As I have mentioned before, my acting training began at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, arguably the most famous acting school in the world. I’m not sure how I got in – or, in fact, how almost anyone else in my term made it through those illustrious doors – we were a shockingly lazy and untalented lot. My audition was forced and showed nothing beyond earnestness and the ability to remember my lines in spite of crippling nerves. During my sojourn of two and a half years at the Academy, I gained very little information about acting other than the ineradicable belief that I wasn’t any good at it – I even lost the ability to remember my lines. There were some good things about the school: the opportunity to perform Shakespeare, learning the social mores of Restoration Comedy, a good speech teacher from whom I gained a grasp of British accents, but as far as a useful acting technique, itself, was concerned – nada.
Other people fared better – I had the opportunity to play a small part in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano with David Bradley – an excellent actor, most famous for his portrayal of Filch in the Harry Potter films. Michael Kitchen, star of the popular PBS series, Foyle’s War, was obviously able to cope – he was a term below mine, but we had occasional chats. And some others – Leigh Lawson from my own term - have made good careers for themselves in England. Of course, there is a long list of famous RADA graduates.
So, why do some acting students thrive in a school that lacks a systematic, comprehensible acting technique and requires them to perform constantly in an atmosphere of intense competition and criticism? One answer is that these students are so confident and/or talented that they would do well anywhere. But in the case of my experience at RADA, I would say that I was at a grave disadvantage being an American. (I just checked the RADA list of famous graduates to see how many might be American, and noticed that they fail to list several British actors I personally know, like David Bradley - although they did include Michael Kitchen - so I imagine the list would be even less reliable in relation to Americans, although I did find, among them, Maggie Gyllenhall.) The fact is RADA frowns upon accepting Americans; I was told when I was there that one reason I did not do well was my ‘American-ness.’ Also, during my time, they actually forced out a student, who had the courage to ‘come out’ as a gay man. However, they couldn’t come up with a logical reason why they were unable to train either one of us. In the case of the gay student, it was prejudice, and they felt entitled to act upon it. In my case, it was more subtle and more baffling, both for them and for me, why they couldn’t just ‘knock me into shape.’ They certainly tried. If corporal punishment had still been allowed, I would have had one helluva bruised a**.)
Subsequently, when the shame began to wear off, I realized that there was something about being American that made it impossible for me to get my foot in the door. The structure of RADA itself and most of the plays we studied there were based in the British class system, which I understood intellectually, but had no ‘feel for;’ in fact, I had an unconscious antipathy towards it. There is a reason why the psychological acting techniques, which I encountered later, took root in America and not in Europe. They may still lack popularity in Europe, although I have little knowledge of current European acting, aside from the Eastern European physically based methods, such as Jerzi Grotowski’s work in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.
Why does the ‘class system’ – or any kind of social ‘system’ make training more manageable. It creates order out of chaos for the student actor. I had been brought up on the idea that we are all created equal. It was in the air I breathed – although I experienced inequality all around me – racial prejudice, poverty, class and gender distinctions in operation - but I was taught that it was wrong. It was written in the Constitution of the United States (except slavery, but we didn’t know about that then) and every sentimental Hollywood movie pretended that America punished people who ‘put themselves above others.’ So when I entered RADA’s hallowed halls I was deeply confused about this issue. The plays I worked on at RADA critiqued inequality, and my fellow students, being mostly British, knew exactly where they stood in relation to the system in which they lived. I had no idea where I stood in relation to anything.
While I was struggling with artistic representations of these lofty concepts in England, my fellow Americans were staging sit-ins at the Berkeley and Columbia campuses. Multiculturalism was about to burst on the American scene, but I was caught psychologically between two worlds – trying to understand the expressly stated class system in which I found myself, before I had an opportunity to deal with the ‘fake ideal of equality’ in the society in which I had been raised.
I suffered mightily from my inability to find any personal basis for the artistic concepts I was supposed to be learning at RADA. I suppose this is why I have endeavored to create an ‘acting process’ that allows universal personal values to operate as a basis for the art and the technique of acting.
Next week– before continuing with my analysis of The Integrated Acting Process – I will discuss a wonderful film some of you may have heard of called God’s Land, directed by Preston Miller, and starring Shing Ka, Jodi Lin, and Matthew Chili along with some other wonderful actors….