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How do you train an actor? The answer to that question has changed over the course of theatrical history, but at least within the last century or so, standards for actor training have largely come from the teachings of theorists such as Constantin Stanislavski. However, we often don’t think about how these acting methods arose from specific historical and cultural contexts, and how they might not always meet the needs of a more diverse population of performers in the twenty-first century.

Dr. Sharrell D. Luckett and Dr. Tia M. Shaffer have co-edited a new book, Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, that explores some of the ways in which we can expand upon the legacy of traditional actor training to offer a more diverse array of perspectives. Sharrell joins us to talk about the book, the African roots of performance, and the legacy of Freddie Hendricks and his Hendricks Method for training young actors.

large group of performers stand, looking offstage
The Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta performs Times. Photo by Andre Allen. 

Links:

  • Watch Sharrell give a lecture on Black Acting Methods™ in this video from Blackademics.
  • Follow Black Acting Methods on Facebook.
  • See footage from Sharrell’s HBCU book tour here.
  • Find out more about Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches.
  • Learn more about Sharrell and her work.

If you’re interested in learning more about the contributors to Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, here are some links to their work:

You can subscribe to this series via Apple iTunesGoogle Play Music, or RSS Feed or just click on the link below to listen:

Transcript:

Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and howlround.com.

Hi, and welcome to The Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Leger.

For most of us, our knowledge of modern acting techniques begins with a big name like Constantine Stanislavsky. The standards that he and his successors established have guided actor training for generations and most of us uncritically accept them, but as today's guest points out, there's a lot in traditional acting theory and practice that doesn't always fit well with the increasing value that we place on diversity in theatre and performance.

Dr. Sharrell Luckett is a scholar, actor, director, and the creator of the solo show Young, Gifted and Fat. She's an assistant professor of theatre and performance studies at Muhlenberg College and the lead editor of Black Acting Method: Critical Approaches.

Sharrell, thank you so much for joining us.

Sharrell Luckett: Thank you for having me.

Michael: Can you give us a sense of how, historically speaking, black actors and other actors of color have engaged with and maybe been ill served by traditional actor training and acting methods?

Sharrell: Yes, I can.

In reference to training, I would not go so far as to say that black actors and actors of color do not learn anything from other methods. That's just not true. What is missing is equal representation and equitability of progenitors of acting methodology and training programs.

What happens is, black actors don't see themselves in the people who are creating the work so they're always the receivers versus being able to see themselves as somebody who set down and codified or created a method. There's no cultural relationship and what you're losing is the same thing that you're losing in other education sectors, I guess. The same way how when you look at the Presidents of the United States, what it says to black people and what it says to women. Before Barack Obama, President Obama, there were just white men. It tells you that, "I can't do this".

The fact that black actors have, especially in The United States of America, from when West Africans were enslaved and brought to the Americas, they have always been performers and entertainers. They were made to perform on the slave ships. It was called “Dancing the Slaves.” We, out of minstrels then came musical theatre. How is it that a people, specifically black American, how is it that a people have always been involved in entertainment and none of them have methods and methodologies?

The truth is that we do have methods and methodologies. Just because of prejudice, racism, imperialism, white supremacy, they haven't been captured in different ways. Black folks were not allowed to read and write. We could go on and on and on.

In addition to that, if we know that theatre began in Africa and we know that you have religion and ritual, that's kind of where theatre sprang from and the Africans with the Greeks and the Greeks and the Romans hung out with the Africans, then though we look to Greek theatre, we need to go further back to Africa to find out the original roots of performance that we're all a part of. That's all races, cultures and heritages. If you can frame it that way, if we all came from Africa, then we all have this ownership of methodologies.

It's more so black folks and actors of color need to see themselves in the work that they're doing. Before Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, that just was not true on this level.

Michael: Now I'm curious about the book Black Acting Methods. One, I guess maybe for listeners who might be curious, just a matter of terminology. You're using “Black” here as opposed to “African American” and I'm also curious about who the book is for.

Sharrell: Yes, okay.

Terminology. In the Black slash African American community, black folks have claimed their identity in different ways in the USA lot of black people use “Black”and “African American” interchangeably. “African American,” my understanding of it, it used to mean that you were a black person who sprang from the plantation during the enslavement of black people, but now “African American”, it's diaspora. It could be somebody who was born in Jamaica and they immigrated to America. The terminology is expansive. In the book, we use “Black” and “African American” interchangeably and that's how we explain it. “Black” tends to talk about anybody who identifies as black no matter where they are in the world. Of course, “African American” usually situates you in the Americas, specifically I would say in a US framework, which the book is also written in a US framework in the context of what's happening in acting studios from black folks who do most of their work in The United States of America.

