Teaching the ART of Acting

Institute for Advanced Studies:

It's 9 a.m., and a select group of acting students is assembled in the basement practice room of the Loeb Drama Center.

"Let's do a few warm-ups first this morning, and then we'll work a little on the resonators," says voice coach and instructor Bonnie Raphael to the students. "Uuuuuuuuuu," they chant in unison as they practice dropping the back of their tongues and using special chest and mouth exercises to project fuller voices.

"I'm adding a little brightness, a little tweet to your woof," she says of the technique she is teaching.

"There's no magic in any exercise," she tells her students. "The magic is in your awareness, so that when you're off during your speech you feel it and can correct it."

Afterwards, Raphael assembles her students in a semicircle and starts to work with each individually. As the others listen, each student practices resonating techniques with abstract sounds or lines from current parts.

Marty Lodge and Dawn Couch recite the lines and practice the form they will use that night as the characters Poot and Brenda in the American Repertory Theatre's (ART) performance of William Hauptman's Gillette.

Other students run through lines from Cabaret Sauvignon, a "presentation of Cabaret selections from the Stone Age to the present," which they will perform later in the week.

The hour goes quickly, and the class comes to an end.

Before this year, a professional dramatics class such as this one had never been held at Harvard University. But this fall the University inaugurated its newest school, a graduate program in the theater arts. Called the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, the program aims to prepare actors, directors, and theater managers for professional employment.

After conducting a pilot program last year, the Institute received more than 500 student applications for 24 spots, and this year is training 21 actors, two directors, and one dramaturge, or literary manager. Although the school does not offer academic degrees, such as the Master of Fine Arts the Yale School of Drama awards, it does give graduates a certificate and an Equity card which makes them members of the actor's union.

Professor of English Robert Brustein created the Institute after trying unsuccessfully to establish a graduate dramatics program here for the past eight years. Brustein, who is founding director of both the Yale Repertory Theater and the ART, says that in 1979 he proposed "we bring a theater here and a conservatory." He adds, "But President Bok did not want to consider a conservatory because Harvard had no undergraduate courses in theater for credit."

Since then, Harvard has developed an undergraduate drama program, and Brustein says the University became willing to accept the Institute for professional actors.

"A Greenhouse for the Company"

The Institute draws its faculty from the ART, which performs new American plays, neglected works from the past, and classic texts staged unconventionally. Winner of a special 1986 Tony Award for continued excellence in resident theater, the ART is one of the few companies in the country whose actors perform in rotating repertory, meaning they rehearse several different shows at once.

"The acting program at the Institute is taught by actors in the company, directors in the company, and directors who we want to get to know in the company," says Richard Riddell, director of the Institute and associate director of the ART. Riddell says the Institute "not only serves as a training program for students, but it is a lab, a greenhouse for the company, for things to be tried out."