Besides lecturing them on imagination, responsibility, and work ethic, I retorted, “Do you think this is Accounting 101? It’s an acting class. We’re studying craft. I can’t tell you what to do. You’ll have to surrender yourself to the process and work with a sense of abandonment.”
Then I asked myself, “What is going on?” I asked friends in film departments, corporate America, private studios, and public schools to weigh in on this lack of creativity and commitment. A middle-school teacher was concerned that her students could no longer visualize scenes in the novels they were reading in class. I asked, “How could you know that?” She explained that when asked to describe or draw a scene, even her best readers appeared confused and could only repeat a chronology of the events. Earlier generations, she noted, were not only able but eager to share their drawings and discuss their personal interpretations of how the story “looked.”
“What is this about, do you think?” I asked. “Well,” she replied, “I first noted the problem as more and more of my students reported having computers in their bedrooms.”
I checked in with some parents and heard concerns that while their young children enjoyed being silly and played gleefully, their older kids were so serious and glued to their computers they had to be forced to “go out and play.” Furthermore, one mother reported that after having been told to do so, her kids didn’t seem to know what “playing” really meant or how to go about it. She said she was exhausted from having to coach them on how to play dress-up or build a fort, ideas that came easily to our generation.
Most of us in the craft of teaching acting are experiencing a generation whose imaginations seem weaker than those that came before, and, perhaps even more profoundly, we are witnessing a growing impatience with the process in favor of shortcuts.
Twitter and the Culture of Impatience
Biz Stone was on C-SPAN recently detailing the achievements of his brainchild, Twitter, in “creating more empathy in the world.” To support his claim, he cited the instantaneous reports of a major earthquake reaching Twitter before the Associated Press. To me, it’s a bit of a leap to connect the immediate access to information through 140-character tweets to the creation of a more compassionate society. In fact, one could make as strong an argument that, having been assailed with too much information, people are actually shutting down their capacity to empathize.
When young fans commiserated with Taylor Swift after her boyfriend broke up with her via text message, I think they understood that there’s something inherently wrong and yet very seductive about using technology to avoid the discomfort of difficult human interactions. And yet, we’re all doing it. Perhaps reading the Twitter updates on a revolt in another country provides us with a false sense of having participated or done our share to aid in the cause.
But what have we actually done? Is our supposed empathy moving us to real action? Certainly technology rallied a nation in the election of our president. I’m happy to admit that. But given our disastrous inability to constructively discuss and pass legislation on health care, I wonder if we elected President Obama through a passive, albeit effective, online donation system that kept some of us immune from uncomfortable face-to-face conversations with our adversaries.
Whether or not we believe that our new technologies are making the world a better place, one thing we can agree on is that we are all becoming used to virtual exchanges replacing live human interactions and that we all have an ever-increasing expectation of immediate gratification.
Here’s one new behavior I witness at our studio on an almost weekly basis: An acting student, having received feedback in class on a Monday evening, will send a long email by Tuesday morning explaining all the ways in which she is confused and why she believes she didn’t really deserve the critique. The problem is we’re in class when the email arrives. By the time we get out of class three hours later, we have two more emails and an angry text message because we haven’t yet responded to the initial email.
We have always encouraged students to let the training sink in and see if their questions aren’t answered by the work itself. Rather than absorbing the notes and then preparing with some enthusiasm for the next class, students now have a greater tendency to wallow in their insecurities and defensiveness.
Yet it is our mistakes that teach us and make us human. The process of becoming an artist is like becoming a great athlete or scientist. Like the ice skater who must return to the rink day after day even with bruised knees, the painter must return and throw paint on canvas whether or not he feels like it or thinks it’s any good. Like a researcher in a cancer lab, the musician must perform a series of repetitive tasks in order to be ready for the unexpected joy of a breakthrough. It’s no different for the actor. Excellence will always require patience, tenacity, and thoroughness.
Technology and the Entrepreneurial Spirit
In its favor, the Internet has provided actors with an exciting entrepreneurial landscape. This is where new technology actually encourages their creativity and zeal. Actors can use the Web to write, produce, direct, and market their original work. In this process, they discover the level of effort it takes to make their product stand out. Certainly the Web is breaking down what were once impenetrable barriers. One of our graduates created a Web series that was quickly picked up by CBS; another auditioned for a London agent using his webcam; and two years ago, we built a theater piece with two actresses in Australia who never set foot in our studio for rehearsal.
These are exciting and innovative uses of technology that promote exploration and discovery. What I hope to hear more of, however, is what one of my graduates recently confessed learning. He said that no matter how awesome the set or how brilliant the concept, there was still that problem of the monologue in the third act, and if the actor couldn’t do justice to living that moment out truthfully, the rest could all be damned.
Wendy Ward is director of the Ward Studio, an acting studio in the Meisner approach, which she founded in 1996. She will be at Actorfest NY as part of the “Acting 101” intensive on Sat., Oct. 24. For more information, visit www.actorfest.com.