Dean David Bridel on actor training in a fracturing landscape

Photo of Dean David Bridel

[Editor’s note: This article from PARADOS JOURNAL was adapted from an earlier presentation at the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation Center for International Education Colloquium, “Evolutions and Revolutions in Actor Training: Michel Saint-Denis in Contemporary Context,” at the Chateau de la Bretesche, Brittany, France, 2018.]

It has become a truism: traditional performance-based venues for actors, including regional theatre, network television, even the good old-fashioned commercial, have been rudely disrupted. Modern technologies, digital media, new platforms, and other rapidly evolving networks have transformed aesthetics, economics, assumptions, and, above all, opportunities for tomorrow’s actors. In the academy, we witness the speed of change in our profession and we debate our responsibilities. Traditionalists cling to the classics; radicals espouse revolution. How do we negotiate a new vision for actor training in this ever-fracturing landscape?

We listen to our students. My own, in Los Angeles, have made their desires and interests quite clear. In consequence, we now offer distinct classes or workshops in three levels of acting for the camera; in self-tape and building a reel; in voice-over, voice capture, and voicing animated characters; in motion capture for actors; in creating original content for new media platforms such as YouTube; in filmmaking for actors; in utilizing digital entrepreneurship and social media branding for career-building; in the business of acting; and in auditioning for stage, screen, and new media. It’s not hard to spot the theme. Additionally, we offer a career series, alumni and professional mentorship programs, weekly visits from working actors, casting directors, managers, and agents for salon-style discussions, and we have opened a Career Center run by a casting director and featuring a de facto casting office, allowing us to submit our students and recent alums for real-life projects in the industry.

Everything I’ve described falls under the umbrella of “Professional Development,” and it now forms a central component of the curriculum in the final year of training for actors in all our degree programs. We find ourselves, increasingly, evolving from educators to educator-facilitators in our efforts to create practical opportunities for our students the moment they head for the door. Whether or not this is fulfilling our mandate or going beyond the call of duty is open to question. What we do see, however, and what we are trying to respond to, is a new reality in which self-starting, networking, and industry relations have become essential to the progress of our students. There are many debates to be had about the relative virtues and pitfalls of our professional development program, but regardless of these, students will vote with their feet, and if we don’t provide them with what they know is possible they will go elsewhere. Personally, I like the idea that their voices can help to shape our direction. My job is to discern the patterns that are moving our artistic culture forward and then provide the resources to our students so that they may enter that culture as fully equipped as possible to work within it — and to help it evolve in ways that none of us can predict.

“Can you imagine an engineering school in which only 15% of graduates become professional engineers?”

But does all the time and energy expended on new directions compromise the fundamentals of our training, the basic vocational skill-set that prepares an actor to stand on a stage and act a part in a conventional or mainstream production? And what about the deeper layers of actor training, the commitment to personal transformation and the basic tenets of humanism that form such an essential experience for each individual that encounters the unique rigors of our discipline? Rest assured (I tell my colleagues), an examination of our curriculum reveals many standard, road-tested themes and subjects that are generally accepted as the cornerstone of actor-training in the U.S. — scene study, voice, movement, critical studies, production, and all the subcategories that ensue. Our wise faculty insist, rightly, on the necessity of timeless values at the heart of the educational process, unpolluted by commerce, fashion, technology, or trend. The power of the word. The vitality of the imagination and free expression. The need for story. The primacy of the ensemble, the importance of community. Embodied learning, collaboration, personal responsibility, inclusivity. Taking risks. Empathy. And of course the implicit dynamic elements of the study of drama: investigating conflict, taking action, reframing contexts, understanding culture, interrogating narratives. We hold firm to each and every one of these values; in fact, their continued importance — and their far-reaching consequences — bring me to consider the function of actor-training in the contemporary world.

At the USC School of Dramatic Arts, I oversee three distinct sets of programs. Our largest population is our BA in Dramatic Arts, about 350 students at any one time, the vast majority of whom aspire to be actors. We also run several BFA programs, some of which are in design and production, but two — our BFA in Acting for Stage Screen and New Media and our BFA in Musical Theatre — are flagship actor-training programs. We also house two MFA programs, in Dramatic Writing and Acting. For now, I will continue to target my remarks towards the acting populations.

