Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Following the example of one of my favorite bloggers, Don Hall at Angry White Guy in Chicago, I am going to combine several shorter posts into one. After the length of the last one, this might be a relief...

Don't Know Much About Creative Writing MFA's
Reviewing the discussion of MFA's, it occurred to me that a large portion of my commenters were talking about something entirely different from what I was talking about. There seemed to be quite a few playwrights who were discussing MFA programs in creative writing. I know virtually nothing about such programs. My comments were confined solely to acting/directing/design MFA programs in theatre.

Anonymous Commenters
I am toying with the idea of changing my settings so as not to allow anonymous posters. While the MFA discussion didn't get that out of hand compared to some of the other shit storms this blog has seen, I was discomfited by anonymous commenters bashing people. I think if you want to participate in a conversation, you should at least identify yourself. For now, I am not changing my settings, but I would encourage those of you who usually post anonymously to consider signing some sort of name, so that we an keep the different commenters separate. If for some reason you really need anonymity, then make up a phony name.

Where Are the Actors?
Perhaps I'm not reading, or read by, the right group of people, but where are the actors in the theatrosphere? I see a lot of writers and directors, and even one or two designers, but actors seem notable by their absence. And I hardly ever get comments from actors. If you are a blogger who is an actor, please put your URL in the comments so I can add you to my reading list. If the actors aren't participating in these discussions, what are we to make of it?

TCG Database Weirdness
Thanks to Matt Slayburgh at Theatreforte for bringing this to my attention. He found it odd that, in my post on the lack of world premieres being done in LORT theatres, the TCG database listed Actor's Theatre of Louisville as having an annual budget under $500,000. "I followed your tracks," Slayburgh emailed me, "and TCG also told me that ATL is in their bottom budget range. So, I checked on Guidestar, which has actual copies of 990s submitted by non-profits. On their own 990, ATL reported an $11 million budget for 2006." Hmmmm. At the time, I remember finding other theatres that seemed odd in that category: Lincoln Center Theatre, Long Wharf, the Public Theatre, Steppenwolf, and the Yale Rep jumped out at me. I will try to track down information about this. This has little effect on my latest post on the distribution of theatres in the US beyond changing the color of the flags on those who are misreported. However, it does affect the data about new play productions. It may be that a larger percentage of big-budget theatres will be responsible for premieres. While my confidence in the TCG database has been shaken as far as financial information is concerned, so far it seems that the other info is accurate. At the very least, the addresses must be right!

Theatre = Film = TV = Commercials as Far as Acting is Concerned
In my last post on MFA programs, one of my anonymous posters wrote the following:
"it seems many people here think that actors or writers or artist should only be trained FOR THE THEATER - but that is a bit naive and willfully ignorant and also elitist. from Wikipedia - Actor: "An actor, actress , player or rarely thespian (see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity. The ancient Greek word for an actor, hypokrites, when rendered as a verb means "to interpret";[1] in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.[2] from the Greek - TO INTERPRET." - but, in your incredibly narrow definition, actors should ONLY interpret theater? or MFA programs should only train for that very narrow specialty? That is a bit ridiculous and again smacks of elitism. Doctors train for everything, THEN chose a specialty. Why should acting training be different?

This commenter, whoever he or she is, has perceptively identified something very important to understanding almost everything I write on this blog: all I care about is live theatre. So call me naive and elitist, not to mention willfully ignorant -- you won't be the first or last. If you define acting as "pretending that you are the guy" (my favorite definition of acting, by the way, brought to you by master acting teacher Cal Pritner), then maybe you can feel sanguine about this crossover from medium to medium. I happen to think that the skill set needed to be an effective stage actor is very, very different from that needed to be a good film actor or TV actor. And I think that it requires devoted and single-minded attention to develop those skills. I hate seeing a film actor failing to be able to fill a theatre space. I witnessed it firsthand when I acted in a production of Love Letters opposite a fairly well-known film actress. Sitting across the table from her, she was doing an excellent job, but the audience in this theatre of 500 thought otherwise. It was me who got all the laughs, and who afterwards spectator after spectator told I was by far superior to my film-star co-actor. Plus, she couldn't hold for a laugh or do a basic take in support of a laugh line to save her soul. These things aren't necessary for film -- the film editor creates your takes and holds for your laughs, and you don't have to project your personality more than a few inches beyond your face. In other words, it is a different world. As far as doctors are concerned, I don't know how they are trained -- it seems to me that they choose a specialty pretty quickly. Regardless, when my appendix burst I was really glad they called in a gastroenterologist and not a podiatrist, even though they both might have had similar basic medical training in their early years. Same with the theatre: when I sit down in my seat, I want to know that the actor, director, and designer are specialists in what they're doing. The MFA is a specialist degree, not gen ed. I think we would do well to focus on that very difficult art form and forget about the others. This applies to writers, too. When I was in grad school, the school I was had a new play contest every other year, and I volunteered to read scripts and provide evaluations. It was amazingly interesting to see how so many young playwrights didn't understand the difference between theatre, film, and television. I read so many scripts that did one of two things: either the play was told by cutting between dozens of short scenes, some as few as a line or two, as in film, or it was told in a series of 13-minute scenes with a break for commercials. I suspect that the writers in the theatrosphere will confirm that writing for the 3-dimensional stage is an entirely different animal from TV and film, and the demands of the theatre could take a lifetime to grasp. I know: elitist, naive, and willfully ignorant.


