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In praise of tradition.

Congratulations on your excellent, informative and up-to-the-minute special section "Pillars of Voice Work." It contains a quotation from Janet B. Rodgers, however, that must be challenged. In the introduction, she is quoted as saying, "The history of voice and speech training for actors is relatively short. Actor-training programs did not sprout and begin to proliferate [in the U.S.] until after World War II. Great Britain, by contrast, has a 150-year-plus tradition of voice and speech training."

Ms. Rodgers's statement is short-sighted and historically incorrect. The first professional theatrical companies in the U.S. began establishing a firm footing during the late 18th century, most of them headed by English actor-managers, who hired mostly English actors. Those native-born American actors who joined them began their training in the English tradition, uppermost in which was and still is the importance of the spoken word. Those who did not have the advantage of being born into the profession (like the Booths, the Jeffersons, the Drews and so on) had to learn their skills on the job. The first gigantic task they faced was learning 30 or 40 roles they could play literally at the drop of a hat. There was little time for anything else, certainly not classes in voice and speech as we know them today. They had to acquire the techniques of their craft as apprentices have always done: on their own, by observing, listening, absorbing, and using or discarding criticism, and by performing for paving audiences.

The tradition of on-the-job training continued throughout most of the 19th century--Minnie Maddern Fiske, Otis Skinner and Ethel Barrymorc all grew up in it--because there were few, if any, established schools where aspiring actors could study before they attempted to break into the business. That changed when the American Academy of Dramatic Art, today the oldest acting school in the English-speaking world, was established in New York City in 1884--that was 20 years before the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art first opened its doors in London in 1904. Other important actor-training programs soon took toot on this side of the Atlantic: at Carnegie Tech in 1914, at the University of North Carolina in 1925, at the Goodman in 1925 and at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1928, all of them well before the end of World War II.

We Americans are inheritors of as rich a theatrical history and tradition as any country in the world, and it is now more than two centuries old. Let's not sell it short.

Geddeth Smith

New York City

Geddeth Smith is an actor and the biographer of actor-manager Walter Hampden.

Janet B. Rodgers replies: Mr. Smith is accurate about on-the-job actor-apprentice training in early British-based theatre companies in the U.S. He is also correct in noting that a handful of actor-training programs existed here prior to WWII. However, the point I was making is that these programs were few and far between, and it wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that many, many more such programs sprouted up and proliferated in universities, and that these programs have increasingly included voice and speech training. The history of formalized voice and speech training in the U.S. may be short, but it is quite remarkable, thanks to the long-sightedness of a small group of teachers of voice and speech who, in 1986, created the Voice and Speech Trainers Association. This organization's membership has grown to 500 in the past 24 years and has succeeded in bringing the importance of voice and speech to the forefront of actor-training.
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Title Annotation:LETTERS
Author:Smith, Geddeth
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Words:592
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