April 5, 2010

Actor-training: A Truly Transformative Vision

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 3:28 pm

by Bella Merlin, Professor of Acting, Theatre and Dance Department,

Back in January, I responded to Chancellor Katehi’s call for responses to the UC Davis Transformative Vision document. I wanted to take personal responsibility for the way in which I felt the Theatre and Dance department takes daily, active institutional responsibility for the transforming of young people’s lives.

From the moment I arrived from the UK in September 2008, I was struck by the way in which UC Davis’s fundamental Transformative Learning and Teaching Model was absolutely and excitingly integral to the very blood-and-guts of what I teach – actor-training. Here’s what I mean:

Step 1: Acting students learn through each tutor’s particular meaning schemes. Those schemes may be, for example, my own specialism in psycho-physical acting systems, or my colleague, Dr Jade McCutcheon’s Body Energy Centres (BECs).

Step 2: Acting is inherently creative. That creation involves students assimilating the various ‘meaning schemes’ with which we provide them, then inevitably adding their own individual understanding. This process is ‘inevitable’ as each student’s body, intellect, imagination, psychology, and experience are unique; therefore, they inextricably ‘add’ to the knowledge with which we as tutors have supplied them.

Step 3: The transformation of those meaning schemes is also inevitable, as each student’s idiosyncratic physical and psychological landscapes serve as filters through which the material of our pedagogical systems and techniques pass.

Step 4: By engaging with different roles, plays, performance pieces, media, creative processes, the students challenge and transform their own perspectives, as they incarnate Prince Hal or Clytemnestra, seeing the world through those characters’ differing social, political, cultural and historical lenses. The students, in turn, transform our world view as tutors, through the way in which they interpret our meaning schemes and systems, and through the creation of their own works (be those informal in-class improvisations or scripted pieces).

A truly transformative learning experience is most likely to happen and to be most effective when all aspects of the students’ beings – intellect, imagination, emotions, spirit and body – are working together simultaneously. And this is exactly what happens in the realm of the Humanities and Arts, and even more specifically in actor-training. Acting engages the students’ entire psycho-physical instrument in a truly holistic process. They’re not sitting in a lecture theatre or a lab. They are completely embodying the knowledge – and transforming with it, in their learning of it.

Since my arrival at UC Davis, I’ve been developing a course called DRA 10: Introduction to Acting. This is designed as a freshman course aimed at non-acting majors, predominantly from the Sciences. In reality, it attracts all years, all ages and all specialties. Many of the students don’t have English as their first language, or come from cultures where eye contact, physical contact or even voicing one’s thoughts are not second-nature to them. That all changes in DRA010.  I informally call this course ‘Introduction to Being Human’. It’s taught in the studio spaces by the MFA Actors, and we focus on trust, communication, risk-taking, cultural diversity, internationalism, empathy, compassion, collaboration: the fundamental core values that resonate through UC Davis’s ethos and Principles of Community.

The transformation that students undergo during their ten weeks in DRA10 is truly inspiring and deeply touching. Anyone who might for one instant question the validity of teaching Acting on an historically agricultural campus should feel free to drop by any time.

There’s a well-known adage that the Sciences produce knowledge and the Arts help everyone else understand that knowledge. The true knowledge that the Arts produces, from my ‘POV’, is self-transformation and, consequently, social transformation of the highest order. Whatever the history of UC Davis as a campus, I wholeheartedly believe that the means of the embodied and embedded transformation of society, culture and humanity ultimately lies in the Arts. I invite every student to undertake some basic actor-training: their lives will be transformed, not to mention their (imaginative) vision.


1 Comment »

  1. Brava, Bella, for making this point about the cognitive and aesthetic education one gets in acting. I was an undergraduate at a small, liberal arts school where the theatre program relied heavily on people (like me) who were not theatre majors. I believe that my acting experience those four years went a long way in helping me have the control of voice and body I needed for my career as a university teacher. The acting experience honed my ability to play, another teaching skill. If I had a magic wand I’d require every undergraduate and graduate student headed for teaching to take DRA 10 or its equivalent. Wouldn’t be a bad idea for present teachers, for that matter.

    Comment by Jay Mechling — April 6, 2010 @ 9:51 am

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