Teaching as acting: DAMU offers a course in captivating an audience in school and elsewhere

Acting requires a correct perception of oneself and a good use of speech, tone of the voice, gestures, and facial expressions in order to captivate viewers’ attention and connect with them. Teaching requires the same skills: in school, it is also useful to engage the ‘audience’. The Department of Authorial Creativity and Pedagogy at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) has been offering courses for teachers and others who address people in all types of roles for many years.

Writer, playwright, actor, director, and drama teacher Ivan Vyskočil founded DAMU’s Department of Authorial Creativity and Pedagogy in 1994. Being a DAMU alumnus himself (1952), he nevertheless went on to study psychology, philosophy, and pedagogy at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University afterwards.

He focused on juvenile delinquents and, among other insights, gained professional experience working in psychiatric and corrective institutions while a student. Eventually, however, he opted not to pursue a career in psychology and focused on theatre instead (with his Nedivadlo project). He taught psychology and pedagogy at DAMU (1957–59). 

The story of the Department taking a turn towards pedagogy is not about himself, however – it is about his wife Eva Vyskočilová, a psychologist who focused on developmental and pedagogical psychology. It was her who noticed that educational professionals could benefit from learning (or maybe even should learn) what future actors and actresses were learning.

Members of the general public can harness these skills in a lifelong education course nowadays. Named Creative Pedagogy, the programme focuses on the teacher’s personality and pedagogical condition. “In our course, learning takes place through trying things in real time, also known as the psychosomatic method. This makes our pedagogy studies unique – we do not teach theory; instead, we learn through our own body, speech, voice, overall expression, and interaction,” explains Eva Čechová who studied at the Department and is its teacher now. She is in charge of lifelong education along with colleague Zuzana Pártlová.

You graduated from the Department of Authorial Creativity and Pedagogy. Professor Ivan Vyskočil taught you, and so did Associate Professor Eva Vyskočilová. What made Ivan Vyskočil exceptional?
Ivan Vyskočil had been combining his unique theatrical experiments with his profound interest in philosophy and psychology since the 1960s. When he was working with youth criminals, he tried to re-educate them on the basis of trust, contact, and connection. He asked: What can be done to make a person truly interested in their own and others’ lives? What is the path to tread in order to make these people want to change the course of their lives and start living differently? 

How did this manifest in his approach at the Department?
His theatrical approach to raising actors was radically different from the one that had been customary at DAMU before. He was very much against an institutional approach, likely due to having experienced a lack of freedom during the socialism era. To put it very simply, the foundation of his approach to acting was teaching people to think freely and be creative – as opposed to just learning to imitate. It was not about learning to become an actor; it was about being someone who develops an authorial approach, seeks their own way, and gets to know their true self during the studies. This means that, above all, you must take the long and patient path of self-learning. This is where we get to personality education. 

The lifelong education course is called Creative Pedagogy and it focuses on pedagogical condition, inter alia. What exactly does ‘condition’ and ‘creative’ mean in this context?
It means psychosomatic condition where we rediscover and cultivate our voice, speech, movement, and overall expression. We get to know ourselves, to understand ourselves – and thus to understand the other person who is facing us and who we interact with. It is a constant, vibrant process; it is not imitation or a technique that you master and you’re done. It is something that you must work on continuously, nurturing, renewing, and practicing it along the way. We often use the word ‘try’ at our Department. 

Is that the ‘creative’ part?
Yes, it is. It is connected with Vyskočil’s invention of dialogical acting, which is our flagship discipline that straddles the line between psychodrama and solo improvisation with others participating. Here, we draw on Vyskočil’s appetite for experimenting and discovering individual paths of expression, and it is all grounded in the psychosomatics of expression and acting in play, or through play. 

