Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture


Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

One of the great advantages of being a touring actor was the amount of time one had to read.  The only disadvantage in those pre-tablet days is that the reader had to transport all that lumber.  As a child, a long car trip would generally leave me more than mildly nauseous.  As an adult, I found that I was able to read as we trundled across the highways and byways of America.  I had always been a voracious reader, but now I had nothing but time to digest book after book after book.

I was also a promiscuous reader.  I had a librarian friend named Peggy who would give me copies of the worst books one can imagine sent to libraries by self-published authors hoping to find readers in the worst way.

Along with the perverse joy of reading trash, I also read a long list of books about acting.  I re-read the Stanislavsky books and annotated them in the margins from my personal nightly experience.  Eve Mekler’s book about acting teachers and Mel Gordon’s book about the Stanislavsky technique in Russia (I toured with one of his research assistants) were on the list. Burnet Hobgood’s book on master teachers of theatre was gobbled up.  I also read historical books by Adolphe Appia and Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, among others. And travelling in America in years when used and independent bookstores were more prevalent than they are today, I could find gems – like Progress Publisher translations of books by Stanislavsky (the Russian version of My Life in Art) and Vakhtangov.

So I came to graduate school the second time with more ideas about acting than I’d had eight years before, along with a boat-load more of the practical experience of doing it as a day-in/day-out kind of job.

It was in those years in the early 90’s that many things fell like dominoes in my life – good and bad. 

One of the best parts was two people I didn’t know at the time had a cigarette break together half a world away. Normally I don’t urge people to smoke, but this cigarette changed my life for the better.  (Thank you, Jay and Sveta!)  The ultimate consequence was getting to go to Russia and learning even more.

The other positive consequence was the ability to take instruction in Dalcroze eurhythmics in concentrated, 3-week workshops with master teachers.  (Thank you, Lisa and Anne!)

The Dalcroze work was particularly eye-opening from a pedagogical perspective.  First, the foundation for Dalcroze work is that you learn music through music and your whole body’s response to music.  This point grew very large in my imagination.

The Dalcroze exercises or games were endless and limited only by the teacher’s and class’s imaginations.  But there were basically just a few kinds of exercises. This aspect of constructing classroom experiences also proved to be very fruitful.  One could make up any number of etudes for a class to play, but one was rescued from having to come up with the structure or a new bucket for every new experience. 

So as I developed my approach to teaching, I found two fundamental principles.  One, the best way to teach acting is through theatre – making theatre with the whole body as often as possible.  Two, the best way to teach aspects of acting was through the use of etudes.  What’s an etude?  In music it’s a study that focuses the musician on a particularized feature of technique.  Or, we might call it a kind of game in which the rules focus our attention and behavior in a particularized way.

Despite my strong desire to teach as a graduate student, the acting classes were taught by the MFA actor candidates, not us Ph.D. scholarly drudges.  But I did get a chance.  I experimented in teaching most of the elements of acting through movement and rhythmic exercises.  This made me no friends at the time.  The then-chair of the department (now deceased, R.I.P.) observed a class and didn’t see a conventional class session.  As such I got put into the “weirdo” category, and I was not to teach acting again at that institution.

My experience highlights one of the challenges of moving acting instruction forward.  Where are the places that pedagogical experiments can happen?  To be fair, the students in that class had not elected to be in an experimental class, and might have chosen otherwise if given the chance.  In the event they were fine, and their responses to the course were good. Nevertheless, there needs to be more space in which teachers can experiment with pedagogy and test teaching methods with the possibility of failure.  I don’t know that failure is necessary, but without the risk of failure there will be too much gravity toward the “playing it safe” anchor. Then the instruction of acting will remain where it is – largely the regular replication by former students of their teachers’ methods without much variance.

The funny thing is, we don’t want actors to learn acting this way.  But we have no trouble with acting teaching working this way.[i]

After grad school, I did some acting – a “cake” tour in northern California -- and ran a theatre company for a while. 

Finally, in the early 21st century an amazing opportunity came my way.  Start a theatre program from scratch.  It seriously frightened me.  Despite some other opportunities, this was the one I took.

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve taught the beginning acting class more often than any other course.  I’ve had a mix of people who took the course with the goal of becoming professional actors and people who thought it would be a lark.

As I tell the students each semester, there are many ways to teach acting.  But I can only do it one way – to treat them as if they were all going to pursue acting beyond this one course.  I hope my course is fun, but I want the students to know this is a foundation study in development of real artistry.  I guess, by comparison, it would be like the drawing teacher telling the class that they won’t be doodling stick figures all semester.

What contrasts the rank beginner and the experienced artist when it comes to acting?  There are several aspects, to be sure.  But for me, one of the more important differences is that the experienced actor walks in the room with a stronger sense from the text of what is action and what is actable.

