Please take the opportunity to peruse the latest installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education’s: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy.
Interview conducted on August 11, 2015 and transcribed by Haddy Kreie, a PhD candidate at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Melissa Hurt has been a theatre artist for more than twenty years and considers herself a theatre educator as well as a certified yoga teacher, public speaking coach, and performer. After earning her MFA in theatre pedagogy with a concentration in directing from Virginia Commonwealth University and PhD in theatre with a focus on acting theory from the University of Oregon, she spent fourteen years accumulating university teaching experience while also working as an actor, director, dramaturg, producer, voice and speech trainer, and makeup artist.
A certified trainer in Arthur Lessac’s voice, speech and movement work and was the last trainer personally certified by Mr. Lessac before his passing, Hurt has taught Lessac workshops at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festivals in Regions I and II, at the University of Mary Washington, at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, and for The Actor’s Center in Washington DC. She was a guest teacher of the Lessac work at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney (Australia’s premier acting conservatory) in Summer 2011. She also teaches the Lessac work with Adult Continuing Education in Fairfax County, Virginia. The Lessac Institute has named Hurt as one of five trainers that is “the future” of the Lessac work. Check out her book Arthur Lessac's Embodied Actor Training.
Goals and Academia
While graduate training in the humanities tends to focus singularly on preparing its students for the professoriate, the paths that lead us here vary widely. I began applying to graduate schools shortly after I returned to the US from working in the Peace Corps. I longed for a career path that would help me merge the love I had of making theatre with the real world issues that had become so important to me, like equality, race and gender issues, and intercultural understanding. At first glance, an MA in Theatre Studies seemed to do just that. Upon entry into my program, however, I was also thrust directly into a teaching assistantship. Suddenly teaching became my focus, and to a certain degree continued to marry my two interests: it gave me a platform to go beyond thinking about the issues to try to change the way people thought about them. And in academia, theoretically, I had a captive audience! Within just a few years, however, the realities crushed my idealism; disengaged students, pressure to deliver grades according to the expectations of faculty mentors and entitled twenty-somethings, and constant reevaluation of self-efficacy left my teaching feeling empty and pointless. Last Tuesday, as I sat looking into my computer screen, listening to Melissa Hurt tell her story of finding fulfillment as a teacher outside of the academy. It became clear that her most valuable teaching moments have occurred beyond the walls of the metaphorical ivory tower. “I think I will always be a teacher,” she revealed, “I think it’s what I’m meant to do. And I’ve come to realize, as of the past year or so, that that probably means it won’t be full time in academia.”
But why not?
Melissa Hurt is, first and foremost, a teacher. Her first foray into graduate education took her to Virginia Commonwealth University where she focused on directing as she earned an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy. Upon completion, she immediately landed a teaching position in Dodge City, Kansas or, as she said, “the first and only job that was offered.” As a native Kansan, I was unsurprised to hear that, despite efforts of neighbors and new friends to welcome her and even to set her up with local cowboys, Hurt experienced a bit of “culture shock” in southwest Kansas. She quickly encountered a dilemma common to many academics: letting her life follow her career or letting her career follow her life. Believing in herself as a teacher, Hurt returned to graduate school, pursuing the PhD that might land her in an urban community more suited to her personal life choices. Looking past the dry plains of Kansas, Hurt could see the lush Northwest beckoning: “I realized in Kansas that I had to have a fuller picture in my life. I had to have a place that had a culture that I could fit into, that had people that were like me, or similar.” Beginning to allow her career trajectory to follow her life focus, she joined the Theatre Department at the University of Oregon, a place that allowed her to feel a little less isolated from city life. There, she completed her PhD with a dissertation she later turned into her book: Arthur Lessac’s Embodied Actor Training (Routledge 2014).
Like many graduate students in the humanities, Hurt saw the doctoral program as the next move toward a career in teaching. She had her sights set on becoming a professor. However, graduate school ultimately offered her opportunities that led her away from the academy. She cites three major factors in her move away from the tenure-track professoriate: Lessac voice training, meeting the man who would become her husband (and later having her daughter), and encountering yoga. Nevertheless, she reassures me, “my life couldn’t be what it is without having gone through my PhD.”
