The Way Of Acting – Who Said Theater History Is Not Important?

As Bob Marley once said…”if you know your history, then you’ll know where you’re coming from”.

I would certainly agree to BM’s opinion about history. At the IAFT-acting program, I once shared a story about my favorite professor who is known for his draconian method of teaching theatre. During that time, one of the toughest and best class I ever took was his class MA Theater History in UP. It was hard. By the end of the semester only 3 of us were left from original 7. He would start his class with trivia question’s of famous playwrights to check if we read Brockett’s History of Theater (our Bible during that time). Everyone dropped, flunked, and some change their cognate subjects just to evade him. But by the end of the class, I knew more than I thought I would when I was still a theater undergrad. I relearned history, he told us many fascinating stories of people who lived and died so that we can learn Shakespeare and Marlowe and August Wilson and all the rest of them. And then, in his last breath of the class he turned us loose, he said in a mock way, ” …and now, it’s up to you.”

I remember him vividly saying, ” How can you possibly understand a genre without looking without looking at its roots? If an actor (especially the young ones) don’t understand why a particular style is done in a particular way then how can he or she hold their own and compete with other actors who have those tools in their . bags?”

This is personally true: if a woman is working in an era which she would have been seriously constrained by the clothing she was wearing – from a corset to multiple skirts, to fabrics that don’t “give” to not even being to sit in certain outfits because there was no way for the period furniture to accommodate the skirts – she had better have a good understanding of how the level of physical constriction is going to affect her performance! She will have to breathe differently. She may be seriously limited in her volume vocally. She will be limited as a performer and as in how much she can eat and drink within a performance.

Plus, these women were not athletes – they did not move with the long strides that you see in many women today. Partially due to their clothes, and partially because they didn’t have the musculature.

Emotionally? How many pregnancies were lost because the corset was worn too tight or to long into the pregnancy? How about the fact that if she truly sobs while wearing a corset she’s likely to pass out because she won’t be able to get enough breath?

It’s amazing how many modern actors don’t really think about these things and end up looking “wrong” in their costumes, trying to move in the same way in which they would if they were wearing jeans and tennis shoes.

All relevant, and just as important for the film. There are a lot of pieces that are not set in the modern era – not just Elizabethan pieces, but also pieces set earlier in the twentieth century, where theater such as Brecht and theater of the Absurd started popping up as reactions to what was happening in the world politically and the styles that were in favor onstage.

I know, some of the above is more period “costume” stuff – but if you don’t understand that women couldn’t perform on many European stages during particular eras you might not understand how the MALE performers playing females had to adjust to all the costume/clothing requirements of the day.

If you understand that theater was once an entertainment for the masses, you will better understand the content of the plays, as well as, hopefully, try to solve the dilemma we now face where theater is seen as more elitist and bourgeois than more populist entertainment like TV!

The past is the prologue. The future is yours. And I say that knowledge is perhaps the most important thing you have. It’s more important than your headshot, your resume, and what you wear to an audition. A person is the sum of his or his actions. And also what he/she feels and thinks. And who we are as people, and whomever we are going to represent on the stage or the screen ought to be based in some reality. And knowing how your art form has grown and changed through time, what has been lost and gained, and what has come about in the last 100 years, is all vital and important to what you will do in your craft.

And, so I end my lecture by asking my students in acting…”who said theater history is not important?”

Alexander Schottky is a German actor and performing artist well known in Germany for his performance in the successful comedy series ‘Nikola’ where he played Dr. Pfund for the last 9 years. He is currently an film acting mentor at the International Academy of Film and Television – Asia’s Premier Film School..

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