Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fame...I Wanna Live Forever!

A friend of mine linked to this post from Tom Loughlin at TACT today. Tom recounts an e-mail sent to him by a student in his Acting for Non-Actors class and it started him thinking about the need for fame. Some key bits:
The young person who wrote this email is a very nice and very engaging student. But he is not thinking rationally. He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).
And this:
This widespread drive to be famous is a relatively recent phenomenon in our society. Before the complete domination of mass media on our thought processes, becoming famous was not a concept held by every average person. Most people expected to lead average, normal lives such as they saw around them on a daily basis. Most people people prior to the 20th century lived and died within a 50-mile radius of where they were born. Today’s mass media, however, makes the idea of fame a possibility accessible to everyone. Every movie, television show, reality show, hit song – you name it, and people see it, see it’s famous, and want a slice of that pie. More people today can name movie stars than can name scientists or government policy makers. Because of the fact of its continued and overwhelming presence in our culture, people come to believe that fame is possible for anyone. Shows like American Idol in fact count on it.
And his finale:
The sad truth is that, for all their dreaming of fame, the statistics say that most of our students will not achieve their dreams. Perhaps for 15 minutes, maybe. If we want to be honest educators, we need to start telling students the truth, and build better options for them for their theatrical futures. It can be done if we have the will, and perhaps if we are willing to re-think our own dreams of fame.
For good measure, he links to this Onion article.

I like Tom a lot, but I disagree with just about every single part of his post. I really, really do. I think it's horrible, horrible advice for a young person, even though it comes from a good-ish place. I certainly feel Tom's frustration with the elevated expectations of young men and women, and we should certainly could do more to expand their ideas of success and possible life choices. But other than's just kind of mean and bitter.

Let's think about it this way. A student in a history seminar takes a liking to the course work, even though she's not a major and writes the professor a message saying, "I know my last paper's haven't been great, but I'm really excited by this material and the coursework and I want to be the best student I can be. And, who knows, maybe I'll wind up as President and can invite you to the inauguration! I hope so!" Do you think the professor should respond with, "Well, since no women and only 43 people have ever been President of the US, it's not a very realistic or conceivable goal. You should think about your other options right now!"? Is that going to further this student's career? Their growth? Honestly, we wouldn't even expect a teacher to say that. And way more folks have won Academy Awards in acting (nearly 300) than have won the presidency.

Listen, I get that it's an unrealistic goal if this kid thinks one class is going to turn him into an award-winning actor. But, from my read and Tom's description, this is a young guy, trying it out, and trying to work hard. Why shouldn't he aim high? Say what you want about the politics or whatever about it, but it's basically the highest award an actor can win and it generally goes to a pretty accomplished or skilled actor. Yes, yes, advantages and unfairness and blah blah blah, but really, it's not just given out to anyone. And this kid is willing to do the work. He's not asking for a pass or a easy ride. He's offering to come in and do extra work to feel satisfaction. Why would you want to discourage that?

What's worse about this is making the connection between this kid, who again is looking to work harder, and the likes of the odious reality-TV "stars." When these things come up, there's always this current of, well, sneering at awards and success as the product of a selfish desire for attention. An artist should want to achieve at high level, they should push themselves to be the best they can be, and, in a lot of ways, accolades are proof of that. And they come with a pretty big stage and the opportunity to affect lives. I'm not saying that everyone has noble goals and intents, but not everyone has shallow, self-serving goals, either.

The kid isn't thinking rationally...but what kid is? He's a college student and trying out the things that fall in his path. Today, it's Oscar-winner. Tomorrow, it may be brain surgeon. Or astronaut. But right now he is thinking, if he wants to win an Oscar, he has to work harder and hold himself to a higher standard. All of that is the first step in the right direction. And along that path...who knows? This kid may want to be a big acting star now, but if he pursues it, he may find he doesn't like it and wants to do something else, write, design, direct, or teach. He may decide that he wants to head back to his hometown and found a community theatre. Who knows where his path goes. But to start him off telling him to give up on his dreams...that's a dead end.


Mother of Invention Acting School said...

The hypothetical you create doesn't match the one that Tom supplied. Your history student is taking a "who knows, perhaps" attitude, in which case a response like the one you imagine would be truly insensitive and uncalled for. The student in Tom's piece is saying that he WILL be an award-winning actor, believing that he has the power to guarantee that. The student's attitude strikes me as colossally inflated, and I think Tom was right in thinking the student is misguided and needs to re-orient and understand that the practice of the art is what is important and ultimately fulfilling and sustaining, and not the accolades.

99 said...

That's a fair cop about the hypothetical; I should have worded it differently. I think, though, it's hard to tell sincerity from the e-mail supplied. A friend and I have grad school have a "bet" about which of us is going to win the Pulitzer first. Will I fork over $20 if he wins first? Sure, but it's also not like anything less will be a failure.