What does that mean?
It means that each of us has a voice, our own speech, and other senses, and we use them in a certain way with a certain effect on others. In personality education, we can realise the way we act, the way we express ourselves – our gestures, the tone of our voice, and our gestures. When we are learning this here at the Department, it is always happening in the presence of others, in the ‘force field’ of a public situation. That leads us towards a different expression; it is often tense and unnatural to us. In dialogical acting, we learn to consciously evolve our behaviour through play with attention focused on ourselves while also acting in public, in the presence of others. This is hugely powerful and endlessly adventurous. 

Your Department has the word ‘pedagogy’ in its official name. How did it get there?
By using this word, Vyskočil pointed to his idea of studying acting and dramatic play, which is teaching in order to raise authorial, creative, and partner personalities. He developed this concept back in the 1970s when he worked in the theatre section of the primary art school in Josefská Street in Prague’s Lesser Town as a teacher in evening courses for workers. He put together a core team of crucial personalities, co-workers who followed him to our Department at DAMU later on. One of those teachers was Vítězslava Fryntová, an excellent actress who was not allowed to perform publicly for political reasons at the time.   

Did the pedagogy education concept, which the Department started teaching, come into existence at that time?
Ivan Vyskočil’s wife Eva made it reality, but it only happened much later. She was an incredible woman, an arduous researcher and pedagogy innovator. When Ivan Vyskočil founded our Department and brought the teachers from the Josefská art school with him, he based his teaching on the principal axis of psychosomatic disciplines: education towards voice, speech, movement, authorial reading, and dialogical acting. That was his ‘holy five’. With that said, he was not interested in pedagogy as such – but Ms Vyskočilová was. She pursued pedagogical research and came up with the idea of offering this programme to external pedagogy students and teachers. In 2006, she obtained accreditation for the programme as part of lifelong education – pedagogy studies with educator qualification. 

What was innovative in her approach?
Eva Vyskočilová was trying to infuse some real-world experience and creativity into the rigid, starkly theoretical, and frankly quite useless approach to pedagogy as it used to be taught in teacher institutes and elsewhere. Here at the Department, she saw – not least thanks to her husband’s experiments – that the phenomenon of creativity cultivates the personality and can benefit not only acting students but virtually everyone who educates others. 

Do you mean that a teacher is, in a sense, an actor who needs to captivate an audience?
Exactly. Back in the 1970s, Eva Vyskočilová pursued research that was unique for its time in the sense that it attempted to chart the intensity of interest between a student and a teacher. She was searching for sources and factors that contribute to interest, involvement, attention, and perceptiveness. She was interested in the process of communication – how the teacher is speaking to the students, how they can intrigue them, and when the students’ interest wanes. She came up with an experiment where she videotaped the class and the teacher using two cameras, and then she analysed the points in time when the children were paying attention and when they were not. She was trying to figure out what grabs their attention and when the teacher was losing them. 

This reminds me of a quote from your website: creative pedagogy is about cooperation and contact, not competition.
That is true. By the way, Professor Vyskočil structured his Nedivadlo as encounters. Viewers were not there to just sit and watch – they were participants who brought their energy and attention to the stage. It was a contact theatre. 

Let us get back to Ms Eva Vyskočilová’s research. What happened as the cameras rolled?
Several teachers took turns in the classroom and their task was to tell the children a simple story. Eva Vyskočilová then watched the videos and scaled the students’ interest. She noted the intensity of their attention at regular intervals to see when it was acute and when it dropped. The conclusion of the research was that the intensity of students’ involvement depends on the degree of the teacher’s involvement. This brings us to the dialogical acting approach, where you are trying to ‘wake up’, excite and keep interest, and maintain the curiosity about yourself and your action that is happening right here and now. That way, you are sure to excite and retain the attention of others. In short, Eva Vyskočilová was trying to improve the education for teachers with certain skills that are otherwise cultivated primarily in art education – skills that actors must or should know.

