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MFA Acting Concentration: The Curriculum

Our curriculum combines various disciplines of training with experience in projects and productions.  The faculty collaborates closely to address individual actor needs and to maximize the impact of the work.  The core curriculum consists of Alexander Technique, Movement, Voice, Speech, Text, Singing, Stage Combat, Theatre History and Theory, and Scene Study.  We offer additional workshops that can provide experience with mask, clown, acting for the camera, and career pursuits.  Projects and productions begin by the end of first term and continue throughout the training.

The Alexander Technique underlies much of our training.  It is based upon the premise that the ways in which we “use” ourselves in our lives – how we stand, walk, breathe, speak, and so on – become ingrained habits that, over time, deeply compromise our innate capacities.  In short, most of us use our voices poorly, breathe poorly, move poorly.  Actors, however, need optimal conditions of function. They need openness and ease under the extraordinary demands of performance. They need freedom from habitual efforts and tensions that constrict spontaneity and expressiveness.  The Alexander Technique provides a consistent means to observe and improve habits of use.  It promotes balance, coordination, and optimal breath and vocal function.  It improves rhythm, presence, and responsiveness to impulse.  It fosters ease, or the use of appropriate energy for any activity.  It teaches actors how to be more open in any given moment before an audience, and how to cultivate that openness in daily life.  MFA actors receive group instruction, regular private lessons throughout training, and Alexander Technique is deeply integrated into acting classes and other work.

Our core Movement training includes the Alexander Technique, Suzuki Technique, and Corporeal Mime work from the tradition of Etienne Decroux.  These practices complement one another in profound ways, equipping the actor with invaluable tools for self-observation and practice, for improving alignment and freedom, strength and flexibility, impulse and control.  Actors become freer and more capable of realizing precise form.  Actors are also introduced to social and period dance and period styles.  At least one term of the third year is dedicated to stage combat.

Our Voice training is based in the Alexander Technique and in practices developed by Cicely Berry, Kristin Linklater, Catherine Fitzmaurice, and others.  We want each actor to have access to his/her full voice, in a healthy, vital, and sustainable way.  We work first to develop free, open, and expressive sound, unhindered by habitual tensions, fully connected to self.  As breath is fuel for sound, we work to free the natural pattern of the breath, to deepen it, and to develop support and control. Then we work on flexibility, range, and power.  Singing is taught in individual tutorials throughout the training, and group classes take place in the second and third year, to allow for practice before an audience.  Several times per term, singing lessons are conducted in combination with hands-on Alexander Technique.

Speech training is about shaping sound with ease, clarity, and precision.  Speech gives form to breath and voice, feeling, and thought, and is the primary way in which human beings act upon one another in life or drama.  We help actors build a greater awareness of the possibilities that exist in shaping sound, and of the relationship of speech to meaning, action, and character.  Then we work on expanding the range, control, and precision of speech choices.  The International Phonetic Alphabet is used to approach the full range of human expression through speech, and provides the basis from which we study dialects.  Many Clarence Brown Theatre productions require the use of a wide range of dialects.

In text classes during the second year, actors work intensively upon Shakespeare and also upon great speeches, poetry, Restoration and Jacobean texts, Wilde and Shaw.

Study of Theatre History, Theory, and Dramaturgy provides actors with essential tools to work well within diverse production and playwriting aesthetics.  Research skills and historical context enable actors to get inside a playwright’s deep concerns in a particular play, and to truthfully inhabit period and style.  In this area we have the extra benefit of two eminent scholars of dramatic literature from the English Department who are also adjunct faculty in the Theatre Department, and who offer special courses to our graduates.  Previous course topics have included: Introduction to Graduate Research in Theatre, History of Theatre Theory, History of Directing and Production Styles, Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, and Intercultural Theatre.

In Acting class, actors put together the work of all their courses in the rehearsal and performance of scenes from plays.  Each actor’s approach to the work is carefully examined.  Scenes are chosen in collaboration with the actor to serve individual needs.  Emphasis is upon making specific choices of objectives and actions that are rigorously derived from the text as written, on the actor’s personal presence in a choice, and on his/her ability to sustain imagined life.  Hands-on Alexander Technique is used in scene work to foster freedom and control.  Consistency and repeatability are also examined, and the process of character transformation.

With the class of 2016, we introduced a program in new play development. In 2013, we commissioned Rob Caisley to write a new play specifically conceived for and with our MFA acting class of 2016.  He worked with the actors for an intensive week in 2013 and 2014, conceiving and developing the play.  In spring of 2016, we fully produced The Open Hand to sold out audiences and rave reviews.

In fall of 2015, we then commissioned Christopher Pena to begin the same cycle to develop a new play for the class of 2018, to be produced in spring of that year.

In 2015, we also instituted a new program in acting for film, in association with Paul Kampf, of Paul Kampf studios in Los Angeles.  Mr. Kampf is a highly regarded screenwriter, director, producer, and teacher, with a specialty in micro-budget films made in a innovative company model, based upon collaborative theatre company practices.  With a background in theatre as well as film, Mr. Kampf brings deep expertise to the UT MFA programs as a recurring Guest Artist.

The current structure of the acting for film component of the training is that Mr. Kampf teaches a one-week workshop each semester of the first and second years of training.  Classes are suspended for that week, and Mr. Kampf works intensively with the actors for the entire week.  In the first year, the focus is on individual presence and auditioning for camera, on basic principles of craft, and on simple familiarity and comfort with the intimacy of the medium.  In the second year, Mr. Kampf returns again for a week long intensive in both semesters.  The focus builds on year one and full scenes and/or short scripts are filmed.  In the third year of training, we plan for Mr. Kampf to bring a production crew to UT to film a feature written expressly for UT actors.

This program is unique among training programs in this country, and fits well with our plans to move to a stronger showcase model through digital media.  The acting for film workshops and films should provide useful footage for showcasing the talent of UT actors.

Workshops in a variety of other disciplines are also offered during the MFA training. We offer regular exchange with Clarence Brown Theatre guest artists in workshops as well as in productions.  The renowned English voice teacher, Barbara Houseman, has worked with our MFA actors either for one or two week intensives every year for the past 5 years.  Zack Fine and Jane Nichols have taught Clown.  We have conducted development workshops and staged readings with established playwrights.  Directors and casting directors from New York and Chicago have conducted career workshops.