Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Practice Makes...

I'm back! On Monday, I moved into my new office in the brand new building on campus. It is a wonderful space, and the first time in my academic career (now 15 years old) that I have had a window. Actually, two! This morning, I pulled my armchair up to the window, and with the morning sun streaming over my shoulder I read Corneille's The Cid while Mozart's 40th Symphony playing on the CD player. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. All I needed was a pipe, and the whole Oxfordian image would have been complete...

But -- and this was a HUGE but -- there was no internet service in the building until this morning. At first, I was OK. But soon, I found my hands were shaking, and I kept clicking on the Internet Explorer icon willing it to connect. I KNEW that there were discussion going on here and across the theatre blogosphere, and I was missing them!!! Well, this morning just as I headed to class, the service was restored. I nearly wept.

Anyway, I am still unpacking while I wait for my third bookcase to arrive. In the meantime, I offer a snippet of an email I received from a good friend of mine who is one of the finest acting teachers I have ever known. He has trained many actors who went on to become well-respected stars of theatre and film. In response to my post about thinking and doing, he wrote:

Technique: Often I find myself invoking the late Ralph Lane who proclaimed the aphorism, "practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent." This, oftener than we realize, should be invoked in regard to acting, directing, drawing and painting, writing and reading, and a batch of other skills. Among the people who learn to do by doing, there are those who learn permanently to do badly, and there are those who "do" mindfully (truly exploring and questioning cause and effect) and learn profoundly from the doing.

When learning the process or practice of technique, it is profoundly useful to have a teacher who provides extremely useful feedback about her/his observations of one’s technique. I don’t have much certainty about what makes the best learners and what makes the best teachers. Some learners need encouragement and specific description of what’s working and what’s not working. Some need merely to get the kind of feedback Johnny Wooden (great UCLA coach who won by far more NCAA championships than any other); Australians who observed his teaching & coaching technique said he pursued the following practice technique: Explain the drill (how & why it’s to be done); when a mistake is made, blow the whistle, step in, show how the drill’s to be done, how it was done (mistakenly), and again show how it’s to be done(with no personal comments either derogatory or encouraging). As a sidelight only: players report that the winningest coach in history never even mentioned winning; it was assumed that you wanted to win.

The message I take away: As a teacher, be sure that the principles I teach are ones that I’m confident are universal or at least nearly universal. Be certain that I’m teaching the principles and not merely personalizing the learner’s response to my urgings. When I see the learner applying these principles, I need to be certain I watch for the principles and not merely whether the overall project is successful in my eyes or the eyes of others.

When somebody who really, really knows about something lays it out like my friend did above, I find myself thinking, "Why couldn't I have put it that way?" Wisdom developed over years. I don't listen enough.

Thanks for the comments.

Listen, I'm not saying people shouldn't "do" theatre until they have been trained -- hell, I directed my first play when I was 17, and ran my own summer theatre (doing plays by Miller, Odets, and Gilroy) when I was 18. I learned a lot about directing and producing, and I wouldn't trade that experience. But I also became much more confident about my abilities than I deserved. It wasn't until ten years later, when I produced and directed a production of Ibsen's Master Builder at the grand old age of 28, and I crashed into Ibsen's incredible challenges, and was gently trashed in the newspapers that I realized that maybe I didn't know eveything I needed to know. I went off to grad school -- where I found they wanted me to keep practicing day and night.

Balance practice and thought, and make both rigorous and broad. And make sure that a John Wooden-substitute is in the vicinity to blow the whistle and demonstrate how it is to be done. That's the ticket!


Myrhaf said...

Have you ever read "Polyeucte" by Corneille? It's a remarkably powerful play about politics and principles with some fabulous roles for good actors. Unfortunately, most Americans would look at the title and think, "I guess I'll stay home and watch American Idol tonight."

YS said...

Hi Scott,

I love your introduction of John Wooden into the discussion. Too often, we as artists forget that art is a SKILL.

When we teach Intermediate Acting we outline the following at the beginning of the course:

1. Have Fun!
2. Learn
3. Improve
4. Be Professional

Under Number 3 we go out of our way to impress upon the students the following:

"Talent varies. A great baseball player once advised, 'never get discouraged by the naturals.' We offer the same advice with regards to acting. Part of your refuge from the discouragement of facing incredible natural talent is this:
Always remember that acting is a SKILL. And like any other skill known to man, it can be taught, learned, practiced and improved."