Creative pedagogy has been taught at your Department under the lifelong education programme since 2006 and is accredited as the teaching minimum.
Yes, those who complete the course receive teaching qualification for art subjects in primary and secondary art schools, institutes, and conservatories. As I said, pedagogy is not taught as a theory only, but also through developing live interaction and discovering individual communication processes with overlaps into philosophy and anthropology. The programme is not intended solely for art teachers, though. The students in our course include teachers of other subjects such as Czech, history, maths, and theatre, and also professionals such as a lawyer, a biologist, a philosopher, an IT expert, a corporate employee, and a CEO. 

Why do company executives seek with you?
They want to rejuvenate their communication and understand themselves and others better. It is also a way of replenishing your creative resources. Here, you can ask yourself who you are, how you relate or wish to relate to others, how you interact with them, and what can be improved in that regard.

What motivates teachers to attend your course?
It’s quite similar a lot of times. They want to reach their true selves. Budding educators seek their self-concept. They ask how they can boost their self-confidence, what impression they make, and how they can intrigue others. Actually, they often also ask how to ‘survive’ in the public realm and public situations. They prepare for the roles they are to play in public, and they want to do it with as much freedom as possible. Then there are teachers who have been working for a long time and are a bit tired. They are stuck in a rut. Having a routine is useful; you usually build it over a long time and it is a safe environment, but it also has its limitations. Here, they can touch the wellspring of their individuality and experience the joy of learning. And then there is yet another dimension. 

What is that?
The realisation that communication is always reciprocal. When you communicate, you are never alone; there is always someone else there, and that is extremely valuable, but only if it is truly reciprocal: if you perceive each other, if you are truly interested in each other. It is a lengthy process that requires calming down, working on developing one’s movement, and realising one’s speech, voice, and overall expression, as I said earlier… 

The course takes two years. How often do you meet?
It is intended for 36 people maximum, and they are divided into three groups. They meet once every month, on a Friday night and then throughout the following Saturday. 

What is the admission procedure like?
We run the procedure about six months before the course commences. Applicants send us their motivation letters. We want to know what they will use the course for, and we also want them to be aware that the biggest portion of the work to be done will be up to them. Then we meet in person. The first thing we tell every applicant is that they need to be able to slow down and find the time in their life to dedicate to study. This is very difficult, and not everyone is able to, wants to, or can afford to do it.

Do you mean slowing down in life and unburdening the mind in a sense?
Yes, we begin by calming down the body, and the mind is obviously connected to the body. First, we watch the body language… Sometimes, we will even try and discourage applicants during the interview by telling them: If you don’t have the time it takes, don’t enrol because if you don’t put in the time and energy and come regularly, you’ll be terribly frustrated. Here, you really need to slow down to begin the entire learning or education process. With a bit of a hyperbole, I say it is more like ‘re-education’.

Are there more applicants than you can admit?
There have been at least twice as many as we can admit over the past few years. The next course will begin in January 2025. Those who are interested now can already write to Tato e-mailová adresa je chráněna před spamboty. Pro její zobrazení musíte mít povolen Javascript. and we will put them on the list. 

The demand for the lifelong education course was so big that you decided to offer a different, shorter type of course – Living Pedagogy. Can you tell me more about it?
Based on persistent demand, we opened Ateliér živé pedagogiky (Living Pedagogy Studio) along with Creative Pedagogy tutors and my colleague Lucie Kukulová in 2022. The studio resides at Husova 9 and is our ‘sister’ facility where we offer personality education for teachers and the general public. It is part of the system that is also known as further training for educational professionals and you can take an eight- or a 12-hour course, several series of workshops, or regular evening classes in theatre, art, psychosomatics, and more – there are about 50 courses. This means art education, for example voice and speech training in the form of a basic, one-day introduction to the psychosomatic disciplines. Despite its brevity, teachers keep telling us how much it helps them and they come back. Then we have the flagship course that we call Scholé. It is based directly on DAMU’s Creative Pedagogy programme that I have just been talking about. Scholé is continuous education concentrated into one semester and includes five one-day classes. We would like to expand Scholé into two and more semesters. Teachers of various subjects and generations attend Scholé.