First-year theater students learn what it means to be stronger than your struggle—by connecting with an icon who was (and is) a rainbow for others.
Professor of Theatre and Chair of Department, Theatre, William & Mary
PhD in Theater, MA and BA in TheaterArts
“When you came to college, did you feel somewhat scared, lonely, vulnerable, and driven like Judy Garland?” It is a question that Laurie Wolf, PhD, asks freshman students 4 weeks into the fall semester, as part of her William & Mary course Divas and Muses: Gay Men and Their Icons.
The question seems almost rhetorical, as the answer is generally a resounding “yes.” Yet it serves as an excellent launching point for an assignment that Wolf uses to tap into the courage, resilience, and diva-style attitude that can help young actors find the power to rebound from rejection.
“I love this course, because it’s all about students dealing with big ideas,” she says. “It’s so personal and about being your biggest self. You need that in the theater.”
Perhaps the most impressive role of this course has been in its ability to build resilience in members of a generation generally criticized for their lack of it. Many have said that, after completing the course, they no longer felt afraid. “A few [students] even came out as LGBTQ during their presentations,” says Wolf, “which I thought was very brave.”
Challenge: Fear and a lack of resilience
Wolf says that all first-year students—not just actors—face a range of common fears, including isolation, loneliness, failure, and imposter syndrome. Some are not sure if they can be their true selves at college. Some worry they will spin out from the pressure. Others fear they will not make friends. In theater, these fears can hamper the ability to embrace vulnerability and take the risks necessary to deliver an authentic performance.
If you are doing theater, explains Wolf, you need to make a big commitment to yourself. You need a large amount of empathy and a lot of courage in order to understand your own motivations, as well as those of the characters you play. This can be particularly challenging with characters who are odious.
Furthermore, many first-year students are intimidated by discussions of personal and sometimes controversial topics, including race and gender identification. They may be actively questioning who they want to be and how they want to be viewed by others.
“I wanted to find a way to launch students into the theater world quickly and to bring students through uncomfortable topics in a comfortable way,” Wolf explains, “since they will need to address unconventional and uncomfortable topics when they perform.”
Innovation: Finding inner strength from divas’ struggles
About a month into Divas and Muses, students begin The Judy Garland Assignment, which closely examines the career, personal life, and setbacks of this diva. It also highlights how Garland’s endless resilience served as a source of inspiration for the closeted gay men who comprised much of her fan base in the 1940s–1960s. Then, organically, the students taking this course find faith in themselves by identifying with this diva and the members of her early audiences.
The most innovative aspect of this lesson, says Wolf, is that it breaks a wall between the personal and the purely academic by requiring a large amount of introspection. “It brings the personal into the academic, if you will,” says Wolf.
In this way, the course serves as a chief example of the mission statement of the William & Mary theater program, which vows to emphasize “the value of active inquiry rather than passive exposure in acquiring knowledge. Beginning students receive models and guidelines and opportunities to experiment.”
Finally, the Divas and Muses course is itself an innovation, as courses with a gay-themed curriculum are not plentiful, particularly in Virginia universities. “It’s becoming more widespread,” says Wolf. “But still, it’s cutting edge to include LGBTQ content in courses. It’s baby steps.”
With her 18 years at William & Mary, combined with her extensive theater arts background, Wolf is the perfect educator to bring her department’s mission to life.
Course: COLL 100 Divas and Muses: Gay Men and Their Icons
Frequency: Twice per week, 1 hour and 20 minutes per class
Class size: 16–22
In her words: What makes a diva a diva? How are our ideas about performance, spectatorship, space, and capital shaped by the diva figure? A diva is someone who is both larger than life and also fully human. From Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler, and Diana Ross to Queen Elizabeth I, Julia Child, and Princess Leia, divas have been sister, alter ego, fairy godmother, and/or model for survival to gay men and the closeted boys they once were. This course explores the central role of the diva—the celebrated, iconic, and supremely skilled female performer—in the shaping and reimagining of racial, gendered, sexual, national, temporal, and aesthetic categories. Students in this course will theorize the cultural function and constitutive aspects of the diva and will analyze particular performances of a range of divas from the 20th and 21st centuries.
