Finding My Direction in the Busiest of Teaching Seasons
My students and colleagues are often surprised to learn that I went to university as a theatre major and, ultimately, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English with a Theatre Arts minor. Though I have a loud voice, I do not like to be the center of attention and prefer to operate behind the scenes. I often share the story of my major change with my students as they begin thinking about what they’re going to do beyond high school to ease their nerves about their own uncertainties, or to alleviate the pressure they feel to have it all figured out.
My decision to pursue theatre after high school did not come from the belief that I was exceptionally talented or dreamt of winning a Tony or an Oscar one day; it emanated from the fact that my fondest memories and strongest feelings of belonging came from being involved in theatre in high school. During my first semester of college, I quickly realized that acting was not why I loved theatre and I needed to adjust my plan moving forward. I am so very grateful for my Chekhov-loving theatre professor with whom I met in tears after my final exam performance as Olga Prozorov for guidance in making this decision. She understood why I might be feeling lost and acknowledged my discomfort on stage based on my final exam feedback, but she also told me that I had great instincts when it came to interpretation and performance, and she found me most compelling when she watched me work with my peers, giving them direction. She also referenced my extensive character study that I wrote as part of my preparation, which included a journal with entries written in Olga’s first-person point of view. She ended our meeting by saying, “Jessica, you’re the chef, not the dish.”
I don’t recall how everything fell into place, but I do know that I spent the rest of my college career doing what I loved – reading, writing, and directing as an English major and theatre minor. I was involved in the student-led production company on our campus as an assistant director, stage manager, and director; I was my professor’s student director for the university’s main stage production of Macbeth and for a performance piece that debuted at The Avignon Theatre Festival in France; I directed a senior thesis project at a community theatre in Los Angeles; and I had my sights set on pursuing a career in casting or talent representation in the entertainment industry after graduation. And of course, just like my plans post-high school took a turn, so did my plans for adulthood as I learned through my first job assisting a talent agent that Hollywood was not the kitchen this chef wanted to work in.
Years later, I returned to my alma mater as an English teacher with nearly ten years of public education experience and a master’s degree. Though I dabbled in teaching theatre early on in my career, I didn’t find it fulfilling or rewarding. When I accepted the position at my alma mater my hope was to someday become involved in the program that was so pivotal to my own development.
At the beginning of this school year, many teachers and administrators found themselves absolutely flabbergasted by the fact that, though we survived the previous school year, a historic school year defined in its entirety by a global pandemic that required boundless creativity and adaptability, the new school year felt even more difficult than the last. Educators around the country grappled with the question of why things seemed harder, with many pointing to the call for a return to “normalcy” contributing to the onset of fatigue and frustration in the early months of school. Even though during the 2020 – 2021 academic year many schools “trimmed the fat” by zeroing in on the essentials of education and eliminating the “extra” responsibilities, many of us crawled across the finish line in June of 2021. Then, once the 2021 – 2022 school year was underway, all of the “extras” were expectations again because it was time to get back to “normal,” but we were out of practice and we’d forgotten how to balance it all.
It was on one of the many busy days in early fall that I received an email from our theatre department chair with the subject line “Directing?” The department was producing David Ives’ All in the Timing and, because it’s a collection of six short comedies, she wanted to open the directing opportunities to faculty beyond her department. Initially, I was excited at the possibility of directing again, but that feeling was quickly replaced with disappointment. As I looked at the dates for the auditions, rehearsals, and performances, I just saw another thing adding to my endless list of to-dos. I felt frustrated with the cosmic irony of being asked to do something I’ve wanted to do during what felt like the busiest and most chaotic school year of my career. I just closed the email and went about tackling the other pressing matters in my day.
However, for several days, the prospect of directing lingered in my mind. As an Enneagram Two, “The Giver,” I have to carefully explore my motivations for doing things, because my tendency is to do them for others’ benefit and appreciation, which can lead me to a place of resentment. As I continued to mull over the decision, I felt a pull on my heartstrings to seize this opportunity as divine intervention, so I sent an email with a grateful and open heart and accepted the opportunity to direct one of the plays. Amusingly, as I told family and friends about my exciting foray back into the world of theatre, many asked me, “Are you sure? Is it not going to be too much?” or “Do you really have time?” In these early days, I didn’t know how to answer these questions, except that I was looking forward to what might unfold from this experience.
From the very first production meeting with the theatre department chair and other directors, I was certain I made the best decision. Interestingly, she described running the theatre department and its productions like a professional company, so that the students get some kind of feel for the real world if they want to pursue theatre after high school. She assured us that she would function as the show’s producer, managing all aspects of the production, and that our role was to direct. She informed us that we’d each have a student stage manager, and there would be a complete stage crew, prop master, costumer, hair, and makeup team. She even said we weren’t expected to attend every performance because in a professional theatre the director is on to his/her next show when the show opens. I knew I could make this work.
With each rehearsal, I found that I looked forward to making my way down to the theatre after the school day was over and working with my incredible cast. Never once did I feel like I’d taken on too much or committed to something I really didn’t want to do. I felt an immense sense of pride in what my cast, my stage manager, and I were creating together. And I was honored by the trust the theatre department chair extended to me with this opportunity to be part of this production.
During this time, I was the busiest I’ve ever been during my career as an educator. I took on teaching an additional academic class after a colleague resigned early in the year. My administrative role as Sophomore Grade Dean presented new challenges with an entire grade-level of students who joined our school community during the height of the pandemic the previous year. All of this on top of the layering back in of “normal” responsibilities and expectations for faculty and staff. I figured this experience would make or break me, but, throughout the whole process, I believed in my commitment to this opportunity, a possibility that has literally haunted my dreams.
I am incredibly fortunate to have family and friends who support my investment in myself. They were the ones who encouraged me to go for it. They were also the ones in the audience when the show opened. Through them, I am able to see this experience as a deposit into my personal well-being, an exercise in creativity that I have deeply missed, and something that I must prioritize moving forward. It’s easy to believe that adding one more thing or taking on something else will just tip the scales toward stress and overwhelm, but sometimes it can be just the weight you need to add to the other side of the scale to balance it all out.
So as the curtain falls on this year and the possibilities and prospects of a new year are upon us, I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to find that passion project, a creative outlet that fortifies their spirit rather than diminishes it. We have to make room for these opportunities when they arise because they are what fuel us to keep moving forward with self-love and acceptance, as opposed to anxiety and bitterness. I’d forgotten how theatre made me feel when I was a lonely ninth grader, yet it seems I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. At times in my life, it has manifested itself as other opportunities, but this year, I returned to my roots, the very stage where that feeling originated, and got a healthy reminder of what matters most – to listen to my heart.
Jessica Bailey is Our Gothic Queen Bee Who Reigns Under the Yellow Banner of the Second Year, Sometimes Subject of Spontaneous Photography