Reportage

Performance enhancement

The enduring value of acting schools

IT’S A STINKING hot Saturday morning in December and I’m dressed as an elf at a rundown shopping mall in Sydney’s western suburbs. Four of my fellow graduates from QUT’s acting class of 2003 are also clapped out in cheap Christmas drag to bring some seasonal cheer to the centre’s multicultural patrons. The short straw went to my friend in the moth-eaten reindeer suit. Not one to readily discuss bodily functions, she quips that it was ‘a mistake to fart in here’. She’s dripping in sweat and the fibreglass head of this reindeer reeks of stale human expiration. Compared with Santa, Mrs Claus, the human Christmas tree and the reindeer, my job as a balloon-twisting elf is comparatively easy. My limited repertoire means the kids get two choices: dog or flower. Three if you call a long-necked dog a giraffe. The camaraderie and trench humour keep us going, but we’re all asking the same question: is this what we trained three years for? No one commits to an intensive conservatoire acting degree, cutting their teeth on Chekhov and Shakespeare, to participate in a third-rate North Pole charade in 35-degree heat. Our ambitions were slightly loftier. So it’s fair to ask: was it worth it? What did we think we’d be doing with our degrees? Pursuing our art? Changing the world?

If that sounds glib or high-minded, I was reminded of the value of acting as a craft and as a ‘mode of inquiry’ – as Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University, puts it – when I saw Queensland Theatre’s production of Prima Facie recently. Written by former legal practitioner Suzie Miller, Prima Facie is a one-woman show about a female lawyer’s personal reckoning with the legal profession and its treatment of sexual assault victims. Brilliant as the script was, the show was helmed by NIDA graduate Sheridan Harbridge, who, night after night, delivered a blazing performance: vocally, physically and emotionally dynamic yet delivered with precision and control. The play is an example of the sort of theatre Meyrick says has ‘strongly intervened in social and political processes, illuminating issues and raising debates, but also igniting them with feelings, giving them affect’. He adds:

In the theatre, you see the whole human being and that’s what acting is about...portraying the intellectual, emotional and physical sides of human life in all its interconnected multidimensionality. No other art form is capable of doing that to the same extent, and it is the actor that makes it so.

If you weed out the pernicious promise of celebrity that has cannibalised the art form, this is the reason many of us with an artist’s sensibility are drawn to acting in the first place. It isn’t the craft that has made out-of-work actors, those eternal wannabes, both figures of ridicule and exceptional persistence, but rather ‘the profession’ – particularly as it’s been forced to adapt to the age of late capitalism – that is characterised, if not caricatured, by embarrassing unemployment. According to one commonly cited UK study, the unemployment rate for actors hovers around 90 per cent, and only ‘around 2 per cent are able to make a living out of acting’. These statistics align with what I’ve observed of graduates from my own institution and others: maybe 15 to 20 per cent are still acting professionally or are doing something acting adjacent, though most earn a living in other ways as well.

I gave up any pretence of pursing a professional acting career not long after Christmas ’04; the terminal dismissal, unnerving need to self-promote and lack of agency wore me down to the point where I lost interest and moved on. The commodification and industrialisation of the whole process, with me as the commodity, became too unpalatable, particularly with nothing to show for all the effort. Social media has, of course, only exacerbated these processes. Others lasted longer, had more tenacity and/or more initial success than me – the breadcrumb trail that keeps hopefuls on the path to nowhere – but most of my fellow graduates, bar a few notable exceptions (including she of the stinky reindeer suit, who has maintained a career in independent theatre as an actor, director and acting teacher) moved on with their lives.

