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Nathan Thomas
What Is It You . . . Do . . . Exactly?
Scene4 Magazine-inView

august 2007

A letter from a friend showed up unexpectedly this week.  In it my friend writes about how schools teach actors.  Why don't American colleges and universities teach students more about the "biz," she asks.

The question begins with an assumption that colleges and universities don't teach students about the biz.  On reflection, I don't know if this is true anymore.  I know numerous colleagues who use participation in the Irene Ryan Scholarship contest to give coaching on audition technique.  I know a vast number of colleagues work tirelessly with students to prepare for group auditions like those held at the various regional conferences (like the Southeast Theatre Conference).  I know in my own program, students must take a course in Arts Operations that includes "global" issues of arts management as well as simple things like resume reviews. 

But the original question speaks to a fundamental issue that needs to be raised from time to time.  What does an acting teacher—or group of acting teachers—teach? What does a student learn? 

There's a strong possibility that acting – like other artistic endeavors – can't be taught.  At least not taught in the way one teaches chemistry or history.  Each art possesses elements that seem to defy description.  Each of us can think of an amazingly powerful performance that proved moving and memorable. That power makes the performance something that lives in our minds and hearts now – weeks, months, years after the performance was witnessed.  What was the essence of that power?  We can identify that some power was present, some energy moved us.  But we can't quite grasp or describe that power.  If that power is difficult even to identify and describe, how can that power be taught?

So teachers scrabble at the boundaries of the unknown.  Teachers can take the young folks and inculcate an ethic of discovery and work. Teachers can provide techniques in using the voice and moving the body and concentrating the mind, and maybe even exercising the imagination.  But teachers can only . . . maybe . . . show a map toward that place to where an actor can take an audience and move them.

And teachers do what they can. 

Being an acting student is no great laugh sometimes. Sometimes a young actor feels that she can understand absolutely everything, and everything makes sense. The words come from a place that's not quite the mind and not quite the heart.  The body, the face and the eyes express more feeling than the actor knows they possess.  And then equally there are times when the actor feels like a wax-work figure.  The words plop out of the mouth like so much crap and fall on the floor like crap.  The body doesn't move.  Neither does the imagination nor the hearts of the audience.  It's doubtful that the food service industry would even take the lowly actor in such moments.

But always, always, the actor thinks that by climbing the next hill, overcoming the next great obstacle, she'll find the "answer." She'll figure out how to make "it" happen all the time, every time.

Maybe that's one reason some places don't spend a lot of time on the business.  Spend four to five years (maybe more with the MFA) in college learning how to act, learn the intricacies of various techniques, develop the ability to perform in the great works dramatic literature – then the actor's career is spent looking trustworthy while saying, "Hi, I'm Bob Johnson, your personal banker" or giving orgiastic enthusiasm for a brand of beer – and you're allergic to beer.  New plays today are written for casts of three or four or so characters. Playwrights cut to the chase. There's less room in today's plays for a maid or butler role on the stage.  Television continues driving towards the cheapest common denominator of so-called 'reality' tv that needs no 'actors' in the conventional sense.  And how often does the young actor get a real chance for a movie? 

Recently this writer had the opportunity to work with a great group of actors in professional productions of As You Like It and Henry V as part of the Shakespeare in Washington Festival.  Out of a large Shakespeare company, a rare few were making a go of their lives solely as actors.  The vast majority of us also worked in other capacities to make ends meet.

As I write I sit by a shelf filled with books about acting – books about mask improvisation as well as books by such luminaries as Uta Hagen and Richard Boleslavsky and Stella and Lee and the multitudinous interpreters of Stanislavsky.  In one sense they contain no secret to the art of acting and in another sense they all carry the same secret.

In the end acting is an art.  Timidity is the enemy of art.  Art can't be made like a cake from a box where you can just add some water and eggs and stir.  There's no clear recipe.  Sometimes art can be maddening and exhausting.  Sometimes it can be thrilling. 

And art needs brave women and men who are willing to sacrifice time and comfort and all sorts of other things to just make the effort to quicken the stillness of the lifeless play. 

And, then, maybe, if you're lucky and skilled and something else – maybe then you get to make art.

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About This Article

©2007 Nathan Thomas
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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.
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Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

august 2007

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