This isn’t a post so much as a call for responses. In some of the comments on my “Youth Problem” post, both on the blog and on Facebook, a thread was emerging that suggested that one reason we see far fewer young actors on Canadian stages is that our actors aren’t as well trained as UK actors. I’d love to hear more about this.

“Training” strikes me as a relatively quantifiable concept. What does “good training” entail? Which aspects of training seem most egregiously neglected by Canadian theatre schools? Are there aspects of our training system (if there is such a “system”) that are working well, perhaps even better than elsewhere? I have a few views of mine own, but I’ll keep those, uncharacteristically, to myself for now.

So go on, actors, directors, artistic directors, educators, critics: comment away!

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13 Responses to Do We Have a Problem with Actor Training in Canada?

  1. I’d contest that training is a quantifiable concept because everybody has a different opinion on what training is useful for an actor. For example, my work in stage combat has become extremely important to my acting work; it has completely changed my relationship to my body and the way I use it to communicate character. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s helped me as much on camera and I know many actors who haven’t found it useful beyond throwing a believable punch. In a way, “what is good training?” is a moot question because it largely depends on what kind of actor you want to be (at least in Canada). If I wanted to solely be a film actor, I think I would have skipped theatre school altogether, taken a bunch of film classes, and perhaps worked onscreen far more often than I do now.

    This is very Canada- and perhaps even Toronto-specific, but I feel like my training left out a large part of the realities and business of acting because as John mentioned, there are very few apprenticeship opportunities for young actors. The likelihood of an actor being hired by a large repertory company fresh out of theatre school and cutting their teeth by working with established actors (or hell, even just working at all) is…shall we say slim? I’m being polite here.

    Real talk: young actors had better be ready to write, direct, and produce their own work. They should be prepared to self-promote like no other generation has ever had to before (I’m looking at you, Facebook/Twitter/YouTube). I am grateful that my training gave my some opportunity to experience this, but it would have been better to know that this is just the reality of our career path. I have yet to meet a Canadian actor who doesn’t do any or all of the above, teach, stage manage, etc., as well as perform.

  2. Bailey says:

    I have experienced two completely different actor training programs. The first was a conservatory style training program at John Abbott College in Quebec and the second is the joint Theatre and Drama Studies program at UTM/Sheridan.

    As I come to the end of my seven years in theatre school, I don’t feel like I have lacked for training in any school of acting or performance style. Inspiring teachers, unique productions and a smorgasbord of techniques. I could argue for or against actor training institutions depending on the day. Theatre school allows actors the space and time they need to develop their technique and expand their horizons as artists. It also promises you will be cast in several shows.

    This being said, training programs lack a focus on the audition. Auditioning as a skill seems to be introduced only in the last year of training—when auditions for Quebec Drama Federation or Theatre Ontario loom in the distance. And this is can be damaging because auditioning is what actors do for a living. Not to say that when the training it isn’t useful (it is) but it is the frequency of experience that counts.

    Student actors are not encouraged to do outside projects because they are contractually bound to their training program and as such I believe many actors, while in their early training stages, don’t consider actively auditioning for their own benefit or experience. They audition hoping for the job (but who doesn’t).

    There’s always a learning curve when you graduate and no amount of training will ever erase that. But training programs can help better prepare their grads for the challenges of the audition.

    Then there’s getting the audition in the first place.

  3. Rod Beilfuss says:

    I’ve trained both in Canada and in the UK.

    My acting undergrad (BAH) degree is from Canada. My Professional MA is from London’s LAMDA.

    To add a third difference: I’m originally from Brazil, and familiar with their style of training too.

    This is a huge topic, and extremely hard to dissect in one blog comment…

    In a miserable, grossly generalized nutshell: yes, there are massive differences, mainly to do with culture. Canada unfortunately only has a few conservatory-style training facilities, while the UK has been around for centuries, has loads of them around, and LAMDA in fact is the UK’s oldest drama school at 152 years of age. There’s a tradition in British theatre that values rigorous training; while in North America we have that “do it yourself” mentality.

    Canadian training also lacks Classical Drama as the foundation of theatrical training. My UK training, on the other hand, had the Classics as THE “blue print” for, well, everything we do now.

    That’s basically it, in a very tiny, gross nutshell.

    And to add to the mix: Brazil’s approach to theatre is highly stylized, and tends to focus on commedia-esque, physical, clowning and movement approaches.



  4. Hi Holger,

    So, it’s a heavy question, & I think probably opinion is going pretty fractured; I guess a way for me to clarify my own feelings towards my training is by asking a more sort of teleological question (Julian, I think, alludes to this): what is the capital-P Purpose of training? It seems pretty obvious to me that “getting you the job” can’t be its only (or even primary) function; if it were, theatre school would spend its energies creating little perfect auditioners, & probably would expand it’s TV/film acting component (I went to George Brown Theatre School, where we spent all of two weeks on this in three years).

