Spirituality and Actor Training

About Revival: Meetings for Theatre, an exploration of Quaker spiritual practice and actor creativity:

We are left with the question of application. How, then, can we offer this work to theatre artists, or to artists of other disciplines, who have not self-selected as receptive to this investigation? How might our work morph into a new kind of performance medium? How can this work apply to the contemporary rehearsal structure, bound as it is by the constraints of time and money? How can this work influence what we offer our students in the classroom?

I think meetings for theatre, as we have facilitated them, will remain a forum only for those drawn to them. I can see no way we can offer a meeting for theatre to group of people with no expressed interest in the link between spirituality and creativity. What meetings for theater can be, however, are places of affirmation for those so inclined. We who are stimulated by this investigation may come to meetings for theatre for spiritual sustenance, exactly as we come to any other form of worship. The “clearness committee” idea I proposed to Abbey in September never materialized. But, as I noticed in my work in Jason, we may bring the energy and insight gained in meetings for theatre into our more conventional work, where we may have a soft and steady “ripple effect”, being undercover ministers as it were, shedding a new and gentle light on the harsh life of the professional theatre. We may feel less embarrassed to discuss the spiritual-creative link with those we work with, thus engendering conversations which may lead to others’ openings. Those of us who direct may be more inclined to value stillness and quiet in the rehearsal structures they create. Those of us who act, may be more trusting of the Divine nudge, and more willing to wait for the energy to flow through us, rather than trying to squeeze it out.

The challenges in academia are more thorny. Revival has caused me to reflect on the state of actor training in this country, where it has come from, and where it might be going. There was an explosion of theatre training institutions in the 1960s. This coincided with the emergence of “method” acting as pedagogical model which could be articulated and taught, a burgeoning fascination with the human psyche and increased government funding for the arts. It is my opinion that there was another element that contributed to this sudden surge of acting classes, and that was the great cultural release of that decade, when young people sought to escape the emotional repression characterized by middle class social norms of the previous decade. In other words, there was suddenly a great market for acting classes, as a wave of young people arrived at universities excited by the work of Freud and Jung and eager to explore themselves through creative means. At it’s core, this is what Method acting is: a creative means to explore oneself. Leaving aside for a moment the mangled history of that term, it nevertheless provided a way universities could cater to this new population of young people.

The problem is that, from a career point of view, it’s a giant pyramid scheme. There aren’t and never were enough jobs in the fields of acting and directing to employ this new population of young theatre artists, fresh from their training programs and wearing their shiny new degrees. And yet these proved to be very popular programs and lucrative for the universities, who had no incentive to downsize successful programs (successful because they were making money) simply because their graduates were entering a marketplace with regular 85% unemployment. To this day, most graduate acting programs, the ones we call “conservatories” offering M.F.A.s in acting, will have between six and ten applicants for each space they can offer. Clearly the lust for acting among our youth has not diminished, even though most young people have a fair idea what they’re up against professionally. As I describe in The Actor’s Way, I believe that many of the young people compelled to make acting the center of their lives are potential “wounded actors”, using the art not as a means of ministry in the world, but rather in a self-perpetuating failed attempt to resolve issues from their childhoods. A cynic might submit that these training programs use these troubled young people by perpetuating a lie, the lie being that if you train with us you will have a successful professional acting career. The lie is needed to continue bringing in fresh students and tuition each year. The whole thing is a nation-wide “hollow form”, with institutions teaching skills that promise professional rewards, but do not, in fact, have a prayer of delivering them; institutions which exist mainly to feed the bottom line.

These training institutions perpetuate themselves in another way. They have provided an alternate career track for their own graduates in the field of teaching. But here too there are way more candidates than places – I speak from experience, friends. And once inside these institutions, there is tremendous pressure to conform to the points of view espoused by them, such as the “value” of what that institution is offering its students. In the pursuit of tenure, theatre educators in higher education are not rewarded for truth-telling, for creativity or innovation. They are rewarded for perpetuating the status quo. I am not aware of any theatre training program dealing honestly with it’s own acting and directing students about the realities of what they’re facing upon graduating. I worry that many of the people in these teaching positions perpetuate the lie I described above in order to ensure their own job security. My sense is that most of these places behave the way my conservatory, the Yale School of Drama, did. They virtually ignore the realities of life for the young actor and teach only the craft itself. There is certainly a kind of pedagogical purity in this, and in my case the training was excellent as far as it went. But it didn’t go far enough, and looking back, I think there was deceit in it. What else can you call it when the people in charge know the truth but don’t do anything about it? Many young actors are utterly unprepared for what they’re up against in the real world, and, like me, enter their careers with a vague yet fervent hope that the dream will somehow come true. An honest training program for actors would reserve at least one third of its class time for the teaching of skills designed to help the student survive when they’re not acting. Revival put me in the midst of many citizen-actors (and citizen-directors) who are living in their lives as they are, full of compromise and yet abundant in creativity. There must be a way we can teach this citizen-actor model.

