The Playgoer: American Acting Training, Part II

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Friday, August 13, 2010

American Acting Training, Part II

By Peter Zazzali

In his seminal essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin argues that film acting will have a much more dominant role in modern society than stage acting. Although he was responding to developments during the 1930s, Benjamin accurately anticipated art’s evolution in the modern world, especially as it pertains to acting. Numerous studies support Benjamin’s theory, most notably William Baumol and William Bowen’s 1966 treatise on the economics of the performing arts in which they make a compelling case for the fiscal challenges facing American actors and the need for them to seek employment in the mediums of film, television, and commercials. Nine years later an NEA report entitled “Understanding the Employment of Actors” echoed Baumol and Bowen’s findings.

Today the profession has become even more competitive as an increasing number of actors are entering an unstable job market. When the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs began in 1972 there were only a handful of university-sponsored acting programs, currently there are nearly 300. At the time, regional theatres contracted actors on a yearly basis thereby providing them with professional stability. As I mentioned in my previous blog, this situation began to change during the middle-1970s when external sources of funding for these theatres decreased. Nevertheless, university acting programs have proliferated ever since. From Alaska and Hawaii to Florida and Maine, BFA and MFA programs have become ubiquitous at America’s colleges over the past twenty years despite the fact that the professional demand is simply not there.

Do our colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for the limited employment opportunities awaiting them upon graduation? Furthermore, most of these programs function under the auspices of a “theatre” department in which the training will consist of a curriculum and pedagogy designed for the stage. Given the extraordinary professional challenges confronting theatre actors, how do these programs justify a steady diet of movement and voice classes in conjunction with departmental productions of the likes of Shakespeare and Chekhov, when in reality they’ll be competing for Crest commercials and a guest spot on Law and Order in several years?


Anonymous said...

A decent actor training is the most embodied study of being human that happens within university walls and is of inestimable value to many who may never earn a dime as an actor in any medium.

Colin Trevino-Odell said...

That being said, we still need money.