    I am wholly unqualified to remark on the quality of my training vs. European or American programs. I can say only that it seems to me that different schools with different pedagogical/aesthetic templates will produce different kinds of actors – NTS grads, I’ve noticed, tend to be very physical performers, whereas GBers tend to be highly text-based, a little more cerebral in their approach. These are generalizations, obviously, & by no means do I wish to suggest that NTS grads have any deficit w/r/t text work or that GBers have any w/r/t movement & physical theatre; I can comment on my own experience, which is that I find that, generally, I feel my training has best prepared for a careera as a Shavian, & not necessarily as someone doing, say, collective creation or devised theatre.

    GB was a smorgasboard, & we were exposed to a lot – mask, Shakespeare, Shaw, devised theatre, dance, Jacobean stuff, improv, &c. However, the balance of our training focused on textual exegesis: a decidedly language-based theatre. I do not intend this as a criticism, merely as an observation. A second observation: my performances in text-based theatre were ALWAYS improved while I was learning, in another class, a more abstract, physical technique. I am not sure what to make of this, since I wonder how possible it is to pay close attention to these two modes (from a pedagogical standpoint) without watering both down. Is it better to weigh one heavier than the other? I’m not sure I have an answer to this question. I’d be curious to hear what others have experienced in this respect.

    Maybe it’s a time & resource thing? I had really damn fine teachers at GB, & learned a great deal. But often we would had a few weeks to learn techniques which are supposed to take years to master (a year’s worth of LeCoque crammed into six weeks made me starving for more – our mask teacher Vrenia Ivanoffski was superb).

    Is it possible to concieve of a theatre school that functions in a similar way to a major university, where after taking some basic, “general” classes (though this gives rise, obviously, to questions w/r/t what we ought to consider the actor’s most basic tools), after which the student may choose distinguish herself as an actor based on her preferred tastes – electing to take, say, more of the buffon courses she loves while eschewing the (for her) less interesting Uta Hagen technique classes? Or would such a thing just be woefully unfocused & inefficient?

    Or am I just wrong in concieving these modes as antitheses? Is the “total actor” a real possibility?

    I seem to have asked more questions than I’ve answered – apologies.

    Thanks again for your always-interesting blog, Holger.

  5. John says:

    I can’t comment with too much of a useful comparison, but I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before. It’s my opinion that the training itself is fine, and, as far as I can tell, on par with what other programmes in the West are doing. Admittedly, I’ve not studied anywhere else, but auditioning in NY for two schools in the UK I can say that I was at least on the same level as all the other applicants that were auditioning for my course, and, I assume, that ran pretty consistently world wide, since I got into both.

    So, with that being said, I really believe that a lot of the training problems come not from post-secondary training, but the training that is available upon graduation. Sure, there are classes, and self-directed study, and workshops, but, with a couple of exceptions (like the Banff, and Soulpepper Academies) there’s not really anywhere that gives young actors the opportunity to grow as professionals.

    I don’t believe that it is school’s job to make fully-functional, finely honed, working actors. That can only come from real work experience. Experience that, as you’ve pointed out in many a blog, seems much more readily available overseas. Few actors are cast in major productions right out of school, let alone during the course of their education, and opportunities after graduation are incredibly sparse. Part of it seems to be due to the fact that the industry in Canada is so scattered. If a Toronto actor won’t act in Vancouver, then a young Toronto actor never will. There doesn’t seem to be a network of people that stretches between generations, or levels, at all. At the top, perhaps, but from there there seems to be an inability, or unwillingness to seriously help, or mentor, anyone lower.

    Also, I really, really wish there was an apprenticeship of sorts in Canada, or in the world. What I wouldn’t give to simply be a runner, or SIT IN on the rehearsals of professional companies, watching experienced, older actors. Just watching. I’d love to have someone to go to with questions on how to prep, how one’s preparation can evolve, advice on how to navigate the industry, agents, contracts, etc., and to help guide me.

    But apparently, that’s not a thing. Can’t just write an actor, and be like, “Yo, I really admire your work. Would it be cool for me to come watch you work?” I don’t want to see the finished product. I want to see the prep work, and the effort put in beforehand. Theatre is not magic, so why is there this unwillingness to show your hand? I don’t get it. I mean, I’m shy, and hate to show people stuff before it’s complete, and as near to perfect as I can manage, but if (and when) people came up to me in school to ask for help, or advice, or whatever, I always gave it. I thought that sort of support system was the point. Like, you always lift up the people below you, because one day, they might be lifting you up.

    end rant.

    • John Watson says:

      That being said, Yes to Nora and Julian re: greater diversity in theory, and exploration of theatre genres, and both contemporary and historical practices.

    • Brian P says:

      John, have you tried writing to any artists you admire to sit and talk? I’ve found that the artists I’ve met have been extremely willing to share their knowledge about theatre. I was even fortunate enough to have sat with a director over coffee and suggest intern directing for his next show and I was lucky enough to become his AD on a mainstage production at Buddies. I wasn’t paid, and I had no essential responsibilities, but I had committed to it for the learning experience and am incredible grateful for having done so. And I made some great connections in the process. Maybe I was an exceptional case, but I doubt it. I think artists here, at least in Toronto, would be willing to give you the time of day to at least have a chat. I know Tarragon has recently implemented a program that lets a small group of people sit in on rehearsals. You have to pay, but it’s a start of what could be a great initiative…and I suppose it’s an extra stream of revenue for the theatre too.

