Individual perspectives on the craft of teaching acting, who we are as an organization, what issues are important to us, and why it all matters.
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This is no overstatement: the Teacher Development Program changed my life. A lot of us feel that way. After years in the acting profession and the acting teacher profession, the opportunity to renew my passion for acting and for how acting works was unexpected and extraordinary. Studying with teachers who themselves were at the absolute top of their game, who took their stewardship of the craft so profoundly seriously, and who had in fact cracked the secrets of that craft, and over decades of practice had developed a deep understanding of acting and how to teach acting, reawakened the passion in me to keep this art alive, and bring it to life in my students.
And then I hear of teachers – some at the very top of the profession – who want to get out of teaching. It breaks my heart. Whether it’s in the face of the logistic or bureaucratic hurdles in the institutions, or because they’ve lost faith in the system of passing along our art form, or because the profession has seemingly become so mired in mediocrity, they’re leaving and they’re taking their passion and their knowledge with them.
Why? Is it, at least in part, because there’s nowhere to turn? No support system? It’s true that, when you look around, there really is no structural support for us acting teachers beyond a thin network of friends – often merely commiserators – facing similarly insurmountable odds.
That’s where the idea of this Alliance comes in: an organization designed to promote a set of best practices that will (1) lend what we do as acting teachers the highest level of respect, (2) help us shape an ideal teaching environment, and (3) help us gain access to the resources we need. Ultimately, of course, the Society is about insuring that the American theatre remains the vibrant, superb art form that we all fell madly in love with when we ourselves were students.
There are such strengths to being part of a university – it’s the world in miniature, crammed with passionate people pursuing every kind of knowledge under the sun, not to mention the arts more closely allied to theatre – an environment that should be ideally suited to training actors who are aware. And there’s the reverse benefit – again for the survival of theatre at large – our ability to introduce excellent theatre to students at a crucial point in their young lives.
But being part of a larger system comes with its own challenges. Our training requirements are unique. They don’t necessarily fit the academic model that many institutional leaders are accustomed to. Class size, class length, the multifaceted nature of our curriculum, the balance of adjunct vs. full-time professors – these and other aspects of actor training often run afoul of institutional priorities that tend to be ever-changing, and increasingly bottom-line driven.
With the Alliance, we have the opportunity to establish a nationally supported set of recommendations – recognized best practices – that will give acting teachers and their departments a firmer, more deeply rooted footing amid the shifting priorities of the academic world.
Here’s my hope, or, rather, my expectation: that the Alliance will encourage us to be more proactive, less reactive. The more reactive we are forced to be, the more vulnerable our art – training young actors – becomes. The Alliance can help us lead the conversation, set the agenda, and support one another in our quest for outstanding actor training.
When my mind turns to all that I have taken away from my summers in the Teacher Development Program I am flooded by images, theory, technique, emotions, and yet most of all, love: the love of acting, teaching, colleagueship and the pursuit of further knowledge. This love is a beautiful thing, and not to be underestimated or cynically dismissed.
Michael Chekhov professed that all actors deep down inside harbor the desire for transformation. And, he wrote, this transformation happens on the level of the higher ego, of the artistic soul yearning to expand; this transformation is fueled by love.
Of course it goes without saying that the Teacher Development Program is a transformative experience for all who pass through it, driven itself by beautifully crafted moments of teaching from theatre Sherpas who love their art down the marrow in their bones. But what I wasn’t expecting when I crossed the threshold of the Actor’s Center in 2003 for the first time, was that I would not only find a community of teaching artists who love the craft of acting as much as I, but that these people would enter my life in a profound way. They have become my dear friends, teaching colleagues, touchstones, sounding boards and collaborators. My life is much fuller and richer across many arenas because of them. Yet it is the singular love of the craft of acting that binds us all together. The National Alliance of Acting Teachers is a concerted effort to extend this artistic kinship as far and wide as feasible.
What we do as acting teachers matters. It matters not only to us and to our students, but also, perhaps more importantly, to the integrity and artistic fabric of our society as a whole. Standards in our profession matter. The pursuit of truth and excellence in the work matters. Detailed craftsmanship matters. Collegial support matters. Yet the priorities of the world in which we work don’t always support our ethos. We are met quite often by dissonance and discordance, not to mention downright resistance to the work we do.
