Competition: (1) The act or process of trying to win something that someone else is trying to get – Merriam-Webster. (2) An event or state of being that serves to separate – Miller Voice Method Studio.
Competition creates a pervasive atmosphere through the halls of actor training programs and studios. It is acknowledged sparingly by instructors in the early days of training as to not create too much fear because we want artists to feel free to fail, of course. And then inevitably, references to competition increase in frequency and its presence becomes palpable until it might as well be a neon sign hung in all the studios—“You will be up against a thousand actors just like you in NYC and LA, so you must bring your A-Game.” If it is not said this bluntly, it is implied with equal intention.
Competition is used as a motivator, as a threat, as a reality-checker, and as a self-saboteur.
I have seen a deep sense of competition in students brew amazing results. The idea that they must prove themselves against their perceived competition motivates consistent work on their body and craft, inspired preparation, and a sharp awareness of what needs improvement.
But at what cost?
Why do we cultivate a spirit of competition?
The acting/vocal approach and think tank, Miller Voice Method Studio, which includes the studio’s co-founders Scott Miller, Liam Joynt, and myself, our company of teachers- in-training and every student that has crossed our paths in classes and workshops, has had active conversations in those classes, in meetings, and possibly most fruitfully in quite random places about the power of competition in actor training for several years. This evolving conversation has fundamentally changed how I approach the idea of competition and I see inspiring results in the studio. For the last two years, I have helped guide 3rd year MFA candidates from my institution through their NYC showcase. The group could have come apart at the seams under the unique pressure of such an event. Instead, from the pre-performance warm-up through the dissemination of industry results (what agents and casting directors were interested in them), I consistently heard the students acknowledge their fears, desires, and sense of competition to each other. They shared when they began to isolate themselves emotionally from the ensemble for fear of being the only one who didn’t get a strong response from the industry or the one that received inspiring responses and didn’t want to share in the spoils. What this spirit of acknowledgment did for their technique was tangible. They had a sense of humility, transparency, and hope that relaxed their bodies and breathing so that it could serve the needs of the performance under huge pressure. The other program that we showcased with and alumni who were helping support the events both remarked how chill, relaxed, and close the group seemed.
How has competition so prominently found its way into modern actor training? When we, as actor trainers, begin to prepare artists for the industry, we set up an expectation of what is required, what is good enough, and what to strive for. Every time these words or their equivalent are muttered in the studio: “that might be good enough for college, but it won’t cut it in the industry,” we create the competition of “Student Artist vs. The Fantastical Beast,” a dangerously generalized idea of how the industry works and what it demands. But because the industry is so vast, and because it re-writes its needs every decade, it isn’t realistic or even possible to claim we know what the industry needs.
This is especially true if the teacher is a working artist in the field because that teaching professional can only speak from his/her perspective within the industry. It is incredibly difficult to not project one’s personal career experiences within the industry on all students when they will all, of course, have uniquely individualized journeys. And it is perhaps even harder to accept or stay open to complementary information as another way in if one didn’t find that information relevant in their personal career. So the working teaching artist’s insider information, which can be incredibly useful and relevant, can also be incredibly narrowing to a student’s perspective if not strongly framed within the context of its singular derivation.
So what do we actually mean when we refer to “the industry?” How many student actors have dropped out of acting school and gone on to incredibly meaningful acting careers? I can think of quite a few—Michael Fassbender of 12 Years a Slave and Taylor Schilling of Orange is the New Black are two of recent note. These artists that take non-traditional paths to success in the industry are a huge portion of who actually makes up the industry, which seems to say that, as a fellow teacher and actor, your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine when it comes to what the industry is looking for.
Perhaps this unknown ability to prepare and predict the needs of a student’s unique career trajectory creates a need to conjure a fantastical gauntlet where we define the rules, and then go about presiding over this gladiatorial competition as expert judges. We can then refer to it as often as necessary as a way to dissipate our own fears as teachers that we don’t actually have the answers. I can see why we would be motivated to do this because isn’t it our job to share tangible steps in conquering the industry?
It reminds me of all the wisdom parents try and instill in their children so that they go off to college and find success and not end up in jail. But a more realistic anecdote that equates to what it is to prepare an acting student for the industry would be the preparation of my toddler-aged daughter, Hazel, for daycare: “Here is a bag that contains an extra outfit and extra diapers, good luck,” because who knows what that girl is going to get into and experience by the time I pick her up. There is something deeply unsettling about this reality. That is why my heart sinks every time I drive off from the care center. It is why I pack four times the amount of diapers necessary for the given day. I have to be very intentional to not create seemingly known parameters for her to survive by that in essence are for the calming of my fears. Any parameters I invent based on my imagination of what might happen to her are at best irrelevant to her and at worst misguiding. On the most basic level, this is true of our relationships to our students as well.
This is an excerpt from an article published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group in the Voice and Speech Review, 8:3,on Oct. 30, 2014.