I’d like to talk a little about those motherly and fatherly figures in the early career of an actor: our drama school tutors. Wonderfully eccentric as a rule, but also full of knowledge, and certainly in my experience the most diligent and dedicated members of the teaching profession you are likely to come by.
I’ve just read David Mamet’s True and False, and found it a very interesting critique on both the theoretical and business side of acting. However, I found it especially interesting to read because I actively disagreed with most of it.
It’s worth saying that I never really managed to get through an acting theory book during my training. My memory of those first few terms of drama school is feeling a little like a sodden sponge, doing my utmost to absorb everything I was taught and struggling to keep all of the information in. It is only now, when I have had time to compartmentalise the deluge of information that we were continually receiving, that I can read books on acting and consider them against my now more established ideas.
Mamet gets a lot of things spot on: his book is accessible and clearly written with the actor in mind. It cuts through a lot of the pretension surrounding the acting method and encourages the actor to concentrate energies outwards rather than introspectively. One aspect of the book that he pursues religiously is his somewhat anarchic notion that we all need to rebel against our teachers and our training.
He does concede that fitness and physical flexibility, as well as vocal dexterity, are requisite for the actor, but one can’t help feeling he has something of an axe to grind against his former tutors. Rather like Frued’s assumption that we must all feel the same way about our mums, he universally discredits the teaching system at every opportunity.
One of his biggest problems is what he calls the “hero worship” of our tutors, portraying them as “false idols”. Our teachers, he says, are all failed actors themselves and cannot be trusted or listened to, indeed the whole institution of “formal education for the player is not only useless, but harmful”. Now, I am not suggesting that everything our teachers say must be taken as gospel – you are not ever going to agree with everyone all the time in any business – but it is always worth exploring as many avenues as possible. Surely it is nothing less than sheer ignorance to completely disregard a system of actor training that goes back hundreds of years?
At my school there was a lot of emphasis on building up an ‘Actor’s Toolkit’, a collection all of those little tips and ideas you discover in training, to be selected from when appropriate. Earlier this year, for example, I worked on a Russian tragedy, and found myself using a lot of the physical exercises and animal training I had picked up in my first year of school. I was dismissive of this work at the time, but have since, with a maturer outlook, found it to be very successful. I have just started a Rock ‘n’ Roll musical, and I’m sure I won’t find myself using a huge number of these techniques for this production, but I can guarantee a lot of fundamental things about my performance will be dictated by discoveries I made at drama school, and then later on in professional work.
Mamet suggests that “the classroom will teach you how to obey, and obedience in the theatre will get you nowhere”, but if you don’t know the rules, how are you going to learn how and when to break them? It doesn’t seem sensible to me to ever close yourself off from any source of inspiration as an actor, it’s worth listening to anyone and everyone you can. Even David Mamet.
Tristan is a an actor and musician and will be writing twice a month about his experiences within the industry as a performer. He is shortly to be heading on tour with a musical, and will be reguarly updating the Exit Stage Left blog during this time.