What are We Watching? What are We Teaching? Preparing Acting Students for the New Golden Age
“What are you watching?” “The opening episode alone was like a feature.” “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” Who among us predicted we’d be having conversations like these about television? The last ten years have ushered in changes so profound in both how we consume media and the content available to us, that those of us who grew up watching The Facts of Life and Knot’s Landing can’t seem to stop shaking our heads in wonder. Digital outlets are multiplying at breakneck speed, and television now rivals film, offering a seemingly constant supply of complex characters and innovative stories that we can watch day or night in the palm of our hands. What a time to be an actor.
Professional training programs aren’t training actors; they are training actors for a career in the theatre. This is a problem.
Professional training programs aren’t training actors; they are training actors for a career in the theatre. This is a problem.
Right now, students at hundreds of MFA and BFA acting programs across the country are rushing from scene class, to voice, movement, and an array of “specialties”: Lecoq, Laban, Suzuki, Grotowski, commedia, kinetics, Fitzmaurice, Alexander, clown, mask, musical comedy, the list goes on. Later tonight they may be performing on stage, putting all that learning into practice in front of an audience. One performance experience most acting students are doing very little of is acting in front of a camera. Professional training programs aren’t training actors; they are training actors for a career in the theatre. This is a problem. A trained actor should be able to face the demands of delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy on a 1,200-seat proscenium stage as well as in an extreme close-up. Acquiring the necessary tools to act across a range of platforms and venues should be the goal of all training programs.
SAG-AFTRA reports over 400 union-sanctioned television shows currently shooting or in production. For decades acting educators granted TV work an uneasy endorsement, despite its promise of a healthy paycheck, as the work was often facile and formulaic. This gave training programs great cover for shortcomings in their curriculum. That was then. Still, the vast majority of BFA and MFA acting programs offer one semester of “Acting for the Camera.” This course typically comes at the tail end of a student’s training and often shares real estate with a “business” or “auditioning” class. This seems at best naive and at worst irresponsible. The few actors who will leave these programs and make a living wage in the profession will do so by working in film and television.
We accept that movies are art, television shows are breaking new ground, and students are arriving at our programs with an inherent understanding of filmed performance and are deeply imbedded in the language of digital media. So why are we essentially leaving them to their own devices (no pun intended) to teach themselves?
I think acting educators are afraid. Afraid of a rapidly changing performance landscape and afraid of being obsolete. We teach what we were taught. Most of us came of age during TV’s vapid wasteland period, and we view it as a medium, but not quite an art. Theatre still holds primacy, and mediated work is an ugly cousin. Perhaps this is because many of us have less involvement and understanding of the medium than our students. A cursory Google search of acting faculty, particularly outside of major metropolitan areas, often turns up bios that contain little meaningful professional engagement in film, TV and, “new media”—even from those teaching the on-camera classes. Without a firm grounding in the production process and language of mediated performance, not only are we out of our depth, we’re not even sure what it is we’re supposed to be doing. We may be suspicious of film and TV scripts, and have trouble understanding the form on the page. We’re used to character and story as expressed through dialogue, and struggle to conjure the visual imagery and camera direction embedded in stage directions we often skim over when reading a play script.
One regrettable reason for sticking to the old plan may simply be bureaucratic. For decades, university film and acting programs have existed side by side (and sometimes just down the hall or on the next floor). Resources, ideas, and curricula that might be shared too often evaporate over departmental fiefdoms and territorial squabbles. There’s the understandable fear of the perceived cost, both economic and personal, of expanding how and why we train actors. While it’s true that cameras, equipment, and additional faculty can inflate a program’s budget, it’s also true that creative solutions can be achieved very inexpensively. The exciting part is that the students are doing it already.
I’m often asked by my colleagues in the theatre what it is I actually do in a classroom of actors working in front of a camera. “I mean, you just turn on the camera and then tell them to act, right? Like what’s really the difference?” The difference is nothing and everything. The good news: acting is acting is acting. All that stuff they’ve learned in the other classes? It all helps. In front of the camera actors still have to tell the story, still have to investigate the stakes, have an objective, play an action. Breathe. But there are things they don’t have to do, too. They don’t have to amplify. They don’t have to construct, for the benefit of an audience’s understanding, an expanded version of a character’s gesture, thought, voice, or emotion. They don’t have to guide an audience’s focus, the director and editor will do that part. For an actor trained in theatre, this is harder than it sounds.
The theatre audience and the camera are different animals. In the theatre, the audience and the actors have a shared experience. A camera’s purpose, however, is to capture a world no one is watching. We often think of stage acting as infinite and film acting as limited, but in reality the inverse is true. A stage performance is limited by what the audience can see and hear. The camera can be across a desert from the actor, along for the ride in a speeding vehicle, at his feet, or peering deep into her eyes. A theatre audience will never get so close as to lose the entire human form. And the intimacy we can achieve on camera is an intimacy we rarely dare to experience even in life. This is both thrilling to explore as well as a practical challenge.
