I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve done it since I was 19, when I first gave a half-baked singing lesson to a friend, mumbling something incomprehensible and not-quite-correct about breathing with your tummy. Since then I’ve had the honor of teaching and mentoring hundreds of young performers, both singers and actors, and sharpening the essay-writing skills of many a confuddled HSC student groping their way through the pitch black forests of Shakespeare and, in recent years, Lurhmann. I like it. Somethingsomthing legacy somethingsomething gives life meaning somethingsomething.
Today something really flattering happened. A younger friend, who I’ve known since she was an ambitious sixteen year old doing her work experience placement on Little Women (in which I was playing Amy March at the time), called me and asked for advice with her career. I was honoured, and a little confused; I’m still very much mid-career myself. But the specific request was something I know a very little about, so I put my healthy apprehension and self-doubt aside and called her back.
She wanted to know about being a cross-over artist (a performer who works in many different genres, eg. working in ‘straight’ theatre AND musical theatre, for screen AND stage) and, in particular, being an actor who didn’t go to drama school.
Anyone who knows me knows the latter is a pet topic of mine. Let me be clear: I cannot over emphasise the importance of training for any performer. To presume to be an actor or a singer or a dancer without ever setting foot in a class is an insult to all the talented and skilled actors out there who have sweat blood honing their skills to give you their Hedda, their Lear, or even their fifty worder on a soap. Even my first job at the age of nineteen, a Nescafe commercial in which I spent the bulk of my time making out with a future power ranger and had maybe two words of dialogue, was not won or executed without some learned skills. But I absolutely, emphatically, do not believe that a conventional three-year full time tertiary drama course is the only way to get these skills. (Stella Adler agrees with me, by the way, just for a little logos).
As a teacher, I can tell you that education, be it primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational, creative, scientific, part time or full time, is not a one-size-fits-all muumuu. Unfortunately the primary and secondary system requires that we squeeze a bunch of square pegs into round holes, however nobly our teacher-training endeavors to train us to round out those holes… But as actors, we have a variety of different shaped holes (this metaphor is falling apart but I’m going to stick with it…). Because we’re not cutting people’s brains open, we’re not defending people’s legal rights, we’re not fighting wars (well, not literal wars), we have some freedom with how we train. If I play Hermia differently to you, no-one is going to hemorrhage to death. We’re not James Bond, we don’t need a 007 License to ACT! (Unless you’re Pierce Brosnan. Or Sean Connery. Or Roger Moore. Or…)
What we need is talent and some skill to channel it. And someone to give you a chance.
I, personally, am not cut out for drama school. I don’t know why, they wouldn’t tell me. Thank god there are other ways to learn to act, or my passion would have gone unsated and I’d be a miserable shell of a human being. So, drama school wasn’t an option, but I loved university. I loved the option to choose to specialise in Shakespeare. I loved independent study. I will be forever thankful for the skills in analysis, critical thinking, research, interpretation, and synthesis that my studies in academic theatre, English literature, and media gave me. A skill set remarkably similar to that required by actors. And studying education I’ve learned so much about psychology, working in teams, and gained a bunch of “class room management” skills I see directors using on me all the time (I’m hip to your tricks now!). Over the years I’ve spent more hours in acting classes, masterclasses, short courses, and long part time courses than I can count. I never stop drawing on the skills I learned through that eclectic selection of theatre and screen training.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You might be right for a drama school, and if you’ve got your heart set on that path, and you win a place in a school, GO.
But here’s the thing: to use actor speak, the objective needs to be TO GET AN ACTING CAREER, something you might achieve by going to drama school or just getting out there and working. If your objective is “get into drama school” you’re putting your success as an actor in someone else’s hands. You’ll have your autonomy compromised enough in this industry without surrendering it before you even start.
So, I guess my first piece of advice to this very talented young performer was TRAIN. Do train. Please. Seek out amazing teachers. Read books. See plays. Watch films. Training as an actor is mostly about training your BRAIN. You read Stella Adler and so much of it is “diarise this” or “think about that”. Your brain is your closest ally and your first tool. Keep it sharp. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from an acting teacher was “Read about everything. Not just acting,” (Paraphrasing Clarence Deny in the NIDA Young Actor’s Studio, 2002); drama is life plus, so you need the plus. Expect more of yourself than you can possibly live up to, and forgive yourself when you don’t. But don’t make the mistake of putting your fate in someone else’s subjective hands.
My second piece of advice? Be nice to people. Seriously. And genuinely. Don’t try to be friends with everyone, especially if you don’t actually like them. That’s fake and it smells. But do be kind-spirited and supportive. This industry is soul-destroying enough without performers devouring each other for breakfast. I met a chick at an audition for a musical once, and we whinged together about the dance routine. Ten years later, having stopped performing and started directing, she remembered me and gave me my first job in straight theatre, and from there has grown a wonderful working relationship with The Ensemble Theatre (shout out to Anna Crawford!).
And my third piece of advice is DO THINGS FOR FREE. I know, I know, and I agree. Actors shouldn’t have to give their skills away for free any more than a lawyer or a doctor should. Keep your integrity, absolutely! Don’t just do any crappy theatrical adaptation of Mills and Boon that comes through your email, and feel free to turn down rubbish short films promising you “exposure”. But if a good writer asks you to do a play reading for them, and the pay is in cheddar and shiraz, DO IT. Do independent theatre – it’s where the exciting new minds, and the dedicated passionate established ones, are flexing their muscles. It’s a small industry. People see those things. Plus it’s a chance to sharpen your skills, something we have precious little opportunity to do in this country.
Did I mention TRAIN? Yeah. Keep learning. It never stops.
And finally, teach. As you learn, pass it on. It forces you to think through what you do and why. As you work with students, you have a magic opportunity to see the flaws in your approach and refine it. And don’t be ashamed of the flaws; every theory has flaws, that’s why it’s a theory and not a fact. Just as Mamet and Strasberg followed Stanislavsky, and Chubbuck follows them, something always follows. The only unforgivable sin as a teacher is the presumption that your theory is the ultimate and the last. Absorb as much as you can, synthesise it into something that works for you, offer it to your students, and they will pick and choose and synthesise too.
I’m a mid-career actor and a mid-career teacher. I’ve got a stack to learn and do, and if I do my job properly, with everything I learn I’ll realise how much I still don’t know. But what I’ve said here is what I think I know. Do with it what you will.