The Saturday morning acting class in the Pearson Hall auditorium at Miles College boasts the school’s highest attendance all year.
The teacher, actress Robin Givens, was a lure few students — and others from surrounding areas — could resist. Some came to learn about their prospective field from a professional. Others were there for pointers to perfect a hobby. Her celebrity status brought the rest.
As Givens talked, the entire room hung on every word, whether it was on how to read a line or how to develop the character who spoke it.
Givens says she jumped on the chance to work at Miles because it would give her a chance to encourage young people.
“I thought this might be a way to capture their attention and really, in a way, give them what they’ll need for anything in their life, which is confidence,” says Givens, 48, who has been acting for more than 25 years. “Entertainment is our biggest commodity as Americans. People are so in tune with it. If you ask some of the kids, they want to be rappers and actors and football players.”
The plan had been to find a way to build up the Alabama college’s fledgling theater program.
Dr. George T. French Jr., the school’s president, says he wanted to find something that would get students more excited about the curriculum while giving those in the surrounding community a reason to be active in the program’s productions.
He watched one Saturday in September 2011, as Givens put on The Art of Living, a workshop for children and adults she’s taught at different places in the country, using her experiences as an actress to teach others about the craft. The event was held on the Miles campus and sponsored by the local LINKS group, an African-American service organization. French’s wife was the organizer.
“We just kind of hit it off,” he says, having been introduced to the actress at the LINKS event. “I invited her to be an artist-in-residence knowing we were trying to build our theater program.”
Givens first hit TV screens in an episode of “The Cosby Show” in 1985. She’s known more for the role of Darlene on the hit show “Head of the Class.” She went on to appear in movies such as The Women of Brewster Place, Boomerang, Head of State and Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys.
Givens arrived in January to instruct a class similar to the formula used in crafting her workshop. Her first class in the auditorium was filled to capacity with students both enrolled in the class and excited about Givens’ presence, as well as residents from the area.
“It astonishes me how quickly the students are catching on,” French says of the classes, of which he’s attended a few.
Dr. Anthonia Adadevoh, chair of the division of humanities, says students have come away from the classes energized about the program and excited for all the possibilities that await them as they prepare for future roles.
“I really think it has boosted the morale of the students,” she says. “Working with her — someone who is well-known — you saw the students respond to her. She enhanced our program by just being the person she is and bringing her [entertainment industry] knowledge to the program.”
Te’Shara Colley, a 28-year-old sophomore theater arts student from Birmingham, says she had dabbled in acting for years, but enrolled at Miles when she decided to seriously pursue it.
Givens, she says, has taught students more of the history of the theater and how to better relate to the characters they play. Often, Colley says, Givens pushed the students to create a back-story for their characters, enabling them to get a better understanding for the various idiosyncrasies that help bring the role to life.
“Even if you made the character on the spot, you always had to have a beginning, middle and ending [to their story],” Colley says.
Colley says the course taught her better use of improvisation. In the past, she had been happier when a script was provided.
“I love using scripts because it allows me to use the lines of what someone else wrote,” she says. “Improv always made me nervous. I didn’t want to do it. When I realized it was a difference between getting on stage and doing something and creating something, that’s when I began to learn different.”
For Givens, a big part of the program was about letting the participants thrive off the encouragement from others going down the same path.
“I think we’re in a world where sometimes, especially now, it’s a strange time, and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “I think if we just kind of stick with the basic sense of love and support, like we’re all in this together, or when you’re at your best, it helps me be my best, it works. That’s really how [the students] approach it and how they are with each other.
“They laugh in front of one another. They cry in front of one another. They mess up in front of one another. It’s great.”
Outside of the classroom, the college has kept Givens busy as well. She hosted two comedy shows earlier this year where Bill Cosby performed on the campus. She spoke at a national youth conference in Florida and served as the commencement speaker at the spring graduation.
“We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the arrangement,” French says.
French says Givens’ presence has been a driving force to get the community more involved with the campus.
Having her as part of the program “lends itself to credibility,” he says. “Not only is she a world-class actress, but she went to school for it. It lends credibility to have someone of her stature on campus and interacting with the students. Local businesses have caught on, and some fundraising has been able to take place.”
The partnership wrapped up in late November.
Givens says she’s given thought to taking on a few acting roles, but also wants to continue using the Art as Living program to inspire others.
“It’s amazing how transformative it is when people really get to express their feelings,” she says. “People who don’t want to do anything on Monday and Friday are sort of gearing up and can’t wait to [express themselves] again and again. We’ve had that experience at Miles, and I can’t wait to do it again.”
She also says she plans on spending some time with her children, sons Buddy and Billy.
“My older son [Buddy] started college last year, which enables me to really concentrate on acting again myself. It’s just a matter of balancing everything. I’ll just see how I’ll continue to do that so I can still cook my son dinner at home.
“Not that he likes my cooking. When he misses me, that’s probably the one thing he’s not missing.”