On a sunny afternoon this spring semester, 31 students of electrical engineering stood in a circle in the engineering quad, gesturing broadly and intoning Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.”
Passersby stared. The scene suggested a group therapy session crossed with a Monty Python skit.
“Please, try to look as though you’re having a nice time. People don’t like to see other people looking uncomfortable,” said the ringleader of the unlikely spectacle, Martin Parr, a member of Actors from the London Stage.
On Feb. 7-9, Parr and his troupe of English actors brought a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Hamman Hall, sponsored by the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts. Bart Sinclair, associate dean of engineering, invited Parr to his Professional Issues in Electrical Engineering class.
“They’re preparing to make a technical presentation. They work in groups of four and present to the class a failure from engineering history. I thought Martin could help show them how to engage an audience and overcome some of their nervousness,” Sinclair said.
Electrical Engineering 391 met in a Duncan Hall lecture room, but Parr quickly herded them outside.
“I do understand if you feel nervous. I do, too, in this setting. Usually I’m given lines to speak. I know nothing about engineering. I imagine you know more about acting than I know about your field. Leave your pride at the door,” said Parr, a youthful 37, who plays six roles, including a widow, in The Taming of the Shrew.
Once in the circle in the quad, Parr had each student make eye contact with another and run toward them yelling their own names. “Kill them with your charisma,” he shouted.
Parr suggested the students become aware of their bodies and the unconscious nervous gestures they make. “You may be panicking in your brains,” he said, “but I don’t want to see it.”
In another exercise, pairs of students related what they had done the previous evening, then parroted what they had just heard from the other in the first-person. One student, cap worn backwards, said: “Well, I made some soup, then I made some bacon-cheeseburger meatloaf, then I ate the soup.” They laughed.
Later, they shouted their names, then only the vowels in their names, then only the consonants, and on to “Fern Hill”: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.”
“Look them in the eye as you say the poem. If you don’t look them in the eye, they might die a little bit, and you don’t want them to die,” Parr said.
“That’s one way to learn communications skills,” Sinclair said.