- Acting in the Academy: The History of Professional Actor Training in US Higher Education by Peter Zazzali
In Acting in the Academy: The History of Professional Actor Training in US Higher Education, Peter Zazzali offers a critical contribution to ongoing discourse on the role, structure, and purpose of acting training programs located within US academic institutions. Relying upon an extensive archive of materials, he traces the rise and significance of the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, and uses this rich historical context to argue for curricular change. Specifically, Zazzali calls on contemporary acting programs to embrace a different, more entrepreneurial model that empowers actors within the “given circumstances” of this particular contemporary moment. Zazzali’s book is both a groundbreaking historical work and a future-looking treatise that will be an invaluable resource for professors and acting students alike as they seek to determine the trajectories of acting training for the next fifty years.
As the author states in his introduction, this book is primarily a history of the “‘professional’ training of actors in US higher education,” an underrepresented chapter in the larger history of acting technique in the United States (5). Throughout the work Zazzali strengthens his argument by consistently reminding his readers of the parameters of his study. He asserts the league’s legacy as the most important to the development of acting technique in the country since the Group Theatre of the 1930s. He thus places the league and its professional training programs within the larger narrative both of acting training in higher education and the development of US acting technique in general.
Zazzali bookends the core of his historical analysis with more polemic chapters. His opening chapter on the challenges facing actor training today establishes the stakes for his examination, while his concluding chapter suggests a pathway forward for acting programs to consider for the future. While he is careful to note that his work does not “substantially address important issues regarding race, gender, age, social class, disabilities, and sexual identity relative to American acting training” (5), he does couch his assessment of contemporary actor training and call for change within some economic and social systems. For example, he discusses the impact of celebrity on standards or measures of actor success. Zazzali skillfully positions these concerns as a result of a continued reliance upon a league-training approach that fails to take into account the realities or “given circumstances” of the contemporary performance landscape. These concerns lead him ultimately to argue for an emphasis on entrepreneurship as a way of cultivating skills in young actors to empower them to create their own opportunities, defy the celebrity system, and redefine the very measures of a successful career.
To arrive at these conclusions, Zazzali investigates US actor training from various angles. In the second chapter he examines the creation of the league out of the seeds of the Stanislavski system. The league focused on a psychophysical approach that combined the psychological approaches of Stanislavski with the physical training found in Barba or Growtowski. The newly formed league schools of the early 1970s became crucibles for the teaching of these techniques and the creation of a generation of actors prepared for work in regional theatres. Yet, as Zazzali importantly reminds us, this relationship between the league and regional theatres was often not simpatico.
To illustrate this uneasy relationship, he uses chapter 3 to place the league within the sociohistorical context of the 1960s in order to provide the groundwork for the fraught relationship between professional training programs and the US university system. Specifically, he details specific moments, such as conferences, speeches, and grants awarded, to show the incremental steps that led to the standards and practices established for these emerging programs.
After establishing that the newly formed league (in 1971) created eleven programs in its first year as an incorporated body, Zazzali transitions in chapter 4 to specific case studies of three disparate representative models of the league: Carnegie Mellon, Julliard, and American Conservatory Theater. These case studies represent an appropriate...