Allow Student Actors To Be Bad

by John Ellis

Depending on the day of the week, there are times when I love sports more than I love theatre. Because of that, I’ve never really gotten into the high school theatre versus high school sports battle that is waged by many of my fellow theatre artists. Do I wish that schools and communities valued theatre (and the arts, in general) more? Yes, of course. But I don’t feel the need to demonize sports to make that point. Sadly, not all of my fellow theatre artists feel the same way.

One of the problems with demonizing sports is that doing so often requires touting the worst aspects of high school theatre. The arguments frequently elevate high school theatre to a position of prominence that, frankly, high school theatre does not deserve. High school theatre is almost always bad, and that’s okay. In fact, more than okay, high school theatre that is not bad is theatre that is most likely failing to accomplish its purpose.

I was reminded of this while reading an article encouraging communities to value high school theatre programs as much as they value high school sports. I’m not going to link to the article, because, in the main, I agree with the author’s overall thesis but some of the points supporting that thesis are points that are the very reasons why I am not a fan of most of the high school theatre I’ve had contact with or in which I’ve worked. The biggest offending point the author made is that high school athletes don’t have the expectation of perfection placed on them. On the other hand, “[Mistakes] are simply not allowed,” the author explains of high school theatre.

I don’t know of any high school theatre teachers that would unequivocally endorse that statement. However, I do know many high school theatre teachers and programs that steer far closer to that statement than I believe is artistically healthy.

When I teach youth and teen acting classes, I tell the parents that I’m not planning on having a recital-type performance or production at the end. Explaining that I am more interested in giving their children tools that will help them become better communicators as well as providing some building blocks on which to build for those who do pursue a career in the performing arts, I tell the parents that I’m not interesting in giving my students tricks that translate into “good” recitals for family’s to “ooh” and “ah” over.

I don’t ever remember a parent pulling a child from my class over my teaching philosophy. In fact, most of the time the parents expressed appreciation. Most people understand that learning the process is more important than the product, especially at the early educational stages. My embrace of that philosophy is born out of my experience as a student an actor and a director.

The art of enacted storytelling requires the storyteller to take risks. Good directors want actors who make choices in the rehearsal process and who are willing to be stretched and pulled as the director and cast continue to explore. Without collaborative exploration, the story will most likely never rise above the dull and expected. Taking risks will naturally lead to bad choices from time to time. And I embrace the word “bad,” just like I embrace the word “good.” If an actor isn’t willing to be bad, the actor will never be good.

As an actor, be brave, take risks, and be willing to fail. As a director, and borrowing the words of the great Broadway director Arthur Hopkins, the greatest gift you give an actor is faith. During the rehearsal process, explore together, searching the crevasses of the story. Be willing to be bad together, always pressing forward to the risks that produce storytelling rewards. To produce a final “product,” for lack of a better word, that is good, that philosophy demands artists who are not only courageous and willing to be bad but that have honed their craft through training and experience. The inexperienced and untrained will usually fail to reach the good. That’s not only okay; it’s an important part of the learning process.

It’s going to be an extremely rare high school theatre production that places a cast on the boards that is talented from lead to walk-on. Likewise, it’s going to be an extremely rare high school theatre production that has cast members who have honed and molded their craft in the crucible of experience to the point where they can reach the good. By definition, combining lack of training and experience with a democratic cast, high school theatre is bad. And, frankly, why would anyone expect it to be different?

Expecting student actors to be good while not allowing them to be bad shortchanges the learning process. And those expectations firmly steer directors and teachers into teaching their charges tricks. Doing so doesn’t prepare student actors to explore and develop their craft. Hollywood has provided a recent example of this.

In 1999, The Sixth Sense bore itself into our collective conscious. Everywhere you turned, people were whispering, “I see dead people.” The actor who delivered that famous line was nominated for a variety of acting awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Haley Joel Osment failed to win an Oscar, yet his acting prowess had been established, even though he was just a young child. However, as the years went on, as Osment grew and continued to act in films, his acting regressed. Eventually, the Oscar-nominated actor became relegated to guest-spots on TV shows, indie films, failed Broadway plays, and highly-touted projects that are ultimately canned. So, what happened?

Well, Eugene Osment, Haley’s dad, is an actor and acting teacher. During the filming of The Sixth Sense, Eugene was on set, off-camera, feeding his young son line-readings. Haley Joel Osment’s highly feted performance as Cole Sear was the product of adults manipulating a performance out of him.

Make no mistake, on a lesser level, high school drama teachers frequently do the same thing. With the pressure to elicit the “oohs” and “ahs” from the admiring family members of the cast, high school theatre departments sacrifice the artistic development of their students on the altar of “good” theatre.

As a teacher, director, and potential cast-mate, I would prefer that high school actors be given the freedom to be bad. Their artistic development doesn’t need the “oohs” and “ahs” of family members; they need teachers and directors who give them the gift of faith and encourage them to explore, take risks, and grow as storytellers, even though that will often mean that they will not reach the artistic fruit for which they are courageously striving.

The only way for theatre artists to be good is for them to be willing to be bad. Let high school actors be bad and encourage them to continue to take risks and not worry about impressing the audience.


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