How to Build Actors: Mentoring

I was fortunate to have a coffee conversation with Jeffrey Huard, the new head of the theatre program at Perry-Mansfield. As I listened to his stories about his work with Broadway and educational theatre, one comment theme emerged that resonates with the story about how Piknik Theatre began. Mr. Huard commented that a theatre company near his home in California has hired professional actors to work alongside the student performers in a current production of “High School Musical.” Certainly the professionals can demonstrate skills that most kids only dream of developing but mentoring is more than just giving mere mortals moments of awe.

Acting is an art form: telling someone else’s story as if it were your own. It takes lots of practice and dedication, just like writing a book, playing the piano, or painting the portrait of your mother that hangs in the Musee D’Orsay. Actors learn the skills during a lifetime of practice and – equally as important – training. You could pick up a violin and spend the proverbial 10,000 hours making sounds but it wouldn’t make you a competent musician. Acting is no different. The practice is essential but guided practice is the key to artistic success.

Does that mean years of educational training immersed in Stanislavsky’s school of Method Acting? Maybe that works for some artists. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, the “Method” is as effective in training actors as asking a pilot to flap his arms in the cockpit to increase the airplane’s ability to take off from a runway. There are certain skills with text or communication (for hearing or vocally impaired performers, as an example) that are essential. An audience needs to understand the story you’re telling. But your emotional state as a performer is of no interest to an audience. How you feel means nothing; what the audience feels means everything.

I recently saw a production at The Curious Theatre of “The Secretary,” a modern text that uses gun control for the theme of the story. The end of the play is minutes of silence and stillness with one character leveling a firearm at another. By this time of the show, guns have been tossed around and featured onstage for the entire production. And the rule of theatre is that if you bring out a gun in act one, you better use it by act three. None of the stage firearms had ever been fired by this point in the show. In these final moments of the show, the audience just KNOWS that the character holding the weapon is going to shoot and kill the other character. Yet the two performers just stare at each other, motionless and in silence, for minutes. The two actors could have been thinking about getting drinks after the show and celebrating this final performance, or remembering that the laundry is still in the washer, or anything else totally unrelated to an emotional state. All that’s required is that they stare at each other without moving and in silence. The audience is doing all the work in these final minutes and we were all totally silent too, listening and waiting and wondering where this story would end. Our minds and hearts were working so furiously, wanting something to happen that would bring about a satisfying ending to the story, that the smoke was pouring out our ears. We were ready to choke when the lights went out and the play was over. What happened? That’s for us to imagine and talk about after the show.

How does an actor learn these kinds of skills if not in school or from intense navel gazing? Where can the 10,000 hours of guided practice be found if not in an acting program led by the giants of Broadway? This is why mentoring is so valuable. A great actor can teach in more ways than through texts or telling war stories of the way it was back then. Demonstration is important, of course, but mentoring means listening and questioning, more than answering. Listening to what young or inexperienced actors want to know to become artists, listening to the stories they attempt to tell, offering choices and asking the newbies to see what works. Want to know if you’re good at standup comedy or improvisational theatre? Get in front of an audience; they’ll let you know if you’re funny or can tell a good story.

Critical questioning of your work and offering choices are the key to finding effective ways to tell a story. This is where professional mentors can support performing artists in building their skills. You’ve got a story to tell: alright, you try it this way. Hmmm, here’s another option. Now, wait, how about this choice? Then your mentor offers feedback and more questions. You continue this practice for 10,000 hours, working with skillful people whose judgment you trust – or at least have limitations you can live with – and then the artist emerges. 

In the early days of Piknik Theatre, actors from New Zealand came to Steamboat on holiday and enjoyed our beautiful summers while telling stories in words and music. Although some of the stories were better than others, and some of the actors too, each of them brought a desire to share both New Zealand culture and the skills they had developed through years of guided practice. They were good mentors. This tradition continues today with every Piknik Theatre season. The professional actors who come to Steamboat for weeks in the summer and fall are more than hired guns. They bring hours and hours of skill and expertise they’re willing to share with anyone willing to listen and practice and ask questions. Maybe, take advantage of this opportunity? Whaddya think?

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