More than skills and showreels

Jane Woollard

You get your first job after drama school and you’re told, ‘Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.’
Anonymous actor

The craft of the actor has been nurtured in Australia for the past 20 years by a number of tertiary institutions. The National Insitute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Theatre Nepean at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), the Arts Academy at the University of Ballarat, and the Drama Centre at Flinders University are among many institutions that offer tertiary training in the craft. Since these schools are relatively young in terms of the history of Australian tertiary education, their overarching vision and curricula have been formed by their staff. It is difficult to imagine the holistic and passionate approach to actor training that one finds in these drama courses occurring with the quite same intensity in other arts disciplines. Peter Kingston, Head of Acting at WAAPA, expresses it in this way: “We talk amongst ourselves every week, every day, about what we’re doing.” But how does this “productive and generous self-indulgence” prepare graduates for an acting career?

In actor training there is a strong sense of a genealogy of method, a philosophy of theatre that is passed on to students. And something else—passion. When asked about their own training, all of the practitioner/teachers I spoke to were glad of the opportunity to speak about what had ignited them, to recount the story of finding their own sense of self within the art form. It is interesting to note that all the teachers of acting I spoke to had trained at a tertiary level in drama school—some as performers, others as directors.

In the courses I surveyed for this article, all have a curriculum built around movement, voice, acting, improvisation, devised work, singing, film and television skills, production projects and the creation of a show reel for graduates, often with a performance day for agents. Despite the overall commitment to a ‘total approach’ to training, there are some philosophical variances within the schools. At the VCA, WAAPA and NIDA there is a cohesive approach to actor training, guided by the Head of Acting at each school. In my conversations with 7 teacher/practitioners, I was struck by the depth of their commitment to the notion of the individual’s journey through the training, in preparation for the twisting path of a career as an actor/theatre maker. This personal connection, which Lindy Davies, Head of Acting at VCA, describes as “detached intimacy”, is exemplified in the question she put to herself when she was formulating the Acting Course: “How do I create an atmosphere where people feel safe?”

Peter Kingston says that he and his colleagues strive to deal with students “in a mutually respectful way, expanding their potential and our resources inside a laboratory, a rehearsal room.” Professor Julie Holledge, Director of the Drama Centre, Flinders University in Adelaide, also describes a holistic approach to the training of actors: “It is essential that an actor’s training balances the intellectual and the expressive, the intuitive and the analytical.” Kim Durban, Course Co-ordinator at the Performing Arts Course at Ballarat University, says: “The tool of the actor is the self, and the training is to sharpen and change and challenge those qualities of self as they are applied to the materials of theatre—time, space, body, silence, word, image.”

Lindy Davies has formulated a very specific method arising from her experience working at the Pram Factory in the late 60s, and training with Linklater, Brook and Grotowski in the 1970s. While working in Peter Brook’s company, she resolved for herself an apparent conflict between the contact-release work of Linklater and the discipline of Grotowski. “The form was the key to it all—it was the crucible that allowed the other elements to happen within it.” These experiences have been the foundation of her method in the last 7 years as Dean and Head of Acting at VCA. “We have a very radical approach to acting at our school. We don’t decide how we are going to say it or do it. The interpretation comes from the actor’s perspective—it happens kinaesthetically. We work to find the bridge between trance and language.”

Peter Kingston is in his 5th year as Head of Acting at WAAPA. Having trained at NIDA as an actor, he is inspired and challenged by the task of training actors. He muses that he and his colleagues in other acting courses are essentially doing the same thing, instilling in students “the importance of collaboration and that a truthful experience shared by the people making the work is the fundamental work.” Peter is eloquent about the state of ‘not-knowing’ at which point he encourages his students to begin. “What I bring to it is all that I don’t know. The group creates a fury of private investigation which spurs the work forward.”

Tony Knight, Head of Acting at NIDA was “thrown out” of NIDA as a student in the 70s and then went on to train at the Drama Centre in London. He says that the course at NIDA is “an intensely practical course—any theory happens on the floor.” As an acting teacher he draws heavily on the later Stanislavskian physical action method, where the action is played first, with the emotional/psychological territory taking care of itself. He believes that “acting always has to have an emotional and psychological approach”, but does not have time for any emotive indulgence from his students when they approach a character.

At Flinders, Ballarat and Theatre Nepean, the courses tend to be centred round a wide spectrum of skills, and the desire to expose students to all aspects of theatre. There is also an emphasis on theory and history to counterbalance the practical training. There is a heavy emphasis on ensemble work, so that students have the opportunity to write, direct, design, source props and costumes, raise funds, promote the work, in addition to performing. Julie Holledge was trained at the Bristol University Drama Department. “I was taught that actors require both a rigorous intellectual training and a highly disciplined physical training if they are to be expressive performing artists.”

