The year-long two-evenings-a-week Foundation acting course I’ve been doing was all over a couple of weeks back. The final task was to write 1,000 words about how the acting, movement and voice classes had affected our final performance. It was asking a lot to stretch the words “not a lot” out that much, so I made the essay more general and tried to be as balanced as possible. What had been worthwhile and what had felt like a waste of time? I thought I may as well paste it all in here…
Rehearsing and performing our final scene (from The Collection by Harold Pinter) was a challenging and rewarding experience. Throughout the first two terms I was looking forward to the scene work and it was a good way to end the course; I finished it wishing we could keep improving the scene or start work on something new to perform.
However, I was surprised how disconnected the final scene work felt from what we’d done in the previous two terms. While there were some useful skills taught and practiced I also felt that other important factors were ignored, although I realise the course can’t cover everything in such a short space of time.
I don’t feel the Movement classes did much for me, other than teach me some more ways to warm up (but I’m not a fan of the aerobics-style, everyone-facing-the-front, moving-in-unison warm-ups the classes featured). I can see that the lesson we spent on Laban effort actions may be useful at some point if I’m lacking inspiration, and possibly the animal work (although it sounded like few people use animal work in practice). Otherwise, I rarely understood what the points of many exercises were. I’m not sure if this was due to confusing or incomplete explanations but, right up to and including the final Movement performance, I often felt I had no idea of the relevance of particular exercises to any aspects of acting.
I’m certainly not opposed to doing more physical work. I’d love to try more dancing for example, and I’ve been enjoying the Mask and Commedia dell’Arte classes I’ve taken over the past two terms. But the Movement classes seemed neither one nor the other, somewhere between dancing and acting. I don’t know what I was supposed to be learning.
The Voice classes should have been very useful — I’m aware that my voice, particularly projection and support, is one of my weakest points. But ninety minutes a week shared between twenty students is inadequate for making much headway when each student has very different requirements. Apart from learning warm-up techniques everyone needed individual attention and around three minutes each per week isn’t enough, despite valiant efforts.
I’m not sure how directly useful the Voice class was to the final scene work, apart from having inched our voices closer toward suitability over the previous two terms. I know that I could have done with some more practice on volume for example — how loud is loud enough when performing in a particular setting, and if your character has to lower his voice, how do you do that and still be heard?
Looking back, it’s surprising how many different things we did over the first two terms of the Acting classes. Much of the time was taken up by the various solo exercises — endowment, sense memory, etc. — and I found these frustrating. I realise that when learning new skills one may have to do things that seem boring, but it seemed odd that so much time was spent on such solitary technical exercises with no connection to other people or events.
Also, these exercises often took way too long; I thought they were supposed to be a couple of minutes or so each, but watching scenes drag on for 10, 20, even 30, minutes ate into the limited time available for everyone else to learn. We could have spent the extra time repeating things that didn’t work, spending more time on less solitary and introverted tasks, or giving and receiving more feedback.
The feedback we received for most exercises felt very limited, not just from the teacher, but also to and from each other. Prompting us, the audience, for positive and negative feedback on each other’s pieces would have been useful both for the performer and everyone else. After a couple of terms I didn’t feel we were comfortable praising or criticising each other’s performances and we should have been.
However, it was interesting to watch our progress with improvisation. The first time we improvised in small groups it was pretty dreadful for a variety of reasons. We definitely became better at this over time, and while some of this may be due to being more familiar with each other, the various improvisation exercises helped a great deal. For example, the first week everyone was talking over each other, but, later, forcing people to use a single word each had the effect of showing everyone the power of restraint for subsequent scenes.
We also managed to improvise some scenes that worked very well, either as comedy or serious drama: the “card game” improvisations; talking only about the subtext; and some of the introvert/extrovert driver exercises. When these scenes worked they felt like we’d created something out of nothing, a tense or funny moment for both actors and audience. My only criticism (apart from, again, wanting more feedback from teacher and students) would be that there was a tendency to aim more for comedy than seriousness in the improvisations. It felt like getting a laugh was an all-too-easy source of approval, and scenes that were performed to tense silence were rare.
I was surprised that we spent so little time in any of the classes on getting into a character, as I’d previously assumed this was a major part of the acting process. The only character-based work in Acting was the “character opposites” exercise. Unfortunately this did little for me, although others seemed to find it useful. I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who was “opposite” and so chose someone I only knew from a previous class, which was my mistake. I didn’t know him nearly well enough to figure out how he would react in any other situations. Consequently I never felt like I was in the character.
When we started work on our final scenes there was, again, little talk about character, or the given circumstances of the scene or how to interpret and work with a text. It felt like we were alone with this side of the process, with our weekly direction focusing almost solely on activities, movement and tempo — it was all “outer” rather than “inner.”
This direction was useful, and it could be that my only other experience of scene work had focused far more on getting into the character, emotions and circumstances, and so I had different expectations. But the focus on activities, movement, etc. felt like I was too much on the surface of the scene. At times I almost felt I was blagging my way through the scene — making it look like I was in character when little work had been done on the character itself.
My slight dissatisfaction with this process could be simply that my expectations were different. It would have been useful for the process by which we’d be working to be made clear at the start of the final term: What aspects of the performance would the direction be focusing on? What should we be working on ourselves? Should we be working on in-depth characters a la The Method, or Meisner’s Preparation and Particularisation, or maybe we should just get on with acting because, as David Mamet puts it, “there is no character” (David Mamet, True or False, Faber and Faber, 1998, p.9.) If these assumptions had been made clear then maybe I’d have found it easier to ignore preparation that I’d previously been taught to be essential. The scenes seemed to work in the end, but it would have been better if we’d had the confidence during the term that this would be the case.
One final point about all three classes. I felt we could have made more progress if some students had taken things more seriously. The induction session we all had before the first term began emphasised that this was a serious course requiring commitment. But most classes suffered because this wasn’t taken to heart or enforced: people were often absent; some people were often late; some people would frequently slip out to the toilet mid-class, even while the teacher was explaining something; and some people would instantly begin chattering the moment the teacher turned away. All this only increases the recurring problem we had of people misunderstanding, or completely missing, instructions.
I don’t want to sound like too much of a dour killjoy, but if ground rules were laid out at the start of the year, and everyone kept to them rather than behaving like school children, I think we’d have made even more progress than we did.
Watching the dress rehearsal for our final scenes it was impressive to see how competent everyone was and how far we’d all come. Everyone had improved individually and we were finally, just about, working together as a team. But I can’t deny that I wish we’d all come further.
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Dawn Pedersen at 30 Jan 2007, 7:28pm. Permalink
This is very useful information for a first-year high school drama teacher. I remember thinking back on my college acting classes and feeling like many of the exercises are just dumb.
I've also noticed that my students prefer to be humorous in their improvisation games. I rarely get anyone trying to be dramatic or poignant. I'm going to beginning asking for that from time to time. I'm warming up to the idea of coaching students *while* they are in the middle of an improv scene.