Freshman year, at the University of Michigan, I walked into my first class as a member of the 2014 BFA Theatre & Drama Performance class, secluded well into the trees of UofM’s North Campus. Most college kids at Michigan don’t visit that part of campus at all in their four years. North Campus mainly houses buildings for music, drama, & engineering. You know... those three peas in an academic pod. I walked into my first class, entitled “Voice 1.” The class was held in a room in the basement of the Walgreen Drama Center building, named aptly after the place you go to get 5-hour Energy and the Plan B pill.
It was my first class of college. I was so determined to escape the brace-faced senior with a subtle anxiety disorder that I was in high school. This was going to be my year (*wink*). We’re all sitting on the concrete floor, under bright fluorescent lights, when the door knob turns. A woman with velvet sweat pants, a cheetah print shirt, and a perfectly trimmed bob walks in. Her name was Annette, and she would be my hardest professor for all of college.
She had us all get into a circle. She wanted to know our names, where we were from, and what she called “some BS fact that normally no one would care about.” Looking back, I have no idea what I actually said. I probably tried to be witty in some way and say I got braces just to be fashion forward. The semester continued, and we were introduced to a world of “champions,” “monkey drums,” and “salute to the gods.” These were all techniques and exercises that Annette has taught time and time again to fragile and tender 18-year-olds to help connect them to their true voice. At first, I was like, what is this BS? I’m spending five hours of my school week shouting at full volume with my arms stretched out? Screw it, I’ll just switch to engineering.
But I stuck with it. Freshman and sophomore year go by, and my class and I found ourselves drinking her Kool-Aid at full blast. I wouldn’t even think of doing an audition without a full set of Annette’s full-proof vocal warmups. We all came into class with our “profound” thoughts and questions, hoping to impress her in some way. I’m sure for an outsider, some of our class exercises made us look like the Bluth family doing their respective chicken dances. I remember there was even one class so absurd, that we spent the entire hour and a half crawling around and speaking like literal babies. I shit you not. But I loved every minute of it.
We came back for junior year and got ourselves ready for Dialects, Annette’s most prized class. It was a great challenge for an introductory lesson to about ten different dialects. And it was in this class that I faced my most embarrassing and guilt-inducing moment to this day. The day is fuzzy to me now. But from what I remember, I had been struggling with dialects all semester. Let’s just say as an actor, dialects are not my STRONGEST suit. And we were working on a dialect that was just not jiving with me. So much so, that I projected an attitude where I didn’t care or want to be there. The class ended, and Annette asked to speak with me for a second. What I thought would be a tender moment where she coddled me to feel loved and valued made me feel so low, that I even considered dropping the program. But it was a very important moment.
The entire class leaves, and she shuts the door. She asked me what was going on. Assuming she was referring to anything major in my personal life, I just said nothing really. With a caring, yet honest eye, she then told me I had been nothing but rude and lazy in her class all semester. I had been completely ignoring my craft, falling majorly behind in my work, and seriously jeopardizing myself of a possible future in this already impossible career chase. She was even so frustrated with me that she began to cry a little. And that was when I really saw who Annette was: a teacher so invested in her students that any sign of slipping behind was difficult for her. She wanted everyone to succeed. She wanted everyone to leave school feeling confident that they had tools to help them go far in whatever they moved on to do.
I felt my absolute worst in all of school. I caught the bus home and burst into tears because I had no idea just how much I had been screwing up. I felt horrible because 1. I hate disappointing myself and 2. I hate disappointing my mentors even more. It’s like when you’re mom says she’s not mad, but disappointed in you, and all you can do is stare at yourself in the mirror as tears stream down your face, a la Coldplay. That conversation I had with Annette really changed how I viewed myself as an artist. As Elijah says to Marnie in Girls: “This industry isn’t for sissy bitches.” And he’s right. And so is Annette. She would never tell me I was God’s gift to theatre, and she would never tell me I was going to have an amazing career. She was there to give the hard, cold facts and give you lots of tricks along the way. And if you followed her guidance and put in the work, you would be successful in your own way. That blow-up was the ultimate changing point in my college career, and probably the hardest, most poignant, self-realizing moment I have ever had.
Annette Masson changed, changes, and will continue to change dozens of lives. But more importantly, her teaching style forces every student to look inside themselves and honestly question why they want this and what type of artist they want to be. She was my toughest critic and my knight in shining velvet sweat pants. I will forever be grateful that I studied under the teachings of Annette Masson.
So next time you’re not having a great day, drop your head to the floor and start to curl up slowly. As your head curls up, bring your arms, wrists, and hands up, and raise them to the sky. Once they’re taut, allow your jaw to open. And from the deepest part of your belly, let out a loud and breathy “Ahhhhh.” This technique I learned from Annette has helped relieve stress from the worst of days. Give it a try, and salute to the gods for Annette.
This article is dedicated to Annette Masson, Priscilla Lindsay, and the UofM Theatre & Drama Department: the institution that is with me everyday.