by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
At this time of year I remember how I used to feel at the end of one acting school term and before the beginning of the next. Forget Christmas or New Year's hap-hap-happy. My guts used to churn.
When I watch young actors, fresh out of acting school, even before they open their mouths or do a goddam thing on stage, I admire them. They have been through the grinder of training and from all the stories I've heard from actors, new and veteran, about their education, not much has changed in the teaching of the trade.
You still have the improv, voice, movement, dance, text, makeup and interpretation classes. I also had fencing and mime, which some schools have, some don't. It's work. It's classes all day, rehearsals for the term play at night and on weekends. It's work. Sometimes it's pulverizing because time has to be snatched away from sleep for history of theatre papers, theatre lit reading and learning lines. It's work...
...and it's teachers.
From my experiences in acting school I could give courses on how to teach the profession, and to be perfectly frank, long seminars on how not to teach. When I left school I was at the end of my rope, sick and tired and tired of feeling that way. I did not make it to the end of the three years (fell a term short). The getting of wisdom that comes with age insists I remember fondly the best times of those years, but the bitterness I felt towards the experience as a whole remained for a long time - into my 30s. I could not help feeling that not enough of my teachers had nurtured us and the proof was that of 30 students who enrolled, three staggered to the end of the course.
Why? I think it is because - along with the valuable lesson that theatre is hard work - we were not treated as students but as talentless hacks who, for the most part, were busy wasting these professionals's valuable time. I could recount a thousand anecdotes but one, particularly brutal, will suffice.
We were mounting a production of a theatrical classic and, according to our classically-trained director/teacher, we were not getting it. At rehearsals he would tell actors they were performing like "crippled children" and then he would do his "crippled child" imitation. The youngsters not targetted by his "crippled child" act (lurching and drooling around the rehearsal hall) would laugh like mad because we, at that moment, were not the targets. That's not the anecdote; that is simply a portrait of the man.
I was playing the juvenile lead - purposely cast against type so I would "grow." But I was not growing. I was withering. It was like asking me to do Lear or Hamlet...I didn't have the equipment. I had to act handsome and I had just gotten rid of the teen acne and baby fat and felt anything but pretty. I did, however, feel juvenile. I even begged the teacher for help which he did in his usually abusive way. in the centre of the play I had a long, long monologue and through a series of cuts, this showcase was diminished to a few lines.
But as they always do, opening night arrived. I survived it. That was enough for me. Survival. However, the director appeared in the lobby after the show, drew me away from my relatives and friends, asked me to produce my script and took me backstage. The editing began anew...the big speech cut more and more. Then he looked at me and sighed and said, "I'd like to cut the whole character but the play wouldn't make sense." The wise thing would have been to quit school. The wiser thing - the thing that would have produced the celebrated theatrical catharsis - would have been to punch his motherfucking lights out. What I did, instead, was absorb the punch and try to live with it; but the words, finally, crippled me. Even as I proceded into a very successful career as a playwright, every opening night was such a hideous experience because there was always the terror I would hear the words of that fearful judgement repeated when the evening was done. It wasn't long before I could not attend the opening nights of my own plays.
During those years I tried desperately to remember the good memories and the good teachers. Jill Nassivera (who has since died, too young, of breast cancer), Jon Torrell (a published poet now), Gabrielle Soskin (artistic director of Persephone). But the memories of those good people were often devoured by the insecurities inflicted by not only that one fuckwit, but also by the movement coach who insisted a bunch of awkward, suburban adolescents explore their sexual selves on the first day of theatre school, or the history teacher who never noticed that of his 30 students only three were still awake ten minutes into the class, or the interpretation teacher who would let you go through a scene-study again and again with the single word, "Dull," as a comment until many of his students were weeping in aimless frustration.
I know I was probably not meant to be an actor, but I also know I can spot talent a mile off and many of my fellow students were truly, stunningly talent. But they withered as well, all in the name of teaching us the "hardness" of the acting profession.
The problem? Teachers like these still exist in the schools. I have heard stories of them from theatre people far younger than me. There are one or two of these old-school tyrants in virtually every acting school in the city. Theatre has changed. They have not. Their students know the tools they need for this new theatre, those teachers cannot provide those tools.
So they must be survived.
I have, since acting school, taught theatre from grades k through post-grad and I have loved doing it simply because a one-word lesson can startle and delight the most blistered theatre student: believe. Believe in yourself. Believe in your talent. Believe these empty-hearted people are only obstacles which must be overcome. Believe you will overcome them. Believe. Believe that the theatre you love will deliver you huge rewards (perhaps not of a monetary nature). Believe you are carrying the sacred fire. Believe you are the future. Understand they are the past. Believe. If you believe, we all will...with you.