This organization aims to be a beacon of integrity that shines across the ocean of actor training, one whose light pierces the vast darkness of commercialism providing respite for those tired of navigating the tempestuous and empty waters of the quick fix and instant reward.
I want us to find and share resources that mine the collective wisdom in our community. I want us to explore and unpack the critical question of what’s missing—as well as have the opportunity to ask questions that are not yet being asked.
Our work can address how we as acting teachers can better deal with and serve the growing diverse population of acting students. This can be a place to come to build awareness, share information and experiences. This can be a place to confront assumptions and speak to the challenges being faced by both teachers and students alike in the pursuit of artistic excellence.
In the past, student populations may have been predominately Caucasian with a few African-American students. Times have changed. Now, there are more Asian, Latino, Indian, African, Middle-eastern students in addition to an increase of women, gays, bi-racial, transgender and students with disabilities.
What is a program’s responsibility to these students? What do they need to thrive? How do you cast them?
Our goal here is to help build awareness and reveal information about these and other hot topic issues that are being faced daily.
Some of what I look forward to is:
I hope we can look at how we use language to create reality. By reality I mean the systems of thought, discourses, practices and tools we use to co-ordinate action and pursue desires. Socially constructed created reality. Bringing into focus that which has become transparent in how we operate automatically—when it comes to our selection process for inclusion and exclusion—will be essential to developing the freedom to change or make new choices in any given instance.
How we make our assumptions without grounded investigation is one key area of inquiry to explore, and how those assumptions were born historically. What is our tolerance level for change? When we have been so comfortable with the way things have been because we are employing fundamental sorting principles based on same (what’s like me and my community) and different (what’s not like me is another)? Who has the power in these circumstances?
For our students I think perhaps that choosing to be an actor automatically may place one in a down position, therefore issues of empowerment are crucial to assess in building resilience, in generating identity and success. How many one down discourses are operating for each student of the diverse populous at any given moment in any given exchange? How is that affecting there ability to function creatively?
These boxes were created by human beings living in language making declarations about what is so, gaining agreement and then choosing those agreements to be reality and then “forgetting” that that reality was an INVENTION. Not a truth. He who possesses the strongest interpretation has power.
As in the time when people believed that the world was flat, it was threatening to suggest that it was round. That threat is an emotional space of resistance, and that space needs to be acknowledged, navigated and dismantled individually as well as culturally for us to move forward. So, our level of thinking needs to be different to discover a way out. The level of thinking that got us into this is not the level of thinking that will get us out.
Theater by its nature is a transformative art intended at its best to release us from the boundaries of 9-5 reality. I suggest that we still suffer from a certain degree of cognitive blindness as a field, about the very water we live in. The exciting thing is the desire for it to be different is emerging. That is the world we are encouraged to prepare our student to live in. It is coming. They are the future of the American Theater.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character, in speaking to the players, advises them that “the purpose of playing” is “to hold as twere the mirror up to nature.” I find that (now as well as then) to be an apt description of the artist’s task; particularly the theatre artist. As we consider the future theatre artists that we are training and how we can best serve them and ourselves in the process, I am increasingly led back to the mirror. I think it goes without saying that the world in which we live and its “nature” is changing even as I write these words. The ecosystem, war, famine, disease, technological advancement, political and financial alliances, and the emergence of third world countries present an ever shifting view from the mirror that we as artists hold up, so to speak.
In regard to the classroom, one of the by-products of this changing landscape is an increasingly diverse student body. Caucasian American, African American, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, East Indian, European, African, Gay, Straight, Transgender, disabled… When I turn a mirror on my classroom and those of other teachers of the theatre artists of tomorrow, this is what I am beginning to see.
And this is a good thing. However, when I turn the mirror around to view the classroom from the student side,the view (in my opinion) is all too frequently lacking. At a time when our student population often represents a wide variety of races, cultures, languages and lifestyles, it seems the makeup of those who are teaching in many of our theatre programs is distressingly lacking in diversity.
At the initial gathering of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers, I shared the following brief example: A few years ago, I began teaching in the master’s program at The New School of Drama in New York City. After a few weeks of getting adjusted to the workings of the school and getting to know my students, I was walking through the halls one day when I experienced a strange sense of déjà vu. As I looked around at numerous students and faculty heading to classes and chatting on the way, I was struck by how similar the the scene was to my early days as an underclassman studying acting at Boston University, in the early seventies. I saw NO other teachers of color, just as I saw none so many years ago.
