Photo: Yuko Takeda

Acting as Expertise- seminar

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Written by Yuko Takeda on April 1, 2018.

I attended a seminar titled “Acting as Expertise” on March 26th, 2018 at Kallio Stage.

It was a seminar hosted by the Degree Programme in Acting in Swedish in collaboration with the acting department in Tampere and the Center for Artistic Research at Uniarts Helsinki. Educators and students in the art of acting thought together and discussed the role of the actor and its significance and possibilities in present time and for the future.

The seminar began with Anders Carlsson’s serenade to the audience. He is a professor at the Swedish acting department. His musical gesture took the audience by surprise. “Now that I’ve got your attention,” he humorously proceeded onto his keynote speech.

Anders introduced various ideas from philosophy, art and pedagogy to illuminate issues surrounding acting as expertise. I don’t think I can cover everything he said in the speech, but here’s what I’ve understood to be his core argument.

What do we mean by “expertise” in acting? Is it a fixed knowledge an actor possesses? Is it something to be attained from someone or something that does know? And what does it mean in the context of transdisciplinary art-making? In a so-called old, conventional way of education, a learning process implies a one-way street transmission of knowledge between teacher and pupil; the teacher teaches what the pupil needs to learn. Instead Anders proposes a more dialectical way of educating and creating art by committing to questions in a learning process. In other words, we are learning together in “the state of not knowing.”

To put his argument in a current-time context, he pointed at the problem of the post-modern, neo-liberal discourse regarding transdisciplinarity, which supposedly makes everything possible, and the branding of novelty, the endless production of “the new,” which makes nothing new. He also talked about how the idea of individualism has no support from science but is strangely at the basis of many societal systems, such as the criminal justice system where we are handled as separate entities instead of a part of the bigger. Anders pondered on with his thematic statement, “We don’t know who we are, where we are going.” This refusal of a fixed identity almost forces us to question and challenge the fundamental aspects of our perception of reality and knowledge about ourselves. A few terms were mentioned to think further in this questioning, such as Haltung (a German term roughly translated as ethos, mindset or attitude) and Poiesis (“the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before”[1]). Are we aware how attitude creates or dictates behavior, and are we at all capable to know how things appear in the creation of art? Such philosophical inquiry also influences the process of acting and making theatre; What does the representation or the fiction in acting and in theatre have to do with reality itself?

At this point in his speech, my mind was already spinning with various thoughts and ideas. Maybe that was the point of his speech after all. The state of not knowing should not be a state of being idle but charged with seemingly unanswerable questions. Maybe it is about mustering the energy and momentum to deal with the complexity of the problem we face in the contemporary world.

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The second keynote speaker was Pauliina Hulkko, professor of theatre arts at University of Tampere. She divided her time into two parts: the first part to make her points about acting as expertise and the second to conduct a thinking experiment regarding the future of actor’s art and actor training. The first part is well outlined in her introductory paragraph in the program:

The word expert derives from the Latin verb for ‘to try to test.’ Correspondingly, an expert means someone who is tried and tested – i.e. experienced. What does this mean in terms of actor’s art and actor training? And how do we define the actor’s expertise? How should the actor student be tried and tested? Can (and should) experience be taught? To my mind, the biggest dilemma is how, in the present, can we test ourselves for the future, with its novel societal, political, environmental, artistic etc. cir-cumstances. This is my main concern today. And it leads to more specific questions concerning the skills, techniques, contents, and forms that we include in (and repeat/reconstruct/deconstruct through) our education.

She also gave a few additional ideas regarding actor’s education. For her, learning is about change and making art is about making changes. Education is then about leading people to making the change that is called for in the time in which we live. And she told her wish for the students to be “radical,” citing the etymology of the word, “root.” Being radical means, therefore, to take a stand for the deep past, arguing and demanding for their artistic work in the context of the now.

Then she asked the participants of the seminar to form small groups and discuss one of the three topics proposed by her. All the three topics included tasks:

Institutions for the future (task: design a repertoire for half a year for a certain institution),

Occupations (task: outline future trades for actor, how the actor’s expertise could be utilized in other sources of livelihood),

and Future techniques for actors (task: design an exercise for thinking and imagination and discuss how you teach the exercise).

The participants were given about thirty minutes for this thinking experiment.

The small group discussion seemed to spark many thoughts and ideas.

It turned out that they couldn’t conclude their discussions in time. So, they collectively decided to take a lunch break and to come back afterwards to make short presentations about the discussion.

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The lunch was delicious, warm vegetarian soup with bread.

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After the lunch break, all the six small groups presented the summary of their discussion one by one.

Many interesting ideas were presented by the students. Pauliina reminded them that the purpose of the experiment was not about assessing whether those ideas were doable or not, but about taking responsibility for their own future as actors. 

