SAG Elephant

Given the conflicting points of view on the YouTube commentary on this video, I’m interested to hear the reaction from ‘middle-class’ actors in the US on the implications of the AFTRA ‘deal’ struck with the film industry. As an Australian-based actor I can’t but feel that these issues will arrive onshore pretty darn quickly down here.

Given that most see the arrival of web-based entertainment in a big way over the next few years, what are the unions – SAG doing to assist their membership? What does this AFTRA deal really mean?

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It’s the ‘best of the year’ season …

Between Christmas and New Year’s there’s always a sense of the big roundup. For years, network television grabs the ‘biggest’ ‘worst’ ‘best’ etc. of everything and rehashes a package to remind us of the biggest, worst and best of the past year. These programs always remind me of the leftover Christmas ham that is also reappearing endlessly at this time.

I sent off a tweet this morning hashtagged #theatre which asked my stream which production they would rate as the best of 2008. Of course it’s a personal thing, but I’m more interested in why.

Want to join in? If you’re on Twitter add me @Dramagirl (you knew that) and put your choice and reasoning out there. Hashtag it #theatre (but you have to follow #hashtags first – you knew that) for it to work. We can then check out who saw what, where, and why. Fun.

If you couldn’t give a toss for Twitter, then add your comments here.

My bid: “The Chalk Garden” at the Donmar Warehouse in London. I saw this on a fine, summery afternoon in July. It was a whiff of lovely British writing from the mid-1950s. That year, Ms Bagnold’s fine play was rather swamped by “Look Back in Anger” (1956 was quite a year for theatre). Experiencing a beautifully paced production of a domestic psychological thriller, and with a superb ensemble cast made this year in theatre for me. Finely-wrought realism still works.

PS: I nearly didn’t see what was by then, a sold-out season. Raced through Covent Garden trying to find the Donmar, which is buried deep – one of the best kept secrets around in more ways than one. More directional signs please.

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Twitter and the Groundling

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase, source unknown

Groundlings love being in crowds and in-crowds. It’s part of the buzz at the theatre for a start. Now the social-networking addicts’ favourite application, Twitter has a brand-new (about an hour old as I peck away here) International Theatre Group. How about that!

And what’s the point, apart from indulging your addiction? Joining this group, as with any other dedicated Twitter group aka a dedicated-directory means that you can stay in touch with like-mindeds, extend your reach, get more hits on your blog … and hopefully get other theatre folk to leave comment and come back for more.

Welcome to you if you are on the Twitter group. Please leave a hello below. If you’re not, why not join us?

The hashtag is #theatre (note the spelling).

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So you want to be an actor? We have a problem

A year ago I wrote about American scholar and practitioner Robert Hornby’s ‘The End of Acting’. It’s a book that has a strong point of view about the art of acting and the education of artists.  I’ve enjoyed dipping back into it since a first reading in 1993.  That an actor needs training is, from Hornby’s perspective, a given. A year ago I noted the importance the author placed on skills aquisition for the actor in training:

… these are means to an end, ’skills rather than art itself, and like all artistic skills must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. Only then does acting begin.’Three things you need to learn, Nov 2007

So what skills or knowledge do you need to be an actor, a creative artist? What kind of education does an artist require?  They’re good questions, and they continue to exercise the minds of many, as they have done in the past.

The idea of formalised, western actor-training in specialised institutions came to us quite late. Once upon a time an actor learned on the job. The integration of courses of study into higher education departments came in the latter part of the 20th century, and after drama had been well established as an discipline in its own right either within university Departments of Literature or Departments of English. From the mid-1930s, there was a move by influential British figures to establish a modern training for actors based on the French model.  Michel St Dénis the French director, teacher and theatrical innovator was consulted, and from this time until his death in 1971, St Dénis was perhaps the most influential of the European theorists on the development of English-speaking actor-training curricula.  St Dénis’ program of study was built upon European foundations, and whilst programs of study have developed beyond his original blueprint, this influence can still be felt in the curricula of schools such as Julliard (US), RADA (UK), NIDA (Australia) and other high-profile actor-training institutions. The European push has had, and still exercises its generative influence upon the training of theatre artists in this country, the UK, and in north America. Historically Australia has pretty much always looked to the UK and then the US for inspiration when it comes to developing theatre-training programs of study.

NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) Australia’s first theatre-training institution opened its doors in 1959; NIDA is now affiliated with UNSW. Indeed it has always been physically close to the UNSW campus, occupying as it once did the premises of the Old Tote Theatre Company on the university’s campus. NIDA is housed in its own splendid buildings these days, but it remains just ‘across the road’  from UNSW. In time Australian CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education) also developed training programs for actors and other theatre practitioners from the 1970s. Most of these colleges and institutes then morphed into universities from the late 1980s.

This shotgun marriage was a political act driven by the federal government’s rationalisation of the higher education sector; colleges of art and universities were amalgamated … in some cases … under duress.  Apart from the organisational and governance differences which now affected many of these formerly autonomous organisations, what really seemed to matter was the new feel in the corridors.  What had been an industry-style training program of study found itself side by side with more academic or theoretical programs. There were inevitably gains and losses over time as some schools literally disappeared or courses of study were abandoned. In the best of these amalgamations, the practice of the art form informed theory and vice versa; courses that claimed to focus their study on the intersection of theory and practice were developed, and a newer discipline often called Performance or Theatre Studies developed.

It has to be said that the relationship in these institutions between the theorists and the practitioners, or between the theorist-practitioners and the artist-practitioners was never an easy one; perhaps the relationship was never really understood.  Fundamentally the issue was whether or not creative arts skills training was appropriate i.e., ‘academic’ enough in a university setting.  This false dichotomy which separates out learning outcomes continues to plague pedagogical discussions on the best or most appropriate way to train artists and creatives. The sad outcome was that a pecking order was battled over; a competitiveness encouraged to ensure survival.