In my class, I work steadily to provide an experience first, and to draw applicable abstractions second. 

For example, we might have the students and I stand in a circle and do a brief text.  (I didn’t originate this.) A: “I want to –”  B:“No.”  A:“But I want –”  B:“No.” The text is alternated between two adjacent people in the circle.  The “No” person turns and becomes the “I Want” person in succession, and so on around the circle.  I am in the circle as well.  Why do this? It places me amongst the students. The circle diminishes the hierarchical importance of teacher/director.  The student is being developed to be an independent artist, not a puppet.  Doing it in a circle releases everyone from the tension of who goes first and the ensuing order of work. The actors are not permitted to deviate from the text, as they would not be so allowed in working on a play.  But the text is simple and begins to show how the text is not simply about being intelligible,  but giving expression  to something. Being in a circle, the actors quickly see there is the opportunity for great variety in even the simplest text. They’re given the freedom to explore the text.  It remains unclear if the “I Want” person is cut off by the “No” person, or it may be that the “I Want” person simply trails off because she can’t articulate the want at that moment. At the end of the exercise – usually after having gone around the circle a couple of times – I assist in a de-briefing of the experience. Often even novice actors imagine some object for the “I Want” person – they know what they want.  So, we have included the importance of imagination. We’ve had a small lesson in sub-text. Students often recognize the many ways of “performing” the simple text, so we get to talk about choices and the importance of choice.  I also draw their attention to the idea that this simple text concretizes a major fount of dramatic situation – someone wanting something and being thwarted by another character.  The exercise provided the experience, and then from that experience we derived multiple applicable lessons about how acting and theatre work.

Pedagogy then becomes a matter of the topics you’d like to draw the students’ attention toward and then the etudes by which you can focus that attention.  To educators this might seem like talking about “student learning outcomes” for assessment in some kind of disguise.    Maybe, maybe not.  I don’t tend to think in terms of pre-set curricular goals.  Rather, my task is to assist novices develop within an art form that I know well.   So, the topics for a student’s attention might apply to the whole group or to an individual who has her own idiosyncrasies.  Outside of planning where I want to go, I also keep my eyes open for happy accidents.  An accident, of course, can not be planned for.  But is there an opportunity to assist enlightenment or clarify that which had previously been confusing?  If so, you can illuminate the equivalent of a whole month’s work in an instant.

The contemporary semester is about 15 weeks, or about 45 hours of class meeting time.  When you’re a student it can seem like an eternity.  When you’re a teacher, every second is precious because you know how fast the time flies.

These days I look at the beginning acting course as something with three broad sections.

The first section helps the student focus on the body and the breath.  As I’ve written elsewhere (“Letter to Ashley” March 2012), a beneficial prerequisite to the artistry of acting is the ability for active listening.  Many young people between the ages of 18 and 22 are challenged to be relaxed.  It can be a problem to be present in a scene if the pumping adrenaline triggers an on-going fight-or-flight response.  As a foundation to all other work, we learn how to release unwanted tension.  In the years that I have taught, this alone has proven to be a beneficial skill for many students who have been plagued by stress head-aches.  I’ve had many student express relief that learning relaxation techniques have helped them diminish continual neck and/or shoulder pain.  In recent years, I’ve noticed an up-tick in the numbers of students who come to class with some previous experience with yoga or similar mindfulness practice.  For them, this section of the course is reinforcement of previous experience. Along with release of tension, we also provide exercises in “practical” anatomy – the movement of joints, the kinesiology of standing, sitting, walking, and working with your body in concert with other bodies (always maintaining the safety of the student).

For some students, just getting them to be fully present and attentive is the work of the whole semester.  Also, I work to start students on the road to understanding stillness. This area of study can become a major area of accomplishment for students.

Ken Elston used to say that in Sunday School, about 99% of the time the correct answer to any question is “Jesus.”  In acting, about 99% of the time the correct answer to any question is “breath.  Almost every working day I come into a theatre with a group of students who are all jangled up.  When I get them to center their breath, the whole mood or “feel” of the group changes.

As the course progresses, we don’t leave body-work behind.  The time devoted solely to its focus shrinks as the semester continues.  Another aspect of the course is to emphasize a systematic way of working.  As a consequence, over the semester I work with student to develop a systematic warm-up that accomplishes three tasks – prepares their body for acting, prepares their voice for acting, prepares their imagination for acting.

The next major section of the course is vocal work. My background tends to favor technique developed by Arthur Lessac.  But I’ve also worked with a variety of different practices, too.  I like Lessac’s orchestral metaphor in musicality to phoneme formation.  Students are told up-front that part of their mid-term will include some tongue-twister work that will be assessed for both speed and accuracy.  This feature alone provides a clear incentive to the non-major to do vocal work outside of the classroom.

