Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Acting, Skill, and Artistry

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Acting, Skill, and Artistry

Article excerpt

In 1984, the director peter gill established the National Theatre Studio in what had been the Old Vic's Annex on The Cut in London. It was intended to act as "the research and development" wing of the National Theatre, with a wide brief that included "commissioning writers, developing directors and designers, investigating non-text-based work, and producing work for the main house," but I want, here, to explore what Gill called "the practice and analysis of acting skills," which, he argued, "seemed an essential part of any program of work that was in part connected with process." (1) I want to do so mainly because this aspect of the Studio's work seems to have fallen off its agenda in the thirty years since it was established by Gill.

Today, The National Theatre's Web site advertises the Studio's activities as: "courses and training" intended to "help create a more practical and inspired generation of directors," "project development [...] on projects intended for the National Theatre's main stages," "developing and supporting writers and new writing for the theatre"--all of which echo Gill's initial list--as well as the provision of Staff Directors for the National Theatre's productions. (2) Not only is "the practice and analysis of acting skills" absent from this list, it seems to have been positively excluded from it. The words "actor," "acting," "performer" and "performing" do not feature at all in the Studio's description of "what we do." The Studio offers about twenty-five "attachments" every year "to a variety of artists," who may be "writers, directors, choreographers and designers," but may not, apparently, be actors. Since skill and art were synonymous for centuries, it seems likely that the neglect of "acting skills" and the exclusion of actors from the realm of artistry are not unrelated. It is my purpose here to show, however, that a more thorough understanding of the nature and operation of skill may enable both practice and scholarship to resist this state of affairs and bring us to a renewed appreciation of the artistry of the actor.

Returning to Gill's statement of the NT Studio's purpose, there is evidence that appreciation and understanding of the actor's skill was already in decline. The Studio's commitment to developing the actors' skills occupies the position of an afterthought to the main thrust of its business, and it is telling that Gill feels the need to make a claim for its "essential" position in a "program of work [...] connected with process," whereas he offers no justification for any of the other activities he lists. Gill certainly felt, at this time, that the ability to speak complex, poetic, and rhetorical texts was in crucially short supply, and he invited older actors to come and work with their younger colleagues at the Studio in an attempt to remedy this state of affairs. In 1986, he instigated a project to formalize and extend this aspect of the Studio, "sending a group of younger actors out to interview older ones about their attitudes to text." In 2007, these interviews, with Harry Andrews, Gabrielle Daye, Fabia Drake, Gwen Frangcon-Davies, Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison, Patricia Hayes, Michael Hordern, Athene Seyler, Robert Stephens, Madoline Thomas, and Margaret Tyzack, were published as Actors Speaking.

The interviewees in the book frequently cite John Gielgud as an influence, and though Gielgud himself had been unable to be interviewed for this project, he did receive the guideline questions sent out in advance. These he duly returned, completed, as though they were a questionnaire, and his brief answers are reproduced at the back of the book. They are revealing in their obscurity. Gielgud defines "good speaking," for instance, as "interpreting the text in appreciation of the kind of play concerned." To the question of whether "good speaking" is different in "a classical and a modern role," there is "no answer given," and against a series of a enquiries about "end-stopping," "the caesura," "feminine endings," "rhyming couplets," "broken lines," we are told that "Sir John has drawn a large question mark. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.