Learning How To Learn From The Masters: Lisa Phillips Interviews Michael Brandwein

Lisa: Thank you so much for joining me Michael! I’m going to jump right in with the first question. Can you tell me about your experiences in theatre? I understand you have a background at The Second City.

Michael: Yes! It was the birthplace of so many incredible people including the cast of Saturday Night Live, many of them came from The Second City farm school.

I made it through all five semesters, and for graduation you get to perform your own show on-stage at Second City, on the same stage as the people like the Belushi’s and the other famous people!

Lisa: I also remembered having the same feeling of awe when I got a chance to perform on The Second City stage in Toronto. There is something inspiring about being on the same stage as master performers! What did you take away from your experience there?

Michael: Our teachers at Second City were some of the great classic teachers, extraordinarily talented people. I love seeing master teaching. It helps me be a better teacher when I can see master teachers. It was an extraordinary experience, and what I discovered from doing improv theater was that although the training is extensible for people in theater, the very first class I went to, I said, “My goodness, this is leadership and communication training. It doesn’t have anything to do with theater.”

It does, but it doesn’t have to. These are life skills. I became fascinated first with how they taught us, the experiential method, and second, how you could learn the skills and apply them to everyday life. I immediately started thinking about how I could use this in leadership training to help people work and teach life skills to other people. That was the real thing that I took out of it, and that’s affected me enormously.

Lisa: We hear a lot these days about the value of learning by doing, but I want to dig deeper and examine that method with you. Can you tell me more about how theatre by its very nature, focuses on experiential learning?

Michael: Theater is about learning by doing. They don’t lecture you. You learn a technique and get up and practice it. I have, in all my training on any subject, tried to model what I do after that model, which is the — “Here’s what you want to learn how to do, get up, practice it, get feedback from others, practice it again.” I really like that method.

The other thing that’s really cool about learning theater is it’s very much a discovery learning. They don’t tell you “This is what you should do.” They give you an assignment. You do it with four or five other people and you realize, “Hey if we all talk at the same time, nobody hears anything.” You quickly learn the rules, one of which is, if somebody starts talking when you’re talking, even if you have the right of way, shut down because there’s no point to both of you going. That’s one of the great, unwritten rules of improvisation — two of you cannot talk at the same time. Even if somebody interrupts you, stop. Nobody’s going to hear you anyways, even if you had the right to continue.

Lisa: Everyone talking at once seems to be a common thing…even for adults! What else can you learn by “doing” from theatre?

Michael: You also quickly discover the rule that if you are doing a scene with someone you try to say ‘yes’, not ‘no’. If you say no to someone in a scene — for example if you ask me, “Michael, do you want to go on a picnic?” And I say, “No, I went on a picnic yesterday, but thanks for asking.” — the scene just comes to a complete screeching halt.

You can say “Yes, I’d like to go on a picnic, but since I went yesterday and we went to this place, would you mind if we had a picnic inside in my living room and just pretended we were outside?” That’s entirely acceptable and leads you to some really nice possibilities.

Lisa: So Michael, there are clearly life skills that one learns from participating in the arts, what’s the long term benefit?

Michael: Art is a vehicle by which you learn these skills, there are other ways to do it, but the arts are an intriguing and motivating way to get kids to practice communication skills, problem-solving skills, and how to learn skills.

It’s very important in the 21st Century for kids to not only learn stuff, but to learn how to learn new stuff. Employers have made it very clear that since the things that employees are supposed to do are changing constantly, they want fast, on-the-job learners. What they may learn in school in preparation for employment may have completely changed by the time they get the job, so they really want people that can learn on the job very quickly.

Lisa: I couldn’t agree more! So what would you say to a parent who says their child is only into sports so why should they participate in theatre?

Michael: Art is a way of learning new things, applying good self-teaching, and it helps you be a good learner. When a Mom or a Dad says to me, for example, “Well, you know, my kid isn’t going to be an actor, why be in a play?” Because you learn things while you’re in the play that have nothing to do with making it a career. It has to do with the skills that you have to use and learn in order to have success in the play.

Everything from memorization to cooperation skills to taking constructive feedback skills. I would dare somebody to take any of the things you need from being in a school play or a camp play or something like that, and not apply it to life. Virtually everything in art is tied in some way to what you do.

Lisa: What about other forms of art other than theatre? Do they also have the same impact to teach kids how to learn?

Michael: Yes! For example, when you are learning to draw, you learn to break things down step by step. There’s more than one way to learn to draw.

It’s funny, I was one of those that thought, “I can’t draw a face or I can’t draw a tree.” In the hands of a good teacher, they can show you a series of steps so that you absolutely can, and they’ll also show you there’s no one right way to do it. The method I found most successful to draw was to use very light pencil lines and make multiple lines, so when I’m drawing, say, the trunk of a tree that’s slightly curved, I’ll make maybe 50 lines and then I erase the ones that I don’t want, then you see the tree trunk appear right in front of you.

Ironically, one of the secrets for me for drawing turned out to be erasing instead of drawing. If somebody told me that when I started, I’d have said, “Oh no way, it’s what you draw, not what you don’t draw.”

Lisa: Interesting…it is so easy to forget that sometimes its what you don’t do that is just as important as what you do. So how does your example relate to learning how to learn?

Michael: You need to experiment with methods to figure out how you learn. That’s a skill for life. The patience, the persistence, these are all skills that you’ll use in a job interview and when you actually get a job. You’ll use them in a marriage or any long-term partnership. You use them in a friendship. You use it as a parent. In all the arts you learn extraordinary skills you use every day in life.