The third section broadly speaking is the application of body and voice work to the acting of a scene.  This section also includes finding an action to play.  For this purpose I use the opening scene to The Seagull.  It is a handy scene.  The characters of Masha and Medvedenko are roughly the ages of most of the students I teach.  The scene is as simple or as challenging as the students choose to make it – there is amazing depth in the characters.  Within the liberal arts setting, students get to read a masterwork that isn’t covered in any other course.  And the scene provides a pretext for dealing with all of the elements needed in finding action and playing action.

Stanislavsky articulated a fairly simple means of understanding a character’s action within a chunk or unit or bit or beat or a scene or a play.  In Russian Stanislavsky used the term задача.  It’s a task or problem that has an implied object toward which a person may move. For example, if I write 237 – 198 = ________ on the chalkboard, you know immediately what that is.  If you’ve had some math, you know the series of steps you need to do to accomplish the solution of the problem.  In English we translate this as “task” or “objective” or “goal” or . . . . . . We use lots of different words that have similar meanings.

For Stanislavsky, the first step in analyzing a text for action is to understand the complete context for the character at this given time in this given place in the play (given circumstances).  In my experience young actors have the hardest time in understanding and working in a personalized way with given circumstances. As a director I spend much of my time, I find, articulating given circumstances. 

The second step in this system -- the given circumstances show a problem that is solvable through action.  This problem-solving is like the development of strategy.  This stage of determining action can be a stumbling-block for many students.  Many students want to go immediately to feelings or states of being.  “I need to feel angry.”  “OK,” I reply, “You need to feel angry.  What do you gain by your desire to be angry?  You’re successful at being angry, what does that get you?”  Or, “I need to tell Joe about x.”  “OK,” I reply, “That’s a fact.  You do tell Joe about x.  What to do you gain by telling Joe about x?”  Stanislavsky wrote a series of rules-of-thumb about objectives or tasks that I won’t repeat here.  For students who are successful in getting this, not only does it inform their acting, it also serves as a useful leadership capacity – how to develop strategy separate from tactics.  Often people confuse the two.  “I’m in New Jersey.  I want to visit NYC.”  That’s a goal, that’s a strategy.  It says nothing about whether or not we take the bus or drive or take a boat up the coast or what road we take if we do drive.  The means to realizing a strategy are tactics.

Third, the character does something to fulfill the goal and turn the situation to her advantage.  These are tactics.  As a rule, I work to help the students identify tactics that are familiar relative to what they’ve done before in their own lives.  “I need to cheer Joe up.”  “OK,” I reply, “Have you ever cheered up someone before?”  Why yes they have.  “So, you know how to cheer up someone?”  “Yes,” says the student.  “So, you know how to do this?  What’s the first thing you’d do to cheer up someone?”  And so it goes.

As a kind of quick mnemonic device – 1) Context, 2) Action, 3) Tactics.

What happens then?  Either the character achieves the goal, or she doesn’t.  “I want your keys.  Give me your keys.”  I haven’t told you why I want your keys.  I will either get the keys, or I won’t.  Once it’s clear that I have the keys or that I won’t get the keys, I have decisions to make about what to do next and choices to make about how to go about achieving my goals.

The scene is not performed as a means to perfect doing a scene.  The scene is used as a pretext – to provide a series of experiences from which we can derive abstracted lessons we can apply to any scene.  I work to emphasize beneficial practices and diminish unhelpful practices.

For example, seldom does an everyday person get up in the morning and think, “My goodness, what a beautiful day!  I hope to do something foolish or shameful today! I hope to get frustrated today!  I certainly hope I have a chance to express my anger today!”  Yet characters in plays often finds themselves in shameful or foolish situations.  Often characters find themselves thwarted in their plans.  When I articulate this for students, it can help them differentiate between their strong desire to play generalized “feelings” instead of looking to particularize the character experience.[ii]  In performance, students rarely (for very good reasons) gravitate toward “bad” or “negative” feelings other than anger.  Beginners don’t like to contemplate feeling shame in public. 

Yet, many beginning students like to gravitate toward generalized feeling when they try to articulate something about their work. “I fell x here.”  I point out to students that in my life, I’ve felt pure, singular emotions only about three or four times – when I got to say “I do,” when my mother died, when I saw my daughter being born.  I often have to remind students, therefore, that putting easy labels on what a character “feels” is not helpful.

I remind students that plays/movies/tv shows are rarely about happy, well-adjusted people having a lovely day. Usually plays/movies/tv shows are about people with problems having a bad day.

