Theresa Ohanian: Theater Education and the Importance of Vulnerability

Theresa Ohanian is an adjunct professor for the George Mason theater department. She teaches voice theory and Theater 101 but it wasn’t until her early adult years that she made the decision to pursue theater education. Now, Ms. Ohanian teaches theater at multiple age levels, directs and continues to pursue her passion for creating art. In her classes, she strives to create a safe space for her students and places a heavy emphasis on taking care of an actor’s most important instrument: the body. I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with her about her experiences in theater, and how those have impacted the messages she conveys to her students today.

EP: Are there any experiences that you think have directly impacted your teaching style or your directing style?

TO: Absolutely! I think people make directing very difficult. You are given the gift and opportunity to work with multitudes of the human body which is the best instrument, in my personal opinion, for creating art. So if you can walk into a rehearsal room, pare it down, and allow an actor to grow inside of a production, as opposed to stifling them with direction or design or a silly costume or old age makeup, right? If you can pare it down and make it about the actor the audience will be impacted, the show will change and evolve. It’ll become personal. We go to the theater, for the most part, not to see the complications of the story, but to listen and be involved and touched by a story.

Related: Why You Should See Live Theater

EP: I also know that you teach several different age levels. What is the most fascinating discovery you’ve made between the different levels?

TO: It’s fascinating to see what evolving as a human does to the voice. When I work with my 4 to 6 year olds, they are unencumbered by societal restrictions, by identity, by jealousies, by the stressors of everyday life. I usually come out of those classrooms relatively deaf because of the volume and the proliferation and the strength of these children’s voices. They can moderate their voices in a way that adults cannot. Easily, anyway. But then again, working with adults is fascinating because they bring so much to the table. There’s so much to tap into. I was working with a student, and I don’t believe in emotional recall I think it can be very unsafe, but this particular actor allowed that to come out, and I was able to coach her safely to allow that to come out.  A child doesn’t bring that depth of emotion to the table. That’s something that they are developing at that time. So, there are benefits of working with both.

EP: Is that fascination what pushed you towards working on the mind and body connection in your teaching?

TO: Full disclosure, I never saw myself teaching voice. It’s always been a fascination of mine but the theory in which I was trained, the Linklater theory, I hated it, which I think makes me a good educator in it. I hated the theory for ten years but continued to practice it because I knew somewhere in there, there was gold. I think it’s important to fall in love with something, grow to hate it and find the love again.  I think the same thing is true for a production. There always comes a week where your cast hates the show. They get bored with it. They’ve done it too much. The work is too hard. But once you pass that week, that week of hard work, of dedication, you come out of it utterly dedicated to the piece.

EP: In class, you stress things like “The classroom is a safe space,” and “It’s okay and good to be vulnerable." Why are these things that you place emphasis on in the classroom, particularly for adult artists?

TO: I want my students to feel that their bodies are the perfect instrument for their voices.  Their experiences, where they’re from, are going to influence their instruments. Their experiences and their influences do not close off or make their instruments incorrect.  So by encouraging students to look at their bodies, to look at their instruments in a way that is with the haze of love, as opposed to self-judgment, it does nothing expect open up the possibilities. The theater has to be a safe space.  If the theater is not a safe space, if your cohort does not treat it as a safe space, you can’t be that all-important work for actors, vulnerable. You can’t let that wall down, because you’re protecting yourself. I can say it’s a safe space as much as I want but if everybody is not signing that social contract to make it a safe space, then I have failed and it won’t be a safe space.  That wall that we have, that shell that we carry with us throughout our lives just to be able to survive, grows harder and impedes the vulnerability of the actor. We want to see vulnerable people onstage because they become human. So in the classroom, as we’re developing these skills, it’s very important to keep the actors in a safe space, a space in which they feel like they can be vulnerable.  I would never try to make someone feel vulnerable. They have to make that decision themselves.

Related: The Strength in Being Vulnerable

EP: When you’re working on a production what do you do to create that safe space, but also make sure the work is getting done?

TO: The first thing I always do in a rehearsal process is to create a community.  So, I work on the person-to-person, not actor-to-actor interplay of developing camaraderie, trust, and encouraging them to be able to tap into their vulnerability and have fun.  It’s so important for this art form to be fun. We take it so seriously. It is a sacred thing, but to also have fun and realize how lucky we are. So, the first couple days of rehearsal for me are all about the interpersonal relationship, so that even if we’re moving rehearsal spaces, or we can’t get into the theater until the night before the show, their safe spaces can be within each other.  

EP: Do you have any advice for artists who are having trouble finding that vulnerability?

TO: Get pulled outside yourself.  I am a big proponent of mental health care. This idea of working on one’s self first, whether it is having a great conversation with a parent, or a fellow student, or a mental health provider, or whatever it might be, the work that has to be done first is work on one’s self, on loving one’s self, on the confidence in one’s self.  That is not something I feel qualified to work with in a person, which is why I talk about mental health so much inside of our classroom.

EP: What are some of your favorite ways that you have found to take care of your body or mind?

TO: I’ll go right back to visiting my mental health providers.  I think that is one of the best ways to do self-care. I like to look at myself as a functioning body, not as an entity to be fought. Which has been a difficulty for me for a long time. One of the big things that I feel like I’m working on right now is accepting and loving who I am, at every changeable moment.  I’m not good at it yet. (Laughs.)  I’m working on it.  But, if you can wake up in the morning, take stock of who you are at that particular moment, at that particular day, and be able to step back and go “Okay, I love myself in this moment,” that is a meditation that I think quite a few people do not do.  We get up, we get our coffee, we move on. But taking that moment of self-care, that moment of going “I love you today,” is so important because it’s so hard. One needs to love one’s self at one’s worst. One needs to love one’s self at one’s ugliest.  One needs to love one’s self at one’s most vulnerable moment, and love the flaws and failures. Because when you love the flaws and failures, they don’t become flaws and failures anymore. They become lessons and learning and process. So, my biggest thing in self-care is to always reach out to mental health professionals.  I think that’s very important, especially on campus. And then, always take time to love yourself at that moment. Not your ideal self. Your flawed, imperfect, vulnerable self.

[If you or someone you know is interested in seeking the assistance of a mental health provider, the CAPS office on campus is a great place to start!]

EP: So next month, Lysistrata starts. What are you most excited for about that process?

TO: I am so excited to work on a show that has gender conflict at its core.  I think it is fascinatingly relevant for this moment in time. For this age group and this point of this country’s evolution, I think it’s very pertinent to talk about gender conflict, gender ideas, the idea of moveable-gender, the idea of non-conforming-gender.   This is important. And that obviously has been in discussion for thousands of years. This is an ancient Greek play. And to be able to use a story from so long ago, that is still relevant, is both exciting and disheartening at the same time (Laughs).  So that’s what I’m most excited about, is starting that conversation with the actors, with the designers, the production team, and the audience.  I used a phrase the other day in saying that “This is going to challenge the audience.” And I’m very excited.

Make sure to check out the Mason Players production of Lysistrata coming up in April!

Special thanks to Theresa Ohanian for her time and insight, and to Kathleen West for transcribing the interview.