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Friday, June 16, 2017

Diversity, Talent, Technique, Opportunity and Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson's reference to the nuance he thought an African-American actor could bring to the role of an African-American character that a black British actor might not achieve, whether in a portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. or a contemporary character, drew me to the controversy his seemingly off-handed remark elicited when I saw how widely it was discussed and argued on the internet and in the American and British press.  

Although this subject relates to the art of acting and its technique, unless I missed a thorough discussion of it except when it was expressed that British actors are "classically" trained and have more stage experience than American actors, and therefore could present a more artistic (my word) performance, I read only one.  If I'm wrong, please send me the link!

Richard Brody, in the March 21, 2017 issue of The New Yorker (see link below) expressed several points of view regarding the art of acting, none of which were accurate, but not unusual for educated professionals in the arts who have not been specifically educated in acting technique to express ideas that demonstrate their ignorance.

It is absurd to claim that British actors are classically trained and by inference that American actors are not.  What does classical training mean? Until those who use this odd definition define it for me, I don't intend to speculate particularly because the rigors of technique as taught in the United States are sought by hundreds of students from all over the world, and by our teachers who are invited to teach in other countries.  Further, stage experience does not develop a good actor unless that actor has been trained in the basics of the art of acting.

There are two approaches to the art of acting Western dramatic literature.  Life experience, substitution, imagination, are some aspects of Stanislavski and his colleagues' technique that was developed by the members of the Group Theatre and of which I've written elsewhere on this blog, is one of the two.  It emanated from the need to find a way to perform the realistic dramas of the 19th century.  In A Challenge for the Actor Uta Hagen defined realistic performance as one "...in which the actor puts his own psyche to use to find identification with the role, allowing the behavior to develop out of the playwright's given circumstances, trusting that a form will result, knowing that the executions of his actions will involve a moment-to-moment subjective experience."  The other is formalism as Uta Hagen defined representational acting, "...in which the artist objectively predetermines the character's actions, deliberately watching the form as he executes it."

Formalism is the technique that was taught in British drama schools in 1935, when Uta Hagen attended RADA.  Today one sees the curriculum at RADA to include "Stanislavski-based" exercises. From a quick perusal, one sees aspects of Stanislavski and the Group Theatre training in some of the major British acting schools.

Life experience and heredity shape an individual psyche.  Unless the particular circumstances of a fictional character resonate for an actor, that actor can't achieve a subjective experience, and there are degrees of resonance, depending upon the life experience of the actor.

Substitution and imagination occur when the actor executes the actions of the fictional character.  The more specific the resonance, the more nuanced, to use Mr. Jackson's word, the actor's performance will be.

Of course a British actor is capable of creating an American character; many have, and American actors have successfully created British characters when that resonance was present. However, when even an analogous life experience isn't integrated into the actions of the fictional character, hasn't carved itself into the guts of the actor, the actor is left with a reliance on his intellectual understanding, his sympathy (as Uta referred to it) for the character, and his resulting performance will show us the character, which is vastly different from a subjective performance.

Mr. Jackson's use of the word nuance was as subtle as the meaning of the word, and he wasn't wrong.

For all American actors, particularly those who aren't Caucasian, the opportunity to work occasionally, let alone consistently, is rare or non-existent.  This is ludicrous for a performance art that requires rigorous practice.  Nevertheless, I can make an impressive list of excellent American character actors of any ethnicity whose occasional performances are consistently electrifying. However, the only place an actor can train and exercise consistently is in the studio or in class.  Aside from free membership in the Actors Studio, there is no American college, university or drama school that is affordable for the poor or middle-class actor.  I've seen the websites of only a few of the prominent acting schools in England; their tuition seems unaffordable as well.

I welcome all responses and I'm particularly calling for colleagues to join collectively to teach at nominal fees that don't present an obstacle to study.  I'm imagining a place where seemingly opposing ideas such as Adler/Strasberg/Meisner are presented under the same roof and where the most diverse* talent can find expression.

*lhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-WQ6qORAZ4https://www.youtube.com/watch?

*v=FhFaAXfR2NU

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/a-few-thoughts-about-british-actors-playing-american-and-african-american-roles