Revival also perpetuates some other designs and archetypes that make the academy nervous, I think. The first is a celebration of the non-hierarchical creative structure. Revival is about as ensemble-based as you can get, with no leader, no director and no script. This certainly has its challenges, but many in the meetings expressed a delight in the collective energy explored, unguided by human hands. The academy perpetuates the conventional, hierarchical model, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the model at work in the professional rehearsal room. But there is a chicken and egg question here. If we weren’t so attached to hierarchical structure in our institutions teaching theatre, would they be so prevalent in the professional theatre?

Our meetings for theatre were populated mostly by artists who would self-identify as actors. The discussions we had about the nature of our exploration and the implications it had for the way we live our art were deep and as intellectually stimulating as any classroom dialog I’ve ever had. One of the debilitating aspects of the hierarchical model is that is that it perpetuates “stupid” actors. Since the hierarchical model is inevitably a power relationship, in which decision-making authority is invested in one person, there is a tendency to avoid collective discussions about the, well, the direction of the thing being made. As my experience with Shannon (and with many other wonderful directors) demonstrates, this is not always the case, and the best directors are the ones who most successfully perform the balancing act between authority and power-sharing. Still, it is undeniable that in the conventional theatre, the ultimate responsibility for the vision of the production lies with the director. The harm this does to actors is that it conditions some of us to make obedience more important than free thinking. Revival allowed the thinking actors among us a venue in which to not only envision a creative event, but to enact it spontaneously.

It is interesting to note that there is a tradition of the thinking actor in England that seems not to have taken hold in the States. British actors like Simon Callow, Anthony Sher and Vanessa Redgrave have each written important, thoughtful and entertaining books on their craft and their lives as actors. In America, obsessed as we are with exhibitionism and voyeurism, our actors tend towards tell-all autobiographies (my God – am I following in this tradition too?!?)

Lastly, the hierarchical model has a symbiotic relationship with judgment, which is a big reason it will not be de-emphasized in the academy any time soon. We are steeped in a culture which loves winners and loves reviling losers. This is partly because of the capitalist need to vanquish the competition, and partly because we are so in love with sports (and I speak as an avid sports fan). Sports has affected the way we evaluate art, and partially explains our enjoyment events like the Academy Awards, in which one person wins over four “losers”. Any artist worth their salt will tell you the whole idea of winners and losers in art is absurd. These award shows are nothing more than elaborate popularity contests, and we are fixated on them because of the small orgasm we experience after the phrase “and the winner is . . . “ than because we appreciate any value they claim to celebrate.

Revival essentially removed judgment form the equation. As my blog posting called “Doubt and the Full Professor” articulates, I have a bone to pick with judgment, and the whole concept of “good” and “bad” as it applies to theatre. Revival was empirical research: we reported on what we witnessed and felt. Judgment is theoretical: it holds an experience against an invented system of values in order to name that experience as “good” or “bad”. Judgment is deceitful in the area of art, because it masquerades as objective and thoughtful, when it is only ever subjective and opinionated. This is why I hate so much artistic criticism. Most of it is entirely invested in judgment, and never acknowledges its own subjectivity.

Quakerism has something useful too say about all this, based as it is not in Biblical interpretation but rather in personal experience. The ideas that guide us in the religious Society of Friends are called “testimonies”. That word testimony is important, because it implies an idea that is born out of personal experience. So we live by the lives that have come before us, and the Holy Witness of those lives has been informally collected into testimonies: about peace, equality, integrity, stewardship of the earth, community and – if my Yearly Meeting is moved as we in Revival have been – creativity, the newest testimony. So for a Quaker, what you experience is far more important than what someone else has written about it. The Quaker actor (the Quactor?) might de-emphasize script-analysis, and focus more on what is experienced up on one’s feet. This is what makes us such renegades, stubbornly insisting that what we feel in our hearts is good and true when the rest of the world seems to be headed in another direction. And this is what made Revival such a good fit for the thinking actor. It freed us to give testimony based on experience. We needed no permission other than that granted by the Spirit itself.