The book is for everybody who is interest. The book is for whomever is interested in acting methodologies and techniques and rituals that are rooted in a black American aesthetic. It's for all races, cultures and heritages. If you think about when you go into a training ground that does a Strogberg or the Stella Adler Studio or you do Chekhov or you do Mizener, anybody can go in and participate, if that makes sense. With Black Acting Methods, you don't have to be black to do it, you just have to be somebody who is interested in the methodology and the framework and the rooting of it. It's a tool that you put in your toolbox. You can, just like at a buffet, you can experience a lot of different things. The Black acting methods don't contend with other methods. They are definitely in conversation with other methods and the book positions to be in that conversation and to be central or co-central to the conversation since performance began in Africa. We are filling that void.

Just a quick example, in the Black Acting Methods Studio, the Black Acting Methods Studio is at Muhlenberg College, but the programming is also outside of Muhlenberg College. I go to other colleges and universities and community centers and I teach Black Acting Methods and I also do the studio at Muhlenberg College. The scope of the identities in the inaugural cohort, because this is new, they are black American whose ancestors descended from the plantations. They are Black American from Jamaica, from the Dominican Republic. They are Latina, Asian American, Indian American and also, I'm missing one, white identified Jewish, and just simply white. You have this amazing array of what we are always trying to do is be diverse and be diverse on purpose and bring everybody's culture into the room. That's what Black Acting Methods, the folks who are in the book, that's what they want you to do. They don't want you to erase your culture. They want you to bring your culture into the space. Black Acting Methods has created that space.

Michael: You made a few references to the African roots of performance. I really found that part of the introduction interesting. Could you talk a little bit more about those roots and how they relate to some of the alternative methods that you're talking about today?

Sharrell: Sure.

Primarily the ritualistic aspect, the rituals and festivals honoring various Gods, polytheistic. What you have in a lot of acting methodologies rooted in the Black American aesthetic is you have spirituality. There's some type of spirituality happening in the method. For instance, we're going to talk about The Hendricks Method, I think, but in The Hendricks Method, you always start in a prayer, in a circle and you end in a prayer in a circle. We do have diverse religions so you just figure it out though and you just honor the fact that we're going to come together and pray.

Some things that, the word “appropriation” is a sensitive topic, but some things that are actually African that are already in other methodologies like the community aspect. It takes a village to raise a child. Everybody works together. There is no “I”, there is no “One.” In America, of course, we're the “I, I” generation. We're so individual.

I heard somebody the other day talking about how when they work with American actors, it's super hard to get them to be an ensemble because we're such an individualistic society. They said that it's not like that overseas in some other areas. They understand the importance of ensemble work quicker.

Being community oriented and community based and sharing is also something that you will see in the methodology. There's a lot of ensemble work. Everybody can do everybody's part. It just depends. You don't own anything. One day you may do this part, the next day somebody else may do this part. They're sharing.

That speaks to also what we call, we call our chapters “Offerings” because we see them as gifts. That's very Afro-centric and coming of... Africa is a huge continent, but coming from an Africanist aesthetic, the fact that we consider it were giving somebody something, again, we're sharing. The community aspect and it also speaks to the circle. That's something that you will find in most formations and acting classrooms.

The circle is appropriated from African culture. It's okay, we can share, but that whole idea of getting in a circle comes from ritual performance, getting in an area. It was the Greeks who actually broke the circle. People talk about that in some of their books, but the Greeks broke the circle and then we get the proscenium. Then the arena style stage is weird to us, but if we really think about, a lot of times when we're first introduced to theatre as children, you have storytellers, griots, come into the classroom and they tell a story. The kids, a lot of times, are sitting a circle and they're participating.

The idea of a griot, and I believe it's djeli, but it's djeli, but the idea of the griot is from Africa and the idea of everybody getting in a circle, an ensemble in community work and having spirituality, that's something that you'll see in these methodologies when they're rooted in Afro-centricity or Black American culture.

Michael: Now, you're writing here as a scholar, but you've also got this lengthy record as a director and a performer. Would you be willing to share some personal experiences on either how traditional acting methods haven't always quite worked the way that they're intended or alternately, how non-traditional methods have led to success?

Sharrell: Sure, I think what I should point out is that I trained as an actress in The Hendricks Method. That's the method that I specialize in. My introduction, I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I was reared in Atlanta, Georgia. My introduction to acting as a training ground actually by Freddy Hendrix, who is an African American theatre director who is still working in the country.

I did not have anything to compare The Hendricks Method to until I started going into college. I was successful because I had trained in The Hendricks Method, but that's when I started being exposed to all of the other methodologies. Stanislavsky was second, if that makes sense. I was like, "Oh, Stanislavsky. Cool. Okay, who is this? What did he do?" I was privileged to have that kind of experience where I was like, "Okay, I got this."

