Finding yourself onstage: a master class from Pamela Chabora

This story was originally written for a print edition of the Alban Arts Monthly, a monthly newsletter for patrons of the Alban Arts & Conference Center near Charleston, WV.

On January 12, the Alban Arts & Conference Center welcome Pamela Chabora to the stage.

Chabora, who holds a Ph.D. in theater from Michigan State University, had just wrapped up her role as Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy at the Round Barn Theatre in Indiana, which was met with rave reviews. An actress, singer, director, and choreographer, Chabora is a tour de force in the theater world, and relishes her role in shaping the future of theater in West Virginia. She was recently named Master Teacher of Acting for Theater West Virginia, where she met Alban Artistic Director Adam Bryan.

Chabora taught two classes at the Alban. The first, On Comedy Techniques, began on a chilly morning at 9am. As students wandered into the building, Chabora was already onstage, instructing an early arrival on breathing technique. Without a hint of awkwardness, Chabora alternated between deep, purposeful inhalations and guttural exhalations that echoed throughout the theater. The student’s eyes turned to the growing crowd, very aware of their gaze and the attention Chabora was drawing.

Within a few rounds of breathing, though, the student was fully present, attending only to her own breathing.

Before they’d even taken the stage, the students were already loose, eager, and excited. Chabora introduced herself, then welcomed the remaining students to the stage.

“Buckle up,” she said. “It’s gonna get a bit crazy.”

And indeed it did.

Chabora’s passion—for acting, and for life—is evident in her every word and movement. She uses her entire body when she speaks, and she was visibly excited about the opportunity to teach.

She is also a master of control, slipping into moments intense focus with ease. Chabora closed her eyes with purpose, and seemed to be examining her own mind with an intensity few can muster. She opened her eyes slowly before explaining to the students the need for “exploration before comedy.”

The students, too, began to explore. Chabora instructed them to “dance with their faces.” Their minds had already begun to loosen, but Chabora wanted to make sure their bodies were ready, too. The face was an obvious place to start, she said. And once their faces finished “dancing,” the bodies seemed to follow.

The students then began a dance session dubbed “Provoke your partner,” in which the only goal is to elicit a visible reaction from a partner, using nothing but bodily movements. With each movement, the rigidity in the room that had been so obvious just a few minutes before silently gave way to a focused whimsy.

As I watched the students flailing onstage (laughing hysterically), I wondered who was having more fun: the students or the teacher.

Chabora once more adopted a serious tone, summarizing the lesson of the exercise. “You can’t go part-way with comedy,” she said. “We can see right through that.”

Chabora explained, in a moment of endearing self-deprecation, how she had come to learn these lessons, recounting the story of one of her first stand-up comedy experiences in which she caricatured her mother—a woman with an already strong personality.

At the end of the routine, Chabora said, “nobody laughed.” But why didn’t they laugh? According to Chabora, they could smell her fear. To a comedian, and to an actor, fear is simply something that must be dealt with. “Do you feel that thing in your belly that’s telling you ‘I feel stupid?’ You have to push through that,“ she said, adding that “the difference between a good actor and a great actor is that a great actor is fearless.”

That truth, of course, applies to teachers, too. To convey what must be conveyed, Chabora also has to eliminate her own fear.

“If you have even a little bit of fear about doing something you’re asking your students to do,” she later told me, “they’ll see right through it, too.”

When the class ended and students descended the stage steps, they all walked noticeably taller. Chabora conducted another class at 10:30 on vocal acting techniques, which highlighted the strength and depth of character that comes from a heightened alertness to one’s own body.

All in all, Chabora’s classes were at once ludicrous and messy, poignant and forceful. Students (as well as spectators, including this spectator) walked away with a more accurate sense of what it means to let loose onstage, to more fully realize yourself in order to more fully realize your character.

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to all the students who signed up, with a special thanks to Pamela Chabora, a master of her craft. We hope to see her again soon.