Hubris is what makes youth youth. I'm not saying Tom should say back to this kid, "Do two extra sessions and you WILL win that Academy Award." What I'm saying is that A) it's NOT a sign of just being fame-grabby to want to win an award and B) discouraging a kid who's willing to do the work to be better cuts him off from the other options.

Freeman said...

I think the last thing a kid should be when going into the arts is "realistic." I get the concern, I just believe that if you're told the odds over and over, you're being tacitly encouraged to accept less from your life.

Scott Walters said...

You are mistaking Tom's article for what he told the student. I am pretty sure they are not the same thing.

But even if he did try to inject a little reality into the situation, why is that so wrong? Why is it that we, as elders, are expected to hide from youth the truth about what they are to encounter? Why is it so much better to do what the keynote at SETC did, and sing about how he "believed in them" and tell them the nonsense that all it takes is talent and desire? The role of elders, and of teachers, is not to weave a web of faith in magic,

The point is that the fame mindset is ubiquitous, and a distortion of the artistic impulse. The connection between art and fame is tangential at best. And the fact that some of the best minds of the theatrosphere can't see the poisonous effects of this orientation is an indication of the level of brainwashing that has occurred.

99 said...

Thanks for the back-handed compliment there. I do think that it would have given us a fuller picture to know what Tom told his student and how that student took it.

But I just don't see this as part of the fame impulse. I see it as ambition and that's a good thing. I grant you that the notions of artistic success and fame are probably too intertwined in our society, but it's not like the kid said he wanted to be on the cover of People or US Weekly. He wants to win an award that, to a naive student, means he's a good actor. How we get him from that place to a place of satisfaction is the question. But dismissing that impulse as a desire to just be famous does the kid a disservice.

I'm with Matt on this: let the kid dream big and show him the path.

Scott Walters said...

What a bunch of hooey. "Dream big." I'd like to barf. This is the cornerstone of the Nylachi myth that distorts the real purpose of art.

And for you and Freeman to jump to the conclusion that what is said on a blog among "colleagues" is what was said to the student is reprehensible, but all too common. Do you have any idea how much delusional thinking we see every goddamn day of every goddamn semester? Do you really think we're going around telling kids "give it up -- you'll never make it"? But there is more to teaching than Tinkerbell "belief" in the fairy of fame. The object is to make young people care about the work -- period. Fame is an effluent, the equivalent of "meat by-products" that goes into dog food.

Your sympathy is misplaced.

99 said...

Whoa, Scott. I think you need to take a breath. Okay?

There are genuine disagreements amongst adults and colleagues about "the real purpose" of art and you know that. What's absolutely true for you is not true for me. You need to respect that.

I'm responding to Tom's post, which doesn't even as an aside tell us that he met with the kid, worked with or what. But given the venom of his post (and frankly your comments), I wouldn't be surprised if his response to the kid was about the low odds and statistics of achieving his goal. And let's be really honest here again: this isn't a dream, an idle fantasy or something; the kid's in an acting class, pushing himself to do better because he likes it and is willing to work overtime to do better. And he's being used to typify the "fame urge" along the lines of the cast of Jersey Shore and loonies who show up to audition for American Idol because they sing good at karaoke. The kid's got a goal. An outsized one, maybe. A simplistic one, sure. But a goal. That he's willing to work for. And, yeah, that's where my sympathy lies.

I do think being a teacher is more than just spouting platitudes and blindly sending kids into a difficult life choice. But I also think it's more than smacking a kid upside the head with "reality."

I'm not saying this actor should come to NY, or head to LA, right now and be a big star. I'm saying you have to acknowledge the reality of his goal and what it means to him to teach him effectively. And I'm sure Tom does that (and you, too). But this post isn't just going to your colleagues. My friend who posted it on FB sent to his students, too. Students will read this and some will get inspired, but a lot will get discouraged, too. We have to own that.

Aaron Riccio said...

I think you're misquoting Tom's point a little bit. Emphasis in bold is mine:

"As educators, we should begin to recognize the part that fame plays in the lives of our students. We should understand that they are growing up in a culture where fame is glorified, and that their motivations for studying theatre are not necessarily the same ones that those of us of a certain age had as theatre students. Do we have anything at all to counter this rush to fame? Can we offer them any options at all for careers more rooted in personal self-worth as determined by their own values? Can we educate them for careers in the arts where they can be rooted in communities of people driven by motives other than profit and notoriety? Sure we can, but we have to have the courage to be the kinds of educators no longer willing to send new victims to be sacrificed to the altar of our adoration. We have to find values other than fame in theatre for them, and sell those values more strongly and convincingly."

That's EXACTLY what educators should be saying: the point is in the process and in the work, in the discovery and in the craft, NOT in the end-result of mansions, swag-bags, and instant recognition.

99 said...


