Thursday, January 10, 2008

Actors, Gimme Your Money

Over at Parabasis, Isaac is keeping the conversation going by pointing us to this article: "Actors, Think You're Done Training? Think Again" by Karen McKevitt, which was published in Theatre Bay Area. "Your thoughts?," Isaac asks innocently... Hoo-boy.

"It's no secret," McKevitt writes knowingly,

"in the dance world that the prima ballerinas are in class five days a week when they aren't performing, or that the world's top opera singers take voice lessons. Even Barbra Streisand tours with a vocal coach. But many actors are not so forthcoming either about continuing their training or even about the fact that they are training. Yet, the actor who doesn't continue to train may be the actor who stops getting jobs....[U]ltimately...the drive to continue training is a mindset. 'To say not 'I'm done,' but 'I've learned how to train, I've learned how to learn, I've learned how to assess where I am and where I want to get to. I've developed an appetite to learn new things.' If you have that, you're well on your way to being an intriguing, hirable actor."

As everyone knows who has read this blog for a half an hour, I am a college professor, so I take a backseat to nobody regarding education. I think it is important for every artist to continue to learn and grow. So I suspect there may be some raised eyebrows when my response to this idea is: "That there is some bullshit."

In the previous post, I wrote about bloodsuckers who make a living scamming artists, and I listed "the theatre owners and rehearsal hall landlords and headshot photographers and agents and newspaper ad salesmen and Kinko's franchises." Add to that list people who run acting classes.

It isn't that acting classes can't be wonderful -- they can. But the expectation that actors must stay in class in order to be employed, in order to prove that they are an "intriguing, hirable actor," is nonsense. What about you directors and playwrights and designers out there -- are you taking classes nonstop to prove that you are worth hiring? If I open the pages of Variety will I find ad after ad for classes in blocking or rendering or writing dialogue? Perhaps a few, but not nearly as many as I will find for acting and audition classes. Why? Because it isn't necessary.

This is all part of the scam that continues the infantilization of actors that started with Stanislavski and continues to this very minute. (Surely I'm not the only person whose reaction to An Actor Prepares or Acting: The First Six Lessons was the desire to smack those arrogant, insulting teachers in the chops.) The real reason we want actors to continue taking classes is that we don't want them to get out of the habit of being reliant on others to tell them what to do, we don't want them to forget how to be subservient and co-dependent. But let's get real -- if you're an actor, there is no reason why you can't get a group of your actor friends together to do scenes in your living room and give each other feedback. It doesn't need to be a class, especially a class that you have to pay for. Classes are just another way of separating actors from their money. They should be taken when there is a particular teacher you want to work with, not seen as a prerequisite for employability.

And dare I suggest that there are other ways of becoming intriguing and hirable than doing yet another acting class? How's about reading a book that makes you think, or going to a museum or art gallery, or taking part in a discussion circle at a local bookstore, or volunteering with a social or political organization -- anything that expands your frame of reference and gives you new and deep things to draw on as an artist is useful. Jesus Christ -- can we get out of the theatre ghetto every once in a while and intereact with LIFE?

While I suspect that the main reason we were supposed to read McKevitt's article was the section on out-of-town casting, there didn't seem to be much that was new in that section. Except perhaps this:

Leslie Martinson quickly points out that "our folks are as good as you can ask for. They're the best. We just need more varieties of them. The perfect person might live in the Bay Area but he's booked, and there aren't six more who are just like him."

Let's take a look at what Martinson is saying: that in order for a casting pool to be considered "deep enough," there needs to be an 86% unemployment rate. That's what she says -- for every actor who is perfect, there needs to be six equally perfect waiting in the wings just in case that one is doing another show. Is this sick or what?

Casting directors (and directors in general) need to get over this idea that there is a "perfect actor" for each role, and unless they have him or her the play will suffer. That, too, is some bullshit, a myth that casting directors propagate in order to justify their parasitic existence. I would draw their attention to this really cool thing called "acting" -- it's where these people called "actors" do this thing where they pretend like they are people that they're not. And people who watch them believe them! Really! It's very cool! Here, let me put this DVD in and show you how it works. Look: there's this actress called Bette Davis. Take a real close look -- she's really homely as a mud fence, isn't she? Those bug-eyes? But most of America thought she was really, really hot. How come? Because she acted really, really hot. See how it works?

I am convinced that one of the reasons that David Mamet's acting book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor is popular is not that his ideas are particularly insightful, but that he treats the actor like a sane adult, not a neurotic child who needs a director to come in and tinker with their insides and "free them from their fear" or whatever. What they need to be freed from are acting teachers! For 2400 years of theatre history, actors took care of themselves. They rehearsed on their own, they looked in the mirror, they thought through their role, and they performed and adjusted to each other's performance as it happened. Then Stanislavski arrived and turned them into masochistic nutjobs. "Oooh! Hit me again, Torstov! I get such a sense of creativity when you debase me!" Sheesh.

It's bad enough that actors feel the need to go deeply into debt to get MFA's when they ought to be off in a small town with low real estate prices doing as many shows as possible with that money and learning in front of an audience. Like Moliere did. No, now some casting director says they have to continue shelling out what little money they have taking acting classes in order to signal that they are hirable.

I'll retire to Bedlam.


Afrodyte said...