COLL 100 Divas and Muses: Gay Men and Their IconsSee materials
Lesson: The Judy Garland Assignment
Wolf is proud to note that the inspiration for the Divas and Muses course came from a student in 2015. “[We were discussing his role as] Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, and I told him I wanted to do something about divas,” Wolf says. “[He] suggested, ‘Why not mix divas with muses?’ So, I hurled myself into the world of divas to learn about them and how to connect them to teaching theater.” The rest is history—or, perhaps, herstory.
The Judy Garland Assignment, which accounts for 20% of each student’s total grade, is just one of the assignments Wolf uses to help students come out of their individual shells. Here are some suggestions she has for educators looking to recreate this potentially life-changing experience:
Set the stage for sharing
“From the first day, I make it clear that what happens in Divas and Muses stays in Divas and Muses,” she says. “Students know they can speak openly and honestly about anything they want to. That seemed to work, and I have been so thrilled to see the students participate in class and bond over each other’s stories.”
Still, sharing is not a requirement, she notes. “I make it clear the students can say anything they want,” Wolf says. “And don’t have to say anything they don’t want.”
Select an iconic role model
Judy Garland is just one of the divas who is profiled in this course. “I started with the classic divas like Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, and Lena Horne, but I also included the new ones like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga,” says Wolf. For educators seeking to adapt this lesson, she recommends choosing a diva who resonates personally with them or their students, as this will help everyone be more passionate about the lesson.
Show the many dimensions of the diva
About a month into the semester, Wolf’s students read “Judy Garland and Gay Men” (Chapter 3 of the book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society by Richard Dyer, first published in 1986). The essay contends that Garland appeals to gay men because there is something so lost yet so vital and strong about her. And Garland’s inner struggles—addictions, divorces, professional ups and downs—mirrored their own. Her perseverance validated and inspired theirs.
Wolf also shows clips of Garland’s 1960s TV variety show. She asks students to note (and relate to) the fragile singer’s clutching of the elbows, her frail appearance (yet booming presence), and her aching need for connection.
Help students relate to the diva’s struggles—and strengths
After reading the Judy Garland essay, Wolf asks her students to consider their own insecurities and the perceptions they had about college life when they arrived at school. What did they think they would encounter? How did that perception change once they arrived? Was the perception incorrect or was it confirmed or magnified in some way and, if so, how?
Students will later reflect on their answers when they create a presentation geared to help them find empowerment, inspiration, and resilience in the divas they have studied. As Wolf explains in the syllabus, The Judy Garland Assignment “asks that you document your experience of the course content in your everyday life. Twice during the semester, you must identify an artefact (media, news, advertisement, product, person, object, experience, clothes, space, location, building, etc.) that illuminates a way that gender/sexuality is enacted/constrained/challenged on a daily basis. You must bring documentation of the object/artefact to class and explain its connection to a specific course concept.”
Students will build upon all of this as they tap into the “biggest version of themselves,” or their “inner diva.”
Be open about your own experiences
Wolf emphasizes how vital it is to approach this topic with compassion. It will help if educators are willing to be open themselves, says Wolf. “I leave my pure academic hat on the rack. I share more about myself with this class than I do in any other class.” For example, one of her personal stories swirls around the years when she herself was new to William & Mary. As a new member of the faculty nearly two decades ago, Wolf felt that there was a lack of open support for professors in the LGBTQ community. “That has slowly changed for the better during my time here,” she adds. Sometimes it can be encouraging and inspiring to hear that there is a possibility of positive change, particularly for students who are struggling to find their own place and be comfortable in their own skin.
“My teaching evaluations were very good, I’m proud to say,” Wolf says.
In fact, the head of the Theatre department mentioned how high Wolf’s teaching-evaluation scores were and told her that the school is eager for her to repeat this course.
When creating this lesson, Wolf wondered, “Will students know who Judy Garland is? And if they didn’t, could they still learn from her life? Could they take what the article was about and apply the content to their own lives?” The response of students, whose parents were likely in diapers when Garland died in 1969, was overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by the presentations and reactions that followed this lesson of reading and reflection.
Wolf also found that students related strongly to the feelings of loneliness and “less than” of the gay men who found a sense of community at Garland’s concerts—well before the Gay Rights movement began in earnest. And they enjoyed finding their own divas, within and without, to give them the strength to be “stronger than your struggle.”
After completing the assignment, students have told Wolf that they no longer felt afraid. And that may be the most important metric of all.