This Week: Worshiping a Technique and/or Teacher (a.k.a. The Cult Factor)
Everything I say is wrong.
There are many conflicting opinions in this industry. Don’t take one person’s word as gospel. Including my own. Take what works for you.”
– Paul Russell
Anyone who has read my book ACTING: Make It Your Business will recognize that quote of mine. It’s on the first page.
Recently I was teaching at one of the schools that I was invited to. (Possibly dangerous having me corrupt the minds of young actors.) We were working on audition technique. We began with the dinosaur of auditions; monologues.
The first student, while doing her monologue, stood with her feet as if glued to the floor. She would give an occasional gesture and then ended the piece with the word “scene”.
My reaction: “What the fuck?!”
I began to work with the student, telling her that in the professional world of auditions, actors can use the space and not be so regimented or worse; manufactured as she had been. Plus only green actors and amateurs say “scene” at the end of an audition.
To all of this the class gasped. Then came looks of confusion. Fear. Followed by students looking uneasily at each other. As if I had just said the vilest defamation against each of their mothers.
I asked what was wrong. Sheepishly they began to reply that they had been taught the complete opposite. A fellow teacher of the school had instructed them to stay “in a box”. If a move or gesture was needed it was to always be matched with a singular word or phrase each time they recited the monologue. And the actor was to have a set number of moves and gestures per monologue.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” is what shot out of my mouth.
Are they actors or puppets?
Not only was this plastic-acting being taught to a number of classes, year-after-year, at this institution; the teacher like me, has set these instructions for acting in a popular book. The book and the teacher I later learned have developed a large following which is nearly cult like. Oh my God.
There was a community theater producer who wrote a book on directing (there’s a dangerous mix). When I was investigating publishers for my book, I flipped through the pages of this director primer. The community theater Presario-author was advising aspiring directors, who may be asked to direct regionally a show that previously was on Broadway, to replicate the original New York production! He instructs that they should not “tinker with what worked” for Broadway. So much for original thought. Young directors reading that book have been terribly misguided.
I once worked for this person. I wasn’t surprised about what I read because when I was asked to direct a show at his facility he handed me a bootleg video tape from the national tour of the show and asked that I replicate what was on the illegal documentation. I refused. As an SDC director and by law I, and other directors, can not legally replicate the work of another director unless granted permission by that director.
You, as an artist and person, must use what bits of knowledge you pick up on your journey. Either exploit or discard the large volume of “This is how it’s done”’s that hurtle your way.
I’m fucking sick-and-tired of hearing the phrase “People say it should be done this way.” Really? Herd mentality rules? I don’t think so. If you believe in following the masses look at what it did for this country over the past eight years of the Bush administration.
As one of the actors interviewed in ACTING: Make It Your Business said; “There is no right or wrong way. If there were someone would write a book and make a ton of money.”
She’s right. All around. You must take what works for you.
Now you may be thinking; “But Paul, you’re giving advice now.” Yes, I am. And it’s based on my opinion. Most advice is just that. A conclusion formulated by personal experience and observation.
Don’t become cult-ish with any acting teacher, coach or author. I appreciate the tons of praise and compliments received for my musings here and in my book but I fear the day when I overhear someone say; “But Paul Russell said it has to be done this way.” It has to be done THAT way only if it works for you. Let others discover what works for them.
Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.