Jesus Christ -- can we get out of the theatre ghetto every once in a while and interact with LIFE?

Let the church say, "Amen." Can I get a "Amen"? Let me hear Hallelujah!

In other words, I wholeheartedly agree. Contrary to the cliche, it's art that represents life, not vice versa.

For 2400 years of theatre history, actors took care of themselves. They rehearsed on their own, they looked in the mirror, they thought through their role, and they performed and adjusted to each other's performance as it happened.

Yes, indeed. I think this is part of the reason why I was attracted to theater in the first place, as opposed to other arts. Everything you need to do it is already within you. Although I always endorse education, you don't need a BFA or MFA or PhD to learn this stuff. You simply need to be a student of life. Everything else is auxillary to that.

Anonymous said...

I know I've cited this before, I think to Don Hall, but there was an interview with Cherry Jones several years ago in Backstage West where she questioned the value of the MFA for actors -- particularly when the cost of said degree is now so high that most actors won't be able to afford committing to lots of stage work when they get out, and will be scrambling for commercials and small speaking parts in television.

Then again, I'm not an actor, so I don't feel comfortable telling them what to do vis a vis training, and I know people who are really happy with the MFA program that they attended. But yes, it seems to me that it mostly makes sense after your formal schooling is done to take a class to pick up or brush up on a specific skill (dance, singing, stage combat, etc.), or, as you say, if you're really interested in working with a particular teacher. (One of my friends was fortunate enough to study with Joe Chaiken and it was a life-changing experience for her.) Otherwise, I would think it would be more joyous and fulfilling to work with other actors informally on scenes or even do an evening of short plays (or a full-length), just so you can have the satisfaction of building a character completely. That was pretty much what Jones advocated as an alternative to grad school -- pool your resources with other theater artists and start doing shows.

Would be interested in hearing more on this. It also occurs to me that actors who get stuck in the class-audition-class-audition loop are probably going to be as frustrated as playwrights who get stuck in the table reading-submission-staged reading-submission pattern -- the point is to really be able to do it full on in front of audiences, so you know what really works. Yes, always be polishing up and looking for ways to improve, but getting off yourself and onto the world does help make for better art sometimes.


The Director said...

Interesting insight.

I'm trying to get into grad school to work on my MFA in Directing. My undergraduate theatre training was more focused on acting, more specifically, Method acting. I've directed two studio theatre, $0 budget, no-support-from-faculty shows. I've decided that I really enjoy directing, I'm pretty good at it (I think! I hope!), and I'm smart enough, talented enough, and determined enough to make it.

So, is your suggestion ultimately to skip grad school and "move to a town with low real estate prices" and work professionally? How do I get connected to the Directing world?

I feel like I could benefit from more formal training, since I had next-to-no formal training at the undergraduate level, but I've also got other more practical concerns (read: food, rent, insurance) that I could use some time focusing on if I don't need to sacrifice three years of my life in an MFA program.

What's your suggestion?

Don Hall said...

As an actor (and a director, writer, producer, janitor, house manager - fucking name it, I'm somewhere doing it), I concur.

I coach a thing in Chicago that works like this: it's a class/workshop in long-form improvisation. I traditionally work them on basic improv techniques, acting techniques (disguised as improv techniques) and some pretty direct feedback on their work. The feedback that I get regularly is that the folks that come get more out of it once a week than they do studying at the various institutions in town.

Here's my favorite part. It's free the first time and five bucks each subsequent time. That's to cover the cost of the room and my whopping $30 fee for teaching.

I'd love to see a lot more of this model - it smacks of ancient Greeks, sitting under a fig tree, learning and absorbing philosophy, ethics and hemlock.

The fact is some classes are exactly what you need and bear fruit and some are merely a great way to meet people and pay the teacher's (or institution's) rent. Constantly taking classes will stymie you just as no classes can.

Anonymous said...

ok - someone is going to kill me for saying this

the best classes i ever took were with CASTING DIRECTORS (tv/film and equity level) - why - because the class did what i needed it to do - get me in front of someone that could actually GIVE ME A PAYING JOB.

because so much of this business has to do with you knows your work and who knows they can trust you to deliver, and because casting directors in Big markets don't have much time and don't make much money, these classes were the fastest, most cost effective way for me to get in front of these people. and it worked. the classes more than paid for themselves in relation to the work i ended up getting from these people.

yeah, yeah, yeah - it shouldn't have to be that way - well tough, these cd's don't make much money, so it is a way for them to supplement their mostly crappy income AND they get to know a whole pool of new people. as for the old "well they should just go see more shows" - most of these cd's work really long days and do see plently of shows - just not the ones you might be in.

it's not magic, you actually have to have some talent and/or training for this to be an effective method - but it was more cost effective than the tens of thousands my MFA cost.

Anonymous said...

I'm Karen McKevitt, the author of the discussed article. You've misquoted me and I'd like to correct that here. In the first block quote, you started with a quote from my Editor's Note, then used asterisks and connected to a quote from ACT casting director Meryl Shaw. So, half that quote is not mine, so I only wrote half that "knowingly." Also, the article was not an opinion piece. The article was based on interviews with casting directors, all of whom indicated that they were interested in casting actors that, among other things, continued training of some sort. One of them had the opinion too that "training" didn't necessarily mean dishing out money to acting teachers, or to anyone at all. I do not necessarily share their opinions.