Actor Training, Gender, and Advertising: An Irritated Reader

Reading a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently about the “Child Actor Program” at Oakwood Hills in Los Angeles (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, “Hollywood Elementary,” 4 June, I was struck by how much actor training for young people has changed since I took my first classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in the early 70s. These kids, of course, train to be film and television stars, while my friends and I thought we were learning an art form. I could be romanticizing my experience, but it seems to me that the scenes we did from Shakespeare (which I taught to even younger children when I hit my teens) and from Chekhov (I distinctly remember doing a scene from his comedy A Marriage Proposal with a would-be boyfriend) were as much about appreciating a canon of dramatic literature as they were about learning the beats and objectives of the Stanislavski method, whose lessons we applied slavishly.

I find it dispiriting, then, to read of pre-teen kids today who are taught that acting means learning to cry on cue, to do cold readings for casting directors stocking commercials with nubile young things, and who already know that they’ll be cast on the basis of their “type.” Is this the world for which those of us who teach theatre in universities and colleges are training our students? One without a literature, without a history, with only an ever more crassly capitalist future in which celebrity, rather than acting, is really what’s being taught?

Then I look in Theatre Communications Group’s trade magazine American Theatre at all the advertisements for university and college training programs, and I get even more disheartened. Although it’s difficult for an ad to represent the full range of what and how we teach in our very diverse departments, the social images that inform these ads appear to me politically retrograde, and send a message to aspiring actors about their future positions in the field. The photographs that provide the cornerstone of these ads overwhelmingly feature young women upstaged by young men. Regardless of the form or genre implied, whether the classical repertoire or contemporary realism, the gender dynamic is disturbingly the same. While the men are visibly active in the foreground of these ads, the young women stand behind or beside them. The young men look straight out at the audience/reader; the women look at the men, so that they’re invariably represented in profiles that send the ads’ center of gravity elsewhere.

These ads delimit a very small range of theatrical moments. Where is the evidence of formal and social experimentation that surely some of our programs offer? Where is gender and racial and ethnic diversity, and how might we represent it as more central to our educational missions? I’m afraid these ads tell an unfortunate truth in how they attempt to lure prospective students; that is, the power relations they depict faithfully hew to the gender dynamic performed in conventional American theatre and too often unquestioningly replicated in our programs.

How can theatre educators and artists and critics acquiesce to this state of affairs? As citizens of the 21st century, shouldn’t we be inspiring our students to think beyond old-fashioned gender and race and ethnic relations that were shopworn, if not already patently offensive, by the final decades of the 20th century? Shouldn’t the graphic art with which we represent our programs, and the productions we select for our seasons, reflect a world where women and people of color finally take center stage, speak for themselves, and look out to address the audience as citizens of the world of the play in their own right, instead of pitching their focus to the too often still centered white male?

Although the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin isn’t consulted about how our programs are advertised (and would probably never come to a consensus should such an invitation be extended), as a teacher here, in one of the largest undergraduate theatre departments in the country, I, too, am complicit. Our department’s ads focus on the success of our graduates and the proximity we offer to professionals. Each ad typically includes a small photo of a celebrity, surrounded by a running list naming visiting artists and lecturers. In the October 2005 American Theatre, for example, alum John Rando was featured and congratulated on his success with the musical Urinetown (one of the most produced plays in the 2005-2006 season, according to TCG). Rando did visit the department and spend time in classes and at brown bag lunches talking with students. He even expressed a willingness to maintain an on-going relationship with the idea of a musical theatre concentration in the department. Other visitors named in our ad have given workshops or lectures and have also made themselves available to students. Jonathan Miller, for example, took on one of our recent MFA students as an apprentice director, and paved her professional path.

At the same time, what we’re selling, at least without the explicit gender arrangements of the more visually “staged” ads, is proximity to past success and the carrot of reiteration. If Rando and celebrity alum Marcia Gay Harden can be successful, so can the new student, our ad’s reasoning goes, despite the fact that the faculty might have changed or that the department itself has morphed in completely different directions than it took in the 70s or 80s. We’re selling a simulacrum, a mirror, a second- or third-order pretense of reality, based on the illusion that a path carved by someone who began in the same place will end in the same place for someone else. This faith in such repeatability founds the success of residential communities for would-be child actors like the Oakwood: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Frankie Muniz, and Hilary Duff lived there, the article reports, and look what they’ve accomplished.

What we don’t articulate in our advertisements are the values we teach or the methods through which they’re imbued. Even the names of degrees we offer have become opaque, empty placeholders; after all, what is a BA in Acting really about? What do students learn who embark on such programs of study? Will a BA from UT know the same things as a BFA from, say NYU? What’s the difference and how is it expressed in the training and in the work? What do students think they’re getting from these degrees? What does the faculty think they’re teaching?

Shouldn’t students expect, regardless of their formal degree program, to learn the history of the traditions into whose stream they’re about to step? Shouldn’t they engage the ethical questions of what it means to embody someone else’s experience? John Istel wrote in his recent American Theatre essay ( of the prevalence of current plays with children in compromising situations, and the complications of young people performing (or watching) these roles. Shouldn’t we engage our students in these debates?

Shouldn’t we sell prospective students on the value of our programs by touting how we’ll make them better people, sharper thinking artists, and imaginative and creative and engaged citizens, who might go on to reshape the gender and racial dynamics in those advertisements and use theatre to help us all experience something new about our world?

When the girls (interesting, too, that most of those interviewed were girls) in the Times article described what they called their “passion” for acting, I had no idea what they meant by passion or what they meant by acting, and neither, it seemed, did they. Those of us teaching in universities and colleges might start exactly there, to tease out the nature of that passion and how it might morph, and the varied, productive ways of defining that craft. I’m not sure how we can represent passion in an advertisement, but there are certainly more creative, progressive, hopeful, inspirational ways both to market and to ply our craft.

Ranting and wondering,
The Feminist Spectator

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