After some further checking I discovered that there was one Hispanic woman and myself teaching in the entire School of Drama. How is this possible, in this day and age? And in New York City? After more investigation, I found this to be a pervasive problem in a large number of training programs, some of them quite prominent. When I explored the faculty makeup in other educational programs within the university, I found it to be quite diverse, reflecting the community and the larger world in which we live. So, why this imbalance in the theatre programs? If we are to “hold as twere the mirror up to nature”; if we are to, examine and question the human condition, as artists, we are only halfway there in regards to a true reflection of a diverse world in the training.
We are doing our students a disservice by not exposing them to a truly diverse group of teachers. Yes, Asian, African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, African, East Indian, European, Disabled, Gay, Transgender… Qualified and diverse. Not every student responds to the same voice, even when teaching a set curriculum, so why not give them the best chance to succeed by exposing them to a wider variety of perspective, experience and approach? Who do you see in your mirror? And who do your students see?
I can offer opinions as to why this imbalance perseveres, but I’m more interested in solutions and I am proud to say that the view in the mirror is beginning to change at my current place of employment. Three new hires are highly qualified teachers of color and two more are on the way. Three women and two men. This is a result of a group dialogue and search, initiated and sustained by faculty and the head of the drama school. I have also requested and been given the go ahead to invite a very gifted actress who is looking toward a teaching career, to sit in with me and my students on an ongoing basis to observe as an aid in her development. She happens to be of Persian descent. Through these first steps and other initiatives, slowly but surely, an inequity is being acknowledged and addressed and I have to believe that our future theatre artists will be the beneficiaries. If the mirror where you teach presents a lopsided view, what will you do about it?.. Who do YOU see?
I have this recurring fantasy that one day every school of any kind will require its students to engage in a period of study in Empathy. Leading the core of that study should be an acting teacher, a very wise acting teacher, who treasures the light of specific truths as an expression of human nature.
Actors’ explorations are designed to reach across ethnic and racial divides and enlighten our little part of the world. As the future of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers evolves, I hope we can support teachers to share these ideals with the world, and lead our field to a more prominent place in our nation’s culture.
Actor training, when done properly, is a process of human development. It is practice in being a professional human being that equips you with proficiencies and skills that are transferable to virtually all life endeavors.
Actors are creative storytellers capable of inventing truthful, multi-dimensional, compelling portraits of humanity in all storytelling mediums and platforms. Actors are resilient innovators willing to engage in the world with the rigor, discipline, stamina and ethical conduct required of them in professional practice. They are masters of on-time delivery, collaboration, collective problem solving and group dynamics. As skilled members of the creative class, actors are informed, imaginative, socially conscious, inquisitive, empathic, risk taking, sensitive, critically thinking, civic-minded, caring, questioning, entrepreneurial, courageous, contributing citizens of the world dedicated to the enlargement of human understanding.
Actors cultivate what generosity of spirit and willingness to give looks like. Their bailiwick is investigating the culture, politics, social mores and zeitgeist of different peoples of the world throughout all time periods. By living and creating for a time within those given circumstances, actors develop in them tolerance, an open spirit, and acceptance of “the other”. This practice generates cultural competency, social literacy and a heighten ability to relate to the wide array of difference in the human family.
Through their storytelling, actors help render coherence to an often chaotic, confounding world. Acting is doing….with others. Thus, actors reveal the full array of human social engagements – the noble, the horrific and everything in between – for audiences to reflect upon as they examine their own lives. The actor’s terrain is the human heart.
The ancient Greek definition of theatre – t(h)eatron – is a “seeing place”. The work of the actor can induce paradigm changes in the way a public sees and treats each other. Actor-centered storytelling creates community, cross borders, bridges divides, offers food for the soul and catalyzes in the public square communal discourse, often among strangers. It is a public place for practicing empathy and what it is to be human.
Nearing the end of my tenth year at Texas Tech University, I had a lot to be thankful for. I was a tenured professor who taught the classes I loved and directed the plays I felt were important, who had terrific students to work with and the resources I needed to be successful. But I was beginning to feel as if I might be operating by rote, using over and over again the same philosophy and methods that I had used day after day for many years.
