Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Everyone works every class": and what's wrong with that

This is a promise which many acting teachers make. But let's consider the implications of it for a moment.

This from a prominent LA acting teacher's site:

Because class size is restricted to 12-14 actors, each actor works in every class.

Let's say that the classes being described meet for three hours a week. Assuming two person scenes, that is 6-7 scenes that have to be presented in class every week. Let's suppose 6. Let's also assume that there is no time in class spent on any other issues, and that each pair uses no time to get their scene set up or change into their rehearsal clothes, and that there is no break for the whole three hours. That these assumptions would all hold seems a bit improbable, but let's assume them to be the case for now. Then each pair gets 30 minutes. Assuming it takes at least five minutes to set up and present (again, probably optimistic), then that leaves twenty-give minutes of work from the teacher for each scene. Given that we are talking about a two person scene, that means each actor gets about twelve and a half minutes worth of attention from the teacher when they get up.

This, to my mind, is woefully inadequate. And anyone who thinks that it is adequate is seriously kidding themselves about what it takes to change habits. Because that is what we are talking about when we are getting people to develop as actors. And not just habits, but habits which are often unconsciously held: we don't even know that we have the habit in question. The habit can be a way of looking at the scene, or a character, or acting itself, or a way of moving, speaking, or breathing, or of dealing with the physical life of a scene. Habits are notoriously difficult to change. Just ask anyone you know who has tried to quit smoking. Then think of changing a habit that you haven't even noticed that you have. It probably takes some work to even get the actor to recognize something she is doing reflexively is, in fact, a habit.

In acting class at the Drama School at Yale, we saw maybe two scenes in a three hour class. That's because these teachers were not only concerned with our work in the scene, but also with our process in arriving at that work, and our way of thinking about the work. All of this takes time to tease out. There is just no way that you are going to bring anyone to a fundamentally new understanding of anything in twelve and a half minutes.

And it didn't bother me that we didn't get up more, because it was eye=opening to watch the teachers work the the other students. Now, I can understand that in a class in which the teacher is offering nothing particularly revelatory, it would be a drag to have to watch that teacher coach a lot of other people, and only occasionally get up to work. But that was not the case in my classes at the Drama School: Earl Gister and Evan Yionoulis are profoundly gifted teachers who regularly provided insights which were nothing short of electrifying. Their passion for the plays we worked on and for the art of acting itself was a constant source of inspiration. And in watching them work with other students, we gained perspective about the technique we were learning which we could not have gotten when we were up doing a scene, as invaluable as that was.

The time to delve deeply into a scene and into an actor's way of approaching the scene is, to my mind, indispensable. This is the only way that the clenched fingers of habit can be peeled back, and real growth can occur. Twelve and a half minutes is barely enough time for a teacher to initiate a dialogue with the student about the scene and the character. Getting to the root of anything takes a lot more than that.

So why do teachers make this everyone-works-every-class promise? Because they perceive that that is what the students want, that is what gets the proverbial asses in the seats. And maybe many students want that, or think they do. And why do they want it? Well, if I had to guess, I would say that it has to do with impatience and the culture of instant gratification. Rather than wait for a longer, more satisfying session with the instructor, the student wants to get up and get a little feedback each week, not too much, just a little bit, nothing that would be too challenging to address. The truth is that the students, in my classes, as in many others, are expected to meet outside class to rehearse their scene. So it's not that they are not getting to WORK if they don't get up in class each week. It's that they are not getting the opportunity to be in front of the rest of the class and the instructor, in the spotlight, as it were. It may be harsh to say this, but I think it's the truth. It is the students who recognize the value of sustained investment in their own rehearsal process over time, with periodic and thorough review from the instructor, that really grow. Anyone looking for a twelve-and-a-half-minute-a-week fix is basically looking for a fairy godmother to wave her magic wand. And fairy godmothers are not as frequently sighted in this day and age as they once were.

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