So you want to be an actor? … we have a problem

In 2007 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. In that post 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 Australia, 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.

I’m worried …

Time and practice … the right stuff

Right now I’m enjoying Malcolm Gladwell‘s new book Outliers: the story of success.  Gladwell of Tipping Point and Blink fame is a writer whose theories always excite me. The conclusions he comes to are  compelling, not only because his research is meticulous, but also because of the way he crafts the outcomes of his work. He uses story-telling or narrative construction to publish his research. I am in fact listening to Gladwell read his book, rather than reading it. Gladwell has a relaxed, warm tone and his inflexions and reading skills infuse the read text with what are the author’s own, immediate emphases. I’m half way through the book as I write this.

Success is the topic of Outliers … . What I am enjoying so far are the conclusions Gladwell reaches in asking what ingredients define the rise to major success by an individual. Experience plays a huge part. The author claims that at least 10,000 hours of work or about 10 years of preparation in the chosen field is the norm for those who achieve success. Whether it’s the Beatles, lawers, software creators or classical musicians, experience in and working at the skills of the field is perhaps the key ingredient.

It’s not simply latent talent and the right background that will get you to the pinnacle, but work and a lot of it.

Food for thought when dealing with the formal education of artists and creatives.

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Glugging along

I was invited by a group of theatre lovers to lunch last week. The Glugs of Gosh is the name of a poem by Australian C J Dennis. First published in 1917, it eerily prefigures some of Dr Seuss’ work, but is definitely adult fare. It’s absurd, fantastic, satirical, and pokes fun at pretension, greed, and irresponsibility. Well … a poem for all times really.

However the theatre lovers who have taken their name from Dennis’ work have met every month for years and years. The group originated in Sydney, and established itself with a Brisbane chapter some 15 years ago. The guest of the day … me last week … has to sing for their supper. I did so and talked about storytelling, and what had brought me to a place where I could indulge my love of spinning yarns … aka acting. It was a lovely hour or two spent in the outdoor room of the Kookaburra Café in Paddington under the arms of a big Jacaranda tree, currently in full bloom.

The guest also gets to read a passage from the poem, and to autograph the group’s own copy. It’s well-worn by now and is graced by signatures of many well-known figures from the Australian theatre and entertainment industry. In my research into the poem I came across some images taken from earlier editions; indeed I think it’s not currently in print. However you can read it at Project Guntenburg.

One illustration that moved me greatly was the one that accompanies this posting … the cover of an edition ‘for the trenches.’ Yes they read poetry in WWI as we are led to believe. I wonder whether some comfort is still derived from stories read behind lines that still stretch far too far in our contemporary world.

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We’ll miss you Mr Newman

He had to wait a long time to win an Academy Award (The Color of Money 1986) a source apparently of much good-humoured banter over the years between Paul Newman and his Oscar-winner wife Joanne Woodward. But oh how he deserved one for sheer masculine presence on the screen. Not only was he ridiculously good-looking … and didn’t he age well by the way … but he was also a screen natural, charismatic before we used the word to describe the special attraction some gifted individuals have for both men and women. I had a black and white poster of ‘Paul’ on my bedroom wall … just like every other young woman of a certain age back then. It had only one patch of colour – those blue, blue eyes. Remember that one?

Cursed early on in his career by comparison with James Dean, Newman unlike the tragic Dean went on to carve his own inimitable style up there. There seemed to be nothing ever remotely tragic about the Newman public persona, despite his losing of a child. That was private, and off limits like the rest of his exemplary family life. Regular guy … good bloke.

He had a good-humoured way about him that showed on and off screen; it undoubtedly belied his utter professionalism, like his strength in the face of disappointment and sorrow. No precious artiste was Newman, just a brilliant actor who seemed always on top of his game no matter the decade of his long life. And of course he paved the way for the celebrity as humanitarian and activist that we’ve come to take for granted from so many who’ve followed.

He died this morning aged 83 after what we might call a good innings, though I guess for Newman it would be more accurate to call it a great race. Bye Paul. I hope heaven has all the fast cars and beers you deserve. We’ll miss that championship breed that you represented so well.

Time Entertainment does a nice obituary here.

Auf wiedersehen Cabaret …

Theatre is a cruel mistress sometimes, and never more so than when she breaks up a tight-knit ensemble at the final curtain. Many (like me) deal with this psychic termination, the ending of a beautiful relationship by treating fond farewells as lightly as possible … ‘No goodbyes … see you around.’ It’s easier that way. And so it was this evening as the last performance of Cabaret at the Empire Theatre finished the season.

It’s been a quite wonderful time for me personally, and I’d wager for the entire company. We gathered post-show to formally farewell the ensemble in the studio, the site of rehearsals and warmups and that first meet and greet 10 weeks ago. There is no doubt that this production was a success artistically; it was a fine production shaped by the chief creatives: director Lewis Jones, designer Greg Clarke, musical director Lorraine Fuller, and choreographer Alison Valette. As important as financial and artistic success however, was the opportunity the production gave to nurture and further the talents and aspirations of the young men and women who worked backstage, onstage and in the orchestra pit. This is where organisations like the Empire Theatre are worth their weight in gold; they are helping to build the city’s and the country’s cultural capital, and readying the next generation for leadership in the arts community.

The final performance was a matinee, and it was a joyous occasion on several levels. For us, it had the edge of our wanting to make it the best it could be for us and for our audience. Some audience members returned to experience the show for the final time, and were joined by many first timers, but as always, they bonded to became that unique living organism known as the audience. Ask any theatre actor and they’ll confirm that no two audiences are alike. Today’s were warm, responsive, and not afraid to let us know it. I felt a thrill when I heard a ‘wow’ at the end of my final song. An audience feels a good show in unison and the actors feel it in return. Our audience this afternoon sent us out in style. The rest of the formal disbanding is happening as I write … an after-party which I fore-went. I like to keep my memories … of the faces, the experience within the confines of the theatre space. But we’re scattered now.

So it’s time to pack up the program and clippings, the cards, to swap images on Flickr, to bask in the memories, maybe plan for next time but just get on with the other things we do in life.

Auf wiedersehen, a bientot, goodbye …

SAG Awards … strength in union

Mostly I hate awards shows on television apart from the frocks and curiosity as to who will get the loot and who gives the best speech. I think you probably have to be there to appreciate the thrills involved at these dos. It was nice though to see the SAG awards ceremony today on cable tv. Everyone was all dressed up as they usually are, the frocks were lovely, the blokes brushed up well, the intro speeches were scripted to sound as flat and predictable as ever, but the individual thanks were heartfelt. What was great to see was the fact that there was a ceremony at all. It was about union solidarity. The workers united … writers and technicians said thanks to the actors for their support during the ongoing strikes, and the show (as it must) went on. Nice.

You might have caught the whole smart series of Speechless ads, actors in support of the writers’ strike. All 33 episodes are here on YouTube. This one is my favourite. Shows what good actors can do with any script.