Venerating Vulnerability

Senior Lecturer and director of the Theatre Arts Program Rosemary Malague investigates women and the claim to authenticity in the acting classroom.
May 31, 2012
In the world of acting, few can make it through their first script without learning the family of acting techniques termed “the Method.” According to Senior Lecturer and director of the Theatre Arts Program at Penn and author of the book An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method” Rosemary Malague, “the Method” is an approach to acting that directly descends from Konstantin Stanislavsky’s “System.” It is, simply put, “truthful behavior on the stage.” But what happens when “the truth” implies an authenticity rife with complicated gender biases? Malague, through her case-study analyses of four American acting teachers, takes us straight into the feminist perspective of the discriminatory practices in the acting classroom—practices persist today.

While the term “the Method” is strongly associated with a particular technique of acting, Malague’s examination addresses the four different approaches to teaching acting. Malague notes, “What matters to us today is what we have inherited and what we perpetuate.” And what we perpetuate, according to Malague, is a culture in which “actresses are still asked to do different things than actors.”

One of these differences is aesthetic expectations. Malague maintains that women whose work was most praised were often blonde, conventionally pretty, thin, and attractive. The cover image of An Actress Prepares, found by Malague herself, is of Marilyn Monroe outside the Actor’s Studio. About Monroe, Malague says, “In some ways she emblematizes the blonde, pretty, sex object and victim-like stereotype that I worry is encouraged and trained in acting school.” There is also a ”high premium on crying,” as women are often rewarded for being victims. “The buzz words if you were in acting class were ‘taking risks’ and making yourself‘vulnerable.’ Only later did I really ask, what was the nature of the risks female actors were taking? What kind of vulnerability were they being asked to expose and endure?”

Malague explains that authenticity in the acting classroom also suppresses the importance of not only of gender, but also of sexuality and race. “Historically homosexuality and lesbianism are ignored in actor training,” she says. “Students are quietly having to cross over and pretend that they’re straight. All of these assumptions are being made.” Malague works against these biases in the classes she teaches at Penn. She often does race-blind casting, though it is controversial in the commercial world, and emphasizes that she doesn’t want to erase race, but she seeks to expand students’ acting opportunities, and to ensure that they “work with material that excites and resonates with them.”

“What matters to us today is what we have inherited and what we perpetuate … actresses are still asked to do different things than actors.” - Rosemary Malague

Although Malague expects to get criticism for her book, especially from the devotees of the acting teachers she investigates, she maintains that the book is about learning from their practices so that we can imagine an environment in which an actor—to use the words of one reviewer of Malague’s book—can both think and act. Because, Malague says, “Using critical processes as an actor allows you to inflect your performance with awareness and enables you to be a resistant collaborator when necessary for both yourself and the project.”