We forged new careers, some doing other degrees – law, illustration and graphic design, creative writing, teaching, social work – and some via promotion in their former pay-the-rent jobs. From a straw poll of ‘failed’ acting graduates in my orbit, however, almost no one regretted their three years at drama school or thought it a waste of time. After ‘failing’ as a product on the open market, their perspective on their training changed to one of valuing the education it gave them above what it was supposed to turn them into: working actors. Only one person I asked expressed regret that she’d gone to drama school at all, and this was because the experience, she says, ‘shattered my self-esteem’. Graduating with ‘zero self-esteem’ was a common sentiment voiced by the female graduates I interviewed, and one that aligns with my own experience. I see this now as a symptom of a system that was about turning actors into commodities instead of artists. As Jacobie Gray, a 2002 QUT graduate, put it: ‘I wouldn’t change my experience, but I would change it for other people. I was just so beaten down. I was always leading with this sense of unworthiness... I should have come out with a sense of “I’m an actor and I know my craft and I’m ready for this game”.’ Gray’s resumé now includes actors’ agent, Sotheby’s auction manager and award-winning short filmmaker. Another good friend, a 2004 NIDA graduate, expresses the paradox of actor training as being ‘the only thing I have ever done that led me to be so incredibly self-obsessed and insecure, constantly worrying about how I sound, move and look, while nurturing an empathy and curiosity in humanity’. After a moment, she adds, ‘That old “where have we been, who are we and where are we going?” question that can only be truly explored through stories. That’s the part I am grateful for.’

Acting degrees are unique for the way they focus on the development of the whole person, encompassing physical and vocal training (‘instrument work’), communication and persuasion skills (acting techniques), discipline and teamwork. They are, as Gray says, ‘a huge bootcamp in human psychology’. Then there’s the wealth of artistic and cultural knowledge theatre practitioners acquire, an art form that has always critiqued societal norms, politics and human behaviour while pushing the boundaries of its own form. ‘Acting is a morally good thing to do,’ says Meyrick. He believes, however, there is an ‘increasing confluence between wanting to be an actor and choosing acting as a career for its celebrity culture. We’re not looking at what acting is, we’re only saying what it can do for us and our current circumstances, and that’s not good enough.’

 

OSTENSIBLY, ACTING DEGREES – the sort that take between 2 to 4 per cent of applicants each year – are designed to train actors for theatre and screen. That is, we’ve been led to believe, their singular vocational purpose. ‘Sociologically speaking, these schools are located as producers of actors as artists. They value a considered approach to acting emphasising the importance of technique and of rehearsal,’ says Paul Moore, a former actor and co-founder of Brink Productions, in a 2004 research paper ‘Longing to Belong: Trained Actors’ Attempts to Enter the Profession’. As such, these degrees have traditionally been delivered through a classic conservatoire model of training, which has a strong professional, performance-oriented and vocational focus.

In Australia, the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) are widely considered the ‘top four’ conservatoire acting schools in which graduates are awarded a bachelor of arts/fine arts (acting). Charles Sturt, Griffith and Flinders Universities are among other universities that also offer acting degrees. Adding to this mix are dozens of private acting schools, only a few of which have any sort of standing in the industry, such as the Actors Centre Australia in Sydney and 16th Street Actors Studio in Melbourne. For a small percentage of students, this specialised training will deliver: graduates get a good agent when they leave, and their IMDb profile will slowly start to fill out. They’ll achieve the career of their dreams – or at least a modest proximation of it.

Successful graduates, especially those who conquer Hollywood – the Mels, Cates, Hughs and Hugos – are celebrated by their alma maters as proof of efficacy. Every school uses the names of its most recognisable alumni to shore up their reputation and funding and attract new talent. Obscured in the reflected dazzle is that many graduates will be lucky if they ever step foot on a stage again (or in front of a camera), which will be attributed to ‘the toughness of the industry’ or the individual for simply not being up to scratch.

