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  • Thomas Ward

Process/Product


I’m finishing up my two weeks of professional development before beginning my first year as an elementary school theater teacher. It’s been a great couple of weeks. I’m nervous and excited. Happy to have a job. Unsure of my ability with young kids. Questioning the choice to go back into a classroom. Happy to have a paycheck and benefits.

When I interviewed for the position they asked me why I wanted to teach elementary, as most of my previous teaching experience has been at the university level. I talked for a couple of minutes without saying anything and then it hit me and I stopped. “Oh wait, now I have an answer,” I said. And my answer was that as an acting teacher, I prefer process over product. Teaching college actors is a great challenge and a wonderful time, but they are very focused on getting something besides just getting better. Getting a part in the play. Getting into grad school. Getting that director to like them. Getting that other person to not get cast so they can get cast. Making connections. The casting part of working in university theater was the only part that I could've done without. I just don’t care how good the shows are. Which isn’t to say I don’t work my butt off to make them the best they can be. I only care about giving the best opportunities to get better, which often means that the “best” person for a role shouldn’t get it. They don’t need it. It’s a waste.

So I always had that little kernel of paranoia at the college level: they’re just pretending to be interested because I’m directing this semester. Or whatever. And here’s the thing… I totally get it. When I was in college I cared much more about product than process. I wanted to get cast. I wanted to be on stage. I wanted my “scene work” in class to be better than anyone else’s and I wanted the teacher to tell me how great I was. The only barometer was comparison, because grades are meaningless. How did my scene stack up to the other scenes? Who did everyone like more?

Now we’ll (they’ll) say that learning to deal with rejection is an important part of actor training. It’s not. That’s absurd. Get over yourself, college director. Don’t try to twist your power into some sort of magnanimity. You want your play to be good because it’s a reflection of you. Nothing more.

They’ll (we’ll) say that learning to audition is an important part of actor training. Nah. I guess it is sort of, but if you’re a good actor you’re a good actor. And “audition training” is an ancillary thing that’s been invented to sell books and add another class to the calendar to get more money from students. If you can act you can act. If you can’t you can’t. Sometimes I audition well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I get the job when I audition poorly, sometimes I don’t get the job when I knock it out of the park. It’s a crapshoot. And I’m done obsessing about it like it’s a “skill.” I’ve heard of that actor who’s “great at auditioning” but not that great at acting. But I’ve never met him or her. Perhaps he or she does not exist.

We’ll (they’ll) say that in university theater we (they) care more about process over product. We don’t. We say it. We want to mean it. But we don’t. We care about our theater program and our shows and our jobs. (Which isn’t to say that we don’t care about our students. We absolutely do, or at least we better. I’m talking about the work itself here.)

What a drama school says to you in an attempt to recruit you should be taken with a grain of salt, by the way. I remember a potential student (one that we wanted) asking if the department in which I was teaching did a lot of film work. My colleagues turned to me and I said, “Uh, yeah.” (I taught the one camera class.) I said, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” Not technically a lie, but let’s tell ourselves it was his fault for using an ambiguous quantity like “a lot.” I wish I’d said, “Nope. We do one class. The rest of your theatre degree will be spent in the pursuit of studying and learning to make theatre. And also, I have a little secret about that camera class… I’m making it all up as I go.”

I’m loosing interest in this post.

I always enjoyed teaching slackers. Slackers make fantastic actors. I find the “go-getters” to be boring people, by and large.

I say that becaues I saw Boyhood the other night. There's a scene (spoiler?) where a teaching is lecturing the protagonist over his lack of work eithic. It's a speech I've given and heard given a million times over. It's a boring speech. I'll never give it again.

I recently saw a post of the top ten or twenty or thousand drama schools in the country or the world or the universe. I scrolled and it was the same list it’s always been. For some reason it made me angry so I posted it on my wall and added this comment: “Hey, look at this list of places that take advantage of talented people and then take credit for their talent. #dramaschool #hoax #trueorfalse #recruiting.”

Why did I do this? What made me angry about this list of elite drama schools?

Mostly I was angry that my drama school wasn’t on the list. My drama school has never been on such a list. And it would have been impossible for this particular list as my drama school no longer exists. It was discontinued several years back due to a conflict between the University of Alabama and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I don’t know what the conflict was specifically, but it’s a safe assumption that it had everything to do with money and ego and institutional things like money and ego and buildings and resources and you can’t play with my toys mine mine mine mine mine.

Acting is subjective. For instance, just because one of my favorite actors is me doesn’t necessarily make it true or mean that anyone else shares my opinion. I often find myself at odds with who "the best" is in a student setting. Because I assure, the faculty talk about it. Ad nauseum.

I was angry at all those drama school brochures I’ve seen with pictures of Oscar winners and Emmy winners and Emmy nominees. The message is, “Look what we did for him/her! We can do that for you!” It’s a lie. A talented person’s talent is a mystery and has nothing to do with the school they went to. I believe it would’ve happened with or without that degree or certificate. The school takes credit for another's talent and opportunity and success. But again... it's just recruiting.

My undergrad program sends out a great newsletter every week or two that's a celebration and update of what the department is doing. It's not a recruiting tool and it's delightful. But I always scroll to the “alumni news” to keep tabs. It’s embarrassing.

I guess my point is that I’m looking forward to working with kids who enjoy pretending to be animals and princesses and cowboys and pirates and trees and witches and mountains just for the sake of doing it… not because they hope to be cast as the lead in the fall. I’m looking forward to helping kids learn to communicate better. To take little risks like standing in front of a bunch of people and telling a story. I’m looking forward to it actually being pure “play.”

#acting #audition #auditioning #directing #elementarytheater #fear #doubt #laziness #teaching #theatre