Often when you start out in the acting industry, you have a vague notion of wanting to act, but no idea of the many and varied ways in which you can do that. High school would have given you a brief introduction to Stanislavski, probably Brecht, maybe some Beckett and usually Ray Lawler (if you’re in Australia). If you had a feeling this was only the tip of the iceberg, you’d be right. If you’re not at drama school, you need to be proactive in self-training. That means reading books, going to short-courses, and of course, researching online – like you’re doing right now. Well done you.
I’m going to tell you some uncomfortable truths now.
1. What they teach in high school as ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ is often quite antiquated.
2. It is highly possible that what you learned in high school about drama is misleading, irrelevant, or just plain wrong.
I don’t say this to be arrogant or to demean high school teachers, or even to demand a revolution of the curriculum. Teaching is a very difficult job, especially for a subject that is so subjective and changes frequently, and teachers don’t get to choose a lot of what they teach. The curriculum that is currently in high schools is designed to give you a very broad overview of drama, using texts and terms that are easy to analyse and apply. Unfortunately, this broad overview is not really enough for you to function successfully in the arts industry. You need to know a lot more – not just theory and terminology, but how to apply it, on a very practical, very detailed level.
My arguments on reading also apply to theory. Whatever type of acting you’re doing or want to do, it falls into a school of thought developed by someone. Whether you just want to know enough so you can work within a particular style or technique, or if you want to be the next artist to advance that style or technique, you need to know what’s come before you. You don’t have to know everything, but you do need to realise there are things you don’t know. Meaning, you need to be wise enough not to go out into the industry and declare you are doing something completely new, or that you’ve completely mastered the technique of Famous So-and-So. You need to be aware that what’s come before you is HUGE. Awareness is key.
So it’s worth taking a little time to get to know some performance theory. This doesn’t have to be a dry, bookworm experience. If you’re not keen on knuckling down under thick books with tiny writing, this alternative approach may help:
The Quick and Easy Way to Learn to Act
- Go and see more stuff. You should be at the theatre and at the movies all the time. This is the quickest and easiest way to learn about your field. Go see everything, but especially touring theatre shows – sadly, you will NOT find enough variety in just Perth-based works. (But you also need to support local art so the industry thrives and therefore has room for you. So just to be safe, go see everything.) Then:
- Add whoever/whatever you’ve just seen to the list of practitioners below.
- Google them all.
- Skim-read the most reputable website you can find (Wikipedia is… ok… but see if there is an official website or one that is clearly done by an aficionado).
- Work backwards and forwards: who were they taught or inspired by (backwards), and who did they teach or inspire (forwards)? Look those people up as well.
- Once you have worked forwards enough to find a company or individual who is still alive and working, find a touring show to go see (tip: Perth International Arts Festival or Fringe World may feature them).
- If you can’t get to a show by any of these companies or practitioners, look them up on YouTube. You can find some great show excerpts there that will give you an idea of theory in practice.
The internet is your friend. If you’re at uni, your lecturers will be stressing that internet research is not enough as secondary essay references. They’re right, in uni terms the internet is not enough, but when you’re just beginning to learn about a wide variety of theorists, it’s a really good place to start. If you have an hour every week to spend reading articles and watching clips, that will be enough to put you ahead of others. If you could also read one book a month, that will put you WAY ahead.
With that in mind, here’s the slightly more book-ish way to get ahead:
The Way of Slightly More Effort
- Read all the books by the practitioners and theorists listed below. Some of them are actually really easy to read, so if you’re having trouble getting through one, just go to the next one so you don’t give up on the whole thing.
- If any of the practitioners or companies really capture your attention, research whether they offer courses or find out whether anyone near you offers workshops or private sessions using that particular method or in the style of that practitioner.
- Now do it the easy way as well so you’ve covered all your bases.
Let me say, yet again – you may feel that you don’t need to learn theory. You may feel strongly that you just want to use your instincts or learn on the job. That’s fine, as long as it gets you work. But be honest with yourself – as soon as you find your career stagnating, whether it’s just boring roles or increasing periods of unemployment, theory is what will help you. You need to immerse yourself in the industry and that will keep you inspired and help you grow. Learning theory is the key to a world of rich possibilities. And even a little will make a big difference.
Suggested practitioners to research
(Dear readers, I am sadly lacking in film theorists and practitioners. Please comment with your favourites and I will add them to the list! And more theatre suggestions welcome.)
Some of these are more towards dance theatre for those of you with a strong interest in movement. I encourage you to read about everything, even if the technique seems a bit off to you. If it’s not thrilling you, just skim and move on, but don’t run away just because the website’s lacking in pictures of celebrities. Embrace sub-genre and you will become a strong and varied actor.
I have not included links because I think it will be more helpful for you to choose which websites look interesting and relevant. Don’t be a lazybum – it never helps.
The Wooster Group
Theatre du Complicite
For Aussies: Current Australian Practitioners
There are so many… please, please let me know your favourites so I can add them!