Oliver Burton, a 2015 NIDA graduate, expresses what many acting graduates are conditioned to feel: ‘I knew that going to NIDA didn’t entitle me to a career, but I always thought, and I guess I maintain the idea, that it entitles me to a decent shot.’ Burton turned to auctioneering as an alternative career, which, as well as sustaining him financially, makes best use of his performance skills: ‘Presentation, showmanship and reading people – body language, verbal cues’, what he also calls ‘the best sales training in the world’. Burton is personable, confident and articulate; he also, by his own admission, craves an audience. Though he hasn’t, at the six-year mark, given up on being a professional actor, he is pragmatic about the fact that it means ‘being constantly available at the drop of a hat to do a job that’s underpaid and prob- ably under satisfying’, which he says ‘is simply not worth it’. In the meantime, he’s on his way to conquering Sydney’s real-estate scene.

I asked Burton if he thinks new graduates should have their expectations managed. ‘Everybody tells you, you don’t hear it,’ he says. ‘Because you’re the special one.’ There’s a scene in the Netflix series The Kominsky Method that illustrates just how bloody-minded actors need to be about their own ‘exceptionalism’ if they are to ‘make it’. Sandy Kominsky, played by Michael Douglas, is a washed-up actor but gifted teacher who runs an acting studio in Los Angeles. When Sandy learns one of his students is living in a van while hoping for her ‘big break’, his conscience gets the better of him, and he decides his students ‘need to know the cold harsh reality’ of the profession. Sandy tells them that ‘all the tools in the world might not be enough. No matter how talented you are, no matter how clever and persistent you are, the odds of having a legitimate, life-sustaining career as an actor are overwhelm- ing’ and ‘the likelihood of achieving fame and fortune or even just paying the rent is very, very small and that’s the sad truth’.

The students nod, taking in the import of his words until, one by one, they tell him why they’re the exception.

‘Did you just hear a word that I said?’ says Sandy. ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to fail.’

Nobody on graduating from a prestigious acting school – one where just getting in feels like winning the lottery – thinks they’re going to fail; everyone secretly thinks they’ll be the one to defy the odds. Most of us, even if it takes a few years, will predictably lose to the house in the end, so perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate how we assess the efficacy of acting degrees, and how we value the skills and qualities they cultivate in students that can’t be quantified at a box office. As Kay Harrison, a 2002 QUT graduate, now a communications professional and writer, puts it: ‘I really believe [the acting course] shaped me for the better. I’m indebted to it for teaching me invaluable things about relationships and communications in an immediate way that no other course could’ve managed.’ The Santa of our fateful Christmas pageant – now a lawyer and project manager for Queensland Registry of Births, Death & Marriages – says actor training equipped him with ‘the almost-subconscious confidence’ to ‘translate a plan into an on-your-feet persuasive argument, teaching moment or [the ability to] facilitate a workshop at a moment’s notice’, to say nothing of his ability to ho! ho! ho! through a heatwave in a red polyester suit.

Sam Haft, a 2002 NIDA graduate who runs his own Kominsky-style acting studio in Sydney, is a big advocate of acting degree programs, which he views as ‘invaluable’ for their vocational grounding. There’s not much Haft hasn’t witnessed in the way of actor attrition in his twenty years on the ground in Sydney, first as an actor and now an acting coach, but he remains staunchly loyal to the profession he loves: ‘The industry,’ he says, ‘is just a term for a disparate group of storytellers’ and ‘we’re all just telling yarns.’ Haft, who is British by birth and whose parents are both repertory theatre actors, speaks like an old-school raconteur. He’s never short of a colourful idiom – ‘lost in the grease paint and the roar of the crowd’ – to illustrate a point as we yarn for over an hour about actors and actor training. He has a lot to say about both, but one thing stands out to me: ‘If a drama school is working well, it turns out some well-rounded human beings, capable of doing all sorts of other things as a result of their training.’

 

ALMOST TWENTY YEARS after leaving QUT, on a cool Saturday night in early September, I watch the 2021 graduating actors take their bows on closing night of their final mainstage production, Algorithm, at The Loft Theatre. The play is about the way algorithm ‘intelligence’ is disrupting the search for intimacy and love, which quickly descends into a dystopian freefall as it envisages the scope and power of such technology in the coming decades. Written by director Daniel Evans specifically for this cohort to give all fifteen actors a relatively even amount of stage time, Algorithm is a clever ensemble piece, if a little rough around the edges.

