Paul Sills

Striving for Excellence

Pedagogy is the study of being a teacher or the process of teaching.   It seems to me that pedagogy is a lost art.  Instead, teaching is thought of as simply the sharing of knowledge, this however misses the point.  To share is not enough if one is to teach.  The call of the teacher is more than just sharing, it requires communication in such a way that the student actually learns.  Understanding is different than learning.  A student who “gets” it, is a failure if they are unable to do “it” themself.

I have learned from many great teachers, all of whom had their own style.  One of my best teachers was one of the least eloquent.  Paul Sills often mumbled and babbled in a way that few understood, yet a great many of his students came to possess seemingly magical acting ability.  In a moment of verbal clarity, outside of class, sitting in his mothers kitchen, Paul said to me, “all problems are solved in the playing.”

Paul understood that, though he wished he could, he could not teach actors to be great by telling them what to do.  The student had to experience their own problem-solving ability and grow from that experience.  Sills was able to meet his students exactly where they were, in a present moment, and help them take the next step into unknown territory.

Some acting teachers are so ego-driven that they convince (paying) students that only they (the so-called master teacher) have the key to an actors’ success.    I see many teachers today, both mean and kind, preaching to their students about the ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ of a particular method, then blaming the student who is unable to do it.  Truly this is the teacher’s failure.

Teachers fail this way for several reasons; often the teacher is so concerned with what the teacher knows and the student should know, that the teacher is reduced to critiquing (both good and bad opinions of) the students work.  They lack Paul’s ability to side-coach in the present moment.  The student is then left to the teacher’s barometer of success and failure and only succeeds when they get the teachers approval.  And the student learns not to be an actor in command of their instrument, but rather to master the approval of their teacher.

In the business of teaching acting, this is particularly despicable because the teacher has an ulterior motive, to keep the student paying.  The only measurable success for the teacher of acting in Hollywood is the success of a student’s career.  Yet no teacher in Hollywood (directly) offers classes on “how to be a movie star,” because they’d be exposed as a fraud.  Instead they parade around a few celebrity clients as proof of the teacher’s ability.

But Hollywood is not a meritocracy.  As Dustin Hoffman said when accepting an Oscar “There are 60,000 actors in the Screen Actors Guild, and probably 100,000 in Equity. And most actors don’t work, and a few of us are so lucky to have a chance to work with writing and to work with directing. Because when you’re a broke actor, you can’t write, you can’t paint … you have to practice accents while you’re driving a taxi cab. And to that artistic family that strives for excellence, none of you have ever lost. And I am proud to share this with you, and I thank you.”

Success must not be measured by Oscars or teachers, but by the “strive for excellence.”  There are far more actors striving for excellence then teachers striving for excellence.  Doctors have a credo “Physician heal thyself”.  Acting teachers should spend more time critiquing themselves.  Did the teacher stay focused?  Did the teacher rush the students?  Did the teacher create an environment where the student was free to discover?  Was the teacher authoritarian?  Did the teacher substitute lecture for contact/experience with the work?  Was the teacher flexible?  Energetic?  Sensitive to the energy of the group?  Did the teacher act instead of react?  Did the teacher discourage pandering?  Did the teacher inspire the actor to communicate with dedication and passion?  Was the teacher impatient?

The best actors are able to critique their own performance, answering questions like: Did I stay on focus?  Did I do what I intended to do?  Did I help tell the story, was I part of the whole?  Did I communicate?  Physicalize? Share?  Was I on voice?  In my head?  Was the performance or take forced or organic?  Did I go on a journey?  Teacher’s should help an actor learn how to answer these questions for themselves, in pursuit of excellence.

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