At the ACA, our 12-month graduate program offers both artistic and practical advantages that set it apart from other MFA acting programs. Many actors desire additional classical training but cannot devote three years to a conventional MFA program. Such programs take them out of the field for a very long time and, most significantly, only focus in part on classical acting.
The ACA’s highly physical, rigorous training is part of a true immersion program, with an exceptional number of contact hours between students and a professional faculty. Our curriculum consists of five full days of classes and rehearsals for twelve consecutive months, including performances of fully-staged ACA repertory productions. Beginning in late August and finishing in mid-July, the training involves roughly 44 weeks of instruction, with classes usually beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Actors are in rehearsal on Saturdays as well during the Summer Term. This 59-credit degree is divided into three terms: Fall, Spring, and Summer.
In addition to ongoing feedback in classes, students meet twice during each semester with individual faculty members. These conferences allow for private one-on-one conversations to clarify their progress, define areas for growth, and develop strategies for improvement and change.
The goal of the acting curriculum at the ACA is to join the emotional, physical and imaginative life of a role with the technical skills needed to express that character to its fullest. This is achieved through rigorous foundation work and applying the basic tenets of acting to the acting of plays in verse; making strong choices that are grounded in the text, establishing a connection to the scene partner, listening and responding to what is happening in the scene.
A thorough and detailed process is established in order to bring the language to life through thoughtful text analysis, attention to the intricacies of meter and punctuation, clarity of changes in action (shifts or beat changes) and freeing up the imagination to create a wider variety of available choices. Using scenes and monologues, the students work closely with the instructors to bring their physical and vocal instruments to meet the demands of the material, and integrate the work done in other classes. In the fall term, the scenes focus on the tragedies and history plays; in the spring, comedies are introduced. Throughout the year work continues on monologues from all of the plays.
The ACA faculty in Voice, Alexander Technique, Ear-training and Mask attend acting classes regularly in order to gain a greater awareness of progress and address aspects of the work in an integrated manner.
Work with Shakespeare’s text is central to classes at the ACA across the curriculum, whether it is a voice, acting, mask or academic seminar. Additional focused text classes provide the foundation and tools for that work. Iambic pentameter and Shakespeare’s particular use of it, one of the fundamentals of text work, is explored in depth and detail in the first term. Scansion begins as a technical skill supporting clarity and ease with the verse, but becomes a resource for character and situation as well. In preparation for the spring Jacobean work, we return to scansion and meter, exploring both the evolution of Shakespeare’s verse in the late plays and the verse tactics of the major Jacobean playwrights.
Rhetoric is another fundamental, one far more central to Elizabethan and Jacobean speech than it is to our daily language. In Shakespeare, rhetoric is a mode of thought, not simply decorative language. Therefore mastering the rhetoric enables us both to articulate complex thoughts with clarity and to experience the way Shakespeare’s characters think. Figures of rhetoric thus provide a wealth of character information and ultimately become tools for the character to pursue his or her objective.
Shakespeare’s prose, though it lacks meter, has its own rhythm, in part defined by its rhetorical shape. Finding that rhythm of thought is essential to the clarity and life of the prose. With prose, as with meter, rhetoric, and imagery, we approach the work through both brain and body: balancing analytical and physical techniques for understanding and harnessing the dynamics of Shakespeare’s language. The resulting agility with text provides a firm foundation for confident performance of classical roles.
Voice and Text
Voice training at the ACA aims at developing actors capable of speaking Shakespeare’s language with clarity, ease, and nuance, with the breath support and capacity to fill large and complex thoughts, and with the richness and agility to unleash the power of the poetry.
Because no one vocal technique provides all answers for all people, ACA voice teachers employ a variety of approaches to developing the actor’s voice. Breath work is most heavily influenced by Catherine Fitzmaurice, whose destructing work is used to free the breath of non-productive habits and deepen the actor’s access to breath and emotion. The work of Catherine Fitzmaurice is a combination of spontaneity and technique. The basis of her approach is in yoga and bioenergetics, creating tremors and vibrations in the body which result in a whole-body release. Fitzmaurice re-structuring is used in conjunction with techniques of Cicely Berry, Patsy Rodenburg, Michael McCallion, Kristin Linklater, Arthur Lessac and others to develop vocal support, resonance, capacity, range and flexibility.
