Friday, June 19, 2015

We are our symbols...

To quote the theologian Tom Driver, I find myself in a state like that of mourning.  My beloved country, that which Lincoln called "the last best hope of man on earth,"is failing.

The recent attack in Charleston, SC, is yet another event in a long string of systemic violence and oppression against black America.  It is, in a word, terrorism.  An armed thug went into a church and killed a bunch of black people because he felt that he could.  He felt that he was justified.  If reports of his words are correct, he felt that he had to do it. He had to do it because black Americans either "had to go" or had to be frightened back into knowing their place.

I am so sorry.

In front of the South Carolina state house, the Confederate battle flag flies.  It flies, ostensibly, as a symbol of the state's "heritage."  And yet, what is this heritage?  It depends on who you ask, I guess.

I've lived in the South for about 10 years now.  First in Texas, then in Georgia, and then in North Carolina.  During my time in Savannah, Georgia, I worked for a group called the Coastal Heritage Society, which operates a number of historic sites round the city.  Included among this collection is Old Fort Jackson, which is operated as a Civil War history center.

During my time there, I worked as a historical interpreter, doing programs for visitors and school groups.  They were mainly about what life at the Fort was like, daily routines, etc.  Very much in the frame of "history is a foreign country and this is how we do things there."  However, it always felt very strange raising the Stars & Bars (the actual 1st Confederate National, not the Southern Cross) over the fort every morning.

Through most of my time there, I stuck to a Union blue wool uniform.  I was never comfortable in the grey.  I also refused or avoided participating in Confederate Memorial Day, until finally I was told that I had no choice or I could look for another job.  And so, not having another income, I fired gun salutes to Jefferson Davis and the "lost cause."

You will hear things like "states rights," "tariffs," and "exclusionism" bandied about when the Civil War is discussed in such circles.  Friends of mine at work would insist that the War had not been concerned with race.  And yet, I cannot help but feel that it goes back to Alexander Stephens' Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

We are our symbols.  We continue to fly a symbol of the heritage of hate in our public spaces.  I was once asked by a man for directions to "West Broad Street" in Savannah.  Not being familiar with the road (and I know my way around Savannah), I ran a quick google to find that he was referring to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd (it had been renamed)... when I told him about his mistake he simply shook his head and said "Oh, I don't say that name."

I have somehow made this post about me.  I set out to do something else, though.  

There is something deeply wrong with America that we as a people are not condemning this violence with one voice.  Hemming and hawing has already begun, and people have expressed shock and disbelief that such a thing could happen.  Fox News has even gone so far as to suggest these attacks were part of America's persecution of Christians.

White America is focusing on the individual because we have always had that privilege.  We are seeking already to spin and explain, to distance ourselves.  Hashtags like #NotAllWhites and #AllLivesMatter have sprung up like deceptive mushrooms after a rain.

We as a people are our symbols.  And the idea of American individualism and "heritage," etc, is rooted in a white ideology that at least passively promotes supremacy when it does not outright enforce it.

As an American theatre practitioner, as a symbol maker, I cannot help but think that we have failed our country.

I'm sorry.

I'm listening.

What can I do?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thoughts on the Crisis of American Acting: Class, Economics, & Transatlantic Fetishism

The British are coming! The British are coming!

It is the second British invasion.  As noted recently in Entertainment weekly, many American films are currently dominated by British-heavy casts.  In both Selma and 12 Years A Slave, the lead players are overwhelmingly European.  Indeed, we even turned to a Brit (Daniel Day Lewis) to play that most American of presidents, Abraham Lincoln.  "What gives," cry writers (along with casting directors).  Why are the so many Brits (with the occasional Australian) playing seminal American figures.  In 12 Years a Slave, the top billed American (Brad Pitt) played a Canadian.

So what are we to make of this?  It isn't as if Brits playing Americans (or vice versa) is a new phenomena.  Vivien Leigh ring a bell?  However, there does seem to be a marked uptick among British leads playing American characters.  As it was pointed out, your accent does not guarantee you a role (except when it does).  Is America suddenly more Anglophilic than ever?

Or is it that American actors just aren't as good as British ones (as an aggregate)?  Is it something in the water?  Our diets?  Not really.  According to Charlie Sandlan, it can all be chalked up to the fact that American actors are lazy.