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The third keynote speaker was Esa Kirkkopelto, professor at the Center for Artistic Research, Uniarts Helsinki. The title of his speech was “On the body conceptions in actor training and the possibility of non-human acting.” Without knowing the content of his argument, his term “non-human acting” might evoke an antagonistic attitude towards the actor’s art of acting. But as listening to his speech, I understood that Esa was trying to make a statement against the exploitation, sacrifice and humiliation through which actors are put in the process of creating “characters.” In many cases, in rehearsal or in class, actors are asked to serve the vision of the director or the intention of the playwright. And they are tied to the anthropomorphic mode of acting, which is about having human characteristics. It necessitates the actor’s engagement in her own human-ness on various levels, the corporal, the emotional, the spiritual, etc. Consequently, the ideal for the art of acting becomes about “giving all of you.” In response, Esa said, “Don’t give all of you.” His point was about the emancipation of actor-ship in relation to directing and text. So, “non-human acting” is a term to search for a possibility to liberate the actor from the pedagogical, artistic, ethical conventions of acting.

For Esa, all acting is partial on a corporal level, meaning that only a part of the actor's body is in transformation or in fiction. This partiality gives a possibility of articulation or control to the actor’s work; One can choose which part is to be in transformation. And the actor’s body could be viewed as a scenic element, which takes a distance from figurative interpretation of the body.

To illustrate what he means by partiality in non-human acting and the actor’s body as scenic corporality, he gave a short workshop. He first asked the participants to put stripes of tape on the floor and then asked them to do a simple exercise. The exercise goes in such a way that once a part of your body crosses the tape line, the part becomes affected in a non-identifiable way. You cannot “act” in a sense that somebody else might identify what you’re expressing. But still, the part of your body has to be affected as in being on stage.

So, the participants dove into the exercise. The space was soon filled with strange sounds and movements.

Afterwards, Esa made his final points about the possibility of non-human acting. Being affected on the stage is not an anthropomorphic state but something more primitive that stimulates imagination. Hopefully it triggers anthropomorphic imaginaiton that is surprising and enjoyable for the actor. The ethical aspect of non-human acting and partiality is about fostering such imagination in a safe environment for the actor.

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The last program of the day was the students’ reflection and summary moderated by Kent Sjöström, Associate Professor at Malmö Theatre Academy/Lund University in Sweden. Many things were said and discussed during the reflection. The following is what I remember from it, and it is not the description of the whole session.

Kent first shared the questions that came to his mind while listening to all the keynote speakers.

  • Do we ever think about the expertise of the audience, judging the actors, as well as that of the actor?
  • What does it mean to be an expert now?
  • What does it mean to not know if the actor is someone who knows and argues?
  • Can experience corrupt me? Is all experience good? Are all experiences knowledge?

Then each keynote speaker responded to a few of those questions. Anders regards actors as “psychonauts” who are willing to expose themselves to the unknown, just like the astronauts who go out to explore and experience the mysteries of the universe. Pauliina said that that body was the source of knowledge and that experience could not be trusted as the direct source of knowledge because it was already a reflected thing once we recognized it as experience.

Then Seppo, a movement teacher from the Finnish acting department at TeaK, inserted his view that reflection is for him to get unstuck from corruptive experience. He later clarified it by saying that corruption means a bunch of unconstructive habits a person has. Esa also chimed into the topic of corruption by putting it in relation to the scenic equality he talked about in his speech. For him, what’s corruptive is the notion that the actor has to sacrifice on the stage. 

Then the focus of the reflection shifted to the students. They mostly shared their thoughts about the future of the actor’s role and her technique or expertise. The ultimate question seemed to be, “What kind of actor do I want to be?” One student said that she wanted to be an actor not a coach of some kind. Her statement was in response to the possibility of various trades to utilize actor’s expertise in the future. Coaching and some other occupations were listed during the thinking experiment portion of Pauliina’s keynote.

The student’s reaction led Anders to share his experience of working with newcomers in Sweden as an educator to assimilate them. He was able to use his expertise as an artist to turn a seemingly mundane job into an art project to address hidden oppression in the social structure. The experience made him realize the possibility for art-making in various social contexts.

Then someone else reminded the students that thinking about the future is to think about how to position the actor in a society, how one can change or expand the perception of it. What do we dream? Can we dream bigger or differently than we used to?

Esa also told the students that actors have the power to redirect others’ desire, what they dream. That in and of itself is powerful expertise that could be a huge influence for the world in which we live or will live.

Pauliina implied that being an expert as actor is ultimately about having one’s own voice in the face of obstacles and challenges.

The moderator Kent summed up the whole seminar by commending that the participants succeeded in discussing actor’s knowledge and experience in a humble, investigative way without going into any particular acting method or ideology. It was also a great opportunity to collectively ponder over the actor’s responsibility and role for the future.

Anders gave the final word that one of the hopes he had for the seminar was to propose new ways to enjoy and discover in search for the actor’s expertise.

With full of ideas and renewed faith in the power of the actor and acting, I left the seminar.

Thank you.


[1] Donald Polkinghorne, Practice and the Human Sciences: The Case for a Judgment-Based Practice of Care, SUNY Press, 2004, p. 115.