The End of the Triple Threat

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photo by Rob Rich © 2010 robwayne1@aol.com 516-676-3939

In a recent article by ‘American Theatre’, Maggie Gilroy talks about modern musical theatre students in the USA building on their much coveted triple threat to put themselves head, shoulders (and probably ankles) above the competition. How? By becoming quadruple threats.

We all know a triple threat, and if we aren’t one ourselves then we’re probably jealous of them: The ability to not only act, but dance and sing as well, thereby giving yourself an edge as a performer and making you more employable. So the fourth threat? The fourth threat is possibly the most frightening: not needing to rely on being so employable, writing your own work instead.

By nature, almost everyone in the theatre industry self-promotes and self-markets, but do we ever really work for ourselves? Performers in particular are constantly depending on someone to say yes. So what if they didn’t have to? The idea of being a quadruple threat solves a handful of problems. It isn’t new though, and in fact many theatre students across Britain have been employing this fourth skill for some time. Many of our theatre festivals rely on it – so why aren’t more people encouraging the quadruple threat?

America seems to be expanding the programme of study on a handful of its performing arts courses already. But the issue is where can one find such training in the UK? Drama schools are renowned for their vocational focus on performance, so you’ve no trouble finding training for triple threats, but what about writing? Can one or two devised theatre modules a year really prepare you for this apparent new age in our industry? The answer is probably not. So what about universities then? With modules in directing and writing banded together with performance, is that then a more welcoming establishment to modern performers? Maybe. But with such a broad spectrum of learning on these courses, are the teachings simply broad strokes?

In her article Gilroy talks to Ryan Scott-Oliver, a composer and lyricist, and Music Theory teacher at Pace University in the USA, who advocates the idea of quadruple threats: ‘It helps them understand what it means, how a piece is constructed. All that can guide them as actors once they understand what the writer is dealing with, once they understand what their process is.’ You could argue that developing an understanding of and sympathy for writers has the potential to improve an actor’s ability to dissect a script, and in turn make them a more conscientious actor. On the flip-side of his comment is the suggestion that being an actor/performer may actually be a perfect building block to help people to become better writers for theatre. When you think about all the beloved theatre writers of history, how many were actors? And regardless of what they were first, how many produced better work because of these crossed paths?

Becoming a quadruple threat is verging on the necessary in today’s entertainment industry. With so many people vying for places in training establishments, it stands to reason that only so many will get in, and only so many will be successful when they come out. Perhaps drama schools should think about writing classes to help their students who don’t fall out of their showcase and into an acting job. After all, when the work isn’t coming (and it will happen to everyone) is it not unwise to rely upon others? To quote NTI Artistic Director, Rachel Jett from Gilroy’s article, ‘We don’t want them waiting for the phone to ring.’ Which, unfortunately, is such a large part of being an actor. If you have the talent and the skill to create work and income for yourself, Gilroy and her interviewees argue you should. Frequently performers are told that they should have ‘a plan B’, but many are unnerved (or even outraged) at the idea of veering away from the theatre, but having this fourth threat could be a pragmatic alternative to an office job that allows them to maintain their ties to the theatre, as well as always learning about their industry and audiences.

So should all aspiring performers be trained as writers too? Well, it certainly couldn’t hurt. There’s something to be said for blurring the lines between professions in theatre; we’re all branches of the same tree. There is an ever decreasing circle of purist idealists in the theatre, people who advocate throwing yourself into one profession and devoting yourself to it for your entire life. Whilst this is necessary in such a competitive and rigorous industry as theatre, the problem lies in our ideas of these professions as being drastically separate. Maybe it’s time we stopped looking at acting, directing, designing, etc, as so far removed from each other, and started to see them all under one profession: Theatre. Maybe the quadruple threat is just dipping its toe into the limelight, but could this be the beginning of a bigger, better, and more unified industry?

You can read Maggie Gilroy’s AT article in full here.