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Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Teacher, Teacher

Recently a new acting book found its way onto my desk.  I had picked up Phillip Zarrilli's Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavski.  Immediately I saw that Zarilli's book marks a new departure for an acting textbook – the book included a DVD-ROM.

This simple addition to the book "package" may seem slightly quaint to folks in other fields.  For example, many books about computers include free software as part of the package, and so it has been for many years.  Closer to our field, books about dialect acquisition frequently include sound media, and so it has been for many years.  And friends frequently gift me with coffee table books that include either a CD or DVD – a retrospective on comedy from 2004 includes a DVD with clips of great comedians and comic actors.   

Yet, insofar as I'm aware, Zarilli and Routledge Books (the publisher) break new ground in the world of acting texts by the simple addition of a DVD. The DVD provides clips of student actors being led in a variety of preparatory exercises.  There are also sections that document rehearsals and performances that arise out of the working methods/processes proposed by the author.

In the instance of this particular text the author seems to favor expounding a global view of a perspective on acting over providing a clear path of understanding his method or process.  For example, it appears he favors the use of teaching students a version of martial art, but the translation of that learned skill into portrayal of a role remains sketchy to me.

The great benefit to me of the text's approach, though, is actually seeing student actors at work in a class with teachers.

As all of us know, it is one thing to read a description of an exercise or a process or a method.  It's another to see it at work with real people with real bodies and real voices.

Reading about an actor at work is not so far different from reading about a piece of music.  If you know the piece of music, the written description may or may not be appropriately evocative of the sound.  If you don't know the music at all, reading about it probably won't help much.  So too with actors.  Try reading a description of Charlie Chaplin's work while imagining you've never seen Chaplin.  Would it make a lick of sense?  

But the Zarilli book opens up another avenue.  That is, it doesn't simply show student actors at work – it also shows teachers working with those students.  This, to me, is huge.

One of the major deficits for the art of acting is the lack of sustained comment, study, and available training in acting pedagogy.  As soon as I say something like that, people tend to gasp. "What can he possibly mean? Doesn't he know that shelves positively groan with books about acting?  There are books upon books about actor training.  Is the man mad?"

Yes, there are plenty of books about acting.  As a collector of those books, I have more than a few.  But that is not what I mean, nor is it what I'm talking about when I talk about pedagogy.

Our musical cousins have a number of well-conceived, well-developed, and well-executed pedagogical methods.  Each and all of these methods teach music.  Each of these pedagogical methods can result in artistic musicianship. But no one would confuse one pedagogical method with another.  For example, a part of most training methods includes sight singing – the ability to look at a piece of music and sing it.  Sight singing is a skill.  It is an example of the what a musician should learn. But knowing that sight singing is part of the column of what we should learn as musicians doesn't give us any indication of how that skill could be taught.  Those who use the Kodaly method wouldn't be confused with those who teach the Dalcroze method.  Some teachers are familiar with multiple pedagogical methods, of course. But they are different methods, and a master teacher doesn't just mix them together willy-nilly.   

There are probably some acting teachers reading this column who likely think, "Well, I teach a method [or maybe the Method].  So what? What is he talking about?"

What I'm talking about is that in my experience most of what we talk about in acting methodology and process is the what of acting.  So even if you teach "Meisner;" you're teaching the what.  I'm guessing you know how to lead students in a repetition exercise, but how do you teach it?  How do you use it?  How do you help the student transition from the acquisition of the skills taught in a repetition exercise to using those skills in other work?

What I'm talking about also has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you're a good teacher.   

What I am talking about is how we improve the instruction of acting altogether.  Right now we rely upon the transmission of acting pedagogy traditions.  For example, I teach what I was taught.  I expect that if you teach what you've been taught that your teaching methodology is your teacher's methodology.   

OK.  That's fine. You had a great teacher.

But that doesn't help the field grow.  It doesn't help the acting teacher whose teacher wasn't a great teacher.  

There are some people who are gifted teachers – artists who "fell" into teaching and are gifted in the work.  And that's wonderful for them and their students.  But that doesn't help the field grow.

Years ago I had the benefit of talking with a group of talented teachers scattered across the country.  We met through the variety of early email forums for theatre folk.  Eventually these email connections led to meetings and cross-pollination in the various studios and schools associated with these fine individuals.  It seemed to me at the time that we could have made a wonderful and completely new kind of acting text that featured each of these people teaching what they knew best. And the best part would be doing some kind of video shoot of each teacher working.  That way the book's audience could literally see and hear the work.

Sadly the time, money, and energy for such a project weren't readily available.   

But the idea remains sound.

A century ago Stanislavsky did the unthinkable.  He started to look at what he did and what great actors did, and he began to distill a practical working theory of what actors actually do. And he started a pathway by which the elements of what an actor does can be trained.

As an acting teacher myself, I know that there is a part of the classroom work that is the grandchild of material first done by Sulerzhitsky, Vakhtangov, and Boleslavsky.  We now have decades more experience working with Stanislavsky's ideas as well as a wide variety of other approaches and ideas of the what actors should learn.

I believe the next step is to move to the next logical step.  Work to discover the how we train actors in the what.  Many teachers use scene study.  How should the teacher help the student transition from doing a scene to a full performance?  Many teachers might use something like a "mirror" exercise.  How should the teacher help the student transition from doing the exercise into a full performance?   

I believe we'll start to understand principles of good pedagogy by looking at what our best teachers do and what we do and start to distill a practical working theory of acting pedagogy.

That's what I'm hoping for.


©2009 Nathan Thomas
©2009 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, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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may 2009

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