Today, Hurt works free-lance “helping others discover and utilize their optimal expressive selves” through her small business, Integrative Studios, LLC. She offers private voice, speech, and movement coaching based in Lessac voice training, private acting coaching, public speaking consultations, vocal yoga courses, family and prenatal yoga, and team building workshops.
Moving Away from the Academy
In their book So What are You Going to Do with That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius comment that, retrospectively, many career paths present an identifiable logic, but the most common answer people gave to the question “How did you get where you are today?” was “Serendipity.” The harsh realities of both graduate school and the academic job market demanded that she give as much attention to self-care and personal fulfillment as she did to her career. Together, Lessac voice training and yoga helped her to soften the ego and learn to not judge herself. It provided a balance against the critical feedback of the academy.
With this idea of serendipity in mind, and knowing that many of the readers of “Outside Academia” are interested in intentionally following a career path beyond the professoriate, I asked Hurt how her goals changed before, during, and after grad school. In part, I wanted to know how, when every day is saturated with expectations of teaching, research, and little else, one begins to identify that a career outside academia may provide a more fulfilling (and perhaps healthy!) career path than one within its walls. She replied very candidly: “The thing about grad school is—and just put a grain of salt over everything I’m about to say—it makes you very narcissistic, and you have to be narcissistic to get through it, because you have professors who are purposefully trying to tear you down to see if you have the grit to make it through the program . . . it’s really, really, really hard. It’s really hard. … and you can either crumble in that or you can really inflate yourself.” Despite the struggle and fully aware of her love of teaching, Hurt continued to pursue the goal of becoming a professor. “I didn’t know any different,” she revealed, being a professor was just “what I knew, in my adult life.”
For Hurt, a valuable teaching experience comes down to nurturing. “Everybody has an essential right to feel good and express themselves,” she explains. “I just want to be a part of that.” There were times when teaching within a university setting that she found fulfillment. Hurt told me about leading a
public speaking course: “I love helping these students face their fears . . . and to see that they are proud and confident,” she told me.
Sometimes, though, the bureaucracy of academia can get in the way of that focus on positive growth. As university professors in a discipline like theatre that often has faculty urging students to explore intimate and personal aspects of their inner life, we are
caught between the pressure of being both friend and enforcer. Many of us as graduate students and young faculty find ourselves in the precarious position of being Facebook friends with our students after working together on a show and then being obliged to discipline them for being late or inappropriately dressed when we suddenly have them in class.
Frustrated by the arbitrary distinctions between these roles, Hurt is now adamant that the university classroom is not the only place where valuable teaching takes place. She makes it her mission to foster growth and exploration in all of her interactions with young people, whether it’s while leading a course, directing a show, or raising her daughter. In fact, she draws strong connections between teaching, directing, and motherhood, which have turned out to be crucial to finding balance among her life and career. “Teaching and directing are very similar to me. . . I thought, well this must be the closest thing I could ever know to being a mom, even though I wasn’t a mom, because it’s that nurturing aspect of helping people come to understand a body of knowledge and then present it from an ownership position, like they’ve worked hard and now they can show it.”
But it’s clear from Hurt’s stories that her greatest fulfillment in teaching theatre comes from turning strong performers into stronger people. “I teach acting … to women who are non-violent criminal offenders, who’ve just come out of prison who are building their lives to function outside of the prison setting.” Ranging in age from their late 20s to late 50s, many of these women have suffered from addiction, sexual abuse, or other traumas. Hurt uses acting classes like life-coaching, employing the actor's toolkit to help identify goals and super objectives for life and test out new tactics.“Teaching them for an hour is way more fulfilling than teaching college students for a semester sometimes. Because, there’s a lot at stake for them, so they’re really eager students, you know, they really want to learn because they don’t want to go back there.” Hurt’s focus on nurturing becomes vitally important in this setting. The women begin to “see that you are relating to them as people of value” and they appreciate that, Hurt shares. “They could see a woman who had her head together, who was intelligent and her life on track, and it was inspiring for them that it could happen for them as well . . . that never happens in academia . . . to be one small part of that puzzle to help them start over is way more rewarding.”
And of course, for Hurt, that same joy comes into motherhood as well: “you have to teach your child, you’re teaching them the steps, and then when they have the courage… it’s really wonderful, I’m teaching her all the time how to just, kind of, be a person,” she laughs.
