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- The Decline of the American Actor
- Soul of the American Actor | Loyd Williamson
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Introduction Twentieth Century Actor Training is a collection of introductory essays on what is arguably the most important development in modern Western theatre making. The centrality of actor training is evidenced by the fact that many of the innovators in this field have been responsible for both unique training techniques and for some of the landmark theatre productions of the twentieth century.
This book considers some, but inevitably not all, of the key practitioners. The early pioneers in the development of Western training methods are represented by the work of four Europeans: Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov and Jacques Copeau. Finally, innovative practices in the latter half of the century are explored through directors from both sides of the Atlantic: Joseph Chaikin, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba and Wlodzimierz Staniewski.
Origins Western culture has enjoyed a long history of actor apprenticeship, but not the systematic traditions of actor training that are integral to Eastern performance cultures such as the Noh theatre — which dates from fifteenth-century Japan — and Kathakali, the ancient dance-theatre form from southern India. This was partly through a growing awareness of the rigorous training in Eastern traditions but also through the widening influence at the turn of the century of objective scientific research. Western European practitioners began to search for absolute, objective languages of acting that could offer models, systems and tested techniques to further the craft.
Once this attempt at rationalising the acting process was under way, its increasing pedagogical aims led to the opening of a number of new studios, schools, academies, laboratories and theatres throughout Europe and the United States. These centres intended not only to investigate the nature of acting, but also to disseminate their research findings and ultimately prepare the actor for work. Each system or approach to actor training had quite different assumptions and ideas about the nature and purpose of theatre, and what the responsibility of the actor was within the process of making it.
This figure was engaged with all aspects of theatre production. No longer necessarily a performer, the director was to become the central figure of twentieth-century theatre making. But despite encouraging the development of actor training, the rise in status of the director has competed with the traditionally powerful role of the leading actor.
Whether this new, potentially dictatorial auteur has ultimately facilitated or disempowered the actor is a complex issue — but it is striking that all of the practitioners discussed here have valued the implicitly collaborative nature of the director—actor dynamic.
Increasingly, twentieth-century directors have sought to incorporate the actor in a new or revitalised role as a theatre maker. Innovation and reform Whilst the key factors of the early twentieth-century interest in actor training are partly a knowledge of Eastern traditions, partly the influence of objective scientific research and partly the rise of the theatre director, further momentum came from the widespread desire to develop new theatre forms.
These practitioners are concerned to work within theatre rather than to reject or abandon its notional limitations, which is arguably the project of more hybrid forms of performance. Early theoretical influences The theoretical roots of early-twentieth-century training can in part be traced to eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century France. The good actor, in his view, was capable of mechanically reproducing these emotions in performance. These were ideas which Stanislavsky also came to engage with during his own experience of acting and training at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The conclusions drawn from their practical explorations were redefined by others as their work progressed and this has given rise to some misinterpretation of their findings. This has inevitably given rise to multiple interpretations of his work, and has obscured his belief in the symbiosis of the mind and body. It was essential for Grotowski that the actor justified, through real or imaginary means, every specific detail of their personal training.
Carmen Duncan Scholarship
Cross fertilisation The nature of cross fertilisation amongst twentieth-century practitioners is complex. This book does not attempt to deal directly with these issues, but as each chapter is introduced chronologically, it is possible to recognise both the similar interests and the outright rejection of previous ideas which have helped to clarify new trajectories.
Both went on to develop their own, distinct working methods. Although he sought this through extensive training of the body, he retained two key ideas from Stanislavsky: justified actions and clear objectives for characters. John Rudlin maps out his immense legacy through those that trained with him, from Michel St Denis to Etienne Decroux and those who were influenced by him, such as Jacques Le Coq.
Some practitioners have, of course, re-interpreted elements of former approaches. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Method, both in terms of its connections to the Stanislavskian system and through its re-interpretation and refinement of it by three of its foremost exponents. No one could believe that I asked him in. But I trusted him, totally. Does the world really need another actor? What I did at first was take responsibility for everything: getting up and acting with them, improvising with them, shadowing them, devising exercises to get immediate results—so that I could think, oh good, they did it.
But what happens if you, the teacher, take responsibility—you deprive people of the opportunity to take responsibility themselves.
The Decline of the American Actor
We come from an educational system that is set up to please the authority figure, so I break it down directly: I confront that moment after a scene when all the actors look at you, the teacher. What made you understand that as a teacher? That was in me, not only to take responsibility for myself, but to value who I was. This was very hard-earned for me. I had to fight to find my way to my own true sense of self because there was pride pulling me to be Greek, pride pulling me to be American.
I spent a great deal of my childhood wrestling with that in my own way. For me, I found sports was the way to deal with it. It was no mystery: You got good by practicing.
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Interestingly enough, I was not as good at team sports as I was at individual ones. The European model has at its heart a uniformity of training for everyone. But that is not the case here. So, what you need to train an American actor to do is to have an approach and skills that make it possible to work in different kinds of arenas with independence.
Soul of the American Actor | Loyd Williamson
And emotionally—we, as actors, have to build tolerance for expressing our feelings. It takes time. Can you say more about that? Pain is gone. The only socially permitted emotion is joy.
How do we claim these other feelings as valid, appropriate, human —so that you can express them and have them available if you need them as an actor? There are three kinds of actors: the ones you teach skills to, the ones you teach craft to, and the ones you prepare for a life in the theatre. You organize your energies around each person differently. Usually you can see the people who, for whatever reasons, are comfortable being active. You can see the people who are comfortable with feelings.
You can see the people who are comfortable with their bodies. Action is a skill. Emotional life is a skill. Tactics are a skill. No—because people come to scenes with a ball of yarn for emotions and a ball of misconceptions for actions. Just as the students have to learn tolerance, you, the teacher, have to sit there and tolerate the process as they find their way.
You can call the shots for yourself. Sussman Award for excellence in teaching. Esper has been the head of his own studio in New York City since He is a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre , where he was trained as a teacher and actor by Sanford Meisner, with whom he worked closely for 15 years. He has directed more than plays, and has directed and acted both regionally and Off Broadway. Actors have such a strong desire to please whoever is watching them.
How do we address this in their training? But, there must be some kind of independence—a kind of working for themselves—right? That is a two-edged sword to actors because the very thing that makes them want to act—really have to act—is that they particularly want to please.