It’s not uncommon for the on-camera class to simply consist of taping scenes, with admonishments to “do less.” While modifying scale may, at times, be a valid adjustment, it doesn’t exactly meet the standard of what a strong program should aspire to. The parameters of filmed performance are at once limitless and tightly bound. To explore this amplitude fully requires help and a lot of practice. Rob Roznowski, on the acting faculty at Michigan State University and author of the article “Transforming Actor Education in the Digital Age” proposes an interdisciplinary solution: “Vocal training should spend time on the support necessary to fill the theatrical space while also pitching a vocal performance for intimacy and emotional connection filtered through a microphone.” Work in front of a camera is not a 'specialty' like mime or Boal. It is not a training methodology or a school of thought. Just like acting onstage, acting in front of the camera is the education in practice. Both are critical to the actor’s development.
Work in front of a camera is not a 'specialty' like mime or Boal. It is not a training methodology or a school of thought. Just like acting onstage, acting in front of the camera is the education in practice. Both are critical to the actor’s development.
And so, if acting is acting is acting, why can’t a school offer a semester of “on-camera” work and be done with it? Certainly we’ve seen actors exit theatre training programs and figure out on their own how to apply what they’ve learned to film and TV. The problem is no program of any merit whatsoever would graduate actors without the experience of performing on a stage (multiple times) in front of an audience. We don’t question the value of moving the work out of the classroom and into the closest approximation of what actors will encounter professionally. So why is it acceptable to graduate actors who have gotten next to no experience under an approximation of the on-set conditions they will be working in? Performance is where process and execution meet, and either soars or fails miserably. Work in front of a camera is not a “specialty” like mime or Boal. It is not a training methodology or a school of thought. Just like acting onstage, acting in front of the camera is the education in practice. Both are critical to the actor’s development.
So what is it we should be teaching?
- History and analysis: Just as actors should acquire a working knowledge of theatre history by graduation, so too should they have a solid grasp of the trajectory of film and filmed performance.
- How to read a film or TV script: Film scripts are visual blueprints, and rely more on the description of pictures and events than they do on dialogue to tell the story. If an actor understands this, they are aided enormously.
- Genre: What are the conventions, narrative elements, and themes being explored and what is their heritage? Just in television we’re looking at single-camera, multi-camera, procedural(s), neo-noir, period drama, episodic, anthology, and many more.
- Preparation: How does one prepare for shooting a story out of order, and without the benefit of a director or even fellow actors?
- The work environment: What does it mean to act in a room full of people—camera crew, writers, director, wardrobe, makeup, grips, sound, a veritable crowd watching your every move, and still perform without an audience?
- The technical aspects: What is the camera doing and how can the actor be fully expressive yet still live truthfully within the confines of its frame?
If one teaches on-camera classes as a necessary afterthought it will always be taught in contrast to theatre acting rather than a skill and a craft that stands on its own, with its own history, language, and pedagogy.
There are programs out there making changes. Some, like Rob Roznowski’s at MSU, are finding creative ways to implement digital performance throughout the curriculum. Rob’s acting class, for instance, might work on Ibsen scenes, and then explore them in a variety of venues: outdoor amphitheatre, large proscenium space, an arena theatre, the black box on campus, in the classroom, and finally, filmed. California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), founded on the principle that an artist’s growth is best stimulated by being exposed to a variety of artistic influences, provides acting students opportunities to explore both in front of as well as behind the camera. This spring, NYU’s graduate acting program is piloting a sweeping film, TV, and new media intensive for their second year actors. Curriculum maps will be far-reaching; on-camera intensives, film history, and significant engagement with film practitioners—including those on the next floor in the famed film department. NYU’s plan for The Chekhov Film Project, in particular, seems ripe for exploring ways in which the camera not only magnifies, but potentially elucidates, Chekhov’s rich subtext. It is inarguable that students will leave these programs with a deep and varied experience, regardless of whether they ultimately focus their attention on theatre, film, or just as citizens of the world. Perhaps MSU, CalArts, and NYU are simply responding to market forces at work. But it could be something less cynical than that. Perhaps the unique characteristics of filmed performance can teach those of us in the theatre more than we think.
It’s been a long-accepted assumption that the training of actors can, and should, move in only one direction. Theatre first, on-camera tacked on at the end, just as you’re out the door. But I’ve taught this work for awhile now, and in conjunction with my own 25-plus years as an actor, I’m not so convinced anymore. While letting students explore what it feels like to shoot a tracking, master, or dolly shot has its own rewards, I’ve witnessed discoveries that move well beyond how we film. Students with habitual challenges that might’ve taken weeks or months to undo making adjustments easily and without self-recrimination. Actors grasping the building blocks of basic acting technique with a logic and clarity I rarely witnessed in traditional scene classes. An actor, observing embellishment in their close-up, comprehending fully for the first time Stanislavski’s principle of “public solitude.” Amazing things can transpire when actors let go of the urge to gratify an audience, and attempt to live fully in front of a camera’s gaze. These moments ultimately transcend cameras, or lights, or screens. They are human and meaningful, and will survive and thrive out in the world, in any venue.