Whiteness, Patriarchy, and Resistance in Actor Training Texts
Reframing Acting Students as Embodied Critical Thinkers
At the “Share Your Spark” event at this year’s Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky—which was devoted to short presentations about visions for theatre in the United States—artist, teacher, and facilitator Nicole Brewer explained the need for anti-racist theatre. As she wrote in her American Theatre essay “Training With a Difference,”
Asking students to constantly disregard race, cultural context, perspective, and history in their training implies that white cultural identifiers are the default, and non-white identifiers have no inherent value and therefore should be suppressed. Examples of such oppressive erasure can be found in the lack of diversity in the most commonly taught acting methods—Hagen, Meisner, Adler, Strasberg, Chekhov, Stanislavski, and Meyerhold—where European and Euro-American theatre history are the default.
The overwhelmingly white, mostly cis-male authorship Brewer notes is troubling, in part, because these writers of acting texts often use colonialist, binary, and patriarchal language and narratives. As a white professor at a predominantly white institution, I am aware of how presenting these texts uncritically reinforces systemic racism and patriarchy. I need to grapple with my own biases and do more work to decolonize my syllabi.
“I Am so Tired of Misogyny”
In my Introduction to Acting class, I struggle to clarify the concept of “actable verbs,” commonly considered a fundamental idea for actors. One semester, as I was planning my course, I remembered that in a graduate directing class I had taken, I had been given a clear and useful verb list from A Sense of Direction by William Ball, founder of the American Conservatory Theatre. I copied the selection for my students, not having read it closely for some time. While the book is respected, I remembered that Ball’s use of “he” as the universal pronoun for directors bothered me.
My students and I discussed that the text reflected the year in which it was first published—1984—but that it might help them to understand how to sharpen their choices of character action. Then, we read through the verbs, printed in two columns side by side in the book:
CHARM her COMPLIMENT him
FASCINATE her FLATTER him
DAZZLE her PRAISE him
WIN her REINFORCE him
MANIPULATE her ENCOURAGE him
SEDUCE her STRENGTHEN him
SURROUND her FORTIFY him
OVERWHELM her INVIGORATE him
DOMINATE her ELEVATE him
VICTIMIZE her EXALT him
CONQUER her IMMORTALIZE him
TYRANNIZE her IMMORTALIZE him
POSSESS her MONARCHIZE him
OCCUPY her DEIFY him
The binary pairings unnerved me. When I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that these verbs might have been the most useful ones for plays the students in Ball’s classes were directing; it’s hard to tell where the root of the problem lies. Regardless of origin or intent, the effect was clear. About a quarter of the way through the list, my students and I were all horrified. One student—a Black woman—responded, “I am so tired of misogyny.”
Not only do students recognize misogynist and colonialist language in acting textbooks—as well as an insistence on the gender binary that sometimes makes them wonder if there is room for them in theatre—they glean ideas about how theatre artists understand their own work and how students are expected to learn. Students’ role in the drama of the classroom is key to shaping and defining their position in American culture and the kind of work they produce within it. Have American actors ever been represented in textbooks as intellectuals, dissenters, or agents of change?
Not only do students recognize misogynist and colonialist language in acting textbooks (…) they glean ideas about how theatre artists understand their own work and how students are expected to learn.
Racism and Colonialist Metaphors in the Actor Training Canon
Many influential texts about the craft of acting represent fictionalized dialogues between teachers and students. Stanislavski’s books are structured as a series of diary entries composed by a student, Nazvanov, who has begun study with master teacher Torstov. Throughout Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood’s translation of An Actor Prepares, Nazvanov is represented as awkward body and unfocused emotion until the intellectual Torstov guides him into stronger performances, which reflects a colonialist separation of body and mind. Torstov describes the actor as the “soil” into which a writer or director can plant seeds, or a “blank canvas” onto which a picture might be painted. At the end of Jean Benedetti’s translation of the same book, An Actor’s Work, Torstov’s description of the creative process represents the writer as a patriarch who impregnates the actor: “In the creative process, there is the father, the author of the play; the mother, the actor pregnant with the part; and the child, the role to be born.”
When transferred from the context of twentieth-century Russia to twenty-first-century United States, the significance of whiteness as a dominant force in Stanislavsky’s books and others like them is thrown into relief. An Actor Prepares begins with Nazvanov’s use of racist imagery in a pre-training diagnostic test. His representation of Othello includes more than one application of blackface makeup—of which there are extensive descriptions—stereotypical eye-rolling, and racist preconceptions of the character’s physicality: “…my general aspect was modern and civilized, whereas Othello was African in origin and must have something suggestive of primitive life, perhaps a tiger, in him.” Once he is onstage, the actor recognizes how “bad” this movement is, but his shame is connected simply to his lack of skill as an actor, not to his racist assumptions.
