In my first acting class we worked on the opening scene of Murray Schisgal's The Typist. I made the first entrance into the office more than 35 times. After 35, I (and the rest of the class) gave up counting. However one is supposed to walk in to an office, I seemed unable to do it in the appropriate way. While we ultimately moved on from the entrance, I was uncertain then (and now) if I had finally gotten it right, or if the teacher had just given up in trying to help me find something in entering the office.
Flash forward a few years to yet another classroom.
A fairly big-name, Actor's Studio protĂ©gĂ© led a young MFA student (not me) in an exercise that culminated in the actor curled in the fetal position bawling about some childhood event. The actor's material for this particular session? A monologue from Rashomon.
Cautionary tales both. And actors could tell any number of stories of the bizarre and odd classroom exercises – interminable circle exercises, imagining being an inanimate object, skirting ridicule and shame. Yet young actors continue to seek out training in classrooms.
I argue that's a good thing.
The challenge for the actor and the teacher isn't the mismatch between exercise and learning. That will happen. The challenge is continuing on in the face of possible failure. The life of the actor – as much as any person – is one of dealing with possible failure. Failure of landing the job. Failure of connection with one's acting partners. Failure of connection with an audience.
So this particular exercise didn't work? OK, let's try something else. Maybe that will.
This brings us to the question of pedagogy. What is the job of the teacher? If a student takes a college course in History, what will the successful student have at the end of the course? A better understanding of history at least. If the student goes through a whole program, they will be trained as an historian. But what would you get from an acting course? What will you be better at?
Will the actor move better? Well, maybe. But we have the movement course for that.
Will the actor speak better? Well, maybe. But we have the voice course for that.
So what is the acting teacher teaching? And, just as important, how does she teach it?
The task of a teacher is to lead the student through a series of experiences from which knowledge may be derived. The teacher, knowledgeable about the subject being taught, should be able to construct classroom activities that allow the student to acquire experience in the subject being taught. Thus we have the first attribute of solid pedagogy – the teacher has wide or expert knowledge/experience in the field. Why "knowledge/experience?" One may have knowledge without practical experience, but that's unhelpful. Likewise one may have great amounts of experience without reflection that leads to knowledge. The teacher needs the intertwined presence of both.
The job of the teacher is to provide students experiences from which lessons may be drawn. Classroom activities may take many forms. Despite the cautionary tales mentioned earlier, the respective teachers might have chosen other experiences for the students in question. But as we know, our experience of the world is both shared and individual. The individual nature of experience allows us to pause for a moment. One experience may provide a powerful learning opportunity for one person, but not other. Each person comes to the work with their own individual lives, histories, and bodies.
As a teacher I've had some students who've benefitted greatly from learning relaxation techniques. Students who may already have an affinity for bodily relaxation and attention won't benefit as strongly in that area.
Thus we've hit on another principle of solid pedagogical practice. A good teacher balances moving a group through an experience with an appreciation for individual learning.
A student should creatively experience and become aware of the elements of acting and then have an opportunity to apply those elements. As the students progress through a series of activities, they will become more aware of various types of issues. The students increasingly will be able to identify various types of elements. The students should then also have the opportunity to apply those elements to on-stage work.
This leads to a conclusion that may challenge some teachers. Beginning and ending solely with scene study probably forms a disservice to students. What scene distills out each of the many elements that make up the actor's work? Even repetition exercises and "open" scenes may have their place, but they don't appear to provide an adequate basis to examine a variety of acting elements.
Given the nature of fully going through an experience or exercise, the teacher will find it helpful to construct experiences based on a particular problem or principle to be studied. That is, the teacher will find it helpful to center a class session on only one or two elements and arrange activities to regularly focus on the given class session's goal. By focusing the students' attention on only one or two main points, the teacher allows for the examination of that issue from a number of different angles or points of view. Many points of view or perspectives provides the students greater opportunities to make discoveries. The opportunity for more discoveries allows students to acquire more experience and acquire more knowledge about the subject being taught.
Take for example something as simple as imagination. Probably most folks would agree that an effective actor needs to have an appropriately useful imagination. A student's imagination could be developed further.
Everyone has an imagination. And a number of exercises could be brought to bear in an acting class to help students develop their imaginations.
But while everyone has an imagination, not everyone uses their imaginative powers in the same way. For example, an actor may use imagination differently than a quantum physicist.
So the teacher must have the knowledge/experience to know how an effective actor uses imagination. The teacher must know how to construct an effective series of exercises to lead the student through the experience of using imagination in an appropriately broadening/strengthening way. Then the teacher needs to be able to help the student distill the abstract knowledge to match the particular experiences. Then the teacher needs to provide an appropriate means to allow the student to apply that knowledge to stage work.
One last thing, the good teacher needs to have emotional and physical strength to deal with the stress of leading experiences and dealing with the results of those experiences. If a student learns, they're seldom stoic. So the teacher needs to provide a kind of stability that allows the students some freedom to explore experiences without fear of shame, ridicule or abuse.
Well, it's a start.