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Noah Simon (Theatre Studies) played the role of Shylock in the Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre production of "The Merchant of Venice."

“Yes, And” Mindset Casts Actor in Visiting Professor Role

“I’m giving people the skills to live a ‘yes, and’ life,” says Noah Simon, Equity actor, arch-improviser and St. Norbert’s visiting assistant professor of theatre studies, who returns for a second year teaching Introduction to Live Performance.

He’s also been seen live on campus, playing the Devil in a spring 2022 music department performance of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.”

Improv starts with “yes, and” – accepting what your fellow players, or the audience, throw at you and building on it. It’s in Simon’s blood; he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where his parents took him to performances at Second City, the iconic improv venue. So it followed that he took a year out from studying theatre at Butler University for Second City’s 15-month conservatory program on improv and sketch comedy.

“It was hard work – there are six levels and you have to re-audition between each one – but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. You learn to live in the moment, which makes you a better actor but also a more present human being. You learn to stop thinking, listen and notice.”

Part of Simon’s work with the theatre studies students encourages the development of a repertoire of interpersonal and storytelling skills, as well as introducing approaches to live performance. “My job is to create an awakening to the glory of theatre (or comedy, or symphonic orchestra) in the uninitiated. That means bringing the event to the individual as well as telling them to go and watch and listen and critique.

“To stimulate their imagination, I might start a class by saying, ‘Tell me something you observed today: anything you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, touched.’ If you want to live an artistic life you have to learn to walk with your head up, not looking at the ground. The more we observe, the less ignorant we will all be.

“Some of my students are afraid to express themselves because they have been told, ‘You can’t sing, you can’t draw, you’re not good in front of people.’ Or they’ve tried and failed, and no one has been there to tell them failure’s not a bad thing, that you should appreciate failure for the incredible learning tool that it is.”

After graduation, Simon became an all-around jobbing actor: Chicago storefront theatre, seasons with Lakeside Shakespeare Company, film, voiceover work. He fit in an MFA in acting from DePaul University, as the other half of his dream was teaching. “I didn’t get my MFA until I was 39, when I was an amazing student because I knew why I wanted to be there and it was important to me. For my first degree, I found that out as I went along.

“Since I was in college, my dream was to be both a professional actor and an educator in higher education. I haven’t got the patience and the courage of those superheroes who teach kindergarten through high school.”

He is inspired by his father who wanted to teach linguistics at university, but went into direct mail marketing in the 1960s to support his family. “I am the youngest of five and by the time I came along we were living a privileged life, and as far as I knew we had nothing to worry about, but that was thanks to dad giving up his dream and working his butt off. I take away my dad’s experience that you should always pursue your dream – until you are no longer happy pursuing it.”

But his father’s expertise meant that even before choosing a theatrical path he learned that “if you can affect someone on an emotional level, they make impulsive decisions.” Hence his side project at SNC, to introduce performance, storytelling, original music and intriguing detail to campus tours using soundscape and virtual reality via smartphone. He’s waiting for the technology to fall into place — “I have colleagues who are yes-anding me on this” — and hopes the result will win a “yes” and even a “yes, and” from prospective students.

June 22, 2022