Torstov goes on to critique the young actor’s performance, saying, “Can you really believe that the Moors, who in their day were renowned for culture, were like wild animals, pacing up and down in a cage?” He continues,
You could say to any one of us, ‘Play for me immediately, without any preparation, a savage in general.’ I am willing to wager that the majority would do what you just did; because tearing around, roaring, showing your teeth, rolling the whites of your eyes, has from time immemorial been intertwined in your imagination with a false idea of a savage. All these methods of portraying feelings in general exist in every one of us. And they are used without any relation to the why, wherefore, or circumstances in which a person has experienced them.
While Torstov encourages critical capacity in the young actor and recognizes the racist culture in which his perceptions have been shaped, the critique centers on the lack of specificity in the actor’s work and his minimal engagement with Shakespeare’s writing rather than a complex analysis of racism and representation in theatre. In twenty-first-century United States, how might teachers who have assigned this text encourage students to voice concerns that none of the actors in Torstov’s class are African-descended, or that a white student chose to perform—in blackface, as was common historical practice—the role of a Moor? How can we address and make room for the pain and anger this history raises for students of color in the classroom?
Stanislavski’s own student, Richard Boleslavsky, also represented a submissive actor and wise patriarch of a teacher in his writing. His collection of lectures, Acting: The First Six Lessons, is written as a dialogue between teacher (“I”) and acting student (a young woman he calls “the Creature”). The teacher takes the subject position and objectifies his student as physical, animal, and under the control of someone other than herself, with “wide open, frightened eyes.” She is often ashamed, occasionally taking a masochistic tone. After performing Ophelia, she “lifts herself on her toes and whispers into my ear, her eyes round with horror – I’m very, Oh, very bad.” She implores the teacher to tell her what is “wrong” about her performance, and he explains that her emotions are too “naked” and he would not want to be accused of “immorality.” She replies, “Please dress me. I’m naked—ears, nose, eyes, emotions and all.”
The naturalization of binaries and hierarchies is one of the ways whiteness and masculinity maintain institutional dominance.
While Boleslavsky was reportedly committed to ensemble performance, his writing draws on deeply entrenched metaphors that naturalize a hierarchy with the white cis-male director/writer as mind and the actor as feminized and Othered body. In Acting, he uses the metaphor of a tree to represent the division of labor in theatre:
To comply with nature’s law of action, the three-fold law you can see expressed in that tree. First, the main trunk, the idea, the reason. On the stage it comes from the director. Second, the branches, elements of the idea, particles of reason. That comes from the actor. Third, the foliage, the result of the previous two, the brilliant presentation of idea, the bright conclusion of reasoning.
When the Creature asks what part the author is, “I” replies: “He is the sap that flows and feeds the whole” (emphasis mine). While every part of the tree relies on the others, each must stay in its specific place. It’s the law of nature.
Framing Acting Students as “Young Brave Hearts”
The naturalization of binaries and hierarchies is one of the ways whiteness and masculinity maintain institutional dominance, relying on two things that are evident in these texts: 1) creating a narrative where resistance is obscured or depicted as unnecessary, foolish, or wrong; and 2) reinforcing the image of an embodied, emotional, and often feminized “Other” that needs to be helped along by the more rational minds who are unquestionably in charge. A market-driven context often reinforces the illusion that, for actors, dissent and critical thinking are inherently political, and training for professional work should take place outside of politics.
To overcome this bias, teachers might assign selections from scholarly texts like The Politics of American Actor Training, edited by Ellen Margolis and Lissa Tyler Renaud, to provide historical and critical context. Introducing post-colonial, critical race, materialist, and feminist theories encourages students to examine canonical texts through a resistant lens. In Boleslavsky’s book, the dramatic form allows a resistant reader to recognize that the Creature has the potential for critical thought. At one point, she tells her teacher that she hopes to disagree with his response to her work, explaining, “…we will plunge into an argument, and I rather think you benefit from my arguments. As a matter of fact, without my arguments, I cannot imagine what you would do.” Nothing happens without the student’s reflections, questions, and actions. Highlighting these moments overturns the persistent binary of body and mind, encouraging an understanding of the actor as embodied intellectual rather than colonized body that carries out the ideas of the “brains” of the theatre.