The fact is, we graduate approximately 100 would-be actors a year. Only a small percentage of these will have fully-fledged careers as actors that will sustain over a substantial period of time; statistics suggest about 15 of them per class. Can you imagine an engineering school in which only 15% of graduates become professional engineers? It would be shut down in a nano-second. We all know that the chances of one of our graduates becoming a successful actor and sustaining a professional career, out of any of our institutions, are slim. We also understand that many of them will walk out of our doors carrying a substantial debt burden. So, what are we doing when we train young people to be actors? What is, in fact, the point?

If we gauge our proficiency as educators solely in terms of our students’ successful acting careers, well, we’re in for a lot of sleepless nights; no matter how well we train them and how well we prepare them for the “Business,” the vast majority will fail. But this, I’ve come to believe, is a false marker: It overlooks the real value in what I think it is we’re doing. Thanks to our friends at Howlround, I learned of a series of aptitude tests conducted by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation in Chicago, which discovered that actors and theatre artists score unusually highly in three “aptitude categories”: Foresight, or creative future thinking (the ability to imagine blue-sky concepts); Ideaphoria, or Idea Flow (the ability to think and communicate laterally and across boundaries); and Analytical Reasoning (the ability to see patterns in thought and intention). In addition to these specific aptitudes, the testing also concluded that actors (and directors and other dramatic artists, it should be mentioned) overwhelmingly favor collaborating with others and sustained group contact and collective creativity. These kinds of observations are being adopted in education and academia more widely; witness Dr. Louis E. Catron’s thesis “25 Life Skills Learned in Theatre” or the American Alliance for Theatre & Education’s “Effects of Theatre Education.”

“Look around at actors you once trained who are no longer actors and explore whether the aptitudes and abilities that you taught them have shaped their professional lives…”

Look around at actors you once trained who are no longer actors and explore whether the aptitudes and abilities that you taught them have shaped their professional lives; I’ll wager they have. Whether they are teachers, lawyers, real estate agents, architects, authors, or entrepreneurs, the tenets of their actor-training continue to sustain them in their work. They know how to listen, to breathe, to connect with others; they know how to empathize and see the world from different perspectives; they know what it means to imagine and they know what it means to take action; they are comfortable with not knowing, with living in the moment; they are not afraid of emotion or expression; they understand space, time, image, and motion; they see the patterns in stories; and they have a respect for conflict as the engine of change.

If this sounds like wishful thinking, I’m happy to report that I have met the evidence in the personae of countless graduates from the USC School of Dramatic Arts who have leveraged their training into extraordinary careers in other fields. One, who recently joined our Board of Counselors, is an advisory partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, responsible for program and customer-relation strategies. He owes his career, he reports, to his affinity for storytelling and his education and training in the kinetic and dynamic skills of the theatre. He is also the best public speaker I have ever seen, bar none. Perhaps, in addition to wondering what to include in (and what to leave out of) our curricula, we would do well to consider these deeply rooted elements of creativity in our efforts to prepare future generations of actors who may not, ultimately, be actors. I’m not arguing for a shift away from vocational training; I’m wondering out loud whether we recognize or support the lasting components of our work regardless of the contexts or venues in which they are expressed.

Embracing the potentialities of citizen artistry at USC, kickstarting our actors’ curiosities before they have graduated, we have created multiple partnerships between our school and the schools of social work, public policy, medicine, gerontology, engineering, and the sciences; in addition to taking the lead in equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives across campus and nationally, and local, regional, and international programs around community engagement, social change, and the arts. It turns out that our values and our skills are sought after, eagerly welcomed, and freely adopted by colleagues, peers, and fellow seekers in a host of differing professional spheres. As we grapple on a daily basis with the growing tensions and oppositions inherent in our politics, identity, culture, history, economics, and climate, the dimensionality of the theatre — a field, a discipline, a source of embodied artistry, and a provoker of transformation — offers diversity, creativity, and the structures and practices of “full body thinking” to countless aspects of our social discourse.

We can tailor our training to our industry, and we can do it boldly, but to stop there is, perhaps, to sell ourselves short. I wonder if the ultimate survival of our work as educators is predicated on the breadth and depth of our vision for actors — a vision that surpasses the limitations of any industry, any technology, any pedagogy. The trained actor is an asset to our world in ways that transcend success in the “Business”; amid our sleepless nights, that is something we should celebrate.