Teaching Practical Aesthetics since the 1980s

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Atlantic Acting School was established by playwright David Mamet and actor William H Macy to teach their Practical Aesthetics technique. Today the school offers BA degrees, a conservatory programme, a year-long evening course and a summer programme.

In the early 1980s, legendary playwright David Mamet and award-winning actor William H Macy developed a new acting technique. They auditioned a group of students from New York University, and over the course of two years, starting in 1983, worked with them on this new method, which became known as Practical Aesthetics. Those students formed the Atlantic Theater Company acting ensemble.

Mary McCann was one of the original students and Atlantic’s first artistic director. “At the end of our training, David and Bill gave us two lessons,” she explains. “They said: ‘We’ve taught you everything we can in the classroom, you must now go and learn in front of an audience. And don’t wait for work to come to you, create your own work.’ And they turned over the Atlantic Theater Company to us.”

Over the last 35 years, the ensemble has earned 22 Tony awards for productions including Spring Awakening and The Band’s Visit, and has become one of the most renowned groups in the US. It has launched the careers of actors including Clark Gregg, Rose Byrne and Giancarlo Esposito, and championed work by British writers such as Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh in the US.

Mamet and Macy wanted to continue the Practical Aesthetics philosophy, so they established the Atlantic Acting School, which was then taken over by members of the ensemble. The school is now a prestigious training institution with several acclaimed courses, and McCann is its executive director.

What does Practical Aesthetics involve? It is based on the principle that the purpose of every individual element of a production is to simply and truthfully tell the story. It is a way of demystifying the acting process by giving the actor a clear set of analytical and physical tools.

“It was a reaction to the method in the early 1980s,” McCann explains. “There was a question about how people were approaching plays – it was all about the actor and not about the story of the play. So this technique is about telling the story of the play. What is our job as an actor in order to do that?”

The technique is broken down into two parts: think before you act, and act before you think. Think before you act involves script analysis: what is the character literally doing, what does the character want, what is the essential nature – the action – of the scene? “The idea is that character is an illusion we create from the choices we make from the action. You make choices that are 100% uniquely your own to serve the story.”

“The act before you think part”, says McCann, “is where we learn to put our attention on the other person in the scene, so that you know how to play the action. This part of the technique leads the actor to be spontaneous, imaginative and in the moment. The Atlantic approach to emotion is addressed in the final step of script analysis, when we ask ourselves: ‘What is it like to me? It’s as if…’ We don’t use emotional recall, but we engage our imagination, becoming an open vessel for the emotions.”

What sets Practical Aesthetics apart from so many other techniques is that its originators – the original members of the Atlantic ensemble – are still teaching it. This means the approach is constantly updated to reflect the modern world. “We create new exercises, realising that the humans who have grown up with cell phones and social media are different humans than certainly I was in the 1980s. And so we need to explore the ‘truth of the moment’ differently, so that we can have it in our bodies and in our psyche.”

There is a huge range of options for anyone wishing to study at Atlantic Acting School, including the three-year BA in Fine Arts degree, based at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which prepares students for the worlds of theatre, film, television and new media.

The world-renowned conservatory programme is a two-and-a-half year full-time course at Atlantic, and there is also a year-long evening course that distils the foundational training into three semesters.

All three programmes have the same foundations: there are the taught foundations of Practical Aesthetics, and special skills such as dialect, film, comedy and more, and they all culminate in a semester of creating a theatre company and a production.

“The aim is that you become part of a life-long community. If you want to be in a theatre company for the next 30 years, we help you build the foundations to do that. Or if you want to have a group of peers that you can create work with as you get agents and casting directors and find your footing in the industry, we also provide that support.”

“David and Bill said to us that there’s a point when you need to learn in front of an audience. So in the final semester of all of these programmes, the students perform several plays in our theatre, so they can have this experience of performing in front of audiences. As part of creating their own theatre company we give the students the space and a budget, and they really learn how to produce a play before they walk out the door.”

Atlantic Acting School is also known for its intensive summer schools where students from around the world gain a working and rigorous understanding of the Atlantic technique, for example, Practical Aesthetics, over the course of five weeks. It is a particularly popular choice for people from the UK who want to experience US training.

“People come from across the world for this programme, they study hard for five weeks, make connections, and then go off into the world with their Practical Aesthetics knowledge,” says McCann.

As we have all become familiar with remote ways of working, the school has also developed a new course for 2021, called the Global Virtual Conservatory. Rooted in multicultural perspectives on performance methodology, this five-month remote programme allows artists, actors and educators to broaden their creative minds, and draws from Atlantic Acting School and Atlantic Theater Company’s network of working artists around the world.

What sets Atlantic Acting School apart is its close connection to the Atlantic ensemble. Not only does it mean teachers are all current practitioners in the industry, with first-hand experience and up-to-date knowledge of what it takes to get work, it also means Atlantic Theater Company looks to the student body when casting its productions.

McCann says this is one of the delights of the system: “I have had the great privilege of being in the classroom with a student one day and then being on stage with them the next. That’s what we want: to train people, and then go from being teachers and students to peers in the industry.”

It’s about being together in the room, in the moment. For McCann, “The greatest actors in my mind are the people who are truly in the moment. You can learn to play an action, you can learn how to have an emotional life that is available to you. But the nuance of really being in the moment is where the great acting lies. And that’s what we teach.”