Schooling Magazine

Breaking Down Actors - Do We Really Need It?

By Adam Stadius @AdamStadius
In answer to my title, I'm not entirely sure we do. Simple enough. (I didn't have a clever way to start this blog so I thought I'd go straight for the point of the matter, then set out my thoughts.)
Let me clarify on what I mean by 'the negative breaking down of actors' in regards to a few scenarios:
I am not referring to actors having truthful emotions and breakdowns within the moment. If an emotion is really living it may cause a response one might call 'breaking down'. A debate for another day is this idea of the actors dual conscious where, within a theater setting, how do you go from the depths of despair and upset in one scene. To the very next scene which carries a different emotional preparation. Another day.
What I am concerned with is the development of actors and the way teachers handle them. Teaching acting is a very nuanced, and sensitive art. You can run the risk of damaging an actor's confidence and their own mental well being if this is done wrong. Even down to so much as the way you word criticisms, no matter how constructive, in the end the comment is about the person and often what can be taken away from this, by the actor is 'The problem is with you', 'you are wrong', 'you are not good enough', 'you aren't connecting to that role' etc etc. unlike a pianist for example, whereby you can diagnose a missed key, a rhythmic blip or to simply say, 'that was wrong, but if you practice you'll get it right'. The same cannot always be said to an actor. 
It makes me angry when I hear teachers threaten to be harsh. I've heard the phrase 'if something is shit, I'll tell you it's shit' as a threat before the student-actor even began to perform.  Is it me or does that then put the student actor in to a worrisome state of impressing the teacher, rather than to just exist truthfully in the moment.  The teacher suddenly becomes the most important person in the room, and a rehearsal room is not a place for ego.  I hear reports of teachers in prestigious schools, charging you in excess of £10,000 a year for the privilege of being there, screaming 'that was shit' in the face of students.  I often find that actors do their best work when they are empowered to do so, and are not under pressure to achieve a result, often being "pleasing the teacher".  More on results in a bit. I don't feel the need to bully my actors, I am quite a passive teacher, perhaps too passive in certain situations however, the fact remains I see better work from actors who only have to worry about the person in front of them in the given moment.
Within Meisner Technique work, I am very happy to let my actors play and explore and discover what happens, and then analyze what happened, the effects the work has on each actor etc. The truthful, emotional results can be staggering. I say can be, because neither I, nor the actors know what is going to happen, it is wholly dependant on what happens in the moment. I sometimes worry, when I hear of teachers putting pressure on actors, suggesting that an exercise is only good when actors either kiss, fight or end in floods of tears. Whilst I have seen exercises resulting in all of these, it has never been because I demanded it of my actors. Rather, it has been a truthful response based entirely on the other person. If a teacher pushes you to reach a pinnacle of emotion, surely then, as an actor your attention is now split between the exercise and trying to cry/attack/kiss. Internally you are trying to make yourself feel something, or in other words, play to a result in order to satisfy the teacher, or at least his/her demands. Sometimes the most truthful and honest moments happen in a whimper, rather that a shout and the difficulty again is in recognising what is truthful and what is not. That is the job of a teacher.

Have you had experiences similar to any of the ones I've mentioned? Share your thoughts on here or tweet me.@AdamStadius

 

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