Mr. Sandlan takes the time to roundly decry the lack of training among young American actors today.  Instead of seriously studying their technique, they instead seek to dive directly in to the industry in the hopes of "making it big."  And it is training and work ethic that causes British Actors to outstrip their American competitors.

This call to "seriousness" is common among the acting conservatories in and around New York.  Maggie Flanagan Studios, where Sandlan is a senior faculty member, strongly advises its students to refrain from auditioning during their time at the studio.  Indeed, other conservatories, such as HB Studios (which teaches the technique of Uta Hagen) and Neighborhood Playhouse (a bastion of Meisner Technique) openly forbid their young charges from auditioning for or accepting roles while they are studying.

So the need is training!  Well, I am sure that Mr. Sandlan would be more than willing to help provide that, for a fee.  Of course!  Now, the Maggie Flanagan Studio, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and HB Studios are not so gauche as to publish their fee structure up front.  However, they do assure prospective applicants that there are some forms of financial aid available.  A few scholarships, but mainly work-study programs.  The Adler Studio does publish its fee structure, and it ranges from 5-10k per semester, depending on the program you are working on.  A quick google search of acting classes will show you what you get for this!
Most of the images for acting classes that I found consist of some teacher (Mr. Sandlan is up there in the left-hand corner) sitting in front of a very serious (and often ill-lit) group of people.  Uta Hagen's master classes, which are available on DVD, are also of a similar vein.  1-2 people get up there and work in front of an otherwise seated class.  I am not the only one to note this.  Improvisatory technique teacher Stephen Book also mentions this in his Book on Acting.

Which leads me to ask, is it proper that we charge young artists (hopeful, gallant naifs that they are) through the nose (while often forbidding them from working) to sit in a room and act once per moon's turn?  Oh, and they need housing in one of the most expensive cities in the world.  They should probably feed themselves as well.

And here we come to the crux of the matter.  Money.  Firstly, a large portion of the more successful British actors come from an upper or upper-middle class background and were educated at private schools like Eton and Harrow.  Scottish actor James McAvoy pointed this out in an interview with the
Herald of Scotland.  Many of these top-shelf talents had the money and resources to get through drama school.  But even McAvoy himself, from a working-class background, managed to work his way through the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Though the class restrictions of the American theatre are nothing new (indeed, our beloved art form seems content to steadily price itself out of reach for the majority of Americans), McAvoy's example points to another part of the issue.  He worked his way through school.  Prices were such that he could afford to do so.  And yet, I cannot think of a part-time job capable of procuring anything beyond a sardine can in New York, even with roommates.  We are, after all, talking about a city where if you rent storage space, you have to agree not to try and live in it.

Quite simply, American actors cannot generally afford the kind of training that is standard in Britain.  When Mr. Sandlan decries booking a “'six-week camera class', or a 'scene study' with some unemployed actor," I cannot, firstly, help but wonder how he manages to keep himself out of that category and, secondly, how he expects them to afford more than this.  Even many Britons cannot afford the kind of training that is standard in Britain.

I would submit that it is not laziness but money that keeps many actors from pursuing in-depth training.  Money is becoming more and more of a bar to entry and a fetish of success in the American theatre.  And this is actively harming our actors.

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than the prospect of the internship or assistantship or whatever you want to call it, or even intensives or short term classes.  This is the model of much of theatre education.

The goal of these classes or internships is often to allow people to "get their foot in the door" with a company, or a casting director, or whatever.  This is the world of the "professional showcase" where casting directors send Augie the Intern to watch some newly minted MFAs/BFAs/Certificate Holders/People who paid the fee strut their stuff for consideration.  The training, or the art, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  It is designed to make the actor more marketable.

Increasing marketability can also be referred to as liquidity.  Liquidity, economically speaking, is how easily something can be converted into cash.  In other words, much of the theatrical education system in this country is trying to turn students into money.  Increasing liquidity means an uncoupling from commitments, and an ability to be infinitely changeable.  It is, as Rob Horning points out in The New Inquiry, a quintessentially antisocial flexibility and unwillingness to commit.

Theatre, as we have discussed before, is an inherently social activity.  Yet this tension between the mindset created in acting students and the integral nature of the art is slowly choking the American theatre in a number of ways.  It isn't that Americans are lazy, it is that the system is put together to dehumanize them.