After graduating from Bristol, Holledge worked as an actor and director in the alternative and experimental theatre in Britain for 10 years before moving to Australia. Unusually, the course at Flinders is a 4-year program resulting in an Honours degree. Holledge explains, “At Flinders there is no artificial separation between the body and mind, emotion and intellect. Our degree programs prepare our graduates to be creative, articulate and adaptable artists in whatever area they work.”

The question of how to prepare students for careers as actors is a common theme for teacher/practitioners, with acting courses often forced into review by university curriculum boards. Kim Durban says, “I am currently in a time of Course Review, so I often ask myself ‘what must a training artist know?’ I know many older actors are concerned that traditional theatre knowledge is disappearing. I sometimes wonder whether the old repertory system did a better job. However, where a university course can have value is in its connection to theory and research.”

Terence Crawford, Head of Acting at Theatre Nepean at UWS, trained as an actor at NIDA, and rejects the notion of a hegemonic method. “A method can be a bit of a lifeboat for actors to cling to, rather than just being happily ‘at sea’ on stage.” He teaches his students to think critically “before and after the act, but in the act, to lose their heads.” He believes there is terrible confusion about acting methods, with actors often not understanding that a method is for rehearsal, “not for going on stage. I teach methods toward acting, methods of rehearsing. I am very wary of anyone who says that this is a method and it will apply to all circumstances. As far as I’m concerned, such people have closed the book on creativity—have lost the humility which is the key to acting.”

After graduating, Crawford worked closely for 3 years with John Gaden at the State Theatre Company of SA in the 1980s. “John exemplified for me something I have continued to explore as a teacher: the connection between basic decency and acting.” This interest in the ‘ethical health’ of the actor has stayed with Crawford as he works with his students. “Good actor training is training for life—a kind of productive and generous self-indulgence. You’re there to look at yourself and learn about yourself in order to give, in order to be generous to others, to an audience.”

What does the world require of actors now, and how are they prepared for it by the academy? Tony Knight says “Most students who graduate from film and drama courses are going straight into film and television because that is the dominant market in Australia. The industry changes so quickly. What we have to do is get them ready for how the industry is now and for what they want to do in the future. We have to help them strike the balance between being an artist and becoming a commodity.” Kim Durban believes that the focus of today’s acting students is very different to those she trained with at the VCA in the early 1980s. “When I went to drama school we ridiculed the mainstream, looked down on TV and burned to be significant/alternative/ authentic. But now I have noticed a trend of leaning towards ‘the centre’—that many young and talented arts workers yearn to be discovered by the larger companies, to cross over. They are not committed to Howard Brenton’s “petrol bomb through the proscenium arch.” A visit to the theatre is often beyond their budget, on top of petrol for a 90-minute drive from Ballarat to Melbourne, in between working to make a living. They are far more likely to be writing a film-script and producing it on the weekends.”

Lindy Davies and Julie Holledge also speak about the need to balance the artist’s identity with the need to earn a living. “Actors today need to be trained in the skills necessary to earn a living,” says Holledge, “and for the most part these are connected to television and film. On the other hand, they need to be trained as performing artists who can push the boundaries of live theatre and attract new audiences even if this work, while sustaining them creatively, will never sustain them economically.”

Tony Knight has a big and hopeful vision for his graduates: “I want them to finish their training with the eye of a poet. I want them to show us new things. The baby boomers are going and something new will be in its place and I just hope they’re ready for it.”

Despite the focus now in acting courses on ‘survival skills’ to assist the graduate as they strive to enter the industry, all the teachers I spoke to agree that something more than skills and showreels are called for. The ingredient an actor needs to survive an unpredictable career is the ignition point, the passion that their own teachers began with. Yana Taylor, Head of Movement at UWS, wishes to inspire in students what Brett Whitely called “a true love for the difficult pleasures of the artistic life.” She believes that these ‘difficult pleasures’ “give you a view that enables you to move from job to job.” It seems that what everyone is assisting young actors to find is the indefinable thing that Terence Crawford calls “faith in the self”, and Peter Kingston “the spark of genius”, and Lindy Davies “something bigger than themselves” and Tony Knight “the eye of a poet.” In the end, perhaps it is the personal vision discovered, questioned and honed as a student that gets people through an acting career, and helps them to remember their lines, without bumping into the furniture.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 43

© Jane Woollard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002