In 1989, Dramatics asked six artistic directors from among the top American regional theatres to weigh in on their perceptions of actor training. Here’s what they had to say.

THE PEOPLE WHO PROVIDE most of the paying stage work to actors in this country live and work not in New York but in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, Louisville, and Baltimore, running resident professional companies. It occurred to us that these individuals are likely to have an interesting and instructive perspective on the question of how one should train to be an actor.

We put the question to six regional theatre artistic directors: Josephine Abady at the Cleveland Play House, Anne Bogart at Trinity Rep, Zelda Fichandler at Arena Stage, Jon Jory at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage, and Dan Sullivan at Seattle Rep.

The artistic directors were asked these open-ended questions: How should actors be trained? Is there an ideal training regimen? Have you observed any deficiencies in the preparation of the young actors who work at your theatre?

They identified a number of concerns about the quality of training young actors are receiving. Graduates are often poorly prepared to perform in classic plays, Sullivan said. They’re not learning much about textual analysis, said Jory. They’re not acquiring an understanding of the cultural context of theatre and the artist’s role in society, several directors said. It’s usually perilous to generalize, but it is worth noting that, without any particular prodding or encouragement, four of the six artistic directors chose to talk about the importance of acquiring a broad liberal arts education in addition to professional actor training.

Josephine R. Abady

Josephine R. Abady

Josephine R. Abady
Artistic Director 
The Cleveland Play House

To be an actor, you have to be very well trained. You have to have strong vocal training. You have to know how to approach new plays and the classics. You have to know how to do your homework, so that you can study a script and bring your ideas into rehearsal. You have to be able to audition and present yourself and show what you’re best at.

But I also feel very strongly that you need to understand the context in which plays are written, and therefore I think the best thing in the world for somebody who wants to be an actor is to go to college and get an education first, then study acting. I don’t think that liberal arts programs, for the most part, should be used for people to get theatre degrees.

Studying theatre in a liberal arts institution is a wonderful window to the humanities. It is a fabulous way to learn about the culture, myths, and morals that shape every period in history, by studying it through the theatrical perspective. And being in plays is great, because it helps you find out things about yourself and lets you experience the feeling of being on a stage. But I don’t think liberal arts institutions train people to be actors, for the most part. I think exceptionally talented people sometimes come out of liberal arts programs and rise to the top.

But my real feeling is that first you train your mind and soul by getting a liberal arts education, then you study to be an actor. You know, the mind is like a room, and if it doesn’t have any furniture in it, it’s just a big empty space. It seems to me that going to college and getting a strong liberal arts education is like decorating with beautiful furniture. My biggest complaint about most young actors I meet is that they have no sense of context, whether it’s a new play being written, whether it’s a play with a recent historical perspective, or whether it’s Shakespeare or the Restoration.

So, I think a good liberal arts education should come first. And I believe once you do that, then you need to go to some training institution to learn the skills. Training to be an actor is like training to be a dancer: You need to do it a lot, and all the time.

We’re doing a new trilogy of Reynolds Price plays right now. We have three actors in them who are having their first jobs; two of them are out of Juilliard and one is out of Yale. Last year, we had a company of young actors, specifically designed to give young actors, actors between the ages of 25 and 30, a year’s worth of employment. Most of them came out of MFA programs, including Juilliard, Yale, University of Washington at Seattle, North Carolina School of the Arts. I’m not singling out those programs to say that other programs are not good. But I have found that most of the people who turned out to be our best candidates have been first to college and then to an MFA program.

Anne Bogart

Anne Bogart

Anne Bogart 
Artistic Director 
Trinity Repertory Company

The first thing I look for in company members, because Trinity is a company of actors, is values: that the actors have thought about why they’re doing what they do, and what kind of history it comes out of, and that they have thought through their priorities in life. The second thing is really strong physical and vocal training, rigorous physical and vocal training, and a knowledge of dance. Third, and this is again related to the first one, but it has to do with a kind of openness to trying new things, to investigating, so that they don’t just come in ready to fill a role; they’re ready to jump. I believe that’s a quality that is taught. Fourth, I find that if an actor has studied in great depth a very rigorous approach to scene work, be it the Americanization of Stanislavsky or whatever, they do better in the theatre that I do. If an actor comes only having had experimental training or isn’t coming from a very specific scene study approach, they don’t usually do very well, and they don’t go very deep.

The deficiency in actor training that I’m most preoccupied with now, and that I want to do something about, is the first item I mentioned, about values. I find that the actors we’re turning out are more concerned with career advancement and fitting in than with contributing to the field of theatre. I don’t think it’s their fault; I think it’s the values in our society. Once you start talking to students about it, they say, “Oh yeah, my life is more interesting than just a career ladder.” I think that lack, that deficiency, informs the ways actors make choices in every moment, not only in their lives and in their careers but also in scene work.

