Acting. Capital A.
So, I am an actor, I would know.
I have been doing this for a while. And there is something that I really hate that also starts with an “A”. Academia. OR more specifically actor training in the U.S.
So, to give some history I have been an actor for well over ten years now. Much of that time has been spent in schools. Now, I was very fortunate to work in schools that made sure that I performed and got better at my craft.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Still nope, although Annie is pretty.
Perfect. So I have done a lot in my life as an artist. One of the biggest things is get my terminal degree: an M.F.A. And what I learned from getting my M.F.A. is that an M.F.A. is almost never worth it.
The reasons why are the subject of this post.
- Art is practice
- Art is worth paying for
- Art is weird
With me so far? It’s okay if you’re not we’ll break them down.
Art is Practice
Acting is not learned from sitting in classrooms. It is learned from working, from practicing in front of a live audience.
The idea of academia is that of master and apprentice, like you can work in front of your peers “safely” and that will teach you the craft.
Well, I worked in another artisan craft: baking.
Professionally. For a time.
My “training” was waking up before 3am to get to work to make the “easy” breakfast items before a crowd of people.
There was no safety net. There was no barrier between me and my customer. The only thing was sometimes my boss or mentor would say,
“don’t worry, I’ll go and explain that we have no_____ today” EXCEPT HE NEVER DID THAT!
You know why? Because we had to make it work. We found ways to make it work.
That is the truth about a master-apprentice program. You are literally working your asses off in order to provide a service because if you don’t, you don’t eat that week. And boy did he let me know it.
But, I was grateful through all of the headaches and all of the times where he flipped out on me.
You wanna know why?
Art is worth paying for
I got paid.
It was as simple as all that. The man paid me. I was a baker’s assistant and working my way up. That was the best thing in the world.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to call yourself an actor when all of your training is done at school? when you are paying your teachers for the privilege of what you are being taught?
It is an inversion of the system. The master pays you for your sub-standard work and because you are indebted to him, you work insanely hard to get better faster. In school, I paid my teachers for their work and I soaked it up at my own pace. Because there was no judge and jury. Because I couldn’t be held responsible.
Some actor training you never see an audience. Why is that? I knew kids who graduated with the same degree as me who were never, not once, cast in a show. They never saw an audience and proceeded out into the wild. Sometimes to teach. Shivers.
Art is weird
Art is weird.
It just is man. People use it as a catch all and I hate that, but to deny that at its heart art is about the mystery of the universe would be a foolish blunder.
Art is meant to be about the inexpressible: synthesizing an intangible experience into a tangible one. Allowing space for the audience to transform that experience into emotion, into memory is what artists do.
We create opportunities for emotional synthesis. No wonder we are worth paying, even though nobody wants to.
Bearing that in mind: every single artist training program (that I am aware of) has a set curriculum with natural progression.
This is the worst training for an artist.
Why? Because it does not prepare you for the realities of art. The most powerful and interesting experiences that I had as an artist always always always came from my own natural curiosity. The only lessons about the art came from me seeking out knowledge for myself. That is what professional artistry looks like:
I wonder if I can make food float.
I wonder what it would be like to do a minstrel show, today.
I wonder what this would look like–how that would work–where we could…
Those are interesting questions, worth exploring. Teachers setting down stuff arbitrarily are good exercises. What they found when they did the research was that artists did some of their best work in art school. Why? Because they were given arbitrary rules that invoked creativity in some way.
I acknowledge the truth of that, but think it only strengthens my position: artists learn from other artists by being set difficult tasks where neither know the solution.
So what does that do? It takes the best part of the master-apprentice relationship and puts it into the art school. Great. Then what? Then, nothing. The student never learns to do that for themselves. They almost always learn that that sort of assignment will come from outside of themselves.
I have met artists, consistently I might add, in almost every profession who say:
It took me __ number of years to get over my training.
That horrifies me, but is absolutely true. SO what can we do about it?
Students: Always accept money for your work. If you have the choice to do something for school or professionally, always work for the money. It teaches students that they are worth it, that their art is worth paying for and it bolsters the program.
Teachers: Continue to work professionally. You should be the contact and the bridge for students to enter the professional world. If you are so far removed from the business of acting that you cannot communicate anything about it to students, then what are you for?
Programs: Don’t box in students by saying they cannot audition for professional work. Pick smaller shows or smaller seasons. The kids are already paying tuition. DO NOT put them in indentured servitude too. That is bullshit.
Students: Find your own projects. Bring them to your teachers and ask if there is any way that you can do them.
Teachers: Encourage your students to create original or unique works. If they like writing, encourage them to write a show for themselves or their classmates. Do that production as a class project. If they are interested in the classics, encourage them to do something with that, but to also challenge their bias.
Programs: Encourage students to choose the pace of their curriculum. A self-study program is probably the most valuable and the most interesting when it comes to artistry that I have ever encountered. The reason being is that that means that those kids have to actively create their own program and that is the most artistic thing I could think of for school.