Acting in the Academy

Acting in the Academy: The history of professional actor training in US higher education. Peter Zazzali. London, New York: Routledge, 2016; Pp. 219.

In Acting in the Academy, Peter Zazzali marshals some rather grim employment data provided by Actors Equity Association to argue that it is now harder than ever to be a stage actor in the United States (9). This is not only due to the decreasing number of jobs in theatre, but also to the increasing number of graduates of professional BFA and MFA programs entering the field every year. In light of this imbalance, Zazzali conveys the urgent need for educators within these programs to ask whether it is efficacious, and indeed, ethical, to continue training large numbers of actors for the stage. Acting in the Academy thus functions as a systemic critique of the current acting profession told through a history of mid-twentieth and twenty-first century actor training in US higher education and, ultimately, an argument for training programs to better address the realities of the current profession and equip students to transform it.

Zazzali locates the origin of the imbalance in the acting job market in the historical relationship between regional theatre and actor training programs in US higher education. He traces this history through the formation, decline, and legacy of the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs—an organization established to develop curriculum, set standards, and hold accountable participating MFA and BFA programs training actors for professional theatre careers. He examines how the curriculums of League schools developed to meet the demands of regional theatres for resident companies of actors and charts how these programs and their pedagogies continued to proliferate, despite the eventual decline of these regional companies and the displacement of employment opportunities from stage to screen. In light of the shifting demands of the profession, Zazzali argues that training programs ought to embrace an “entrepreneurial” model aimed at giving actors the skills to create their own work and put themselves at the center of their careers.

Though there have been many studies on the history and theory of US actor training, as well as a handful of studies on US not-for-profit theatre by practitioners and scholars such as Robert Brustein (2009) and Donatella Galella, Zazzali’s is unique in tracing the relationship between the two. Additionally, his work builds on projects such as Ellen Margolis and Lisa Tyler Renaud’s collection of essays, The Politics of American Actor Training (2011), which examines the socio-politics of actor training, by situating these questions within a historical context and grounding them in archival and testimonial data. By employing sociocultural and institutional perspectives, Zazzali thus poses an important intervention into scholarship on actor training that has ramifications for the current state of the field

Although the majority of Zazzali’s investigation is historically grounded in the life of the League and its constituent programs (1965-1987), the long-term implications of his work are underscored by the study’s structure, which is bookended by chapters on the current state of the profession and actor training. In chapter one, Zazzali employs sources including employment statistics and interviews with actors, educators, and casting directors to argue that many programs perpetuate a training model that no longer equips students to navigate the realities of the profession. Saddled by debt and trained primarily for the stage, graduates confront a profession dominated by television, film, and celebrity. Though many of the educators he interviews thoughtfully seek to adapt their programs to better prepare students for these realities, they acknowledge that there is a kind of systemic crisis at hand (11).

Zazzali proceeds to situate this crisis in the history of the League and its constituent training programs (chapters two through four). Arguing that the League is the “most important development in US actor training since the Group Theatre” (5), he contextualizes its emergence within the culture boom of the 1960s and the regional theatre movement that sought to employ an ensemble of actors capable of performing works in repertory. To meet these demands, universities established BFA and MFA programs, several of which organized to form the League in 1971. With financial support from the NEA, the League set standards of recruitment and developed a “psychophysical” pedagogical template—a combination of elements of Stanislavsky’s method with rigorous physical and vocal training that remains dominant in programs today. Zazzali’s study demonstrates that much of today’s training pedagogy emerged from the specific needs of regional theatres and the institutional structure of the League.

However, Zazzali notes that the task of vocational actor training was not always a symbiotic match for bureaucratic university systems. Departing from W. McNeil Lowry’s assertion that they existed in “an uneasy dichotomy” (64), Zazzali examines the fraught field of institutional dynamics that shaped the development of these programs. In the third chapter, Zazzali focuses on three case studies in particular—Carnegie Tech, Juilliard, and the American Conservatory Theatre—to explore how administrative policies, funding structures, and bureaucratic infighting had an impact on these programs and their pedagogies

Chapters five and six return to the profession. Zazzali examines the League’s dissolution alongside a consideration of the careers of alumni from each of the three case studies. Through the lens of these individual careers, Zazzali explores how the shift in job opportunities from stage to screen emerged in tandem with an increasing commercialization of the profession overall, including an emphasis on celebrity and a pressure for actors to “brand” themselves. Actors increasingly sought work in television and film—positioning their careers in a medium that required very different skills than had been provided by their psychophysical training.

In the concluding chapter, Zazzali examines the ways in which former League schools have equipped actors to navigate this new landscape. Of particular interest to Zazzali are Juilliard’s initiatives to connect students and their work to community service organizations, as well as curricular modules—such as at Carnegie Mellon and NYU—that encourage students to cross disciplinary boundaries and create their own work. Deeming this an “entrepreneurial” approach, Zazzali posits that it can put actors at the center of their careers. The success of PigPen Theatre—which emerged out of CMU’s Playground program—is a testament to the long-term ramifications of this work on graduates’ careers.

Acting in the Academy is both an institutional and sociocultural history of US actor training beginning in the mid-twentieth century, as well a systemic critique of the current profession. Ultimately, Zazzali argues that programs ought to embrace an entrepreneurial model that “promotes self-reliance, innovation, initiative, and most crucially, serving society” (184). This social focus is essential, he argues, because it could generate an increased demand for what actors do, and provide them with the tools to reshape the state of the profession. Though a shift in actor training alone will likely not create a wholesale restructuring of the profession, challenge the dominance of television and film, or reverse the industry’s commercialization, Zazzali makes an urgent and ethical case for training programs to respond to the changing demands of the profession and to give actors the tools to shape that profession themselves. This book will thus be of interest to historians of actor training and twentieth century US theatre, as well as anyone involved in the education of actors.

Jennifer Joan Thompson
The CUNY Graduate Center

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 29, Number 2 (Spring 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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