Speech and Text
Ear training is the basis of the ACA’s speech and text work and is integrated thoroughly into the acting process. The speech professor attends classes to give notes, identifying ways in which the student might communicate more meaningfully and effectively, and beside the director when the students are doing their table work for the repertory plays in the last term. As with all other classes at the ACA, speech and text classes are fully participatory and interactive.
Using a Standard American Stage Dialect as the model when learning the International Phonetic Alphabet, emphasis is placed on the fact that it is a modern American model and it is a dialect adopted the way in which one would adopt any other dialect. Great importance is also placed on a student’s own linguistic heritage or idiolect, and that there is no attempt to ‘neuter’ those sounds but simply ‘neutralize’ them when so desired, for the sake of clarity, distinction and sounding similar in background and nature. Edith Skinner’s Speak with Distinction is the principal text used.
Students learn to be highly proficient in the International Phonetic Alphabet, scansion dynamics and various other forms of text analysis, so there is a significant amount of material handed in and returned with comments. This way, students are perpetually aware of their level of work and the advancements they are making.
Speech class is held three times a week for four and a half hours in the fall and up to 6 hours a week in the spring. Smaller group sessions and individual tutorials supplement the work done in class.
The freedom, clarity and power conferred by excellent coordination are the hallmarks of the Alexander Technique, a kinesthetic method that allows students to perceive and set aside the habits that impede their best performance. Invariably, these habits include patterns of thought and misperception that mislead actors into using excessive, unnecessary tension and effort in their work. Choosing consistently to refrain from effortful acting is one milestone in the actors’ progress in the technique.
To reach it, actors must achieve more accurate perceptions of themselves and the dynamic demands of the task at hand. They must also decide repeatedly to forego the immediate pleasure of working in their habitual, effortful way, in favor of a freer way of working that ultimately is far more rewarding. This crucial ability not to do what is nonessential, counterproductive and overly effortful is strengthened through a daily practice of constructive rest, which is taught at the beginning of the first trimester and required throughout the year.
Learning not to do the nonessential is the first meta-skill required of the actor. Learning always to do what is essential is the second. Actors must learn to coordinate consistently the myriad elements that their craft requires. In particular, they must develop the ability to refresh their attention continually with ease, so that they can remain open, listen to their scene partners, and live in the present moment on stage.
This ability to renew their attention from moment to moment is another milestone in the mastery of the technique, and it leads to a host of other benefits. With it, actors can learn to free their breath at will, release into strong emotion, support themselves with effortless poise, speak with unforced power, move with grace and ease, choose from a far larger palette of acting choices and match the clarity of their acting intentions with a clarity of execution.
During the fall trimester, actors receive three hours of group instruction each week. The principles of the technique are introduced and explored through guided group, partner and individual kinesthetic exercises. As the trimester advances, the Alexander Technique instructor and the voice instructor teach occasional combined classes, to consolidate the mutual benefits of their disciplines. In the second half of the trimester, actors also engage in scene work with literal hands-on guidance from the Alexander Technique instructor, which allows them to detect over-effort and other errors in the way they are using themselves as they are happening.
The winter trimester builds on this foundation, with actors receiving weekly half-hour private instruction. These hands-on sessions help the actors to grow in their mastery of the technique, so that by the spring trimester, they can consistently use it in their scene work and are ready to apply it in actual productions. The Alexander Technique instructor attends rehearsals during the spring and provides support and assistance to the actors as they approach performance with far greater awareness and skill.
Movement and Stretch
Core strength is critical for an actor’s craft. The movement course focuses intensely on centering, breathing and precision in the core through Pilates exercises on the mat and standing. The focus and discipline that Pilates requires becomes an integral part of the actor’s life.
