‘Seen But Not Heard’: Some thoughts on the actor’s aesthetic labour six years on

MA Physical Acting improvisation, University of Kent (2019)

This is a 2020 response to my article ‘Seen But Not Heard: An embodied account of the (student) actor’s aesthetic labour’ (Mitchell, 2014), made available as open access as part of TDPT’s 10 year anniversary celebrations.

Six years after this article was first published, the thing that strikes me is what I find in the title. ‘Seen but not heard’ was my effort to create something brief and memorable for the potential reader, and in choosing it of course I was thinking about all the ways in which an actor’s body is put to work (and put at risk), in a tension between business, art and the personal which we often see but rarely discuss.

What I didn’t reflect on so much at the time was where that phrase comes from: the old saying, ‘Children should be seen and not heard’. This English proverb dates from the 15thcentury, where it was originally directed primarily at young women: ‘A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd’ (John Mirk, ca. 1403)[1].

This opens up a couple of things for me that I don’t discuss in the article, but which I think continue to be important:

The first of these is the risk of infantilising actors and the power-dynamics that come with that. This is something that we may not be doing intentionally, but that I think can very much be part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ (Giroux, 1983: 47) and the relationship between ensemble and director[2]. It is a tricky one, given that many of us work with principles of play that originate in early 20thcentury attempts to re-discover ‘childlike naivety’, and given that the teacher-student relationship does often have a degree of parent-child dynamic, especially with young cohorts. I think however that we need to be acutely aware of when a parent-child dynamic is manifesting, how it affects actors’ decisions about their own wellbeing in their efforts to please, and to remember that, as Adam Phillips writes: ‘There is something intrinsically and unavoidably humiliating about being a child’ (2013: 19)[3]and navigating a position of dependency. 

Connected with this, it seems relevant to note here that parent-child dynamics around bodies play out differently in relation to gender, and that such ‘life-lessons’ will no doubt affect what happens in the studio. A graph in the article shows students’ responses to the question ‘Do you perceive a demand to present a particular “body image” from the following: course, students, parents, agents, and the industry’. Male and female identifying students’ responses are on the whole quite similar for each of these categories — apart from one: a demand from parents to present a particular body image was experienced by 14% of the male students, compared to 60% of female students. The implications of this, regarding how patriarchal ideas of ownership and agency can be instilled from a young age, lead me to my second point.

The second point brought up for me by re-examining the title is the in-built patriarchal legacy of a business that asks its actors to be complicit in simultaneously displaying and silencing their bodies. Since I completed the thesis that this article emerges from, some important work has been done to further investigate how we are navigating mental health concerns (and their physical manifestations) in our training institutions and rehearsal rooms, and what ‘traditional’, often heavily patriarchal, practices might need questioning and/or dismantling in order to move forward in more psychophysically sustainable ways. 

Some works that I am aware of include:

  • Some degree of more imaginative approaches in mainstream casting practices, and Equity measures for safe casting practices put in place (2018) https://www.backstage.com/uk/magazine/article/equity-takes-measures-ensure-safe-casting-process-cdg-uk-union-2103/
  • About Performance: The Lives of Actors (Special Issue and Webinar Series, 2015, http://www.senseconnexion.com/livesofactors/)

What pleases me greatly is that there has been movement. Back in 2014, we were still in the awareness-raising phase of this work, but over the past six years, as the list above shows, we have progressed from awareness to practical action. However, it is not a time for complacency; action is the hard bit. Much remains imperfect, much is still unfolding, and I believe that many of the things I flagged in the article still stand. What we need is imagination (luckily that’s what we’re all good at), new metaphors, and an awful lot of careful listening.

My thanks to TDPT and the platforms it creates (both in this blog and the journal), for ‘the activation and circulation of creative energy in groups and communities’ (McNiff, 2004: 5)[4], where some of that listening, imagining, and re-inventing can take place. 

[1]Mirk, J. (ca.1403). Mirk’s Festival: A collection of homilies. Published for the English Text Society by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and co. , 1905

[2]Giroux, H. (1983). Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

[3]Phillips, A. (2013). The magical act of a desperate person: on tantrums. The London Review of Books, 35(5), pp 19-20.

[4]McNiff, S. (2004). Art Heals: How Creativity Cures The Soul. Boulder: Shambala.

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About roannamitchell

Roanna Mitchell is a lecturer, performance-maker and movement person, and course leader of the MA Physical Acting at the University of Kent. Her work explores performance in the intersection between acting and dance. She has directed/created/movement-directed performance internationally, often working site-responsively and including collaborations with Richard Schechner (Imagining O, UK/US/India), Platform 7 (Resting Place, Ramsgate /Charing Cross Station / Folkestone seafront) and Accidental Collective (Here’s Hoping, Theatre Royal Margate / Oval House London). Roanna is co-director of The Chekhov Collective UK, and a member of Michael Chekhov UK and MC Europe. www.roannamitchell.com

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