Who Needs Actors Anyway?

I’ve been teaching classes at Firehouse since the beginning of the year and the best part of any class for me has been when a student wakes up to the depth of skill required to create professional theater. I’ve seen the awareness grow as fight choreographers describe physiology or costume designers explain color theory or dialect coaches parse the regional differences among German accents.

Students are regularly impressed, except when it comes to actors. Because actors just have to remember those lines and spit them out. Pretty much anyone could do that, right?

I’m kidding, of course. My students have been appropriately starstruck when interacting with actors. But I do think it’s harder for the actors to impress upon them the skills they have to acquire to be good at their craft.

I thought about this recently on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. I was lucky enough to end up on a “Walking through History” tour with Stephen Seals, an actor familiar to many in Richmond thanks to his work in productions like OTHELLO back in 2013. On the tour, Seals did a fantastic job jumping back and forth between modern-day historian-actor Stephen and colonial era Revolutionary War spy James Armistead Lafayette.

What was best about Seals’ work as an actor-interpreter was his clear and engaging communication style. Some people find history deathly boring but my tour group spent the hour totally entranced as Seals spun the tale of an enslaved manservant asked to risk his life in service to the emerging new nation. Like all of the actor-interpreters in Williamsburg, Seals uses his acting skills to bring history to life in a way that is accessible for everyone, from antsy preteens to sometimes antsier octogenarians.

Additionally impressive about Seals is that he’s merged his love of history and his skills as an actor into an interesting career where he not only leads tours in fancy Colonial clothes but acts as a Manager of Program Development for African American and Religious Programming for Colonial Williamsburg.

Actors regularly show up in unexpected places and their skills are key to numerous professions. Actors are an integral part of the medical school experience thanks to standardized patients programs. People who work in VCU’s program have related to me how rigorous their preparation can be and how important it is to understand the full range of the symptoms they are supposed to be presenting. And, with a daughter in med school, I’ve heard from the student perspective how important it is to have experience working with standardized patients to build a student's skills without endangering real patients.

While Seals teaches history in Williamsburg, he’s also taught science before, too, thanks to working with the Carpenter Science Theatre. Style just reported on the retirement of CST’s long-time director Larry Gard who has built a robust program presenting entertaining stories that show how vital and exciting science can be. Luckily, another talented actor, the enthusiastic Kimberly Jones Clark, is stepping into Gard’s shoes, a welcome reassurance that the program will continue to inspire potential young scientists for years to come.

I had need recently to work with a vocal coach who, in addition to having a surprising amount of knowledge about how different parts of your body work together to create sound, told me a little about working with other non-actors. There are a large number of professions that are performative -- news anchor, trial lawyer, university professor, politician, public relations spokesperson, etc. -- and a lot of people go into those professions thinking that as long as they know their stuff, the performative skills will just develop. But speech and diction, poise and gravitas, improvisation and empathy -- few people are just born with these skills and traits naturally advanced.

As this well-circulated meme indicates, actors are weirdly over-appreciated (in the case of movie stars) and under-appreciated at the same time. Maybe realizing that actors aren’t just entertainers would help with that. Actor-bartender or actor-waitress aren’t the only hyphenations out there: Richmond has dozens of actor-historians, actor-teachers, actor-lawyers, and many other actor hyphenates regularly using their skills to make the world a better place.

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