I think the remedy to this problem can happen on any campus, and it has to do with the values of those who are teaching. That’s where it starts. A few key words have to be said by the right people to open up the possibilities of there being more to life and more to the career of acting. It has to do with what our role is, what theatre’s role is, and what we’re doing.

That role is to respond to the world around you, and to wake up questions that are stored in plays. I think that every play is like a pocket of memory, like a spore. Every play, and especially if it’s a good play and particularly if it’s a great play, exists because it’s asking very important human questions. I think that theatre’s role is to remember and to create a historical continuity. Our role is to hold hands with generations before us and centuries before us and to pass on these extremely vital questions that each great play asks. Our job is to dream about them, to create a staging in which the dreaming can occur, for that dreaming to be contagious to the audience, and for the audience to think a little bit and feel something.

You know what’s odd is that every other country in the world knows the role of theatre. European audiences have had instilled in them why they go to the theatre. They go to step outside their normal, everyday living and see themselves reflected onstage, and to remember, and feel, and participate. I think one of the big problems in theatre is that because we’ve forgotten the role we play, theatre is becoming as consumer oriented as film and television.

Jon Jory

Jon Jory

Jon Jory 
Producing Director 
Actors Theatre of Louisville

I’d like to focus my reply on one area. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest gap in the training of the young actors I see who subsequently work in our company is textual analysis. By this I mean, there is the psychological and internal side of the role, and there is the side of the role which is functional in terms of the text. Why am I in this play? Why am I in this scene? Not psychologically, but in terms of what is the purpose of the role from the playwright’s point of view.

In a play like A Man for All Seasons, for instance, every other part in it is there to reveal some facet of Sir Thomas More’s character, and if you approach those roles purely psychologically, you usually fail, because those roles are chiefly functional, not psychological. I would say that to most of the young actors in our apprentice program and to many in our professional company, this simple idea is entirely new. Consequently, oddly enough, most of these young actors know how to approach a larger role, which is a role that is being revealed psychologically, but they don’t know how to approach smaller roles, which are roles that have a very specific function in the text.

I think this comes directly from the fact that for many, many years, our actor training has been Stanislavsky-based, which is important, but unfortunately that has led us to believe that we should develop the actor’s flexibility through improvisation, we should develop their emotional skills through theories of action and emotional memory. But I was fascinated, in the discussions of Stanislavsky [during this year’s Classics in Context Festival, which focused on the Moscow Art Theatre and had just concluded at the time of our conversation], the one thing that was never mentioned was the text. It’s almost as if acting goes on without a text.

This makes it particularly difficult to deal with new plays, because there is then no tradition for the role, and if the actors and director have no idea how to analyze a text for function, very often the plays fail not because they were badly written but because they were never analyzed by the creative unit.

Zelda Fichandler

Zelda Fichandler

Zelda Fichandler 
Producing Director 
Arena Stage

I’m against professional training in the early college years. I’m in favor of liberal arts training for actors who plan to make this a lifetime career, because I think they need to know everything that a humanist education can provide, in terms of the history of ideas, anything that has to do with anthropology, the study of peoples, the study of religions, cultures, artifacts, art, that gives them a context within which theatre takes place. If in their college years they can do some theatrical work that doesn’t take them away from their liberal arts training, that’s fine. But I think that totally professional training ought to come in a post-graduate setting, where a student can concentrate for three years or so on voice, speech, text analysis, acting in productions, movement work, and so forth.

I really feel a company actor, a repertory actor, has to be very well grounded in adjacent fields of learning, so that they have something to contribute. I also think that acting students should have a viewpoint about their own civilization. They should have something they mean to show to an audience by virtue of their acting, so that they understand they have a function in the community just like a doctor or a lawyer, a teacher, minister, librarian, fireman, or whatever. ln order to do that, you have to understand what the craft, the art does, and what your role is in embodying a character, what your contribution is in being part of a collective and revealing the world of the play. So, I think that high school students shouldn’t think of it in the short term but what they mean to do with their whole lives.

Mark Lamos

Mark Lamos

Mark Lamos 
Artistic Director 
Hartford Stage Company 

I feel ambivalent about training and always have. My own training — though I took some theatre courses while I was in college, I feel that my real training began when I joined the Guthrie in the early ’70s, and was inside productions with wonderful actors, mature actors who had been around for years, and wonderful directors. The process of working on plays for eight hours a day and then performing them at night, day in, day out, for 52 weeks a year basically for four years, I felt was my real training. Voice classes during the day, exercise and movement classes along with rehearsals and performance, and by the time I finished two years there — I was ultimately there about four seasons — I felt that I was turning myself into an actor, the kind of actor that I wanted to be.

