When To Start Acting

I thought I would wax philosophical today and take the day off from looking at practical solutions. I was thinking recently of an article I had read so many years ago that stated that of all the performing arts, theatre was the only one a person decided to devote themselves to when they were 18 years old. Dance and classical musical instruments, it pointed out, you had to start on when you were young. Waiting until you are 12 is pretty much too late if you expected to be any good. Children had the luxury of waiting until they were graduating high school to make the decision to pursue drama.

There is a degree of hyperbole that I have attributed, but that was the gist I came away with from the article. Whether it meant toor not, it made me feel like a dilettante for waiting until I received accolades in high school to decide to be a theatre minor in college. (Though I literally was a dilettante since the word is dervived from Italian meaning one who loves the arts) True, there was my earlier starring role in my 8th grade play as Martin the Cobbler, but I felt guilty for thinking I could become a success when all those dancers and violinists had been working since they were four to have a chance at success.

On the other hand, I should have felt guilty for thinking I could become an actor when there were so many people with actual talent who were working hard for a chance at success. At the time I read the article in question, I had a limited comprehension of what it meant to act. Sure, I understood the whole idea of making myself vulnerable, not censoring my impulses and acting rather than indicating, etc. Though I thought I was doing all those things, I see now that I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until I got a bit older and the hormones stopped raging through my brain and I could actually ponder things uninterrupted that I realized an actor couldn’t really start his/her work until they got older. Musicians have to master and integrate themselves with their instrument, dancers must master their bodies. Actors must master and comprehend life.

Certainly, dancers and musicians must do the same to add depth to their performance. For actors though, it is their performance, they have to present a believable version of being a human they are not. For that, you have to actually understand people you are not and empathesize with their existence. This isn’t an easy thing to do when you are young and think the world revolves around you. Some people can’t even get past the self-centric view when they get older.

Now that I am older, I think I could be a better actor than I was even though my acting classes are some distance behind me. I understand people and the human condition so much more. I have always been an avid reader and have read the same book 4-5 times. In some cases I did it because I often saw things anew, but often because the book fired my imagination and provided an escape. In the past 5 years or so though I have gone back and read books I read many times as a teenager and suddenly gained HUGE insights into the subtle things the characters were going through because of my real life experiences.

The question this sort of leads to then is in relation the formal education an actor should have. Given that they have to experience a wide slice of life, is it really valuable to have them concentrate on theatre as an undergraduate major? I have to admit, the head of my undergraduate theatre program believed it was not and only offered a minor in the program. At the time, I didn’t agree with him, (though the first time I wasn’t cast in a show I was ready to swear off theatre altogether), but now I see the wisdom in it.

The idea of whether potential MFA acting students should have a wide liberal arts base majoring in history, English, sociology, etc vs. having received theatre training as an undergrad has been debated often. There is certainly no guarantee that a person who has concentrated on the sociology or literature of cultures and had some theatre training would have better insight than a person who concentrated on theatre and took sociology and English as a lesser focus.

It comes down to whether a broad base of knowledge or prior technical training in acting better serves two people with equal talent when they enter an acting training program.

The same could be applied to managers. Is it better to have studied theatre as an undergrad or English? Certainly, there would be a benefit to have been a business student with a theatre background if you wanted to enter a career in theatre business. They may have to take some additional non-management theatre courses to round themselves out a bit more, but they already understand the elements which affect all businesses, arts related or not. (Though there is also some debate about whether managers are being trained to know enough about their particular discipline.)

The question is then, does a person who got a BA in something besides theatre belong in a serious management training program? I say serious program because I have seen arts administration programs where the faculty essentially admitted they mainly served primary and secondary school art teachers looking to boost their pay by getting a MA in Administration. Certainly the people getting the degrees were being trained to be administrators, but because the majority didn’t intend to become managers themselves, there was less of a concern on the part of the professors and students alike to guarantee that the graduates had the skills not to plunge an organization into bankruptcy.

So have English majors received the training that can be built upon by an arts administration program? Is a theatre minor enough training on the art side so that the student can concentrate on attaining business skills?

One comment I have heard of late is that undergraduate writing skills are atrocious and that this is the first area a management program has to concentrate on improving. Marketing, public relations and development offices owe their success to expressing themselves well.

Unfortunately, being an English major doesn’t guarantee this skill these days, though you might expect otherwise. I must confess that as an English major, I might have possessed substandard skills myself had I not been pursuing teaching certification in addition to a theatre minor. (Though I am sure stream of consciousness blogging might belie my claim that my skills are not substandard.)

The answer to all this is probably, as one might imagine, that you can’t generalize and have to assess each student as they present themselves. I was an English major with theatre and education minors. It wouldn’t have served my graduate program or me very well had they adopted strict guidelines as to the undergraduate degree type I received as a condition of admission.

Before I went into grad school, I had a fair bit of marketing, front of house, acting and technical background from undergrad training and had worked on an American College Theatre Festival and two Association of Theatre in Higher Education conferences. I had also done lighting and carpentry in summer stock and been on the house crew for a presenting house.

I probably had a fair understanding of the issues facing theatres before I entered my training program. Certainly, I got exposed to some pretty extreme on the job training on these issues before I had earned my degree. (The theatre I interned at was a week or less away from closing its doors the entire time I was there.)

So there you have it. My musings on artist training and a little bit more about my background!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “When To Start Acting”

  1. How Shall I Educate Thee

    I’ve touched lightly upon the problems with the training of theatre professionals a couple times in entries. I never really got into it in the depth that Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas did in a recent entry. It is…


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