Tabula Rasa, Neutrality and the Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education.

In 2015, I published “The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective” within the pages of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training (6:3). I interviewed the students of the programme of acting studies of the University of Tampere, and the University of the Arts Helsinki, and some of their teachers, in order to investigate the impact of prior experience of acting in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education to acting studies in higher education. In the article I wondered how the students saw the role of the youth theatre movement in their personal growth, and what the teachers thought about the ways of acting and thinking about acting the students had at the beginning of their studies; and the myth of tabula rasa.

In this post I come back to the themes of the article, with a little help from Mikko Kanninen, University Lecturer in Acting at the University of Tampere, and his current BA student, Sofia Smeds, both of whom I know as practitioners with special interest in current developments in the field, and who were able to answer on short notice. I asked both of them to read the article and comment freely on it. What follows is their reply.

Mikko Kanninen:

In his essay “The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective” Hannu Tuisku wrestles with the complex relationship between the youth theatre movement and the everyday problems in professional performer training pedagogy: Where does the training begin? Should the student first unlearn everything “wrong” he has learned or should the pedagogy build something on top of something already learned?

Tuisku describes very thoughtfully the complexity of the situation, methods and recent history of Finnish actor training in higher education. In doing so, Tuisku also brings out one of the core problems in the Finnish educational system: drama education does not have the same kind of established status as a school subject as music and fine arts do. This status has no relation to the fact that theatre is more popular in Finland than going to movies or Lutheran church. Theatre is THE national art form in Finland but it is not recognized in our state school curriculum.

The question of neutrality or tabula rasa versus the habitual, lived body is an issue we face almost every day in our work in acting studies in higher education. The article is certainly of use for us! It is also worth noticing that the phenomena the article is about has always been a significant part of the Finnish higher theatre education and the Finnish theatre “scene” but nobody before Tuisku has made any serious research about it.  

Sofia Smeds:  

I think that these questions about acting studies in higher education and actor training in the youth theatres are very important and interesting. In my opinion, the education of professional actors should always be based on thorough studies rather than opinions or interests of certain theatre professionals.

I think, what has helped me a lot in the first year of my acting studies in higher education, is my previous experience of studying in the university. A sort of experimental way of thinking, not seeking to know what is right or wrong, an ability to look at things in a critical way and accept the complexity of human experience and communication. I feel like these abilities have given me the opportunity to really focus my energy in all of the specific exercises that we explore.

I don’t think my previous experience in youth theatre or adult education college has left any bad mannerisms in me. I believe people gain mannerisms from their everyday life anyway, mannerisms that affect their acting, had they participated in youth theaters or not. In my case, I believe participating in both youth theatre and adult education college made it possible for me to be accepted into the programme of acting studies in higher education in the first place.

I have discovered that in our education at the programme of acting studies at the University of Tampere the focus is on exploring one’s own body as an organism that thinks, communicates and creates. And I feel that it’s very productive. In my opinion, the purpose of professional actors’ physical training is to provide different exercises, methods or tools to become aware of your somatic reactions, to explore what’s happening in your body, and finally, to be able to choose and use these reactions and physical changes to create any kind of theater art. The teacher, then, is not telling the student to use certain qualities of expression, but rather the teacher is providing the student the opportunity to find the millions of qualities and movements in his or her own body, so that he or she can make the choices and be the artist.

The pedagogy in adult education colleges (and in youth theatres), however, I think should be different from the one in the university. Usually, the aim in adult education colleges is to get accepted into a programme of acting studies in higher education, so the pedagogy should be adjusted to that aim, as in the university, the aim is to educate independent theatre artists.

For further consideration, I think the applying process of acting studies in higher education should be opened up, discussed and studied thoroughly.

Reflections on these two comments:

It seems the topic of the article is of interest, and despite being written a few years ago, something still deserving further discussion.

I think the idea expressed by Sofia Smeds, the need for accepting ”the complexity of human experience and communication” is indeed crucial in performer training, and in life. This attitude rejects the mystification of artistic creation in a way that easily leads to distorted power relations, situations where the teacher/director (or anyone) knows better but keeps it to him/herself. Or, in fact, he or she thinks s/he knows better but actually s/he only has an opinion, perhaps to be appreciated because it draws upon the experience of a long career, but there are other opinions. We could simply ask: What do you think? How do you feel? Or: How do I feel? All it takes is confidence on the shared journey of exploration, and a reasonable amount of self-confidence that needs no back-up from mystification or intentional blurring of things, to cover one’s back.

Also, the comment by Mikko Kanninen, on the fact that the questions posed in the article are all too familiar in the Finnish context but there has been no ”serious research” on them, is interesting. We could consider this question in the British, or any context, not only Finnish: Are there issues in a given context that are commonly met but sparsely investigated? If there are, why is this the case? What kind of shifts in power relations would it mean if we brought the issues in question into bright day light? It seems apparent that the applying process into acting studies in higher education is, at least, something to be ”opened up, discussed, and studied thoroughly”, as Sofia Smeds suggests.

A couple of questions come to mind that readers might want to comment on:

  1. Historically, in Finland, there has been tension between drama teachers in the general education system, and theatre professionals. Theatre professionals have suspected drama teachers teach “wrong things” that create mannerisms that are difficult to erase within acting studies in higher education. In its extreme, some of these professionals have suggested that it is better NOT to have theatre as a subject in the general school curriculum. Maybe this is due to the fact that, historically, school teachers in music and in fine arts have studied at academies of their art form but drama teachers have not, and are not assumed as representatives of the art form (which I think is an unjustified prejudice). Is this kind of tension only to be found in Finland, or is it also met in other countries?
  2. In the article, much is said about controversial opinions of the impact of prior experiences in the youth theatres to acting studies in higher education. The interviewed student actors think their experience in the youth theatres has mostly been an advantage in their studies in higher education while some of their teachers stress the difficulties in unlearning former ways of acting and thinking about acting. At the end of the article I concluded that prior experience may indeed create unfavorable ways of thinking about acting at least, but they contribute to personal growth in such a way that makes them utterly important. How do actor/performer trainers of today see the problem of mannerisms, or the habitus of everyday life, versus the ideal of neutrality or tabula rasa? Is the habitus of everyday life a solid starting point for training, or is there a need to change or modify it? Does the ideal of neutrality (despite its apparent impossibility) still persist?

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