by Peter Zazzali
Greetings fellow Bloggers. My name is Peter and I’m currently working on a dissertation that examines professional acting and actor training in the U.S. Some key questions I’m asking are: How do American actors prepare for a career? How does formal training serve them in this pursuit? How do the economic realities of professional acting inform their career choices? Finally, what do these decisions mean for the craft of acting itself?
To illustrate my topic I am using the history of the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, a consortium of B.F.A. and M.F.A acting schools that existed from 1972-1987, as a case study to measure how the curriculum and pedagogy of America’s acting schools have trended in relationship to the profession.
The League came about in response to a need to train actors for the U.S. regional theatre, a movement underwritten by the Ford Foundation to bring professional theatre to America’s cities. Because regional theaters like the Guthrie and Seattle Rep produced a demanding repertory of classical and modern dramas, they needed actors that had the skills to execute a wide range of roles. League schools like Juilliard and Yale trained actors in a psychophysical manner for the purpose of providing what Jennifer Dunning coined “The New American Actor,” someone whose corporeal being was a consummate vessel of expressivity. The training regimen balanced some version of Stanislavsky’s system with a rigorous array of technical courses in subjects such as voice production, speaking with distinction, and a host of movement classes that included fencing and African dance. Contrarily, the strictly psychological approach practiced at New York’s numerous acting studios before the advent of the League (e.g., The Actors Studio, Stella Adler conservatory, the Neighborhood Playhouse) adequately prepared students for film and realistic works, but it did not provide them with the necessary technical skills to execute the classical repertoire. Thus, regional theatres looked to the League Schools for their casting pool.
Although the League disbanded in 1987, it provides unique insight to American actor training and the not-for-profit theatre. It was after all the latter that prompted M.F.A. acting schools to form. As the Ford Foundation significantly decreased its funding throughout the 1970s, regional theatres terminated their resident companies thereby altering the professional landscape for actors. Because they could no longer count on being permanently employed, actors were forced to look to other sectors of the entertainment industry for work. My next posting will discuss what these subfields are, how they have changed the public perception of the actor’s craft, and most crucially, what these developments have meant for American theatre and society.
(Jennifer Dunning's 1983 article, "The New American Actor," is viewable here.)