The learning experience: actors' views on formal training

by Michele LaRue
Back Stage, Oct 18, 1991, page 1

[Excerpted below: Ron Silver's response to the question of whether actors need formal training:]

A qualified "yes"--not because I'm ambivalent about the question or reluctant to give you an answer, but because I honestly believe, having done this now almost 20 years, that every individual has a different approach. I've seen people with a tremendous amount of educational background in the field not turn out to be terribly good actors, and I've seen people with no education in the field turn out to be people that I admire quite a bit. There doesn't seem to be any systematic pattern--and there's certainly no data indicating that people turn out to be better actors with or without it.

I can only speak for myself. From my own experience, [training] was invaluable. I had not grown up in a family that exposed me to a great deal of theatrical entertainment--mostly musical theatre. I didn't see any straight plays--or legit, as we called it. I had no desire from an early age to be on the stage. I'm very fond of adapting a Congreve quote: "He kind of dwindled into marriage." I kind of dwindled into acting. It was a process that evolved over time, and I was coming from academia. It made perfect sense that if you wanted to learn about [acting], you read books, you went to the theatre, you got involved with people in the process--and you went to class. It was natural for me to go.

In my own case, it was terribly important . . . in a less defined, less tangible, way. I saw and I met a lot of people who were in the field. It also provided a context in which I came to respect what the actor did, because I saw how difficult it actually was to do.

I was very impressed with the people I was taking classes with. I came to like them. And it was also a great deal of fun. What I wanted to do was take advantage of all the traditional Group Theatre-type people that were still around. My very first class was with Herbert Berghof. He encouraged me tremendously. That's another aspect of [classes] too: the encouragement and the mentoring that can go on. I received a great deal of encouragement from Herbert.

Then I started to study with Uta Hagen. HB was a wonderful place to start. I was still going to graduate school at the time. I could go there Tuesday afternoons and continue on my MA in Chinese history at St. John's University. Then I worked with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

For me, acting school was essential. One, it was continuity. Being with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, being in Stella Adler's class, I felt a connection to what had gone before. I understood, at least in this country, what people had been trying to do from the 1920s on. So I felt somewhat connected to the tradition. That was very, very important to me. It wasn't just an act of individual self-expression, [but] that we do exist historically in a context, and being with actors and directors of that generation was very important.

Two, I actually learned a lot of things that served me very well when it came to repeating performances on stage, because it is a craft and you do need a technique for it.

And, more than anything else, what I liked about it--which doesn't work for all actors--was the reflective nature, the self-reflection. That was very important. Because you need a tremendous--well, not everybody--but for me, a tremendous curiosity. You have to think an awful lot about your motivations or people's behavioral intentions or what their body language can indicate or what's really going on or what makes people sometimes do, sometimes, the irrational things they do. It made me think about a whole area of human activity that was not really a concern to me before that, because I was involved in reading Chinese history, or languages, or whatever.

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