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Thoughts on future acting

By Graham Dixon

I have often pondered whether Hamlet’s advice to the Players (Hamlet Act III, scene ii) could be used as a basis for a 21st century acting training. 


The first sentence in his advice for speaking a speech trippingly on the tongue always troubled me, since the tongue is just one element in the actor’s speech instrument. Why not trippingly on the teeth? Or trippingly on the tongue and teeth?


A few months back, when giving a workshop on a new imaginative approach to text analysis that I have devised, I suddenly understood  the phrase trippingly on the tongue when, like a lightning flash, it dawned upon me that the tongue is the sense organ for taste. In the work I was developing, I was stressing to the participants the importance of sensing the text in the mouth AND on the tongue! 


In Hamlet's advice, what I did find intriguing, particularly from Michael Chekhov’s pedagogical point of view, was the line: Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.  If, instead of 'action', we substituted the word 'gesture', the glaring difference between Stanislavsky system and Michael Chekhov's  approach - as I prefer to call it - is made very clear.  


It seems this glaring difference was not so apparent to many of the participants over my many years of giving workshops and classes: particularly to those who had completed an acting training either in one of the established university drama schools or at a privately run organisation. By contrast, those participants who had had no previous training but had come to me with just a naive and pure desire to pursue acting, seemed to be unsullied by any of the 20th century theatre practitioners or pedagogies.


Nonetheless, both types of participants had, in some way, heard of Michael Chekhov, having either picked up his book To the Actor or had a friend or teacher who had mentioned this alternative way, which they felt the need to explore. In other words, they were all looking for 'another way’. 


What was more difficult for the institutionally trained actors was to extricate themselves from the idea that all feelings had to be self-generated, otherwise the feelings were not valid or 'true’. 


Hamlet's advice do not saw the air too much with your hand…etc., fits with bringing a sense of truth to a performance. However, I found myself on tricky ground for here I began to see that 'true' equated to 'real' for the last 3 or 4 generations of actors and student actors - and possibly more in the United States, where "The Method" or variants of it has had an unhealthy grip on acting trainings. 

Rather than experimenting with sawing the air too much with their hands, trained actors were terrified of anything that seemed not 'real' or that might appear as 'over the top' and exaggerated. 


I sensed it would be a bit of a stretch to build a 21st century acting training based upon what, to many, would seem "ancient" advice.  However, I pursued my notion and from Hamlet's speech I listed the topics to correlate to subjects that would have to be a necessary part of a modern actor's training. 


I saw now that Hamlet's advice for speaking text, working together with the indications on speech as given by Rudolf Steiner, could be the basis for a sound and rigorous study for an actor's voice and speech ability. 


And coupled with the updated phrase: suit the gesture to the word, the word to the gesture, would encourage a loosening of the divide between the voice department and acting department. So long as gesture is not misconstrued with gesticulation! 


So far so good. 


Now, at first glance a robustious periwig-pated fellow tearing a passion to tatters does not seem to be a problem today but I can see that a future training would need to address this issue as, in contemporary form, it appears as a be-jeaned and t-shirted youth possessed and consumed by (what they think is) "commitment" and mouthing their text by either being hardly audible or by offering an excess of red-faced and vein-bursting emotions.


And if truthful playing is, as Hamlet advises: to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his own form and pressure", it is understandable that 'truth' can mean 'real', so long as we understand 'real' in the sense of everyday and lifel-ike behaviour. In fact, plain ordinary: not poetic but prosaic and mundane.

These thoughts immediately took me to to the end of Hamlet's speech where he rather passionately says that players who strut and bellow, have imitated humanity so abominably.


I began to see that, yes, one could take this speech of Hamlet's as a basis for a new pedagogy for actor training. And not just for actors but for all aspects of  theatre craft: including directors, designers, costumiers, lighting designers and operators, stage crew and even front-of-house staff.


And it would seem that how we view and look at the human being, both in the earthly and cosmological sense, will determine to a very great degree how we plan a program for the actor and for the theatre of now and into the future.

Now I had an inkling of what Michael Chekhov was on to when he aspired to a theatre of the future. A THEATRE of the future, not a cinema or a television of the future!


Of course, the drama schools and universities would be hard pushed from a financial and budgetary point of view to provide trainings only for theatre actors. And, besides, why limit the future income-earning possibilities of their potential customers. Hamlet's advice is, after all, really about the suitable interface of one's skill to the job at hand.

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