In a beginning class I feel it helpful to set students on a road toward understanding the contrast between playing an action and showing some generalized display of a feeling.  These discussions are important, but not the sole part of this section of the course.  Along the way we do exercises that aim to help students identify and focus on facets of acting that will help the student through other scenes as well.  We do exercises on rhythm/tempo, emotion memory, imagination, sensory recall, sub-text, etc.

Some folks wonder why I ask all of the students to essentially work on the same scene.  Partly it helps illustrate that there are many possible solutions to the same problem.  Many beginners (and not-so beginners too) have the notion, “I worked damn hard to get to this line reading, please don’t ask me to change or adapt.”  As actors we can get awfully attached to our early choices and our early results.  Seeing myriad possibilities to one text can be eye-opening to the young actor.

The opening scene to The Seagull also introduces another fundamental situation common to many scenes.  Why don’t they leave?   Why don’t they walk away?  What keeps Masha on stage with Medvedenko in the opening of The Seagull?  I often see young actors work as polite actors – “I’m staying because I have more lines,” or because, “Joe has lines to me.”  I regularly articulate that while everyone wants actors to behave ethically (we don’t normally toddle off stage in the middle of a scene), the character has no such obligation to politeness.  The only thing keeping some students on the stage at given times is that they’re nothing more than being polite actors.  They need more to keep them onstage and engaged with their partner.

We don’t only look at The Seagull, but that is where we start.  We all use one play so that we can all understand some elements of play analysis at the same time.

Some other basic rules.  I do not “direct” the scene in any way.  The point of the course is for the students to begin their development as independent artists.  So, I do not direct the students.

Also, I rarely comment on whether I “liked” the work or not.  I will sometimes ask the class as an audience if this or that moment had more clarity and/or interest.  I’ll often ask the performing students if what they just did made more sense  to them, and did they feel more “at home” on the stage.  In doing this, I’m working to help the students develop their own inner-sense and satisfaction with their own work.  As I point out to them, their friends and family will tell them that they’re wonderful after a performance.  Directors, casting directors, and producers may have their own fish to fry and not be reliable responders either.  Certainly, if they’re seen by critics, they may have something written about them, but that (as we all know) may not be very helpful at all.

I don’t respond to how I would do something. The point of the class is not how I would accomplish a goal, but how they can deal with the frustration of working with their own bodies and their own voices and their own “innards” to develop a character and/or a performance of some kind. 

One more point about working with a scene divorced from a play.  I don’t look at the scene as an end in itself as in the scene-study classes I took as a young guy, but as a sketch in the same way that a visual artist might work on some studies to prepare for a painting.  And I’ve found that many beginning students have a difficult time sustaining attention, etc needed for effective acting for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

Finally, some readers might get the idea that I’m teaching “psychological realism.”  Not really. With a few exceptions, young actors are challenged in being successful in completing artistically difficult tasks. For example, a character in a thriller is a spy.  The spy character is with some government agents.  The spy can’t give herself away to the government agents, but the actress wants to show the spy’s difficult situation in wanting to keep from being exposed as a spy.  It can be slightly more difficult for the actor to show one thing to the other characters on stage while completing another task for the benefit of the audience. Or, Vakhtangov wrote a straight-forward example, as a kid you’re saying you’re evening prayers when your little sister comes into your bedroom to steal one of your books.  You break immediately from your prayers to tell off your little sister and immediately return to the hushed tones of the “Our Feather.” Sergei Tcherkasski said in a talk that one of Stanislavsky’s achievements was to develop an acting system that could work in any aesthetic.  So, I don’t teach some sort of “psychological realism.”  I help students achieve success with achievable tasks. In further acting courses we do different kinds of work in different kinds of styles.

A few pages of notes can’t give a complete picture, but the hope is that it presents a glimpse of this one teacher’s approach to acting pedagogy.  I make no claims to brilliance.  But I do believe that I have been thoughtful in developing the pedagogy I use.  I hope this series of articles spurs other teachers to think about how their pedagogy developed and how and what they teach.

[i] In the 19th century the ComedieFrancaise trained new actors by placing them in a room with a trained actor. The trained actor instructed the novices by having the newbies copy their performance.  This “method” would be anathema to most actors today.  Yet, we appear to be fine with actor teachers mostly working this way – replicating the classroom work they went through themselves.

[ii] Once a student told me, “We [the students] are always curious what the ‘Dr. Thomas Spin’ is going to be” on a show or a scene.  I have no spin.  I’m looking for the actors to personalize their experience in their way.  When that happens the results are far more creative than anything I could cook up.

To read the other two parts of this column,
click on the links:

Part One

Part Two

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2018 Nathan Thomas
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




July 2018

Volume 19 Issue 2

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