Monday, December 04, 2006

Can you teach acting?

For the last couple of months (since the last week of Dis-Orientations, actually), I've been trying to answer this question. In spite of lots of teaching in drama schools, including directing several shows, I've never actually been hired as an acting teacher before. I've been working with second year actor-musicians at Rose Bruford on something called "Beyond Naturalism", which I guess I should be fairly well-placed to talk about. In practice, it's meant doing classes around Brecht and other political writers, as well as people like Pinter. We're now heading towards a short presentation of work around themes to do with the War on Terror, some of which is taken from existing text, and some of which they've created themselves.

But I'm not sure how much I've been able to teach them. When I direct, I tend to assume that the actor's performance is their own responsibility - that I'm there to deal with the strategy, rather than the tactics of a production. I suppose that's one reason why I like to work with people who bring with them a specific cultural tradition, who are able to draw off a vocabulary of performance that already exists - so that I can work with it, rather than feeling I have to become some sort of innovative guru. So when a student asks me "What should I do when I'm not in rehearsal?" and all I can answer is "Learn the text, work on its meaning, research the background", it feels rather inadequate. I suspect the tutors who led them through Naturalism gave them lots of Stanislavski-style atextual work to do on "character": stuff that would have made them feel scientific and busy. In the end, I tend to believe that only one thing matters in the theatre, and that is belief: the performer's belief in the validity of the work, which communicates itself as the audience's belief in the performance. Three sessions a week hasn't really been enough to arrive at this point, although I do feel there's a real commitment in the room. But these time constraints have meant I'm directing less well than usual - saying "Do this" far too often because if I open it up for democratic discussion (as I surely should in this situation even more than in others), then we just won't have a showing by Friday. The one consolation is that they do understand when I tell them this, which is a learning process in its own way.

I went to see Caroline or Change at the National on Saturday. It's odd to see a piece with such "mainstream", Broadway-style production values - it's been a long time. Nice, of course, that Tony Kushner can make use of mainstream forms to deal with issues of racism and economic divisions, even the legacy of slavery (I'm seeing it everywhere these days!). It's very well acted, and even better sung - but in the end it feels a bit slight, a bit too easy for the scale of the underlying subject. Angels in America it ain't.

Saturday's Independent has an article on the 50 leading figures in contemporary African culture. Ama Ata is in there, as she should be. I email the link to all our prospective venues, in the hope it will make a few people sit up and take interest. It seems to be working.....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read your blog and found it interesting. This theme, the teaching of acting, is a subject that has pursued me for years. I am sure it is possible to teach acting-I think the modules on the RB Distance Learning Course have helped me greatly to understand my own art much better. Acting no longer appears quite the mystery to me it once did, though admittedly I don't practise on a monthly basis.
A friend of mine took me to see his daughter perform in a play for children recently. The really good actors were the ones who were at one and the same time conscious of the audience while remaining not self-conscious, or when so, enjoying it.I don't think that acting is about belief. I think it is about enjoying the skill of performing in a self-conscious appreciation of one's own artisanship. Like throwing a piece of clay, there is a Zen moment in creation one sometimes can grasp, but has to at once let go of in the making of an object on a potters wheel. You know when you have got it, but as soon as you know you lose it. But it becomes all the more interesting for that. At the same time, a really polished performance is enjoyable because it is so freeing, I have found. I have spent years armchair theorising about performing/acing. When I got to work with actors last year it was disappointing-three years of Drama School one of them and not a great deal to show for it. The other had been to RB and the difference was noticeable. I would love to teach acing one day. It is one of my passions.