeable performers will inevitably become agitated if schools do not make proper adjustments to off-balance the social famine of a socially distant learning environment. Student theatre must not stop. Masterclasses must not stop. Agreeable performers need other performers to grow. If schools do not realize this, they will inevitably push high-quality performers away.
On the other end of the spectrum, disagreeable performers may discover a new-found energy and motivation that they had never experienced before. By limiting interaction to safe levels, disagreeable students will be left alone with their art during the workday. No one will be there to influence when they practice, why they practice and what they work on. This isolation will provide an opportunity for disagreeable artists to become more intimate with their work and give them the skills they crave for their next live performance. Since disagreeable performers tend to be drawn the film and tv anyway, live-streamed performances will prove to be freeing for disagreeable performers. They will find that they will have the space to experiment and react more easily when there is no audience giving them a constant positive/negative feedback loop. Disagreeable people can still be extroverted, and those people will still be drained by many of the consequences of social-distancing, but at least for their craft, they should not be ashamed to discover that the absence of voices in their heads is freeing and invigorating.
Just as it is important to know whether you are introverted or extroverted, it is also important to know whether you are agreeable or disagreeable. To the opinions of others help guide you to your choices and inspire you to grow, or do they exhaust you and feel like a distraction from the art? In an industry that is constantly adapting to the outside world, it is important to know where you fall on the spectrum, so that you can adjust your life accordingly. Not every performer is the same, and not every performer's needs are the same. "Conservatory-style" programs have traditionally served the agreeable performer and harmed the disagreeable performer. Next year, we may see the opposite at many schools. Maybe we can learn from this experience and work to create a future for theatre schools that can equitably serve both.