Preserve the Person
Updated: Oct 25, 2018
Over the years, I have found myself constantly re-examining the fundamental ingredients for creating a vision of excellence in theatre training. I have encountered many theories of course, and am myself a product of the old break-them-down-and-rebuild-them system that was so popular a few decades ago. As a student I was on the receiving end of the harshest kind of critical dismantling – an experience that attacked the very essence of my identity – and I have carried the resulting scars somewhere deep inside for years. As fate would have it, fueled from the start by the need to find a better path, I was myself drawn to a career in teaching.
I have spent my working life searching for better answers, and now, today, with a year of upheaval and seismic change behind me, and a glass of Wolf Blass Cabernet Sauvignon at hand, I would just like to ramble a bit about one of the things I have discovered along the way… because it is on my mind.
As guides on the journey of actor training (otherwise known as teachers), we must create an environment in which actors-in-development can learn as much about themselves as possible. First and foremost, we must acknowledge and celebrate their uniqueness. What an individual brings to the work is not only worthy, but necessary to the healthy advancement of the art form. To chisel off the beautiful original bits in order to reduce every student to a kind of uniformity is to rob them of the very gifts they bring to the work.
And so, foundational training must take this into account. Skills technique is important (after all, acting is an athletic undertaking which demands a level of physical fitness in movement, breathing, speaking) but the skills must be tailored to and balanced with the development of the individual. Too often this aspect is misunderstood, ignored, overlooked and rejected.
Here are a few ways we can accomplish this:
Encourage the actor’s personal voice. Make sure there is plenty of discussion around the edges of the work. Ask why and allow the students to ask why. Check in with them regularly.
Encourage the development of a social (dare I say political?) conscience. Allow the students to express their opinions and find creative ways to move the conversation forward. Make sure they understand the difference between making an obvious theatrical statement, and the power of taking the opposite position (even if they disagree with it). In other words, it is not necessary to portray a militant feminist in order to make a statement about feminism… Allow students to experience the power of planting ideas that will take root in an audience’s mind, rather than simply shouting dogma from a pulpit. Examine the full range and encourage the messy dialogue that might result. (You might be surprised how often this is an issue these days.)
Encourage the actor to find herself in every role (as opposed to reaching out at arm’s length for a character she doesn’t recognize). Try to use words like “don’t” and “no” as little as possible (I am still working on this) …
And once this engine has been started, the individual must also learn the power of the group. When each beautiful artist-entity recognizes and embraces a connection with their team mates, the ensemble becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Theatre is, after all, a completely collaborative art form. If we distill everyone down so they are all the same, well then obviously there is much less impact in group form: the difference between a wine cellar stocked with a hundred bottles of Wolf Blass Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, and a cellar offering a rich selection of everything from a Pelee Island Blanc de Blanc VQA to a Richebourg Grand Cru.
Nurturing the individual is only one of the training truths that have been teasing me recently… there is so much more to say on the subject. You can bet more bottles of wine will be uncorked and unscrewed before I am finished with the subject!