I wouldn't necessarily say, and I appreciate you saying that, I love Stanislavsky, the method is cool. I actually like emotional recall, which he kind of railed against at the end of his career, but it works for me. I know it's dangerous, but it works for me. What I will say is that, The Hendricks Method, Freddy Hendricks trained a good deal of actors. He had a youth ensemble company called The Freddy Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta that was started in 1990. The company is still around, but Freddy Hendricks left to do other work in 2005. The company devised seven full length, when I full length I mean two hours and thirty minutes or more, full length musicals without a script. These musicals are not written down.

That's going to be a part of my work is to actually put the musicals on paper, but these musicals are not written down, but some of the people who trained with him, they went to Tri-cities High School. A lot of the students went to Tri-cities High School because Freddy Hendricks was a high school theatre director. He took some of those same children, if you can imagine, high school students, and he asked them to join his company. They would train in The Hendricks Method during the day and then they would go into The Youth Ensemble of Atlanta at night and train some more until 11 p.m. at night.

Some of those names, some of those folks who trained with Freddy Hendricks, I think the biggest names, one is Keenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live. Another is Candy Burris, who is actually part of the singing group Escape, but she became re-popular after Real Housewives of Atlanta. Escape is about to go back on tour. Another one is Justin Ellington who is a Broadway composer. He composed for other desert cities. Another person is Juanita Woodget, who goes by D. Wood. She was a part of Danity Kane. Another person is Jewel D. Lane, who was a dancer who danced with Ronald K. Brown. Now he's choreographing with Alvin Aly. Another one is Amare Cheatham who went to Julliard. He's about to be in Denzel Washington's new movie. He plays the, I believe, the convict, the inmate. Freddie Hendrick's students also went to Julliard, NYU, Cornell University.

What you have is, if you notice the names that I've mentioned, they're actors. Oh, goodness, I didn't mention, my bad, Sy Galja, a Tony nominated actor who originated the role of Phala on Broadway. Sy's co-star is [inaudible 00:14:14] who played Sandra Isador on Broadway in Phala. She just was nominated for a Tony award playing opposite Lupita Neongo in Eclipse. She also won a Drama Desk Award.

With that, if you notice the names that I called, they also do various things in the theatre. They became actors, musicians, dancers. That's something that's very Afro-centric and in an Africanist aesthetic as well, breaking down the divides between playwright, director, musician. You could just go in and it's like a Montessori style training. You just do what you want to do that day. If you want to sing and write a song, you can do that. If you want to try to dance, you can do that. If you want to try to learn to play the drums, you can do that. If you want to go and write a poem, you can do that. If you think you want to try to stage manage today, you can do that as well.

Students were just exposed to all of these things, but most of them, at the end of the day they performed in the show after they got that diverse exposure to all different areas in theatre. They usually performed in the show or they were playing in the band because they were doing musical theatre. That's a little about The Hendricks Method and Freddy Hendricks.

Michael: Yeah. I was really interested to read about the various components of The Hendricks Method. I wonder if you could maybe talk us through what some of those major components are.

Sharrell: Yeah.

In the book, in chapter one, we talk about The Hendricks Method. When I say “we,” I'm talking about my co-chapter author and someone who co-edited the book with me, Dr. Tia N. Shaeffer. We talked about three tenets of The Hendricks Method. The Hendricks Method is a methodology and it's an aesthetic.

If I can read you what that the definition is, because I don't want to mess it up. The Hendricks Method, developed while working with black youth is an amalgamation of empowered authorship. That means they write their own stuff. Musical bravado, there's always going to be music. We use the term “musical theatre” because that's the best way to describe it, but there needs to be some other terminology because it's not the musical theatre that we think about. It's just that when you think about black culture a lot, music is just going to be involved somehow. Spirituality, which we talked about earlier, ensemble building, activism, because of the lived experiences of black folks. Freddie Hendricks and The Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, they tackle topics like HIV and AIDS, teen pregnancy, youth violence. You're never going in just doing theatre for theatre's sake. You understand that there's something bigger and that theatre is used as a tool for social justice. Effusive reverence of black culture and devising often without a script.

The three tenets that we talk about in the book, they are spirituality, developing the hyper-ego, which is super interesting and devising actually, why devising is important. Briefly I can talk about...I'll first talk about why devising is important. Devising is important for black actors and actors of color because we often have scripts and historically we have scripts that were detrimentally stereotypical, negative, you're always playing the prostitute, the thug, the drug dealer, the mammy, all of these stereotypes that arose out of the enslavement of black people.

A lot of scripts are written by white folks and they have this white imagination. They've never interacted with black people and they have this white imagination of what they think black people are. I always, when I teach my class, I always say, "If we're so segregated in the US and if white people are able to be by their selves, how are they able to write these voices?" Not just black folks, but Asian folks, Indian folks, Native American. If we don't interact, how are they able to write these voices?