Students will learn to clarify their body lines, coordination and rhythm through the dance and movement segments of the class by using a broad spectrum of disciplines including: lyric jazz, modern, contemporary ballet, ballroom, period dance and improvisation. The instructional and creative aspects of movement will assist students in preparation for the physical demands of their craft.
The movement class also explores aspects of choreography, learning routines and dance combinations and creating their own movement and general choreographic learning that is frequently required from actors at many auditions.
Movement class meets three times per week for 90 minutes in the fall and two times per week in the winter/spring and as often as scheduling permits in the summer. Since frequent physical conditioning is a valued tool for daily enhancement of the actor’s body, students are encouraged to continue with Pilates work on the alternate days.
Stretch is a vital part of the integrated approach found at the Academy for Classical Acting. Combined with Pilates and Alexander Technique, stretch develops body awareness, reduces muscle tension, allows the body to feel more relaxed and move in a freer and more coordinated way. Students develop an increased range of motion as their muscles become more pliable, improving movement efficiency and power. Students will discover their body’s natural harmony and balance through focused breathing and release techniques. This course challenges each student, address individual needs and creates a personal stretch program to help maintain overall physical wellness. Stretch is held once a week for 90 minutes, usually on Friday afternoons, throughout the year.
Topics in Theatre
This academic cornerstone of the ACA covers the theories and topics of theatre history, dramatic literature and criticism. Using primary sources — plays and writings from the Elizabethan, Restoration, and Jacobean eras — students will examine the historical world in which the plays were written as well as the imaginary worlds created in the plays themselves. With partners, students also do research to create class presentations. Students will be asked to prepare short writing assignments that will serve as a basis for the final written component of the program, in which the student focuses on a particular character or play.
Stage Combat at the ACA explores the history and art of the sword in classical acting. During the program, the participant will explore Longsword, Broadsword, Sword and Shield, Quarterstaff, Cudgel, Fisticuffs, Classical Dagger, Rapier, Rapier and Dagger, Rapier and Gauntlet, Rapier and Buckler, Rapier and Cloak and Smallsword.
The participant will develop the skills to understand how classical weapons were historically used and how they are safely used for the stage. The class explores training methods of footwork, hip relationship, blade actions and grappling. Participants work to gain a strong understanding of martial principals of different period weapons and their dramatic use. Special emphasis is given to acting the fight, bringing meaning and intent to the physical actions and how to develop a fight to serve the play. The participant will develop a personal understanding of how the body moves and listens, and freely express itself safely in the dynamics of stage violence.
The class will develop fight scenes and perform them in class. Each participant will earn their Actor Combatant Certifications in the Society of American Fight Directors. The class will celebrate and encourage an exchange of safe stage combat techniques and processes, historical martial arts and styles, contemporary movement arts and theory, and the development of cooperation and skill, exploring the history and traditions of the past, as well as the camaraderie found in the sharing of ideas and knowledge inherently found in the study of the sword.
For the classical actor, mask work is about generating energy, size and presence. The mask has a very practical use and a profound purpose: to make the body the primary instrument of expression rather than the face, and to develop the physical presence needed to inhabit a role. Mask work guides us to eliminate inhibiting habitual patterns, encourages clarity of movement and fosters a greater command of stillness. In distilling action down to essential rhythms, we comprehend the space and force of gesture. The actor discovers greater depths of expressiveness, how to move with power and presence and deeper understandings of spatial dynamics.
In Clown, we embark on the wondrous journey of rediscovering innocence and uncovering the pleasure of play. The red nose—the smallest mask—is both a great liberator and a severe taskmaster. It summons transparency in the actor while revealing in us all of our beautiful and complicated simplicity; a daring adventure, in which we open our fragile hearts in search of fun. The honesty and openness we find in Clown will inhabit all of our work.
Photo of Kelly Lynn Hogan and Rafael Untalan in The Maid’s Tragedy (ACA)