Victoria is now a full-time Professor of Performing Arts at a university in Georgia but will be teaching and coaching in New York City during the summer and winter breaks.
The arts may seem like a strange choice for a child of Marxist lesbian feminist Jews who were trying to save the world, but to me it was the obvious next step.
I grew up in the world of activism. As a young man my father, a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), fought in the Civil Rights Movement and helped shut down Columbia in 1967. His stories of direct action—of countless arrests, marches, demonstrations and strikes—were like fairy tales to my young mind, full of heroes and villains and loss and triumph. My father spent the 1970s unionizing janitors at Boston’s elite universities, and in the last twenty years of his career he fought on behalf of tenants living in SRO (Single Room Occupancy) apartments—those living just one step up from homelessness.
My mother spent over 30 years teaching Women’s Studies (with an emphasis on religion), molding the next generation of feminists through the investigation of women’s roles in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other faiths. I grew up on her stories of teenage prophets in England who disrupted the status quo, outspoken women burned as witches, and Bible stories whose sexism she made glaringly apparent. Her wife, an anthropologist studying Romania during and after Communism, joined our family 20 years ago with stories of her own: sneaking behind the Iron Curtain to interview factory workers, tracked by the Romanian Secret Police the whole time.
All three of my parents are fearless and bold, but what they really taught me was compassion and curiosity about the lives of others. What makes them unique is their boundless interest in the people whose stories are rarely told. My father is the kind of person who not only gives money to a homeless person but makes sure she’s staying in a shelter. My mother will fly half-way around the world to read the journal of an 18th-Century Catholic teenager who had astonishing dreams. They love people, and they instilled in me a passion for telling the stories of all humans.
Art is activism. Of course art can be political, can make a difference, and my life has been changed forever by the work of Eisenstein, Anna Deveare Smith, Kate Chopin; but it goes deeper than that. What matters is not just that a story can inspire you to action; it’s the act of telling and listening itself, the communal act of artistic engagement.
This fall I directed The Trojan Women at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and set it in the Warsaw Ghetto. Falling in love with those ancient women reminded me of Hamlet’s line: What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her? The pain of those long-ago women mourning their dead and waiting to be sent away as slaves to the victorious Greeks, and interpreted by us through the lens of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews being sent to Treblinka, became as intimate to us all as the atrocities in Aleppo, and made the Syrian horrors all the more personal. Time, space, everything collapses in the dark of the theater, and Troy’s pain is our pain is Aleppo’s pain is all pain. It’s no accident that the birthplace of theatre is also the birthplace of democracy, because theatre teaches us to care about people, and even the Greeks, who adored their kings and queens and gods, created the Chorus to show us what effect the actions of these great beings had on ordinary folk.
I believe everyone should study theatre. Many of my students go on to have successful careers as performers and I’m thrilled, but that’s not why I teach. I don’t teach to create stars. I don’t care how much talent a student has. I heard a celebrity acting teacher recently give a talk in which he said that in each class there are two or three with a “spark,” and he teaches for those and ignores the rest. I believe every student has a spark. I’ve seen it catch and burst out in the most surprising places.
Make no mistake: I am not easy, I am tough. I do not settle for less than the best a student has. If I sense something inauthentic or shallow or trite I will keep pushing until she finds something true. But always, always, I recognize the courage and beauty of what every student is doing. It is terrifying to be an actor, and more terrifying to be an acting student, to put yourself out there in the most vulnerable way possible and actually request criticism. I can’t forget the bravery of the young people I teach. I’m in awe of them.
Of course I am pushing for excellence, but my upbringing was not about competition, it was not beating other people, it was about humanity and interconnectedness and the importance of every single story. My students, over and over, remark in their evaluations that as much as I challenge them, the overall feeling is that above all, I have their backs, I am in their corner; that I create a space that is safe, full of trust, respect, and even love, that allows them to take risks. One of my earliest students wrote,
Victoria is one of the few teachers who will let me be afraid and who will stand by me while I'm vulnerable. She knew when I was scared to dive in but luckily she made me do it anyway--not by forcing but by persuading. And she didn't leave me alone there--she was with me the entire time. I wasn´t alone searching for something inside me, she wasn't pulling it out from me, we were exploring it together.
As a teacher I use every aspect of my varied experience and training, from my BA in English Literature from Barnard to my MFA in Acting from NYU, where we studied everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen to voice and speech to clowning and commedia. I’ve taught physical theatre to children in shelters and directed NYU undergrads in fully-realized productions. I’ve taught monologues to Australian high school students and On-Camera Audition Technique to professional actors in Chile. I’m now an Acting Shakespeare teacher at the training program at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. As a private coach I’ve helped 5-year olds to 50-year olds book work and land agents. I’ve completed the BPSS New York State teacher training, which teaches educators to reach students who learn in varied ways: aurally, visually, experientially. I’m a proud member of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers, led by Hugh O’Gorman, head of the Theatre program at Cal State-Long Beach.
I continue to look for every opportunity to teach theatre, because it’s the study of what makes us human. It’s the only thing that matters.