In defence of drama school

  • Published by CapX
  • In his dogmatic moralising of 1577, the puritanical preacher Thomas White was convinced that the plague was God’s judgment on the depravities of theatre: “The cause of plague is sin,” he thundered, “..and the cause of sin are plays: therefore the cause of plagues are plays.”

    And so all the theatres were shut down. It was God’s will.

    Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph (‘Don’t do it, Lily Allen – our drama schools aren’t fit for purpose’) is equally certain that drama schools are hotbeds of depravity and sexual abuse, and while he doesn’t go quite as far as the Rev’d Thomas White, he does demand fundamental reformation: ‘Acting is a craft, and I believe that drama schools need to forget all the psychological nonsense and instead just concentrate on the technical side. This means no breaking down of previous personalities, no tricksy exercises that expose the student’s vulnerabilities, and definitely no “rape masks”.’

    It is easy to make a case for the evisceration of drama schools based on a condensed list of allegations of inappropriate conduct over a number of years. Indeed, calling a black student the n-word, or allowing mask work to become physical or sexual, ought properly to become disciplinary matters and institutional deficiencies addressed (or disreputable tutors sacked). But I could compile a similar dossier of abuses and systematic failings in British universities over the same period, and nobody would reasonably adduce it as justification for purging the entire sector of the foundations of academic discovery. Racism or sexual harassment in drama schools is bad enough, but universities have seen 319 suicides in recent years – 14 of them in one university alone.

    The collective response has been to inculcate student wellbeing and mental health support as a foundational ethos, which is now yielding the necessary change in culture. The same latitude ought to be extended to drama schools, where abuses may be manifold and serious, but also where an allegation of sexual assault may arise from a deeply emotional improvisation; and a charge of racism or discrimination may consist in a black actor being cast as a slave, a large (can one say ‘fat’?) actress being encouraged to lose weight for a role, or the only disabled actor not being cast as Richard III. While the court of social media might convict and condemn based on such prima facie evidence, most theatre directors and educators understand that artistic straitjackets should be avoided: the objective must be the creation of great art, and any socio-ethical responsibility towards a specific community must be subsumed to that.

    To train as an actor is to make oneself vulnerable: it is psychologically, physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding, simply because artistic creativity and exploration are like stripping naked for all to see, and there is very often – of necessity – a sense of shame, guilt, self-loathing or sin in the process (not least because audiences want to smell the stench of shame, guilt, self-loathing and sin). Such is human nature, and the actor’s vocation, as Hamlet expounded, is to hold a mirror up to it ‘to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’. Certainly, some in positions of power may choose to exploit and abuse the vulnerabilities revealed – and theatre is indeed prone to the coercion of the ‘casting couch’ – but the bullies should be made to face their own depravities, inadequacies and insecurities, not used as an excuse for actors not to cross traumatic boundaries of creative exploration, or to prevent them from taking artistic risks in pursuit of greater truth and reality in order to shield them from ‘harm’.

    Some drama training is now utterly devoid of foundational philosophy and emotional reality. It has become so sterile and insulated – for ‘health and safety’ and ‘inclusion’ purposes – that it barely helps young actors to learn the craft of acting, let alone equip them to work independently in the theatrical profession. Many drama teachers are also now reluctant to critique students’ work for fear of eliciting distress or arousing anger, with all the contiguous allegations of bullying, discrimination or ‘hate’.

    But you can’t excise the ‘psychological nonsense’ from drama training without reducing it to stamping and shouting, or ‘indicating’, as the late, great proponent of Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ Doreen Cannon would say. “I don’t believe you!” she’d bark at her students (of which I was one), goading them, in the words of Simon Callow, ‘to combustion point’. Her dramatic pedagogy would probably now be considered a form of psychological abuse, and it’s the sort of extreme emotional exercise Ben Lawrence seems to think should be eradicated. ‘The power of projection, as well as the ability to command a stage and to move well, should be the main focus points of drama schools’, he writes, as though graduating with a BA (Hons) in hand gestures and vocal inflections would equip young actors with anything but delusions of being ‘qualified’ to act, and so fully entitled to a stellar career on the stage.

    ‘Think of all those performers’, he continues, ‘– Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, Matt Smith – who never went to drama school, but have become some of the most acclaimed actors of their respective generations.’

    Well, up to a point. McKellen learned his craft at Cambridge University (appearing in 23 plays over three years), then into regional repertory theatre, which in those days was a ‘drama school’ for so many aspiring actors. Jacobi had an identical training at Cambridge and grounding in regional rep. Thompson is the daughter of actress Phyllida Law and actor-director Eric Thompson: “I have a definite feeling of inheriting space. And power,” she said in 1995. Smith studied Drama at the University of East Anglia, and thence to an apprenticeship with the National Youth Theatre.

    Plucking a few famous names from the air who happened not to study at a drama school is not only hostage to a host of educational and biographical variables, but ignores the fact that some of history’s legends of the stage – Olivier, Gielgud, Ashcroft, Guinness, Hopkins, Jackson, Dench, etc., etc. – all did. Clearly, drama schools serve a purpose, even for honing the greatest, and the alternative drama teachers of old – the touring actor-manager or the local theatre company – either no longer exist or are so few and far between that it’s easier to get a place at Cambridge and the Marlowe Society than a season at the Birmingham Rep.

    Ben Lawrence seems to relegate acting to the lower orders of the liberal arts; indeed, by reducing it merely to its ‘technical’ aspects, it is of little more art than juggling; barely an honourable profession worthy of vocational training. Acting isn’t the same as reciting dramatic poetry, as he seems to suggest, and play-acting isn’t merely playing. ‘All the world’s a stage’, yes, but actors aren’t just strutting and fretting their allotted hours upon the stage performing what they are, but observing, practising, and learning to be what they are not. Acting is an academic art form – right up there with the creation of literature, music, painting and architecture. Some may not consider it so, but in every sociological, aesthetic and psychological sense it is certainly so.

    Acting is also a profoundly psychological process: it is sensing, thinking, intuiting, and feeling. Excised of the investigation into a character’s inner complexity, and deprived of the illumination of the darkest recesses of their soul, the artist is labotomised and enervated. Of course the technical is important, and always has been: Hamlet famously advised the Players not to ‘saw the air too much’ with their hands, or ‘split the ears of the groundlings’. But acting can no more be reduced to projection and gesticulation than journalism can be reduced to spelling and grammar, or musical composition to scales and arpeggios. There are tools and building blocks, and then there are shrines and temples. Holding a mirror up to human nature involves entering a holy place where the ‘self’ may be sacrificed, emotional barriers broken down, personalities dissected, and vulnerabilities, prejudices and ‘dark’ impulses confronted.

    Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ isn’t ‘psychological nonsense’, but a cognitive, emotional and analytical process of observing, discovering, and believably recreating moments of studied truth, without which there is simply no dramatic authenticity or artistic integrity. If the actor isn’t being an astute psychologist, they aren’t so much holding ‘the mirror up to nature’ as a refracting lens of sanitisation up to a patronised audience. And then the deadly ‘safe space’ of self-preservation usurps the daring ‘empty space’ of unconscious self-discovery. And instead of glimpsing divine inspiration, we squint at plastic mediocrity. Great moments of theatre consist of great moments of acting. As Stanislavski wrote in My Life in Art: ‘The only king and ruler of the stage is the talented actor.’ And that talent, he said, is an inner, active art; a complex spiritual work which, more often than not, demands intense and even traumatic vocational nurturing, which has been handed down from generation to generation: ‘This is the sphere of living tradition.’


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