The best ticket in town

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_Kermis_on_St_George's_Day_-_Google_Art_Project copy 2.jpg
David Teniers the Younger, “A Kermis on St. George’s Day”

The end of a semester is a cause for pride and rejoicing.

The rhythms of academia and the rhythms of the theatre are often eerily alike. Scientists, actors, and directors inhabit a remarkably similar psychological landscape despite the gulf separating their day-to-day activities. The emphasis on creativity and self-reliance, the need for dogged commitment and paying of metaphorical dues, and the weary recognition that you’re only as good as your last work keeps both sets of people in a state of near-perpetual motion.

But there are moments when it’s ok to sit back, draw breath, and, like Orpheus, take a wistful but (unlike Orpheus) satisfied look back before marching on again. In theatre, this comes at the end of a show’s run; in academia, it comes at the end of a semester.

The emotional arc of a semester is so similar to a theatre production that the comparison goes beyond analogy and enters the realms of a parallel psychological dimension.

First, there’s pre-production. Checking that lectures are up to date, working out the logistics for practical classes (which may need to be scaled up or down depending on attendance), and tweaking the design of the experiments. Then the rehearsals. Running through the revised lectures and checking for duration and flow. Preparing presentations for the practical classes, protocols for the students to follow, protocols for the organisers to follow. Doing a dry run of the experiments for each practical class, checking that cells and reagents behave as expected, that alterations to last season’s iteration are worthwhile and having the desired effects. 

And with the clock ticking down, that pre-production period gets increasingly fraught. With nerves rising before the semester’s start, everyone’s walking pace imperceptibly quickens. Colleagues become somewhat distant and preoccupied, small talk gets more cursory, time suddenly more precious. In the background, the constant nagging worry that there’s something that’s been overlooked, or that there’s been insufficient attention paid to the details. The departmental mood gets lit by sudden flashes of irritation at additional calls on people’s time.

And then, abruptly, the performances. Time’s up. Curtain’s up. The rows of audience members before you, in their white lab coats or brandishing laptops and pens. Every one a critic. Every one a potential disciple.

Like theatre, some performances go well, some badly. Some audiences are responsive, others mute. Some enthusiastic, some disinterested. Don’t let the latecomers throw you off your stride, don’t let the walkouts rankle. And despite your best efforts, there’s only so much you can do. You can’t kindle a fire with damp wood, and sometimes it feels like the rain in the woods has been going on for months. On other days, the ground is a tinderbox and you feel the words flying out like sparks.

The run continues. Each lecture, each practical class, each day. Some build to a satisfying conclusion, others lamely peter out. The ones you’re most pleased with may turn out to be the least popular; the ones you despaired over may unexpectedly be hits.

And it’s the fascination with navigating the intricacies and elliptically complex permutations of those routines that makes teaching a joy. Reviving old hits and finding they’re as good as ever. Road-testing new material and seeing what flies and what doesn’t. Adjusting the material and the patter to fit contemporary tastes and trends. 

A joy, but often in the thick of the action, a grind. Like any peak scaled, trek completed, or marathon run, the pleasure and the exultant satisfaction of a semester primarily comes afterwards, from the sense of achievement. 

Two or three productions a year. Each one running for months. Hundreds of punters. Hundreds of potential future peers. And unlike a lot of theatre, an almost universally young audience, crammed onto the benches for the best ticket in town. Enjoy the show. We hope you like it.

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