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A Sense of Self

A column for our alumni series by Kenan Petersen

Kenan was known as a one of the "honorary drama students" at SBS, choosing not to take the subject through to Matric yet also starring in a number of lead roles in our annual productions. He is proof that the arts requires both talent and effort in equal measure and not necessarily within the confines of a classroom!

I was 5 years old when I first sang in front of an audience. I don't remember much about that day but I do recall the scarlet red of the carpeting in the large Catholic Church, and the teacher who knelt beside me, clutching the all too heavy microphone as I tried my best to remember the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne. At the time, my attraction to arts and culture wasn't based on much more than the fact that singing was a pleasant feeling – and that it seemed to evoke a pleasant response. As I progressed into high school, I realized that my desire to be in the theatre was aimed at reproducing a quality I had noticed in performers. I wasn't quite sure how to articulate it, but whenever I found myself in our school's theatre taking in a performance, I was enraptured by a quality which the people on stage seemed to brandish. A sort of strength. An unassailable confidence and self-belief that was heavily apparent each time the stage lights came up. For some, it was clearly a garment they'd adorned specifically for the performance, but for others, it oozed from their pores – seemingly ingrained into their very being. What was it? Where did they find it? And more importantly, how could I emulate it? What I eventually learned was that the arts was less about emulating, and more about being.

Editor's Note: There are so many productions that play on a loop in my mind but one of my favourite memories was when I finally got on stage with this ensemble for 'ClueDon't!' The chemistry that exists when actors simply adore what they do and toil together to achieve their best is unlike anything you can explain in words. It was also so gratifying to spar with Kenan during our interrogation scene!
"The arts didn't give me an agenda point on my resume - they gave me a sense of self." - Kenan Petersen

I learned much of this under the instruction of Lauren Noble. In our first high school drama class, Mrs Noble introduced the curriculum by explaining that its content was not designed to alter our personhood, or even to bring us the ability to embody other people. Instead, it was centered on developing skills that allowed us to identify facets of our own being which related to the content at hand – and expressing ourselves through different forms of storytelling. This notion was understandably met with some confusion from students who simply wanted to reproduce what we had seen on stage and, for a while, I struggled to fully internalize the idea that the arts curriculum represented something far deeper. But eventually I received a lesson about growth which I have carried with me throughout my tertiary studies and into the beginning of my legal career... empathy and compassion are at its core.

Polaroiding before it became retro-chic! A pensive shot of Kenan as Mr White at our photoshoot at Marianhill Monastery.

In the various challenges I faced in Mrs Noble's drama department, whether it was embodying a character with a nervous disorder in 2013's Alibi or a butler concealing a romance with his employer's daughter in 2016's ClueDon't! I learned that the answers are to be found internally, rather than through an externally constructed portrayal. What I mean by this is that portraying these characters on stage was less about "appearing" as them through elaborate costumes or contrived gestures – and more about finding something of yourself within their stories. And then allowing that something to be voiced. I can't pinpoint when exactly I arrived at this epiphany but I eventually progressed from the academic need to internalize the curriculum to an understanding that it was aimed at developing within us the self awareness necessary to find our empathy. Greater still was the eventual realization that this empathy could serve me well outside of the theatre. In the various challenging situations, tasks (and people) I've encountered since then, I've realized that a bit of self-dialogue (and some intercostal diaphragmatic breathing – sorry, I just had to work this phrase in here somewhere!) often reveals that there is an experience couched somewhere in our memory bank which has prepared us for our current setting. Frustration and a lack of understanding of people or the tasks they've given me are often soothed through application of the empathy I learned from the arts. I'm not saying that this solves problems in a "flip-of-a-switch" kind of way – but often it breeds an assuredness which plants one's feet on solid ground for just long enough to see a solution (or simply the situation itself) more clearly. That’s it. That same meek strength I first noticed seated in the theatre. That assuredness is a garment that fits all of us perfectly in any climate.

Editor's Note: Kenan was one of the students from my two senior drama classes who were invited to attend #thenoblewedding where they led us through Casting Crown's version of 'Who Am I' in the chapel. The celebration felt complete with them there because they all knew Craig from his usual seat at Table 4 at every one of their performances at SBS. During rehearsals for the song we suddenly realised that the lyrics ended on a refrain from scripture that was also one of my cousin's favourite tattoos. He had passed away a year before our wedding and the fact that so many of my dramallamas knew him from church was so special. This is such a treasured memory.

The arts gifted me more conventional skills as well: teamwork, time management, discipline, perseverance and the ability to cope with stress. The fire I felt in my chest the day I sang that very first solo is something I'll never forget – and tempering myself to embrace that feeling rather than fear it is a skill that I've had to keep close. Dismantling the misconception that conventional sports programmes are the only (and best) way of handing students these skills is something that Mrs Noble and I bonded on. The marginalizing norm that stereotypical masculinity singled out sport as the preferred avenue for attaining these skills elicited a disdain in both of us.

The critical discourse I found in the arts curriculum encouraged me to develop my passion for feminism and social justice which ultimately lead me to the law.

As a candidate attorney, I'm not always able to express myself artistically as often as I'd like – but I do often reflect on the experiences the arts gave me. They remain helpful companions, to be called upon whenever needed to offer some assurance. And that’s something a lot of us have found ourselves aching for amidst the uncertainty of the past 15 months.

I suppose this is the opportune moment to arrive at the point – choose the arts. They are often challenging. The lights and audiences can be daunting. But in those difficult moments they introduce you to parts of yourself that you might not have otherwise come to know. Becoming so well acquainted with your inner being that you are able to recognise parts of yourself in others is a gift far more valuable than learning how to act convincingly. After all, in the words of one Ms. Lauryn Hill: "The real you is more interesting than the fake somebody else."


© Kenan Petersen for Collab Company | 2021


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