Teachers should also frame the classroom as a laboratory where students are artist-scholars whose performances have significant “real-world” consequences. Stella Adler, one of Boleslavsky’s “creatures” early on, encouraged deep critical engagement with artists’ historical circumstances and material constraints. Adler’s The Technique of Acting was followed by two compilations culled from her archives, and throughout them Adler’s advice to actors does not shy away from the important political and cultural work of theatre.
“Arthur Miller,” she claims in The Art of Acting, “wants to teach morality and justice. So it was, so it is, and so it ever shall be. These are the subjects of theatre. If they aren’t your subjects it’s not too late to arrange for a tuition refund.” She also believes actors must feel a great sense of responsibility about what they do. She writes, “The actor has the ability to convey moral force, to help people understand that even a handshake has a moral significance. There is no limit to what an actor can make an audience feel and understand.” Feeling and understanding are intertwined, and physical gestures are the actor’s moral and ethical choice.
Introducing post-colonial, critical race, materialist, and feminist theories encourages students to examine canonical texts through a resistant lens.
Especially for artists of color, LGBTQ artists, women, disabled artists, and other marginalized populations, the need for actors to be activists who intervene in social systems and the history of representation is not new. But while Stella Adler, a woman raised in the tradition of the Yiddish theatre and shaped by life as an artist during the Great Depression and the Cold War, begins to acknowledge the need for active resistance to the status quo, her examples come from the overwhelmingly white cis-male canon that dominated the theatre of her time.
In Letters to a Young Artist, Anna Deavere Smith, a Black woman trained in twentieth-century United States, uses her own experience as an artist to call for actors to recognize their power, think critically about the morality and purpose of the system, and to potentially change it. Deavere Smith’s epistolary text imagines her as mentor to a young student painter, B.Z., the recipient of her letters.
In her introduction, rather than characterizing student artists as passive and uncertain, Deavere Smith positions them as “young brave hearts” and calls for them to become as visible as possible: “You may be trying to find some kind of position that allows you to rub up against the very huge and overwhelming world at large. Dare to do it. Great artists have, and they have walked where politicians and lawmakers and even educators wouldn’t dare to go.” She allows artists their rightful place as intellectuals who should be collaborating “with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful.”
Given what these texts reflect, schools of theatre need to hire teachers of color and promote, amplify, and compensate them for their work. Acting syllabi should include texts by artists from historically marginalized groups and acknowledge the lineage of artists who have been working to decolonize American theatre for decades. In Brewer’s “Training With a Difference” essay, mentioned earlier, Brewer recommends Black Acting Methods, edited by Sharrell Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer, and suggests that institutions “seek out organizations that are bursting with resources to assist in dismantling bias, discrimination, and racism in training and the industry” including on her list the Black Theatre Commons, Latinx Theatre Commons, Black Theatre Network, and National Black Theatre Festival.
Reaching Toward Decolonization
I still struggle to make my own acting class anti-racist and anti-patriarchal. Currently, I introduce the discussion of actors’ choices using a popular YouTube video that offers two different interpretations of a scene from August Wilson’s Fences and begin the semester with a solo performance assignment. To contextualize this, I show a video of writer and performer Sarah Jones telling a story for the Moth about her own resistance to being labeled as a certain “type” in the television and film industries, and performances by Deavere Smith, Margaret Cho, Ivan Coyote, and John Leguizamo. I assign the introduction to theatre director Jo Bonney’s collection Extreme Exposure, which speaks of solo performance as a way of talking back to a limiting industry and places it in the lineage of West African griots.
In the second half of the semester, I ask the actors to perform a scene from a ten-minute play of their choosing using both Stanislavsky-based tools and Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Brecht, of course, is another European patriarch, but through this assignment, I hope they understand their choices do not have to be limited to a particular kind of interpretation in every context. While structuring the syllabus in this way helps the students realize that there are multiple ways for actors to approach plays, I need to do more work to incorporate methods developed by teachers who are not white cisgender men into my course.
At this year’s Humana Festival, where Brewer spoke, I heard the phrase “sea change in the American theatre” uttered more than once. I hope theatre training will follow the lead of many prominent theatre organizations in the United States that have finally begun placing women of color and LGBTQ people of color in leadership positions, and explore ways to decolonize classrooms, model anti-racist practice, and encourage acting students to embrace the role of embodied public intellectual and agent of social change.