Elia Kazan: On Patronage and Pity

Warren Beatty and Elia Kazan on the set of Splendor in the Grass.

Why do you feel that most training for actors is, as you put it, evil and worthless?

Well, because it is, in my opinion. One of the reasons the profession of acting is so overcrowded, and so impossible for so many to navigate, is that so many are allowed to congregate within it when they have no legitimate right to be there. By legitimate right, I mean, of course, talent. They may have a human right--hell, they may even have a civil right--to call themselves actors and audition and continue their dream, but if they do not have the talent and if they have not yet earned some patronage, they should continue their pursuits on the amateur level and allow more room for those who have a future in the art.

But who decides if they have the talent?

It is decided quite early if you have the talent. I'm talking about actors here, right? Okay. First of all, you are probably the star of your high school: Plays are being crafted around you. That's a clue. Then you elevate to the next level, which is college or a good acting school, where respected people are confirming what you may have already come to suspect. If you do not have this patronage, I think I'm safe in saying that you will not have a career in the theatre. If you are terribly attractive, you may have something of a career in films or television, but the looks will only take you so far.

But I want to elaborate on the term good acting school. There are a lot of horrible acting schools, staffed by people no one has ever heard of  and no one respects. They are merely earning fees for the school and for their survival.  Of course they will tell anyone with a valid checking account that they have a future in the theatre. I do not mean one should honor their opinions. I cannot imagine the level of chicanery that is involved in having those who have yet to establish themselves as artists in the theatre hoping to teach others to be one. This is insanity, but the buses and the trains disgorge thousands of young hopefuls every year who believe they have the talent, and so they put down good money toward bad training. 

So where should the students go?

Well, there's another test for you: Have you been accepted to one of the better programs? I think it has been established that Yale and Juilliard and Carnegie-Mellon have good programs; strong conservatory programs. I think the days of students showing up in New York out of high school to find a Lee Strasberg or a Stella Adler or a Herbert Berghof are over. I think it is established that an education and a strong course of study are better than a few classes a week with students who might be rotten. It is important to be surrounded by and taught by good people. I meet young people who read to me the long list of places that have not accepted them, and I want to tell them that they may have to reconsider. Someone has to see the spark of hope in your talents. Try to share this spark with as many people as you can, but if you find no takers, then you owe it to yourself to move on.

What a lot of people don't want to recognize or face or believe is that there is a residual badness in the arts that is allowed--almost encouraged--to fester and rot beneath the foundations of good work. It's like a fever or a growth of mildew, but it is there. It cannot be killed. It receives grants and awards and attention. It is the strange thing that also exists among actors and actresses, many of whom maintain relationships with much lesser actors and actresses, as a type of balancing act or ego booster that keeps them on their toes and their pedestals. It is not enough for some to work well and often; there must be the poor and the bad who are looked after, like the lame and the simple. It's an artistic caste system, and I deplore it. Look for it: You'll find it. Plays that sit in forty-seat theatres employing the perennially bad, and they will receive awards and grants and pats on the head.  There but for the grace of God awards, I call them. Or perhaps I am just too cynical and there are those who truly believe that something will grow out of this.

We do good work. We support good work. We honor those who are trying to do good work. That will require all that we have and all of the time that we have. Give everything to those who have talent and hope and need, but this sickness in opening the doors and the purses to everyone is insanity, and it must stop. We are destroying the very thing we claim to love.

©2013 by James Grissom
From the forthcoming book Artistic Suicide


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