Acting teachers can be notoriously isolationist, protective of their own turf and suspicious of other teacher's methodologies. Most often an acting teacher or coach will make a strong claim that his/her methodology or technique is the right way and other techniques are flawed. In some cases drawing parallels to religious fundamentalism does not over-state the case.
Naturally this often confuses student actors who attend acting classes both in private learning institutions and universities. Their confusion is frequently resolved by becoming advocates of one teaching style or technique at the expense of another. Consequently the 'baby gets thrown out with the bathwater', and student actors enter their careers being staunchly opposed to other techniques as they see their technique as sacrosanct. This self-imposed limitation or inability to include different perspectives may be the very thing that retards their growth.
It is an understandable human tendency to want to cling to one belief at the expense of another. In an environment where the only constant is change and the only certainty in life (apparently) is death and taxes it is even more understandable that actors seek to gain security by identifying with a particular technique. Some schools of acting advocate the emotional/psychological approach to character and 'given circumstances' while others believe in deconstruction and analysis of text as the key to unlocking author's intent. Some schools say they are pure Stanislavski, which raises the question, which phase of his work, early, middle or latter? Other teachers advocate the use of gesture and physicality while others lean heavily toward sense memory and the use of personal experiences to facilitate emotional states.
It is not possible to investigate the entire canon of acting techniques and methodologies in this brief article. There are many good books on acting and acting theory that have attempted to do just that. And it is probably fair to say that there are as many different approaches as there are acting teachers. My question then, is it possible in the world of acting and actor training to find common ground?
The cynical answer to this question is: why bother? And perhaps there is some merit in taking this position. But ever the idealist I press on. The reason for this is no doubt connected to a personal philosophy but perhaps we'll keep this implicit rather than convert the article to a philosophical rant: Back to the subject.
The creative cycle of acting might be divided into the 'what' and the 'how'. While it is one thing to say 'what' should be done it is another thing entirely to say 'how' it should be done. Typically in a theatrical context, the writer, director and producer are responsible for determining 'what' the performance should look like and the actor (and more recently the acting coach) for determining 'how' to achieve the performance. Subjective and objective notions further divide the 'what' and the 'how' and this divide often leads to great discussions and debates between co-creatives. Ultimately the finished product is determined by a host of factors including: taste, individual aesthetics, budget, time and more. But leaving aside matters of individual taste and aesthetic predilections it is possible that most of us can agree on 'what' constitutes a good performance. Usually we'll attribute adjectives to a good performance such as: believable, moving, engaging and convincing. We can usually agree on the 'what' of a good performance. But as soon as we move to the 'how' this is where it gets tricky.
We encounter attitudes such as "my way is better than their way". Or "method acting is too indulgent" or "that technique is too cerebral" and on it goes. But what if every body is right? What if all the techniques could be merged into one super technique? What if we could agree on some of the glue that stuck them all together? After all we can usually agree on 'what' it is when we see it.
As an acting teacher I am passionately involved in looking at ways to deepen an understanding about the 'how' of acting. As part of this evolution I have asked myself if it is possible to establish a common vernacular and build a set of principles that might underpin any and all the approaches to acting? Might it be possible to build set of understandings that might support different strategies?
Following are some principles that are inherent to my teaching practice. These principles demonstrate an effort to include rather than exclude various wisdoms of the tribe. Approaches that assist in building the 'how' comprise attributes such as:
1. Encourage actors to rephrase the term 'acting technique's to 'acting strategies' and apply different strategies as and when needed.
2. Observe a love, commitment and trust for the creative cycle of exploration and discovery. If an approach to acting becomes too prescriptive and predetermined it is by definition working against process and dis-empowering the actor as a spontaneous creative artist.
3. Understand that action and emotion are two sides of the same coin. When the coin spins it's 'as if' the orb exists.
4. Presence is achieved as a conscious process of working for integration not disintegration. If we feel split and conflicted about something it is usually for good reason.
5. Head and heart need to work together. An approach that is too cerebral will not leave room for the intuitive and spontaneous response and conversely an approach that disregards form will wallow in shapeless miasma.
6. Acting is collaborating. Focusing on self at the exclusion of the ensemble is like entering the jungle without the tribe. Eventually you get eaten.
7. Acting is experiencing the 'as if', as if it were true. And when you decide to disconnect your imagination and emotional immersion in the experience it ceases to be true.
8. To find it is to let it go – if the result is held too tightly the life is squeezed out of a performance.
9. An open heart and an open mind can receive any stimulus. Whether or not it is accepted is the intelligent choice.
This list is by no means definitive but it does highlight an attempt at developing common ground. I am convinced that all the great acting teachers and the recognised techniques point to the skill of acting as a craft that can be taught and one that can be refined. And to that end there is something for everyone.
The biggest problem is not that different approaches focus on different aspects of the same entity but that the actors and teachers that represent these different techniques hold on way too tightly to their rigid beliefs as a means of maintaining security, thereby excluding benefits that may develop from appreciating and applying different perspectives.
I feel it is incumbent on teachers of acting to avoid building the divide between 'my way is the only way' and 'their way is flawed' and encourage actors to develop and refine open approaches that work for them, enabling actors to maintain integrity and building artistic independence. And ultimately it is the responsibility of creative artists to 'make each performance their own' and to decide on their own 'how'.
It is possible to create a harmony of perspectives and strategies when developing an approach to the craft of acting. If acting teachers and teaching institutions were to consider this, acting students would be the first to benefit, as would the quality of their work.
Great teachers may or may not assist in the making of great actors but in the very least they can assist actors to avoid the culture of divided techniques by fostering a culture that embraces the various approaches, building respect, integration and greater possibility in the creative process.