99-00 Season Season

Master Class

From Stagebill Magazine

Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director, has embarked on a radical new venture: the formation of an intensive one-year classical acting training program.


VISIONARIES OFTEN act out of necessity. And so it is that Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn's need for well-trained classical actors fed his vision of an acting program devoted to classical training. The result is the creation of the Shakespeare Theatre Academy for Classical Acting (ACA) at George Washington University. Now in its first year, ACA, in conjunction with the university, offers 18 to 20 students a one-year Master of Fine Arts program that immerses them in a classical environment.

Classical texts, as Kahn points out, "are works of tremendous complexity," and many actors working today, although they have the potential, have neither the training nor the specific skills the classics require. "I want to work with the most agile, the most skilled, the most imaginative, and the best-trained actors around," admits Kahn, who in the past has sometimes found it difficult to satisfy that want. Hence, his introduction two years ago of the idea of a compacted one-year program devoted entirely to classical training.

Such a program did not exist prior to ACA, in part because of what Leslie Jacobson, chair of George Washington University's Department of Theatre and Dance-and coordinator with Kahn in the development of ACA-labels as a feeling of unspoken inferiority when it comes to the classics here in the U.S. But now I think there's an interest in doing the classics in a uniquely American way and, although there are places that offer some of this training, there aren’t any that are focused specifically on classical acting in such an intensive program."

ACA’S INAUGURAL class of 12 men and 6 women has plunged into the rigorous regimen(classes from 9 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., scene work in the evening) with all of the enthusiasm and commitment ACA’s creators hoped for, according to Catherine Weidner, ACA’s program director. "We never doubted that there was a need for this kind of program, but we weren’t certain that we’d find those very special students who were willing to attack this discipline head on. But we did. These actors are just incredibly special."

The curriculum focuses on acting, mask, voice and speech, Alexander movement technique, stage combat, and theater history, with faculty drawn both from George Washington’s Department of Theatre and Dance and from the Shakespeare Theatre’s acting company, in addition to classes with Kahn, Jacobson, and Weidner. The students bring with them varying degrees of experience- from those who come to ACA directly from other training programs to those who’ve been working professionally for years with no prior training-but each has had to set aside what he or she knew before to learn ACA’s very individual process.

"We’re in a field where the product-the performance-is often experimental," but the training isn’t. This program is an experiment in process. It’s a new approach." Weidner calls the program "part archaeology, part brain surgery. There’s a science to it, but we’re also telling the students, ‘Just shut up and dig.’ There’s a perception among actors that 90 percent of what they do relies on feeling and we’re saying that’s okay, but back up those feelings with some technique and some understanding of the text."

Part of the process is risk-taking, and ACA’s faculty fosters an environment where mistakes are no more than a prelude to learning. "Failure is part of the economy of process, says student Mark Coven; fellow student Peggy Scott adds, We’re encouraged to fail. The object here is the process, not the result. The attitude is, ‘Let’s learn something new.’" Weidner understands that tossing aside their "bag of tricks "can be scary for any actor. " I tell them that there is no going back to the way it was before. That’s just not enough anymore. And you can see the look on their faces, that they can’t believe they got by the way they did. They know that’s unacceptable now. We want them to say, ‘The bag is empy and I am going to fill it with every role.’" Student Christopher Marino points out that learning the process "lends a certain cohesion to everything you’ve done before" and that "the only way to know what you’re doing is right is to break it down and examine it." Adds Weidner, "The thoroughness, the attention to detail, the demands on them in regard to precision—they’re starting to realize how much work that takes."

Of course, that kind of commitment and hard work reaps a multitude of benefits. Already, just six months into the program, Kahn is noticing "such wonderful changes in the students. I see them so much more comfortable with Shakespeare, so much clearer at how to look at his life, stucture, and characters than they were when they came in. I see their voices, their breath control, and where they place their voices getting better. It is going to take a whole year to get where we want to get, but I’m already seeing so much."

Jacobson and Weidner also see progress and, in addition a strong esprit de corps among ACA’s 18 pioneers. "People are being really supportive of each other," says Jacobson, "coming to respect and care about each other in ways that I think really help the work." Weidner agrees. "They know that being the first group is so special because they’re really setting the bar."

There are already inquiries from those who would come after, with requests every day for information on ACA’s second year from actors all around the country, bespeaking a "tremendous enthusiasm and excitement about this program," says Weidner. Perhaps part of the excitement is knowing that ACA’s students will enhance and ignite American professional theater with new energies for years to come. And not just classical theater; as Kahn points out, "if you can learn to inhabit Shakespeare’s characters, you can do just about anything.

Diane Ney is a playwright and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.