What I observe is an eager, vital group of young people doing what they love, and they are a delight to watch – utterly in the moment and relishing every second of stage time. Physically and vocally, they seem like a well- trained group. The audience, a full house of family and friends, whoop and clap in acknowledgement of this penultimate moment in their degree. Showcase – or ‘agents day’ – will be their final hurrah; this is where they’ll present, in pairs, film and theatre scenes for agents and casting directors. ‘For the past five years QUT has had a 100 per cent success rate,’ says Dr Andrea Moor, ‘which has been kind of amazing.’ Moor, senior lecturer in acting at QUT, is referring to ‘agent uptake’ – the yardstick by which all schools measure the success of their cohorts.

Joining QUT in this tussle for industry representation will be the graduating actors – about eighty altogether – from NIDA, VCA and WAAPA. Covid has pushed showcases online (as it has auditions for drama schools). I try watching the 2020 showreel scenes as an agent might, assessing them for their industry appeal and earning potential. Who would I want to represent and have a working relationship with? I honestly have no clue; they all seem like competent, affable young actors. Showreel acting always seems a tad forced and self-conscious to me, no doubt a byproduct of filming out-of-context scenes on which entire futures rest. I’m happy to say my own showcase scene resides only on a handful of decaying VHS tapes somewhere.

After the show, I chat briefly to Moor and congratulate her on the performances. Moor, casually elegant in a large pair of cat-eye glasses, is warm and friendly and passionate about what she does: training and nurturing student actors and making them ‘industry ready’ on graduation. Though ‘head of acting’ no longer exists as an official title, Moor took over the job from the formidable Dianne Eden in 2016, who headed up the acting program at QUT from 1995–2015. An actor herself, with more than twenty years’ experience teaching at NIDA and WAAPA, Moor is exceptionally qualified. She did her PhD on contemporary actor training in Australia, under- taking a ‘comparative survey of the efficacy of the acting methodologies’ at NIDA, QUT, VCA and WAAPA from 2000–11 to find out whether these schools were ‘best preparing’ young actors ‘to make a living from their craft’. When I interviewed her, Moor was quick to say her PhD ‘is outdated’, but one of the main takeaways from her research was the importance of student wellbeing. ‘When I went to QUT,’ Moor said, ‘the thing I wanted to make my absolute focus was actors’ wellbeing.’ This focus has paid off, and Moor says she’s ‘got three years of really productive, healthy, terrific young people who are a total delight to be around’. Moor is right to prioritise the wellbeing of her students, and it’s difficult not to be envious. As our Santa-cum-lawyer put it: ‘There were days when for everyone it was a bit more like that stupid SAS: Australia suffer-fest than an artist’s safe space.’

My intention here was never to take QUT, or any other acting school, to task for their past failings to students. That is a whole other article and one that intersects all too often with the #MeToo movement. And conservatoire programs are cleaning up their act. As Moor says, ‘That fear-based learning prevalent in drama schools around the world for years, I think that is shifting dramatically, thank God. To be teaching on fear and intimidation – well, it’s illegal.’ The point is: students must graduate with a rock-solid sense of self to withstand the almost inevitable tsunami of rejection or just plain industry indifference they’ll face, which is, of course, completely at odds with, and detrimental to, their desire to be artists in the first place. Something, agent or not, most of the fresh faces of 2021 will have to come to terms with sooner or later. Conceding this is not something for which you can prepare students, Moor instead emphasises the experience of drama school: ‘They should have the best three years of their life and meet amazing people. Whatever they end up doing, they’ve had this really strong foundation working with terrific people. That is what we set out to do.’

