- Acting in the Academy: The History of Professional Actor Training in US Higher Education by Peter Zazzali
In the half century since the founding of the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, BFA and MFA programs have proliferated while employment opportunities for stage actors, which enjoyed a brief surge through the 1960s and ’70s, have decidedly diminished. The scope of Peter Zazzali’s Acting in the Academy: The History of Professional Actor Training in US Higher Education is less ambitious than that suggested by its subtitle, focusing primarily on the discrepancy between supply and demand for stage-trained actors, and specifically on the relationship of three League training programs to professional regional theatre in the United States. Nevertheless, the book claims a useful place in the debates on the ethics and economics of actor training, a discussion that has been furthered by Richard Schechner, Joseph Roach, and Leigh Woods, among others, and offers some valuable history and a modestly promising proposal as well.
Before settling into case studies of three League schools—Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon, and Yale—Zazzali describes the current economic challenges of the acting profession in an early chapter laced with both statistics and the lamentations of longtime theatre educators and advocates. He goes on to offer a brief history of twentieth-century training in United States, from the birth of the Method-based New York studios to the origination of the League and its mission. While this material will not be new to most readers, it is presented clearly and precisely and provides a useful platform for the book’s argument. Focusing on the genesis of regional repertory companies during the 1960s and ’70s, Zazzali argues that the birth of these companies created an unprecedented need for actor training on a wide scale, and the dissolving of most of them (at least as stable companies of actors) a few decades later has left the great imbalance we see today, with undergraduate and graduate programs producing far more actors than the theatre can ever support.
The resident theatre model, inspired by Margo Jones’s vision of a decentralized theatre—a network of permanent companies of full-time actors doing culturally significant work rooted in region and community—has all but completely folded. (The Oregon Shakespeare Festival maintains a full-time company on season-long contracts, and a few other professional companies [Mile Square Theatre of Hoboken and Artists Repertory Theatre of Portland, Oregon, come to mind] deliberately nurture local talent and local stories, but the majority of League of Resident Theatres companies job-in actors as needed, one show at a time, for brief runs and even briefer rehearsal periods.) In the meantime, the number of BFA and MFA acting programs has swelled to more than 150, each of them graduating dozens of students every year for a total far greater than the American theatre can support at any kind of living wage. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the resident model has been the shift from the more purely psychological approaches of New York studios during the 1940s and ’50s to what Zazzali calls “psychophysical training”—an umbrella term for an approach that integrates textual analysis, voice and speech, movement, and technical skills like dialects, dance, combat, and acrobatics. Psychophysical work, Zazzali argues, gained prominence thanks to the regional theatre’s need for actors who could handle verse, analyze literary texts, sustain [End Page 576] a physically demanding performance, and cover a range of varied roles throughout a repertory season. And this training, it might be argued, threatens to become irrelevant, as the bulk of professional work available for actors now takes place in film, theatre, and most recently webcasting, where psychophysical training is less important than other skills harder to reconcile to a liberal arts or university education.
Zazzali’s three case studies trace the development of prominent programs that were at one time members of the League. In the stories that emerge, tensions over resources, priorities, and graduates’ career prospects force a series of difficult choices and fraught...