David Grant (Queen’s University Belfast) published a paper which explored the link between actor-training and advocacy for court-room practitioners. He noted:

It has become conventional in higher education to analyse learning outcomes in terms of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. … I would propose the adoption of a third term – ‘qualities’ – to identify those attributes which can only be acquired by systematic and consistent practice. (my emphasis)

Practice is the key word here. Grant’s ‘qualities’ relate to Hornby’s ‘three things’ in that they are learned through experience, through doing. Hornby focuses on three attributes which a trained entry-level professional should have aquired over a course of study. These are: how to relax, how to relate to a scene partner, how to pursue objectives. Easy, right? Yes and no.

Hornby’s attributes are not particularly difficult to teach and it’s worth saying that there are many angles from which to approach this training,  but the key ingredient is/has to be time … time to accommodate the reality of experiential learning. Hornby goes on to say that these skills have to be learned over and over again. It’s time consuming … and here’s the rub: time=money. In a time when cost-cutting and restructuring is a fact of life in most higher education institutions in Australia, the inevitable outcome for performing arts training is clear: the ‘resource-rich’ i.e., labour-intensive programs are the first to go.

Courses and programs designed to educate the next generation of artists are being reviewed … nothing wrong with that, indeed this should be one of those ‘rolling’ activities that exercises the mind of all educators. If however, it’s cost-cutting which is driving, as it almost always does … the reviewing and restructuring, then the exercises is being approached from the wrong end. These exercises always lead to no small degree of angst in those academics tasked with the job of rationalising their program offerings, and anxiety for those who will be affected.  It’s not overstating things to suggest that the future of our creative artists, and the quality of the industry is at stake when penny-pinching leads the charge for change.

The importance of  intensive, immersive engagement in experiential training for creative artists cannot be overstated.  It’s not possible to cut short skills-training and expect artistry to begin. Nor is a legitimate program of arts training possible without such engagement.

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Creativity, motivation, and failing well … Twyla Tharp

I have to thank Merlin Mann for this. If you don’t know his blog 43 Folders, check it out. I stumbled on this little 3 minute treasure quite by accident, thanks to being a Merlin devotee.

Over the past few years, he has sent me off on small quests that have enriched my thinking on creativity. I learned of Steven Pressfield The War of Art from Merlin. Here is a video from the estimable American dancer Twyla Tharp. She knows what she’s talking about, and she says it well.

I am reminded also of Dan Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the last career guide you’ll ever need.  One of the rules Johnny has to learn is to ‘make excellent mistakes.’ Tharp understands this; it’s often the way of the creative.


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I love a sunburnt country …

Image by Gandalf. via Flickr

And so off I went today to see Australia Baz Luhrmann’s epic, epic movie about … OK, no spoilers here, but can I just say spearing, crocodiles, the bombing of Darwin, cattle stampedes, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, romance … the attraction of opposites, dyed-in-the-wool villains, redemption, the stolen generations, a wonderful young actor Brandon Walters, all your old favourite Aussie actors, and a landscape to die for. Well a lot do in this movie. But it’s much, much, much more …

I knew some of what to expect from the video podcast series Set to Screen that’s been released gradually on the iTunes Store this year. The last episode on ‘Editing’ was released only last week. In these really excellent and free 10 minute or so videos, the business of making movies was introduced supposedly for Higher Ed students by Luhrmann himself. If you are at all interested in what goes on before, during, and after a shoot, download the series. Nice bit of product placement for Apple of course.

But back to the experience of the movie. It’s an old-fashioned, gutsy, romantic movie and it wears its big heart on its sleeve. It’s derivative and excessive in parts, but it is also sweetly comic, tender, and reveals a landscape that is astonishingly beautiful. The soundtrack and especially the music is as lush as is the production design, and that’s just fabulous … as you would expect from Catherine Martin. The integration of live-action on location, studio shots and CGI is well-nigh seamless, though a couple of the Darwin panoramic shots looked a bit artificial … I’m carping. The performances are all terrific, and the casting of Jackman and Kidman as a screen couple is quite simply, perfect. Nicole Kidman in a recent interview on how she found working so closely with Jackman said it was ‘nice’ to go to work each day … I bet.

The story is highly charged, energetic, and as packed as it can possibly be without exploding out of its tight riding britches … it runs already at a whopping 165 minutes. It’s a Baz Luhrmann movie that’s for sure, and his hand is very firmly on the tiller. He’s said he has deliberately made a movie for everyone, and that he will probably be ‘killed for it.’  I doubt it, but this ambitious aim also creates the movie’s most significant weak spot, in that it does try to be all things for all audiences.

The light-hearted and broadly comic opening sequences do jar a little, but maybe that was me. I was reminded here of Strictly Ballroom (1992) and some of the comic nonsense in Moulin Rouge (2001). Australia then steadily generates momentum and gear shifts into darker, more violent and guilt-laden territory. Some of the background on the stolen generation and indigenous Australia is of course necessary, but it’s perhaps a tad obviously expositional when it comes.

I loved the Darwin outdoor pictures sequence as the boy Nulla watches Judy Garland, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. His referencing of this classic 1939 movie throughout Australia shows Luhrmann the movie-maker at his most poignant, clever, and imaginative.

And I was moved deeply and unexpectedly by the slide at movie’s end which declared that in 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia apologised to indigenous Australians for the treatment of the stolen generation. That was a good thing I reckon … that I was so moved. I hope it has the same effect on others.

Stay for the credits by the way. You will get to hear Elton John and Rolf Harris and a whole lot more.

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