Having said that, she also believes schools need to be constantly questioning their purpose and relevance. A high priority for Moor is the ‘decolonisation of the acting repertoire’. For her, this means ‘look[ing] at our biases’ and ‘how we work with our First Nations actors’ as well as thinking about ‘the kind of methodologies we can use to support people’s cultural backgrounds – not one size fits all’. Again, Moor is right to take a more inclusive approach to who gets trained and in what manner, but ‘the industry’ is still dictating the terms of engagement, of supply and demand, and that will always mean actors are commodities in a market that will quickly discard them when it deems there is no place for their artistic practice.

 

IT’S NO SECRET that Covid has devastated the performing-arts sector and hit universities hard due to the sharp downturn in international enrolments. Even before the pandemic, humanities and the arts struggled to assert their value under the ideological regime of neoliberalism and economic rationalisation that took hold of our body politic in the 1980s. Some universities, including QUT, embraced ‘creative industries’ in the 2000s as an umbrella term to suggest the commercial and economic benefits of degrees that foster creativity as their core business – performing arts (music, dance, acting), creative writing, design, visual arts, fashion, gaming, advertising and so on.

Graduate success is the keystone on which creative degrees justify their existence, and acting degrees are no exception. That most graduates will struggle to convert their training into economic success is, Paul Moore suggests, ‘not in the interests [of acting schools] to problematise’ for fear of ‘funding cuts and the logic of economic rationalisation’. For Meyrick, this gets to the heart of a ‘deeper argument about whether universities exist to train people or whether they exist to educate people’.

Accelerated by the pandemic, though not entirely because of it, Andrea Moor has been forced to reckon with ‘the logic of economic rationalisation’ as the university snips away at its flagship acting degree, which means fewer contact hours and, from 2022, upping its intake to thirty students. How this will impact ‘graduate quality’ remains to be seen. In a soon-to-be-published paper, Moor looks at these forced changes as an opportunity to ‘rethink how we are delivering our programs and ask how we might restructure to better prepare students for the creation of their own work’. Perhaps, too, this remodelling of the program will be an opportunity for students to broaden their view on acting as an art form and its purpose beyond ‘creative industry’.

Acting students learning to be more entrepreneurial to generate their own work was something that came up continually in the interviews I conducted. Teaching acting students to be producers and creators rather than passively waiting for their agent to call is, of course, excellent in theory, but I’d argue that actors – at least the really passionate ones – have been doing this from time immemorial. The continuing devaluation of the arts in Australia, however, and the shrinking cash pools supplied to arts funding bodies means actors, like all artists, are rarely adequately remunerated for their labour when they do go it alone. Independent theatre and filmmaking are expensive enterprises when people are paid properly and exhausting to maintain when they’re not.

Whatever glory days, indignities and changes acting schools go through, which have always been subject to the whims of whoever is in charge and the universities that house them, they remain highly sought after and competitive to get into. Though a BA/BFA (acting) does not require a top ATAR score, their acceptance rates are statistically lower than medicine or aeronautical engineering. Their popularity, high profiles and small intakes mean university bean counters and other stakeholders, including students, have been groomed to ask what acting degrees deliver. Good industry-ready actors? Yes, mostly.

They also graduate a lot of people who will never receive a red cent from acting, so how we characterise these people and value their skills also needs consideration. ‘Acting,’ says Meyrick, ‘is not a skill that only has a local footprint, so that if you’re not acting as an actor somehow all your skills in those modes of inquiry go for nothing. As a mode of inquiry, it is deeply and universally informative, so you take it into whatever you do.’ We can ‘look at it’, he says, ‘as much more than an inherent activity that we have learnt to be skilful with’ to see ‘how it informs a flourishing life more generally’.

Translating that into human-resources speak in a market-based economy, ‘failed’ actors are a major asset for any company or business. Anyone with an acting degree on their resumé likely has top-notch communication skills, can ‘think on their feet’, is mentally agile, flexible, resilient, empathetic, curious, informed about and engaged with the world, works well with other people, is disciplined and has a strong work ethic. We’re also ‘a delight to be around’ and may even, if you ask nicely, supply the entertainment come Christmas time.

 

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