Crazy Larry is in his first Equity play, and we were talking about the similarities between acting and teaching. I asked if he knew the term “corpsing,” which I’d heard on the special features of a DVD for Ricky Gervais’s series The Extras. It means to laugh inappropriately while shooting a scene, and Gervais, who’s known for doing it constantly (and hilariously), describes it as a sort of physical affliction beyond one’s control, a tension in the muscles that builds on itself and ruins take after take. Crazy Larry called it “breaking”—as in breaking character—but acknowledged its weird power. It was most potent, he said, when everyone broke at once, and he pictured invisible vectors shooting through cast and crew, binding them into a community.
I’m very aware of audience at certain times in the classroom and have developed habits to sway them as a teacher—never laughing at my own jokes, for instance (an old standup comics’ trick) or being purposely flat when the material is emotional or otherwise serious. I find this performance—which is to say, manipulation of the audience’s interest—difficult to manage, even exhausting, and I’m not sure what role it plays in instructional quality. Most days, I just do what I do and hope for the best. But sometimes when I feel the tension build in a room, I try to help it along and, if I can, trigger its release.
Yesterday in a creative writing class I brought up author John Gardner’s idea that it’s difficult to make your main character a passive victim (of others, of drugs, of physiology, etc.), since drama usually results from kicking against the pricks, not from acquiescence. Apprentice writers who sign up for a class like mine because they’re trying to work through depression, loneliness, or alienation have an especially hard time with them.
I told them a victim story. My cousin Helen was schizophrenic in the days before effective medications, and when she felt an episode coming, she’d rise from the couch and hurry out to the kitchen, under the pretense of putting dishes away. Shortly we’d hear her shout to herself in a deep voice like a man’s, then in a high feminine voice as horrible as mockery in response—I did the voices a little—and in her excited state, the dishes began to clank and ring as if they’d break. Her elderly mother, living by then in an easy chair by the television, would yell, “Helen! Shut up!” and Helen would take the argument down to a mutter. In a few minutes it would build again, and she’d be cussing and begging herself for mercy. It was grotesque and awful to hear, and as a small child I was frightened, amused, and fascinated by her.
I told my students that if I was brainstorming a list of interesting people to write about, she’d be right up there, but that I can’t imagine a short story to be written with her as protagonist, because she had no free will in any of that; she was a victim of her own brain chemistry. The classroom was tight with tension as I spoke. It’s an intimate space, and students are so conditioned to political correctness that I could tell they were highly uncomfortable.
I tried to suggest how they might shape something from such material, by shifting my victim story to be about a young boy watching Helen. Students listened solemnly as I recalled putting a plastic tarantula in a jar with some grass, punching holes in the lid for air, and tricking Helen into thinking it was real. I was awfully proud of my gag. With the cruelty of a child, I told her I got it from her basement, knowing that her paranoid delusions included a strange man who lived in the coal bin in the basement and stole her checks. Helen was so upset she had to walk around the block several times to try to calm herself, while I stood at the picture window in the living room, dreading her coming into view on each new circuit, scared she might never come back inside. “Oh god,” I said and sagged in front of the class, holding my forehead in mock shame and corpsing a little for real.
The room shouted with uncontainable laughter. The tension released communally, and I felt closer to the students and better able to explain how a real story—call it epiphany or coming-of-age—might be about how we learn compassion by becoming aware of our own meanness. They got it.
Flush with success—what a teacher I am!—I tried to work the room in my big lecture-hall class that afternoon. I didn’t feel “on,” as Crazy Larry would say, but I told them that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” about Puritan hypocrisy, always reminded me of a certain poem. Without telling them what the poem was, I began to read the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” in a deadpan voice so dry and flat that it didn’t give students permission to react. There was tension all right—no one likes to be in the room as someone makes a tool of himself—and I cut directly to my thesis on the secular form of original sin, “the communion of our race,” as Hawthorne put it, which no one understood.