Back to school means something a little different for actors—clowning and vocal technique can replace calculus and biology on the syllabus. When it comes to history, however, the classics remain the same. Iambic pentameter, those really long Russian names that sound the same—it all requires a rigorous attention to detail. But in an increasingly contemporary world, how are MFA programs at Juilliard, NYU, and Columbia preparing their students to handle these classic texts while grooming them to be working actors?
James Houghton, director, Juilliard School Drama Division
"One of the great strengths of Juilliard has been the tradition of really training people to be able to embrace the classic work. I think the glue that’s held things together, the basic principle, is that if you can handle a Shakespeare repertory, if you can dive into Chekhov, Ibsen, and the great classic American writers as well, you can handle anything. We try to help them understand that so that they are the most diverse and have the broadest range at their fingertips and know how to approach the work.
“The goal is to be able to liberate the actor into the material. I think we all come to that material, initially, being daunted by it. But, in fact, it’s actually just as accessible as contemporary material. It’s just we have to get over that initial moment when we confront it. In that arc of the Shakespeare experience at Juilliard, by the time you get to that immersive experience of doing two [Shakespearean plays] at once, you immerse yourself so much that Shakespeare liberates you. You get out of your own way. You stop second-guessing yourself because you just don’t have the time. Eventually you realize, Wait a minute. If I just get into this, at the end of the day it’s Shakespeare that will do that work for [me].”
Arnold Aronson, professor of theater, Columbia University School of the Arts
"The first semester [students] are studying the Greeks. They will always do Shakespeare. They will always do Chekhov. Usually there’s some Molière, often Spanish Golden Age, and a variety of other, primarily European, classics. In the very beginning that was pretty much it, but we realized that in contemporary American theater, you have to be prepared to deal with a different kind of drama because there’s not that much classical theater being done. So they have classes in contemporary drama with different contemporary approaches to acting.
“Our students of course want to be able to act in the contemporary theater. They want to be able to make a living. They’re interested in contemporary theater. The ones who come here, by and large, are really interested in that classical tradition of theater, and classical in all of its manifestations.
“Our feeling is, if you can understand, speak, and act the classics, then you should be able to do [modern theater] just as well, if not better, as a result.”
Mark Wing-Davey, chair, NYU Tisch Graduate Acting Program
"It’s about constantly re-imagining and re-contextualizing the work, where you try to think, Why was this written? How a classic text translates into the present is a constant struggle. The actors are introduced to the technicalities of Shakespeare at the end of their first semester—meter, scansion, those kind of variations—so they can go through those technical demands and come out the other side feeling that it’s just a tool, and they’re never intimidated by it.
“Having done that work, do they then become more employable by having done it? They need to have experienced wearing a corset, working in heels. They need to have experienced some of the physical things. It may well not be entirely true to period, but it has to have that sense that they don’t suddenly get out into the world and find that their approach to the traditional version of something is completely [lacking]. They have to be able to be more employable.
“How can we make these things more intertwined? We do more project work now than we did, and it’s a little more radical. There are re-imaginings of things, which has to do with both pedagogy and circumstance.”