Vol. 24 No. 1-2, 2003

SEYMOUR B. SARASON. Teaching as a Performing Art.
New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1999.
192 pp. $35.95 CDN, paper.


At the core of Seymour B. Sarason’s Teaching as a Performing Art the reader finds a critical translation of performance-based pedagogy that is both informing and re-forming the discourse of education itself. Teachers, teacher educators, and those in the field of the performing arts who seek to extend the breadth of their professional expertise are introduced to a critical deconstruction of traditional hierarchies of education through an adept extension of the terms of performance-based arts. Though little has been written on teaching as a performing art, Dr. Sarason provides a substantial thesis for educators and performers alike to modify and adopt as they reconsider the implications of their professional roles.

Drawing from Stanislavski’s system of creating the ideal, “authentic” performance, Sarason suggests that, in teaching, the desired outcomes of our efforts ought to directly influence the manner in which we affect those outcomes. In performance-based arts, the implications of both preparation and the act of performance itself are derivative of the very fruit of its labour, what has traditionally been viewed as audience affectation: “[Audiences] come to be transported, not to remain their accustomed selves. Audiences expect actors to be their roles [...]. To the extent the performer can engender that illusion in the audience, the artist has discharged his or her obligation to the audience” (Sarason 14). Indeed, it is with a charged sense of “obligation” that the performer carefully and systematically begins the arduous journey of being able to “transport” the audience. Through an attentive exploration of the desired achievements of the performing arts and the varied implications of their preparatory processes, Sarason proposes an inherent value system of performance, at the peak of which we find the quality of “authenticity.” As we glean from Sarason’s reading of Stanislavski, the extent to which performers become the “ideal” directly relates to how, or if, an audience shall be moved. Disciples of performancebased pedagogy engage in a highly structured dialectic that asks questions for which it continually strives to find answers: e.g., if an audience expects a “flawless” performance of the character Hamlet, how shall I condition my execution of the character? What preparatory steps shall I take to achieve a “flawless” performance? Along with providing a platform from which each unique performer might continually aspire to their own uniquely “ideal” performance, the dialectic becomes a template for Sarason’s educational reform. Teaching as a Performing Art is a diverging union of two occupations whose congruency is made manifest through their constant referral to a common objective: “authenticity.”

As with any ontological inquiry, the desire to achieve some form of synthesis between who we are and who we seek to become propels us. The onset of fulfilling our prescribed obligation to the audience becomes a fixed point of self-renewal and, as Sarason suggests, acts as a catalyst in our quest for enlightenment. As the title of the book indicates, the quest is comparatively similar for educators. The author demonstrates how both teaching and the performing arts are linked in terms of their professional obligations and, as he carefully delves into the processes of performance, the reader instinctively imposes a translation of the terms within an educational context. The language of performance naturally becomes a metaphor for teaching itself. When the author writes that “Audiences come with diverse expectations, but among them the most important is that the performer will ‘get’ them ‘out of themselves,’ will transport them willingly [...] into another world” (Sarason 15), his accomplishment is two-fold: 1) he establishes a common point of connection between the performing arts and teaching by illustrating a shared, desired outcome, and 2) the establishment of the outcome facilitates the development of the preparatory process within an education framework. The terms of the dialectic that was once primarily used to foster excellence (in this case, in the theatre) are not replaced, but rather reconsidered as a means of extending the scope through which we come to understand education, the performing arts, and ourselves. By audiences, we understand that Sarason implies students, and when the performer (teacher) transports that audience into “another world” (subject matter made meaningful), it is by no small means through which such a feat occurs. The depth with which Sarason probes the implications of performers/teachers becoming their roles reaches into Freudian models of self-knowledge/understanding and, particularly, Stanislavski’s performance methods. Sarason writes: “A successful identification [of a role] requires more than needing and wanting to identify. If every person is unique, so is every role, and it is capturing that uniqueness and conveying it to an audience that is the difficult obligation of the actor”(29). If, indeed, performers take their audience to that other world by way of their understanding and harnessing the “uniqueness” of their roles, so shall we understand the grave necessity of exploring our own uniqueness, with all our varied nuances, as “authentic” educators. As we reconsider the terms of performance within our classrooms, we engage in a model of reform whose design reflects an attentive consideration of those for whom, and with whom, we perform.

Despite the occasional tangent on relatively obscure psychological theorists, coupled with rather lengthy referential passages, Teaching as a Performing Art is an adept negotiation of process and ideal, one whose expression challenges both educators and performers to consider their professions within a much larger context. With chapters dealing in “Performing Artists and Audiences,” “The Teacher as Performer,” and “The Problematic Place of Theory in the Preparation of Teachers,” Sarason explores the varied and often complex nuances of the book’s grand metaphor. Rather than providing a specific design of what authentic performance should or does look like either on stage or in the classroom, Teaching as a Performing Art asks those professionals to reconsider the terms of their obligations to their respective audiences and to realize that the implementation of an authentic performance begins with an internal commitment to exploring their own unique roles. The degree to which their manifest performance reaches the ideal is contingent upon the reconciliation of the terms of their obligations. The appeal of the book, I think, stems from its acknowledgment that because each role is unique, we, as a community of educators and performers, can come to see our professional obligations anew. Sarason has developed a model of reform that encourages us to continually rejuvenate not only the life of the classroom/stage where authentic engagement can occur, but also the sense of integrity that propels us to deepen the understanding of our own professional discourse – a discourse that informs and is informed by an ideal that extends beyond the walls of theatres and classrooms and speaks, not only to our minds, but more importantly, to our hearts.