Then I met Benny Ambush, a professor at Emerson University, who was responding to one of our productions on campus. Benny told me about the Teacher Development Program at The Actors Center and encouraged me to apply. He put in a good word with J. Michael Miller, the head of the program, and I believe this led to me being accepted that year, the last of a group of 14 students.
In approaching the program, I had a number of expectations. At first I thought that, since I’d been teaching acting for 20 years, what I would find would be a validation of my own work. The master teachers would do work that was similar to mine, and I would pick up a few tips.
This is not what happened.
To people who have asked, I say that walking into a master’s class is like walking onto a tennis court, thinking you can play a little tennis, and then Roger Federer walks in on the other side. Often what I learned was not about what was taught, but how it was taught.
I found that Ron Van Lieu, for example, was so gentle in his responses but so surgical in his deft diagnoses of us, that he took away my self-consciousness or fear of criticism. What Ron did was look at each individual in front of him and what he or she was bringing to the work.
He made us have goals for each session so that we could assess whether we were succeeding in what we had planned. He tried to replace habits that did not help us, with new habits that did. He reminded me that characters are not just material to be acted but people who constantly use strategies to “move their lives forward.” This meant that our attention was on the other person—whether he or she helped or hindered this goal.
He carefully asked the right questions, or he talked to us using the thoughts of the characters we were playing, so that we delved so much deeper into each role. He helped me to really believe that the work was all about process rather than product. Thanks to Ron I also read each script much more carefully, searching for the given circumstances that help explain what the scenes are about, and I make my students do the same.
I found that Slava Dolgachev would often be teaching us something completely different than we had imagined. He told us not to question the work while doing it. Any analysis with the exercise would really, in a way, defeat the purpose.
We made intense connections with each other that did not require language or thought. Slava was incredibly sensitive to our behavior and what it revealed about each of us. He used this sensitivity when analyzing plays, using his “study of humans” to bring deep insights to Chekhov’s plays and stories. I learned that most communication is not verbal—that if we are really to create ensembles, the work must involve every part of us, interacting in ways that seem counterintuitive to reason and thought.
Fay Simpson’s Lucid Body work explored the psyche in such a deep way that I have access to those feelings forever. I would often come away from those sessions completely drained emotionally and physically. Though I had not considered myself a person who “moves,” I can now express myself more fully and not just from the neck up.
Through the work of Jane Nichols and later Karl Kensler, I found that if I wanted to really work, I had to begin by playing. Among the many activities they had us do, I learned that all drama really contained within it the games that we knew as children.
J. Michael Miller has worked very carefully to bring just the right people together to teach us. These master teachers offer very different aspects of training, but together their work makes up an intensive that speaks to all parts of us. The basic idea is simple but perfect: gather individuals together who want to improve their teaching, train them as actors, and then explain how they have been trained.
Coming back to school after my summer in New York, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. I was much more proud to be working in the art form I loved. The two weeks of twelve-hour days was boot camp, but for the soul not just the body. As an academic, I had gone so far into my head, that I had lost touch with every other part of me. The program released me from my intellectualizations.
As a teacher who has been through the program (and I participated two summers in a row), I now begin to engage with my students in completely different ways, and feel that I can help them much more specifically with individual issues. I have a deeper understanding of what it means to analyze and embody the plays and scenes I work on with them. I find that I enjoy doing exercises with my students instead of watching them take place. I feel that I have a responsibility to deal directly and closely with each person in front of me, and to not let him or her off the hook when irresponsibility rises.
Master teachers don’t earn that designation simply because they have been teaching for a long time, but because they are that much better at what they do—they go that much deeper, their work has that much more profound of an effect on you.
I appreciated that each of them felt that theatre, as an art and a craft, could benefit anyone who was willing to learn, whether that person would ultimately enter the profession or not.
I have found that, though I am not a master teacher, I continue to be a good student, who will constantly put myself in a room with people who know more and can open my eyes in ways I never thought possible.
I love good games. They were a crucial part of my training at NYU. The lessons I learned from master Games teacher Paul Walker were invaluable and essential to me as an actor. They enriched my understanding and ownership of what I was learning in my other classes as well.
Initially I was the girl who giggled through every game. The one who said “I can’t.” I can’t do this, I don’t know enough. I’m not smart enough or funny enough or fast enough or tall enough or strong enough or … whatever it was, I couldn’t and I wasn’t enough.
