Unexpected Learning

In the course of their careers, actors get to experience a wonderfully eclectic range of characters and human behaviors.  We investigate the way people think and act, and have the often-daunting task of giving life to a character who seems light years away from our own understanding and experience of life. Continue reading “Unexpected Learning”

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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When all is said and done …

Sir Ian McKellen takes a day out at Universal ...
Image via Wikipedia

I suppose every profession has its jargon, its arcane rituals which can look and sound absurd to outsiders, and which even initiates can find complex if not downright puzzling. When it comes to acting, many have struggled to give expression to the nature of the artform; what it is, how it happens … how to make it happen even. Mention the word ‘process’ or ‘method’ in the company of an actor or two, and stand back.

By way of an antidote to the many millions of words that have tried to tell it like it is (or should be), here is someone who knows a thing or two about the whole business. Reductio ad absurdum? Maybe. It’s certainly one in the eye for the complicators and the gurus. It’s Ian McKellen and Ricky Gervais from Extras, of course.

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Slam poetry and the power of speech


Rhetorical power was the subject of some attention this week. One of the US Democratic Party’s hopefuls in the presidential primary race gave a marvellous ‘Yes We Can’ concession speech which used repetition to make its point. Barack Obama is a forceful, clear speech-giver. You can catch it here.

I like this take on the force and power of ‘good’ speech by slam-poet Taylor Mali.

Don’t know what a slam-poet is? Neither did I. Thanks Wikipedia.

Acting Mojo: prepping the script

If you’re a working actor you might relate to this mundane but thrilling little task. I found myself marking up my Cabaret script this morning, and it fair got me all excited it did! Now why is this so? Well, it’s taking the first step down the process road, making the first real commitment to bonding with character and getting familiar with the text, right? The job has begun even though rehearsals are weeks off.

There are some important decisions to be made here: what colour to highlight your text for a start. Now don’t laugh … this is all part of the strange, often esoteric and ritual-ridden process of working on a role. Don’t believe me? Read any of Konstantin Stanislavski‘s ABC of acting books: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role and you’ll get an idea of what strange lengths some actors have gone to in working on role.

I mark my character’s lines with one colour, and the stage directions (for now) with another. According to Robert Barton in Acting: Onstage and Off (a terrific book on contemporary acting by the way), Sigourney Weaver’s Alien script was marked up in a rainbow of colours, all of which presumably meant a great deal to her. And I know for a fact that Denzel Washington marks up and annotates his because I’ve seen a page from the Training Day script in the museum at Warner Brothers in LA. Marking up a script is more than simply highlighting your lines …

But wait, I hear you say, surely you don’t start with the markup? There are aesthetics and utility to consider before you get to the right highlighter colour. Don’t you prepare the script by firstly selecting the right binder (leather, plastic, loose-leaf; right size, weight, feel) and then cut and paste the script perhaps copying the pages up to readable size. Personally, I like an exercise book size. It’s about the ergonomics. The right glue to stick in the pages is another consideration (the adherance factor, smell). Oh and putting the obligatory begging note ‘If found please return to etc.’ notice inside the front cover? Well yes of course, all of the above. It’s all part of the process, the ritual, the mojo. Your script is going to be your closest friend for most of the rehearsal period. It’s going to be scored and annotated, erased and written over and over, forming a palimpsest of the work on role. It will most probably have a life after the show has closed, sitting on your bookshelf as a precious artefact. You need to treat it with care and respect. After all, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship, as Louis once noted to Rick.*

*Casablanca. You knew this.