Last summer I met with Tom Oppenheim, grandson of Stella Adler and artistic director of New York’s Stella Adler Studio of Acting. We got to talking about the Studio’s mission. I discovered that, while the organization trains actors headed for professional careers in the field, nowhere in its statement of purpose does the word “professional actor” appear. What it does say is this: “The Studio’s mission is to create an environment with the purpose of nurturing theatre artists who value humanity, their own and others, as their first and most precious priority, while providing art and education to the greater community. Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.”
When TCG conducted its State of the Artist project in 2011, teleconferences were conducted with groups of theatremakers nationwide. It was gratifying to witness the passion and ingenuity in every group, from designers to dramaturgs to playwrights. The group of actors who came together for the project was unique—they were the ones who expressed the most pressing desire to become more involved in their communities. They were intent upon helping the theatres in which they perform in to “activate”—they saw themselves as ambassadors who help audiences, students and others to connect with the work on stage and understand its relevance to community concerns and to the larger society. In a more practical sense, these actors believed they could help theatres build a strong and genuine bond with their audiences.
As Oppenheim and I talked, we wondered how we could capitalize on this impulse. Could we bring together artists interested in exploring the multifaceted power of their roles both onstage and in society at large? What if the actor became a fighter, a crusader, for bringing art, awareness, self-reflection, dialogue and action into his or her community? By the time we finished our coffee and headed back to our respective offices, we’d landed on the idea of “the actor warrior.”
Soon after, Oppenheim booked an evening at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan, where Michael Milligan performed his beautiful and heartbreaking piece Mercy Killers, about one couple’s struggle with the health-care system in the course of a battle with breast cancer. Lemon Andersen performed County of Kings, a virtuosic and universal tale about his growing-up years in Brooklyn. The two performances were followed by conversations with the packed house about how theatre can affect dialogue and change—how the art and the craft of theatrical performance are equally important, and how the two are not mutually exclusive.
Actor Warrior has since evolved into a multi-pronged effort, based in the belief that the New York theatre community and its counterparts in cities and towns across the country are ripe for a conversation about actors, art, craft, social engagement and service. “Gone are the days of actors passively going to auditions and sending out headshots. Now is the time for actors to identify active ways that they can use craft to affect social transformation and/or create work with strong socially relevant themes,” says one manifesto that emerged after the Lortel event.
In January, a second Actor Warrior discussion was held at the Harold Clurman Lab Theatre following a performance of Mercy Killers, co-presented with Working Theater. Actor-playwright Heather Raffo, who joined Lisa Ramirez and Michael Milligan in that discussion, talked about how after a performance of her play 9 Parts of Desire, an international ambassador said to her, “You have accomplished in one hour what it has taken me a lifetime to do.” Ramirez recalled the time her piece Exit Cuckoo was quoted on the floor of the State Senate in Albany, while crucial legislation protecting the rights of domestic workers was being passed. There was general agreement on how important it is for actors to investigate all art forms, to be curious about the world, to read, to go to museums, to listen to all musical genres, including classical and jazz.
At that event, most of the audience were theatre students. When asked whether there were issues they wanted to explore through their work, about half raised their hands. At the same time, at least one speaker asserted that he was there strictly to focus on his craft—that his idea of becoming a better actor was to improve his technique. Creating work as a form of social activism was not a priority at this point in his career. And that, the assembly seemed to agree, was okay, too.
But I have come to see that this desire among theatremakers to change the world through their work is global. On a visit last fall to an actor-training program at Universidad del Valle in Buenaventura, Colombia, I heard students speak about their desire to find ways of utilizing their craft for the benefit of their community, a beautiful yet impoverished and sometimes corrupt coastal town. Many were most curious about how to interact with children in order to promote hope and encourage learning and the acquisition of usable skills through theatre.
Whether we consider the Actor Warrior movement to be local, national or global, now is an opportune time for actors to identify progressive, self-empowering ways that they can use their rich and ancient craft. As Michael Milligan put it, “Develop your own sense of agency, instead of simply relying upon an agent.”
And that is a lovely call to action for us all.