And Paul, beautiful Paul, very simply, constantly and consistently, said “yes, you can,” “yes, you are,” “yes, you do,” yes, yes, yes …
I was petrified. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, but leave it up to me like this and I will be found out. Petrified. Until eventually, in a profound and personal way, I got it.
The “creative” actor isn’t the one with the most ideas or even the most surprising ideas, but rather the one who just does it. Here. Right now. The character doesn’t exist without me. The struggle and effort to get it “right” is fruitless because there is no right. There is only being alive and present within a moment. Every moment.
Jane Nichols, Games teacher extraordinaire (Yale, The Actors Center), says Games give the actor freedom. “Freedom to be yourself. Freedom from the need to get it right. Freedom from the fear of failure.” “Games allow you, as well as force you, to work without premeditation or calculation. So the material being accessed is fundamentally you.”
In the classroom, to talk about following an impulse can kill all impulses. To tell a student to be in the moment can take them right out of it. To focus on listening sometimes makes it very difficult to hear. The games are totally and only experiential. They creep up on you. You barely know what it is you’re supposed to be learning until you’ve learned it. You learn it when you learn it, and by then, you already know it—and own it. It’s yours.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of taking a class with Jane. In the few days we had she focused mostly on finding “play” with each other. This was so exciting to me, as the thing I see my students need the most is real, sincere, in-the-moment interaction, or “play” with each other.
When I asked Jane how she saw Games helping her students, her response was the following:
They come out of their private Bubbles, and get over themselves. They open up to the Space around them, and to each other. They learn what it means to ‘be present’ in space, and to be in relationship to each other. They open up to their instincts, and learn to appreciate and dare to trust their impulses. They get over their fear of failure and their fear of making a fool of themselves. They learn to recognize joy and play as essential conditions to richness of work.
Every human being has both courage and imagination. These things just simply exist within us. We don’t have to be taught how to use them, we use them instinctively—when we use them. But, although they don’t ever go away, we do sometimes forget to use them. Good games massage and exercise our courage and “muscles” of imagination. And we begin to see, to believe, to experience that imagination doesn’t just mean ideas in our head—imagination is acting on an impulse. And it requires courage. Which we have! As jazz pianist Kenny Werner said, “The safety net is never in the world. The safety net is in you.”
Through games we experience what it means to be fully present, to use ourselves, to accept ourselves, and to really, really, really interact with our partners. The games insist on it. They allow us to safely practice failure, to practice being ridiculous, to practice just doing it, to use our imagination, to practice our courage, and to play.
Many many years ago, while a student in college, I frequently complained about the need to take a foreign language class, a math class, a science class, or a political science class. Even physical education was a waste of time. I was very dramatic in my reasoning. “I’m going to be an actor. I don’t need these silly classes.”
Since I found my calling in life, I would skip those classes and sit in the darkened theatre reading O’Neill, Chekhov, and Williams. Though I didn’t fully understand what I was reading, it didn’t matter. My path in life was forged. And today, years later, teaching undergraduate acting students, I often hear the lament, “I wish I didn’t have to take this damn biology class. It does nothing to prepare me to be an actor.”
Today, more than ever before, student actors are focused on how they are perceived and how good (or bad) their work is. They are often concerned with padding their resume before they’ve even lived a life.
There is far too much emphasis on audition techniques, showcases, and preparing students for the profession before they are fully a part the world that directly influences their choices and focus. Many students have little idea of why they are studying theatre. But we must remind them of what makes theatre great, how it influences the lives of so many, how it can be a vehicle to understanding the human condition in all its layers and mess.
Let’s remind them the work is richer and more meaningful if they fully investigate and immerse themselves in the circumstances of the play, the history surrounding the play, the playwright, and the behavior and relationships of those who inhabit the story. It will become clear that the more invested they are in the world of the play (and not themselves), the more believable their work becomes.
The focus should not be narrowly focused on self, but on something much larger and far more important. If the student actor is not careful, theatre will narrow the world in which he lives. The student actor must fully comprehend the world of the play and examine the world in which the character lives.
Unfortunately this does not often occur in conservatory training programs and narrowly focused BFA degrees—those that do not exist within the framework of a liberal arts core. You cannot act without giving study to history, art, literature, religion, politics, economics, or the social background of the play’s time.