The answer usually comes up from TV, from...TV is so racist. We're getting better slowly, but it's so racist and it's built on stereotypes that you can still see today showing up in different types of ways.

I ask those simple questions like that. It's like, "Where are you getting your knowledge? Why don't you realize that humans are 360 degree characters?" Every culture has killers, every cultures have also, they have saints. You want a 360 gamut of culture, but because of that, it's important for black folks and folks of color to write their own material, because we can at least control our narrative. While there are many critiques about Shonda Rimes in Scandal, at least Shonda Rimes is controlling her narrative. She can write what she wants to write and we can critique what we want to critique about her and we can say, "Kerry Washington is a modern day Jezebel". That's valid, but it's coming out of a black woman's imagination and so therefore it makes it valid as well in a different way. We have to be able to control our narratives. The way you do that is to write your own material. That's why that's a crux of YEA and also a couple of other methodologies in the book. They write their own material. Black actors and actors of color need to have that space to write their own material. If you're serving them, you need to have that laboratory for them to do that.

The hyper-ego, I'll talk about that really short. The hyper-ego is just understanding that the lived experience is going to be super hard for lack of a better word, super hard, and you just have to...You don't have the privilege of getting stuff and being mediocre or having a bad day. You have to always be on. There's that phrase, that adage, that as a black person you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Unfortunately, that's often the case. You have to be excellent all the time. You therefore try to develop exercises to get this extreme focus and this extreme sense of self.

You'll have a lot of people who work in The Hendricks Aesthetic, in The Hendricks Method, they'll say, "I can change a tire. I can change a car engine and I've never done it before. I can swim. I can ice skate." It's just this extreme sense of, "I can. I can.", which you need because you don't need to X yourself out of any opportunity. You have to go in with this hyper-ego sense of self that, "I can do this." Those are some of the tenets of The Hendricks Method.

Michael: What does an example like that of Freddy Hendricks and his method tell us about how we can do a better job of teaching and developing actors in a more inclusive way?

Sharrell: Great, great question.

I'm going to actually talk about the appendix in Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches. We put an appendix in the book and the appendix is titled “Recommendations for Acting in Performance Programs that Seek to Provide Equitable Training.” I believe this is speaking to what you're asking. I won't talk about all of the recommendations, but we talk about...I'll just list a few. We talk about them with curriculum and performance opportunities.

One is that we just say that acting teachers should explore and participate in acting methods rooted within African lineage, for Africans are the first to engage in performance and we all sprang from them.

Another one, number four, reflect upon and address the alienation enacted with the term “classical acting.” Classical acting often includes histories and styles of white people during the Greek, Elizabethan, and Restoration eras, but where are the Black people and people of other ethnicities in all of these periods because we know that they were there. Imagine how alienating these courses are for non-white actors. It's not that you can't have the course, it's that in the Elizabethan period, you need to figure out where the black folks were and the people of color because they were there. In the Restoration Period, where were they and what were they doing on the stage. If we're going to talk about the period, talk about the period with inclusivity and finding out where were you in that lineage. Yes, because we were all over the world.

Then, number seven is one of my favorites. Reflect on how you are selecting racial and cultural diversity in your season. Are you only choosing non-white plays and playwrights that have been vetted by white theatre practitioners and foundations? We're saying go read some plays by people of color that may not be on Broadway or off Broadway. Go find those voices where you're able to say, "We're all trained in theatre history or we've all done theatre. There are plays that we like that other people don't like." Go and find those plays and don't just produce the plays that only organizations or non-profits or big theatre companies have said, "This is great." Do something else or do another playwright's more obscure plays, like Lydia Diamond has a lot of plays other than Stick Fly. What's her, Smart People. Find some of Lynn Notage's more obscure plays. Is there anything else that we haven't done yet that we can do?

Then for faculty and cultural awareness, one is to hire culturally black faculty. We said several, not just one. Hire black faculty to direct all types of plays in your season. Yes.

Then we talk about ending colorblind casting. I haven't talked about colorblind casting a lot, but there's a lot of talk about colorblind casting and how colorblind casting is super problematic. It's simply in the language because you're asking actors to be blind to their culture.

Justin Ameka, in the book, he has a chapter called “Seeing Shakespeare Through Brown Eyes” where he addresses it beautifully with classical work. He's a classical director. He does wonderful work. He talks about what we think is happening when you colorblind cast and what's actually probably happening.

Michael: We'll post links in our show notes that will let you learn more about the book Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, and explore some of Sharrell's work as well as the work of other contributors to the book.

Sharrell, thank you again for a great discussion.

Sharrell: Thank you so much, Michael. I was happy to be in conversation today.

Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit howlround.com and follow HowlRound and @theaterhistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net, where you can find links to all of our episodes and you can email your questions and comments about the show to theatrehistory@theatrehistorypodcast.net. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible.

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