When not abused, (and it too often is!) mystification can be a useful tool for a teacher of acting. A heightened sense of importance, a contrived intolerance of other methods, an urgent sense of shared purpose are all gentle manipulations that can serve to extract the best from a class. But it becomes a problem when they are used to maintain a teacher's power over a group or to restrict a student's imagination and spontaneous expression.

It is common for actors to be thrown together in intense relationships over long periods of time with people they didn't choose themselves, and perhaps the most extreme example is the student actor undergoing a professional education. It is not easy to spend three or four years with the same old people in the same old place and still maintain one's excitement. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. What can the teacher do about it?

A degree of mystification is a powerful antidote to the inexorable slide into trivialization that can threaten any artistic training. The work itself has to be important, but the challenges that the student actor faces are often so abstract that both student and teacher become dependent on social context and physical environment to emphasise its importance. There are many approaches:

Intense, obsessive seriousness, extending to the extremes of high ritual, is a strategy common to many acting teachers. Art with a capital 'A.' It works to a degree, but tends to suppress that creative playfulness, that joy of the child so nourishing to the actor and so essential when working with comedy.

Another strategy is to throw an intense (in this case, metaphoric) spotlight upon the individual student's acting problems and growth process. This certainly creates concentration, but can encourage insecurity and narcissism.

Simple, prosaic methods, like rules about clothing and foot-ware within the studio can also be valuable in creating a sense of respect for the actor's work that goes beyond their obvious practical usefulness.

Happily though, theatre itself contains its own intrinsic mysteries. Selective lighting in a darkened room, an exotic costume, mask and makeup all create a sense of occasion, particularly when in the presence of an audience!

The healthiest and most dynamic motivator of all is a shared sense of "what must be told," the imperative of the story.

"There are no rules in the theatre, but in order to work, one must believe in them anyway."

Jacques Copeau

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010