You can spend all your time stewing in some limited—and limiting—thing called acting method, or deepening your voice or expanding your chest. But if this was the only way—if that’s all you did—your chances of having the ability to remain flexible, creative, inspired, and adaptable to a variety of situations and environments which are in constant flux, will be difficult at best.
This is not to say technique is not valuable. It is. An actor must learn breathing, phonation, resonance, diction, agility, alignment, combat, and forms of text analysis. The study of objectives helps actors understand that language is action.
It starts with the teachers. We must remind young actors that through their studies and experiences in all facets of education, they will become someone who finds the lives of the characters more compelling than how they are portraying them. We must strengthen young actors so they can sit down with collaborators, without trying to figure out what casting directors want them to be.
A young actor who is at home in his own body, thoughts, and instincts. Someone who has an active imagination, who has the ability to believe in the given circumstances of the play as if they were real. A young actor who has courage, who is open to possibilities, change, and themselves. A young actor who is not invaded by a lot of tensions.
A young actor who seems to have a fluidity of emotional life moving through them. A young actor who has an insatiable curiosity to tell stories, examine different cultures, and create unique worlds. A young actor who lives in the world, looking at it from all angles and perspectives.
And, yes, an actor who is part of the creative team and collaborator in the experience of creating a specific world in which he feels a part of.
All classes, no matter the subject, are unique and enriching experiences that will inform the work that actors do. It is my hope that the young actor will enter a life in the theatre not because they need to nail that audition or book that job, but because they are deeply moved by and curious about the human condition. That they want to communicate that passion to other people who are as curious and hungry as I am for an understanding of who we are. Because we have to try to find a way to make sense of the life we have.
In that knowledge, we then know that we are not so alone, that we are actually something bigger than ourselves. I wish I understood that when I was reading those plays in that darkened theatre many, many years ago.
A few years ago I found myself in the exhibition hall at Santa Fe Community College for the Florida Theatre Conference. This is an opportunity for colleges, universities, and other theatre training programs to recruit high school students. The day before I sat through over 300 auditions, a catchy, belted song, followed by a snappy, quick paced, and slick monologue, performed by a series of neatly groomed and polished high school students.
Now, standing next to my table, I was ready to answer questions about my small liberal arts college, which has no music or dance program, but offers a solid BA in theatre, along with a strong undergraduate liberal arts degree. Students graduating from Flagler College are well poised for a wide range of opportunities in theatre. Some go on to MFA programs in Acting, Directing, and Stage Management. Some find careers in theatre in administration or tech. Others, go into theater education, frequently K-12.
A young man came to the table.
“What are you looking for in a theatre program?” I asked.
“Meisner,” his one word answer.
“Oh, OK,” I responded.
I explained that while Sanford Meisner is certainly one of the acting teachers we discuss, ours is a varied approach. (Having had Ron Van Lieu as my acting teacher at NYU, I come from the mindset that there is no single approach that works for a given actor, role, or play). His eyes glazed over, and I knew it was time to let the youngster move on.
Next, a very attractive young woman, with eyelashes firmly glued in place, make-up impeccably applied, approached.
“You didn’t call me back…” she accused.
“Probably because it appeared you were looking for a musical theatre program, and we don’t have dance or music.”
After a glazed and shocked response, eyelashes fluttering up and down, she turned and left.
A third individual walked up. I called him back because he had given a solid audition, but there had been a glitch in the paperwork. His name was different than what was on his form and there was confusion. He was a little goofy looking, a big guy, yet, had a strong personality.
I went into my spiel, and he was interested. I mentioned that some schools were offering the musical theatre brand, though we didn’t.
I continued with “we look for students interested in a generalist program.”
As we discussed the other schools, he said “they are promising stardom, but you are offering an education.”
I was impressed, and I hope he will attend in the fall.
My state of Florida, as many other states, has an abundance of “art” high schools. Florida also boasts one of the most active International Thespian Societies in the country. While I applaud the exposure to the arts, at the same time I deplore the situation.
Students engage in one musical production after another, celebrating continuous opening nights, followed by the annual or bi-annual trip to New York City. They go to two or three Broadway musicals (never a straight play Off-Broadway), then participate in musical theatre workshops with “real” performers. How thrilling to be dancing and singing with someone you just saw on stage the night before!