The Value of Graduate School
Still on my own pursuit of a PhD and interested in teaching, I asked Hurt to reflect on how her experience as grad student related to developing the skills that she values as a teacher. The first thing she mentioned was paying attention to the myriad examples you have in front of you as a student. You have a lot of different types of teachers. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice the nuances of their approach in addition to their presentation of the material. You notice their timeliness in getting assignments back, the quality of their comments, if they are kind or nurturing versus critical and mean.
Hurt drew upon things that worked for her and things that
seemed to work for her teachers, but also paid attention to what
definitely did not. “Sometimes I would totally model what my teachers were doing and think, ‘is this going to be my style?’ And so I was the really, really hard-ass teacher who took no apologies, just really hard on my students . . . and then after a while I thought, ‘well, that doesn’t feel authentic, I don’t think that’s me, and I don’t think it’s helping them learn anything. It’s just making them afraid of me.’ So I’ll try a different approach this year, just finding where you can soften but still hold the tenets that are appropriate for them to respect you as the teacher, and respect the material, and the discipline that you are teaching them.”
Graduate school, of course, teaches us more than just how to teach. Hurt also attributes to graduate school much of the shaping of who she has become today. “There’s much more to it than just writing a dissertation,” she told me. The graduate school years shaped her thought processes: “Before it was just so easy to jump to an answer, you see a question and you think, oh, well it’s this. But when you are getting your PhD, you are trained to really look at it from cultural standpoint of, ‘what are the dynamics happening in this culture, and then how do you respond?’ And you really do broaden your lens and how you look at things. And that happens day to day.”
This skill permeates her daily life, whether it’s reading news about events related to the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri or watching the ways children are raised and learning how to raise her own daughter. “The hardest part,” she says, about leaving the academy “is not having your intellectual circle. When you’re living with a group of people for three of four years, sometimes five, and you have that stimulus at your fingertips where you can just grab coffee and talk about bell hooks, that’s really great, and when you’re away from that, … it’s very alienating. And it’s hard. . . But there, the research I’m doing with the Lessac work is useful because it’s stimulating.”
Hurt also re-wrote her dissertation into a book, “into the book I wanted it to be,” she laughed. “And now I can move on from the PhD world!” What struck me most about her graduate school progress though is that, rather than her PhD preparing her for a career outside of academia, her life outside academia trained her for her dissertation, and eventually this book. Becoming a Lessac Certified Trainer and a certified yoga teacher certainly contributed to her research.And she does continue to write. She’s published papers on her Lessac voice work and has a couple more papers in the pipeline. She also continues to adjunct, teaching voice class at George Mason University, for example, but most of her life and work now focus on different kinds of teaching.
Finding teaching opportunities outside of the academy has helped Hurt find a balance between her career and her life. She currently works part time in various capacities as a freelance teacher, and has has the time to focus on her family and raising her daughter. But it’s not just about balancing her time, it’s also balancing within the work itself. Moving outside the academy has helped Hurt to cultivate a teaching style that suits her and that harmonizes with her own life philosophy. Her profound love of theatre and teaching, even through the harsh hears of graduate school, have led her to opportunity. Reflecting on her MFA research on the Federal Theatre Project, she noted “you start to learn more about the cultural implications of performance, how theatre history and social history have been interwoven and shaped, that have affected lawmaking. It’s just really profound the more you really study it. Studying theatre is so much more than fun improv and painting a flat. It’s so much more important to what’s happening historically in everyday life.”
For Hurt, graduate school has developed her ability to engage with those societal and cultural implications on a personal level. Theatre artists and teachers have the opportunity of “spiritually lifting their communities” and having a direct impact on where they live. A “regular old neighbor” who happens to be a theatre artist can “have a really profound and special impact on someone,” she notes. “You don’t have to be a celebrity to do it. You just have to be honest. Your job is to share a story and have the other person connect with it in some way.” And with a PhD, she can inspire others with the vast knowledge she has to siphon into the stories that she shares and contribute to her community in ways that provide fulfillment for her as well. Earning her PhD has allowed Hurt to continue to work in theatre and teaching in more meaningful ways that she believes more greatly contribute to the well-being of her community. “I can’t promise that you’ll make a living at it, but you may not make a living as an academic!” she laughs. “But there is so much more you can do!”
Learn more about Melissa Hurt and her company Integrative Studio, LLC at melissahurt.com.