At the beginning of 2018, I decided that this is the year of creative risks. Finished play projects. More auditions. More pitches to editors. And more training as an actor.
During January, while the snow dumped down on my Midwestern home, I found myself googling images of Saratoga Springs, New York—specifically in the summertime—trying to envision what it might be like to spend an entire month there to train with a theatre company I deeply respect. In addition to warming me up a little in the bleak midwinter, this search also gave me a chance to reflect on what it might be like for me personally to pursue ongoing training as an actor.
I haven’t “trained” formally since my undergraduate days, but I’m starting to feel my limitations now that youth and general energy are starting to wane. To be honest, as a 30-something performer who works as a college professor, the thought of going “back to school” is equal parts exciting and terrifying, if only for four weeks in the summer.
For a few years now, I’ve considered applying to the SITI Company Summer Intensive, a month-long training intensive in Viewpoints and Suzuki Method that takes place on the campus of Skidmore College. But circumstances always seemed to be in the way: finishing a dissertation, working on plays scheduled in the summer, and then moving to a new state (Hello, Illinois!) to begin my current position.
This year, however, armed with a generous faculty research grant from my university and the summer off, I applied. And then I found out I was accepted. And then I put down my deposit. And now… I am terrified.
Okay, “terrified” might be an exaggeration, but the spirit of that word choice pretty accurately describes the riskiness of seeking more training, especially for 30-something actors like myself. I was terrified when I began the process of pursuing a graduate degree many years ago, in part because enrolling in graduate school is a confession (for me, at least) that one needs more education.
I’m recognizing a lot of those same pre-grad school feelings as I prepare for the SITI Intensive. This impulse to pursue more concentrated training as an actor, outside of the traditional path of graduate school (been there, done that), feels even more risky, mainly since ongoing training for the actor is somewhat unusual.
Actually, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, in The Viewpoints Book, point out this exact issue: “The theater is the only artistic discipline that does not encourage or insist upon the ongoing training of its practitioners. The result: rusty or inflexible actors who often feel unsatisfied or uninspired” (Bogart and Landau 17). They continue,
What musician, after graduating from a conservatory, would assume that s/he did not need to practice every day? What dancer would not take class or do bar exercises on a regular basis? What painter, what singer, what writer would not practice her/his art daily? And yet, upon graduation from a training program, actors are supposed to be ready for the marketplace without a commitment to ongoing personal training. (17)
I’ve been reflecting recently on what makes theatre artists, particularly actors, seek out training like the SITI Intensive. At this point, I don’t know exactly what to expect with this summer intensive other than the sample schedule on the program’s website, but I’m going into it open-minded. I may be nervous, but I’m definitely ready to work.
My choice to apply to this particular training intensive has its own background story. I opted to apply to the SITI program because the artists I have come to respect the most are either graduates of this summer program or individuals who actively integrate Viewpoints and Suzuki training into their work. I’ve encountered this training as an undergraduate, as a graduate student, and as a professional actor, and my experiences with this work have been formative. In fact, my earliest exposure to Viewpoints as an undergraduate completely transformed my orientation to acting and creating work for the stage. Now that I’m an educator myself, I have enough good sense to reopen myself to previously awesome learning experiences.
I once participated in Viewpoints exercises with a group of other actors on a Saturday afternoon in ATX’s Ramsey Park (we were working on a Shakespeare in the park production of The Winter’s Tale). We all felt a little on display, and some of the local kids looked like they might join in on our exercises, but the fact that we were working together as a group alleviated our self-consciousness and allowed us to really experiment within the public space in which we would eventually perform.
Truly, the qualities that strike me the most about Viewpoints work are its generosity and its graciousness. From my understanding, this is not a strategy for being immediately “effective.” Rather, it’s an orientation to craft built upon responsiveness, experimentation, and play. And all of this work takes place within the framework of a supportive and nonjudgmental ensemble.
I am also really excited by SITI’s integration of Suzuki’s training methods. When I first read The Way of Acting, I had a moment of recognition when I read Suzuki’s claim that western actors seem to only act from the waist up. As someone who teaches theatre history and literature in a university setting, I often feel that I have conditioned myself to not think about my feet. Suzuki’s claim absolutely articulates one of my chief frustrations with my work as an actor—not knowing what to do with my sense of connection to what’s underfoot—and I am excited to participate in a training system that would help me re-examine my physicality as an actor.
Part of me wonders, too, if jumping on board with this summer intensive will help me interrogate what it really means for me to call myself an actor. Because I spent most of my 20’s in graduate school, my acting resume is certainly not as expansive as my peers’, but I believe that approaching dramatic literature and theory from an academic standpoint was something I needed to do in order to understand what kind of theatre I want to make. It took a long time to get through grad school, but, all told, I came out of it with a sense of clarity and purpose. Even though I worked as an actor intermittently through graduate school, it still feels very much like I’m just now “getting started” as an actor. At 30, it’s an interesting place to be, but also an exciting one.
So, this summer is going to be a growth-focused one for me. I may try to post updates while I’m off in Saratoga Springs (living in a dorm! on a meal plan!), but I’m so bad at keeping this blog updated that I don’t trust myself to follow through.
We’ll see. 😉