ILannoyed said...

hey - sorry, alot of the anonymous comments about MFA programs are from me - i'm a she and an actor and i actually know quite a few people that you know, oddly enough

anyway, i will pick a "nom de blog" in order to make things easier.

still disagree with you on the MFA thing tho - i didn't say get rid of theater training - i just suggested that maybe it's time to wake up and smell the 21st century. the basis should be theater training, of course - but replacing a useless class in Mask work ( and yes, still think it's pretty useless, even if you are planning to be a theater artist)with one class a semester in acting for the camera, or voice overs, or commercial technique does not go against producing a well rounded performer.

a trained actor should be able to switch among mediums just as he should be able to switch among theater styles. or they should at least have some familiarity.

it's fine if you are devoted to the theater - you can afford to be - you work in an academic setting and other people basically subsidize your art with their tuition and government funding. hey, that's the reason so many actors and directors end up teaching. but if you have to make a living outside of that setting, then you are going to have to perform in other mediums besides just theater.

here's an old post from a Chicago actor that helps sum up the problem

and another

So, although i agree with you wholeheartedly that the theater system in this country and LOADS of problems and needs to be reworked from the ground up - still, it is naive and, yes, elitist and frankly a bit irresponsible to sit in your ivory tower and just dismiss the realities of what those of us without subsidized university theater jobs do and also to basically dismiss anything that is not theater acting as being unworthy.

on that note - if the situation with you and the "film actress" had been reversed - how well do you think that YOUR performance would have been rated on film? because there are many many theater trained actors who NEVER really learn how to work in front of a camera - it is incredibly hard and you really are laid bare. All the little tricks that can get you through a stage performance are useless in front of a lens.

so - i know you love theater - -i do to, honestly with all my heart. but maybe you could widen your scope a little and see what is really out there.
OR - make it so that the theater really is actually a viable option as a profession for actors instead of just a very small part of what we must do to perform.

OH - and on an unrelated note - what about the streaming video idea?? really think if people could see more broadway caliber theater they might actually get interested and GO to a local play?

Sarah McL said...

Not just elitist, but a little sadistic considering any actor's financial situation. So what if they learn how to audition for a commercial? Making $30,000 for a weekend of work certainly frees up any good actor's time to do great regional theatre. And no, I don't think these are ideal circumstances, but it's worth noting.

And I know this is a little hair-splitty and PC, but "pretend you are the guy"? What if your character is a girl? Or non-gender specific?

Scott Walters said...

Whoa whoa! Take a breath. Let's start with ilannoyed. First, yes, the streaming video idea is a good one, as is taking much more advantage of all the web 2.0 possibilities. The theatre has been way behind in this, and could use a HUGE dose of creativity and entrepreneurship. The reason it isn't happening is that nobody wants to break out of the Old Way of Doing Things. And that's what this blog is trying to do.

Listen, in the current model, making a big chunk of money doing a commercial IS the only way to make ends meet so you can do some theatre. The point is that it shouldn't be that way. The artists shouldn't be subsidizing the theatre out of their hide. Theatre artists should be able to make a living in a place where they want to live -- that's the starting point. The question is how.

But before we get to how, we have to first acknowledge, loud and clear, that the current way of doing things DOESN'T WORK. Not that it needs to be tinkered with -- that the whole system is totally screwed up so that talented, intelligent, creative people can't make a living unless they patch together film, TV, and a day job. It's a mess, and it has made the theatre into the minor leagues for film and TV. And that is wrong.

And yes, I can say all this because I am outside the system and work in academia. Because if I wasn't, I would be too busy desperately trying to make my career work to really think about the big issues that are screwing me every day of the week. If you're paddling nonstop to keep from drowning, you can't worry about whether your stroke is good.

Yes, I think MFA programs SHOULD be changed -- I described how I would change it if I were creating one. But adding a class in film acting isn't going to address the real problem, which is that the theatre needs to reinvent the way it does business, the way it conceives itself.

And that's what this blog is about: asking the big questions, questioning the way things are done. So that somebody, somewhere might try something new. So that 22-year-old students might not feel that they HAVE to go to NY or Chicago if they want to do theatre. They might think: hmm, maybe they need some theatre in Witchita. They might have options.

Right now, there seems to be one way and one way only, and that way is so screwed up that it destroys most of the talented, intelligent people who enter it. We can't just shrug and say, "Well, that's just the way it is." We have to acknowledge there is a problem, use some of the creativity to try to figure out a better way.

Right now, I have only an inkling of what that better way might be. I think it will involve decentralization, localization, and a new relationship with the audience. I am hoping to flesh that out over the next seven months or so. And it is my hope that people like you, who are obviously thoughtful, but also frustrated and in pain, will help me to brainstorm an alternative. It is scary -- the ship is sinking, and we have to build a lifeboat while we're trying not to drown -- but if we don't do it, we'll die of hypothermia.

Laura Sue said...

In response to Sarah McL, Cal was talking to one particular actor who is a guy and he was playing a guy. He was not making a sweeping statement about acting using sexist terminology. Yes, you are splitting hairs and you are giving feminism a bad name. Get a sense of humor. I'm tired of the joke, "How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? That's not funny!" People like you are the reason people like me have dropped out of the feminist movement.