      • John Watson says:

        That sounds fantastic, and I’m glad you’ve had those experiences, however they’re not exactly what I’m talking about. I think a long-term apprenticeship would be an interesting way to go. I suppose, in terms of practicalities, it’d be difficult because it necessitates the development of an actual relationship, probably friendship, and an openness and need for it on both sides.

        Coffee is great, but necessitates a sort of predetermination on the part of both people sitting down to it. There’s a significant lack of flexibility to the amount and type of information that can be exchanged. ie. none of it is practical. But you’re right – I’ve rarely been refused coffee, or, at the very least, an email exchange. Perhaps I’m just terrible at building lasting relationships.

        Secondly, while it’s great that Tarragon lets you sit in on some rehearsals, it’s a little bit presumptuous, I think, to charge for it. Frankly, I’m poor, but would still like to learn. As well, unpaid internships are kind of…the bane of an emerging employment market.

        In any case, you have encouraged me to redouble my efforts toward making some kind of contact, so thanks for that.

        • John Watson says:

          Honestly, I doubt you could ever install the infrastructure to support apprenticeship of that kind, and also, it mostly sounds like I want a friend, so perhaps it’s just my melancholy disposition that’s replied to this post, as opposed to any critical thought.

          • Brian P says:

            That’s an interesting structure you’re suggesting! It’s not much, but I know multiple bodies like Theatre Ontario, the OAC, and maybe the CCA provide grants for “professional development” which covers costs for things like a mentor, workshops, and etc. It may not be what you’re looking for but it’s a viable option.

  6. Holger, I am not as grateful for my acting training as Nora is and we were in the same stream. Though we had many classes that were devoted to Theory, they were often not contextualized beyond “look at what this one theatre group did! Isn’t that marvellous. What do you think?” Because theory makes little sense when you have a practical side that is telling you “if you want to get hired, you must do this, this way.” Which was the mantra of my 4 years there.

    Like most Canadian Higher Education, there is too much emphasis on getting a job. There should me be more emphasis on development. To nail the coffin even further shut, much of what we were taught was 20 to 30 years old. When I launched into the acting world, most of those practises were archaic.

    I agree with Nora in that there is far too much emphasis on Psychological Realism, esp. in Shakespeare and other classical work (if you are lucky to get any exposure to those other writers, which I did in performance.) This does a disservice to future of Shakespearian performance and I just most recently saw what happens when young actors only look at the psychological motivations of their, character in a recent tragedy that was staged in Toronto. Though you do get some opportunity to encounter Absurdism, Expressionism, Futurism and Brecht, there is no opportunity to perform any of it beyond a student adjudicated workshop setting, because the core practical training side neither allows you or guides in a full professional staging of those plays. Probably because the creative team has little understanding of those styles themselves.

    (We at U of T get a little time to tackle absurdism, which seems to become a class that allows any other style that is not psychological realism to be performed. In that class you saw everything from SNL skits to people weirdly dancing in bags, yet, marks were only achieved if these were performances emphasizing ‘the real.’ A very misguided class.)

    I recall you had a Director comment, on this blog, that actors come out of school knowing nothing. Though I think that was both an ageist and prejudiced opinion, I do see where he is coming from on the experience front. When I held auditions for one of my classical productions, I saw a group of young actors who had internalized all the language. These actors could ably understand the subtext of any character but could never grasp that in Classical theatre there is no subtext. If U of T is anything like the other training programs in Canada, we are training a generation of actors that only have the ability to perform Neil Labute and not much more.

    • Julian, my gratitude comes primarily from my first-hand experiences with students from courses in the US who had never been exposed to any theory at all. Most programmes separate theory from practice entirely, to the extent that someone with a conservatoire or conservatoire-style degree in the States is extremely unlikely to have ever written anything remotely approaching a research paper. This is deeply troubling to me, and I’m grateful to have had an (admittedly imperfect) exposure to BOTH during my undergrad years. It definitely made my MA work much easier, and I think it’s made me a better practitioner, too.

  7. I’m hugely grateful for my Canadian training, which I suspect is really just my UofT training: the balance between theory and practice in the TDS programme looks more like what I’ve experienced of drama departments (although not drama schools) in the UK, and I’ve found having a grounding in both immensely useful, both as a scholar and as a practitioner.
    On the practical side of my degree, however, I do feel that too much focus was placed on psychological realism. Surely a university drama programme should be the place to acquaint oneself with risk, and with other ways of working? We had a taste of that in Sam Stedman’s class, which is still one of the most useful courses I’ve ever done. But it was a huge wake-up call when I arrived in the UK and was taught that Shakespeare’ s characters aren’t always psychologically consistent because that concept didn’t even exist in 16/17c London (though I never took your Shakespeare class, Holger–don’t know if that’s part of your syllabus!).

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