Now, I’m not sure that’s necessary for every actor. I think one of the difficult things about acting is that it’s difficult to pin down a trainable assumption or idea. You know, with a musician, there are things musicians do right and do wrong, and you can get quite far as a teacher with a musician just teaching them the notes, as it were, teaching them expression, teaching them a bit about the history of the kind of music they’re performing. You can be a professional musician in this country and the world without going a great deal further than that: having four or eight or 12 years of training, then you join an orchestra or what have you. The same I think is true of dancers. I mean, you can either do an arabesque well or you can’t do it well. And your legs are too long or too short, your spine is too this or too that, and slowly there’s a matriculation of some kind towards perfection.

With acting, you are forever dealing with such a private mechanism. First of all, you’re dealing with someone who has nothing but himself or herself to offer. And somebody can have short and stubby legs — somebody can have a bad voice, what a voice coach might think is a lousy voice — and become a major actor in this country. And a good actor. On top of that, while you may like Horowitz more than I like Rubenstein, say, we can debate those two pianists but, ultimately, we both agree that they’re both great pianists. With actors that’s not the case. You could loathe George C. Scott while knowing full well that he’s a superb actor, or not think he’s a superb actor at all while I may think he’s brilliant. And we might both be, in our funny ways, right, because acting is so particularly personal. It causes a personal response by the auditor; it’s the most personal of the performing arts.

To my surprise, I’ve seen untrained actors come to give really superb performances in classic plays, very often, and in other plays. And I’ve often wondered why that is, when the actor right next to him onstage has had four years of training at Juilliard or Yale and is really not producing those indescribable responses in you as you watch them.

So, that’s my problem with training in this particular field, and I go back to saying that I think the best training in the theatre is when you are lucky enough to have a job and be on your feet and working, even at quite a young age. I don’t think necessarily that it’s wise that people come out of the training schools so close to 30, because no matter how vibrant the training might be, how inspiring the teachers might be, and what successes the student might have in a training program, it’s still a kind of hothouse situation, I think, compared to real theatre, film, or television. And to delay your entry into the professional world I think is maybe not always such a good idea. I feel that training should happen concomitantly with performance, real honest-to-God performance with mature actors, actors much better than you are, and a variety of directorial approaches, and in different venues. Of course, that experience is not available to most people. It’s a problem.

Dan Sullivan

Daniel Sullivan

Daniel Sullivan
Artistic Director
Seattle Repertory Theatre

It’s a huge question. I certainly don’t profess to have a method that I feel actors should be learning in school. I know there has been a tendency over the last few years to train actors away from the regional theatre. It’s not purposeful on the part of the training programs; it seems to come from the students’ demand they be taught what they can use. Therefore, you get classes in acting for television, soap opera, that sort of thing. The programs it seems to me have capitulated in some degree to the idea that television and movies are really where the actor is going to end up or wants to end up, because that’s where the money is, and theatre in a way is getting kind of lip service from the programs. We find more and more in the back of the young actor’s mind is the idea that the regional theatres are a kind of credit that one has to get on the way to success, rather than a place where one might spend one’s life.

In a way, we have to hold ourselves responsible in that the regional theatres for many years kept salaries so low that it has been very difficult for an actor in the regional theatre to put a life together. Young kids aren’t dumb. They see this and wonder why anyone would pursue this as a life.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that liberal arts training has simply not been the fashion for the last decade, and that has been responsible for a very selfish and cynical attitude on the part of young actors, who really are looking not at a play, but at the role that would be good for me. Even as they read plays, they really are looking for roles, rather than looking to be moved by the material. I want to ask, “Why do you want to do this? Is it because you want to find a good role, or is it because there’s something about a play that makes you want to do it, to be in it?” That kind of fundamental question, it seems to me, is not being answered, and it may be true that training programs, particularly graduate training programs, shouldn’t be answering them. But I don’t think most people coming into graduate training programs have figured that out yet, and I think a lot of times professional training schools assume that the question has been answered, and it hasn’t.

I think also because there’s so much concern with film and television that the training emphasis has been on the contemporary and not on the classics. I don’t think the classics are taught particularly well. I’m always shocked that actors can come out of a training program really not understanding iambic pentameter, not really understanding how to read Shakespeare. And I find very often when it is taught, it’s taught very technically, so you get very rigid and uncentered readings of the classics.

I don’t think I would know what to recommend to an 18-year-old who knew what he wanted to do. That concept is so strange to me. Certainly, getting a wide-ranging education would be the first thing I would recommend, because that’s extraordinarily useful to anybody in the theatre anyway. But to me, someone wanting principally to be an actor at the age of 18 is a very exotic wish. It seems so self-directed, in a way, that what I would want to do is turn that person around and tell him to look at the world, and not at himself.

This story appeared in the December 1989 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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