Thanks for pointing that out, but that's also my point: wanting to win an Academy Award is NOT the same as wanting fame for fame's sake. Yes, of course, I do think Tom does and should educate this kid to all of his possibilities and potentials, but I don't think it HAS to come at the expense of this kid wanting to win an Oscar.

I want to stress that I'm not saying Tom should just blindly support this kid's goal. But characterizing it as an unattainable fantasy driven by a need for swag doesn't do any good, either.

Scott Walters said...

Thank you, Aaron -- beautifully said. I tend to see red when it is suggested that it is our job, as educators, to promote a single mindset, especially one that I find misguided. As a professor, I profess, which means I must believe in what I am saying. There are many, many universities in the US where professors feed Moloch on a daily basis. I refuse to do so anymore. And having people tell me that I am crushing dreams is beyond infuriating. Right, take a breath.

I'll probably write about this later in TACT -- when I get some time away from, you know, crushing students.

Adam807 said...

I think there's a lot of value - often forgotten - in encouraging budding actors to be successful yet NOT famous. Lots and lots of people make their living acting but never become stars, and I think that's a valuable lesson to teach that's too easily forgotten amid hopes of celebrity. We don't want them to give up if they don't become a mega-star in the first year, especially if they're getting work.

In other words, you're both right.

Ken said...

Tom needn't go out of his way to point out to the student how unlikely it will be that this kid will ever win an Academy Award, but neither should he actively engage his fantasies. Discussing awards when you're in the last year of a MFA acting program, after years of prior training, would be somewhat silly and pointless--let alone a class called "Acting for NON-actors." And it wouldn't matter if the award were something more "acceptable" to us downtown theater folk, like an Obie. Thinking of rewards more than (or even as much as) the work itself is pure cart-before-horse territory, and should at least be kept out of the classroom, I reckon. If the student wants to maintain those dreams in his own head, good luck to him.

99 said...

Adam and Ken-

I'm very much in that space. My biggest difference with Scott (and we've hit this point before) is that I don't believe it's one or the other. I firmly believe that there is a place for people who want to be on Broadway or in the movies and work at that level and a place for people who don't and the biggest problem with our current system of education and production is that there aren't enough resources for the people who don't. We do have to address that inequity and do what we can for all career paths, but it doesn't help to keep de-legitimizing any of them.

Tom Loughlin said...

Oh my. I had no idea this conversation was going on. Perhaps I can help to clear some things up (or more likely, as these things go, unintentionally add more fuel to the fire).

In the first place, I'd like to say that many of my writings have little in common with what I actually do in my day-to-day teaching. They are things I think about, toss over in my head, muse about. I share them in my blogs partly as a way to clear my head, partly as a way to think things through, and partly as a way to make other artists think about these things. These are not necessarily things I say in class, but when I do say them, I always preface them with a caution that these are my personal opinions and observations, that they are not gospel, and they can take them or leave them. I even offer them the possibility of considering that my opinions are, as has been suggested here, the rantings of a bitter old man - I do not hide that possibility from them. What I actually do - every single day - is my best to prepare them for the careers they aspire to - every facet of those careers that I can think of. Obviously, you have only my word for that as well, but if you'd like to investigate it, please do. There are many Fredonia alums in NYC.

For the record, it is absolutely and unequivocally my practice every single day in my classroom to do whatever is in my power to help my students succeed in reaching whatever goals they set for themselves. In the particular case I quoted in my TACT blog, the young man in question was in my office just yesterday where I had a 30-minute discussion with him talking about his talent, his potential for success, and what he needed to do to make his dream come true. We also talked about the scene he had just done, which was in fact pretty good. Never once did I say to him, "You're untalented and foolish and you should think about digging ditches." I made sure he understood how difficult it was, that the odds were not in his favor, and that he would have to have no small amount of pure luck, but he was bringing some good qualities to the table. Never did I express to him I thought he was being unrealistic. Frankly, that's none of my business, and he is paying me to help him succeed. You'll have to take my word that I did that as well.

In other words, the portrait about my teaching practices being painted here have no foundation in reality to them. They are assumptions readers and commentators have made; none of them have actually seen me teach. These assertions and assumptions have been drawn from the private ramblings that go on in my head, the various things I think about and write about. I would encourage the readers of my writings to assume the opposite - that I keep my private thoughts and my classroom practices largely separate, and generally I offer my own private thoughts to my students only when pressed. You, as a reader, are actually getting to read things going on in my head that my students almost never hear (unless they are reading my blogs as well, which could be possible, but I am not aware that is happening). I teach in a pre-professional program, and that's what I train my actors for, but I make sure they understand every single aspect of that career, its warts as well as its rewards. I am working to change that, working to be able to offer alternatives, and working to find those kinds of students interested in a different approach to doing theatre in this country. I don't like the waste of talent I see in this country - it's not sustainable. When I have the kinds of students interested in sustainable, community-grounded theatre, I will leave the pre-professional training to others, and I will switch my practices and focus on giving those students the kind of education they want.