It is all heady and exhilarating; a way to avoid the challenges and stresses of high school and teen angst. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the “Freddy Awards,” a high school version of the “Tonys” is incredibly popular. This event is televised, and has even garnered a couple of Emmy awards.
These are just a couple of examples of what the high school student is experiencing today. And, while I am glad that the arts are continuing in K-12 despite the threat of cuts in funding, I worry that a false image is being presented to them of what it means to be an artist.
When these students look for college, they want to keep the high going. Many high school students seek a conservatory to “prepare them” for the profession, which will end in a showcase for agents and casting directors. I encountered this among my son’s friends (he just graduated from an “arts” high school last year).
While Conservatory training may be perfect for some, my belief is that a liberal arts education at the undergraduate level better prepares an individual for the work ahead, hopefully in graduate school. The broader BA provides them the opportunity to explore and develop a wide range of skills and areas of interest, perhaps not even in theatre.
At eighteen, are they really ready to really devote their total lives just to performance? And, to be a good actor, you need to know something about the world you are exposing in your work.
As an Indian who grew up exposed to many cultures through travel and life in different countries as a child, I find the question of educating the acting student from diverse backgrounds a fascinating one.I have no definitve answers yet, but here are my thoughts.
Through my own theater education experiences learning and teaching in the United States over the past 20 years i feel the most common traps for a teacher in educating a student from a different background, in what is essentially an humanity-based art form are these:
1. Assumptions. Assumptions of commonality—assuming similar conditions and values of living and of up bringing as one’s own. Or, the opposite,assumptions of certain differences (based on a superficial or inaccurate knowledge) without actually finding out the reality in each individual case.
2. Ignorance and Fear. Ignorance of varied cultural/racial/gender or sexual preference conditions and belief systems and fear of both acknowledging publicly one’s ignorance (which is natural and understandable) and fear of (doubt in?) our own ability to empathize with the unfamiliar .This fear leads one to neglect to reach across to ask,to find out, to simply learn and thereby build one more bridge across the human divide.
These two major traps can result in an individual not feeling seen, heard, addressed, or worse, an individual feeling offended. This dynamic, when present, results in an experience in the student (conscious or unconscious) of confusion, impotency, disempowerment and frustration which often leads to silence and giving up, thus, unfortunately perpetuating a divide.
I believe as teachers, it is incumbent on us to take the first step across this divide toward the student and that this is, in most cases,simple enough to successfully achieve.
If I were to list some conditions that i feel have been helpful for me as a teacher to successfully communicate with, empower and integrate students of diverse backgrounds into an acting classroom or ensemble I would say they are:
Self Knowledge. As a teacher I have found it incredibly helpful to have a contemplative self reflective practice. This allows me to know and be comfortable with my own strengths and weaknesses, my areas of experience and areas for growth, so I am far more able to both acknowledge and contain my own and the student’s insecurities around the unknown.Thus I find myself more able and more often allowing myself to openly learn from them.( It goes without saying this has been learned by me from positive role modelling from some of my own excellent teachers.)
Curiosity. A genuine curiosity and interest in human beings, individuals and human behaviours feels like a necessary ingredient as well. One thing I have learned tthe hard way is no matter how young or inexperienced an individual,every one of us,on a visceral level and at least,a subconscious if not conscious level , unfailingly recognize “lip service”.The “going through of appropriate motions” does not effectively transmit through to the human heart and as such does not engender a trusting relationship.
Intention. Education in humanity, ones own and that of others is our trade, and a delicate and messy affair as we all know.In the end,on the floor, there are no formulas because we are dealing with individuals.Failing all else, I believe as long as the intention to reach across a divide and deepen a connection is genuinely present, the teacher and the student will find their way,albeit gingerly, across to one another.
Personally,my favored language is that of the body and of movement.If we can learn to be more and more in our moving, living ,breathing bodies,it can be a way to circumvent much of our conditioned and thinking selves.When we are in our bodies, we are in our truth,even when that truth is hidden. This for me has always proven a much more direct route to communication.That said, however we may each chose to address the issue of diversity, I believe ultimately as teachers, if we can each in our own way recognize and draw out from an individual their universal humanity while,or perhaps through, acknowledging and encouraging their unique and different way of experiencing that humanity, I think there we have the most potent transformative story that can be told.
That act of faith and courage on our part, will in turn carry forward through that artist to every role he or she plays and every student he or she may in turn come to guide.