Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Learning is in the Doing

A friend of mine raised an interesting debate point the other day. The premise of it was something like this:

The more we know about something, or the more skilled we become at it, the more inhibited we are by this knowledge.

It was likened to that of a musician. Her partner was a Royal Academy of Music trained instrumentalist. One can only dream of being such a gifted musician. However, he had been asked to play for a particular piece and declined, certain of the knowledge that he would not be the best person for the job. Whereas a lesser trained musician would simply throw themselves in there. The expert knowledge that he has was sabotaging a career opportunity based on his awareness of his skills and knowledge of the material.

Is knowledge power?

As children, we are adventurers, discoverers, pioneers. There's a big tree, let's climb the shit out of it. That hill's really steep, let's sprint down it. The older we get, the more afraid we become because we are aware of risk, failure, social politics. I could go on forever, but overall, society and the external factors we come across inhibit us more and more. Especially in this day and age. My parents generation were simply told to go out, play and be back when it's dark. Now in the days of information, fear rules all. Parents are aware of every possible danger their child is in and in this age of instant communication, instant messaging, instant information they need to stay aware and connected consistently because they are afraid of what could happen. Knowledge creates fear, fear is the path to the dark side as Yoda says. 

So, let's bring this back to Acting. That is what I do after all. I recently posted a blog asking how clever do you have to be as an actor. I guess this is a variation on a theme. Can over training be a problem for a young actor?

My fantastic year 13 BRIT School students put on a huge revue show last week. It went very well indeed, was well received by the audience and some great learning experiences occurred. The show involved a mixture of musical theatre segments including scene, song and dance.  Naturally, there was some strong scene work going on. They had a solid previous year of actor training to draw on and were applying their skills well. Some scenes were developing nicely however pace and energy was becoming an issue at times, notably in the earlier 1920's, 30's and 40's musicals. And then the note to give them hit me, they were looking for deep subtext where there was none. Especially in Cole-Porter esque works where scenes were fun ways to string a plot together linking Porter's witty songs. That's not to belittle their importance, without a plot there's little reason to care. But needless to say, people flocked to see a Cole Porter musical for Cole Porter's music. With that in mind they were free to be energised and work with the text they were given. The energy and pace picked up and the piece remained consistent. Happy days.

Thinking on that one note for the actors I've began to ponder the benefit of Actor training at young ages. Several young actors have been caught with the affliction of being too intelligent, too analytical and having amassed so much knowledge of acting theory that it has hindered them in practice. They have inner critics that can't switch off, even when they are supposed to be in the moment. They have been hyper-trained to monitor 'what's my objective?' 'What's my action?' 'Have I achieved that?' 'Is it landing?' 'How well am I doing?' All these circulating questions are so damaging.  

I was the exact same as the above paragraph AND the case of the musician in question. The more trained I was, especially by the time I finished my MA at the (now Royal) Central School of Speech and Drama I was all too aware of my limitations as an actor in musical theatre. I had the fear. But also I had the curse of an overly active brain. Consistently self monitoring within classes. Originally I was the actor who would say 'I just do it'. We all know those actors right? The ones who learn their lines, turn up, do the work and somehow it's good (Just to clarify, I don't think that is good practice, the right technique is crucial) but the more I was aware of text based techniques, of the craft of acting, the shape of the industry etc I was becoming trapped by own awareness and subsequent fear. I had become one of the over trained hundreds being released in to the wild every year by drama schools. 

Ian Mckellen argues that the UK will not produce the highest calibre of actors in this day and age because of the distinct drop in repertory theatre companies:


Here, actors learnt their trade attempting various roles frequently. The learning was in the doing, they discovered their limitations and discovered new things to play in the safety and company of other actors. Where now, actor training is predominantly happening in classrooms. Graduates consider themselves lucky to have left with a decent agent and some regular auditions.

My method of acting (Meisner, if you hadn't guessed) was the first technique which brought me back to trusting my instincts. However with the focus primarily placed on the other person. It is a beautifully simple technique but a technique nonetheless. You can clearly see when it is being applied correctly or not. However it got me out of my head, and allowed me to be truthfully responsive. Not constantly questioning. Now that I teach it, I see the benefits daily in those that I have taught it to. It lets actors discover, let's them climb trees and take risks in the safety of the technique. 

Knowledge is power. Absolutely. But being in your head is exhausting. Take a break and climb a tree. Meisner's book concludes by telling actors to keep acting, take roles which don't suit you just yet, one of these days your age and emotional experience may match what is on the page. Trust me, over time you will learn by doing. Apparently it takes over 14 years to be an actor. Not just three years in a lecture room. 

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