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‘Tis the season of student showcases and the performance spaces in Manhattan’s midtown westside must be raking it in.  From mid-March through May, every Monday and  Tuesday offers not one but several (often at similar times) showcases of conservatories, college and university programs where agents, casting directors, industry professionals at large can sample the wares of this year’s crop of graduating acting students.  

As an agent watching the multitude of scenes, monologues and songs displayed in these showcases, I face the challenge of selecting the actors I wish to interview and perhaps represent.  The presentations themselves range from super slick, highly rehearsed, to earnest and primitive.  The talent is evident although sometimes misplaced as far as type is concerned. (I’m a bass baritone trapped in a tenor’s body.)  Will I choose diamonds in the rough or polished rubies?  Am I looking for specific categories (ingenue, juvenile) or multi-ethnic actors?  Russian or Farsi speakers? I’m sure that’s what the actors want to know. 

To answer these questions, what I can say here is that I’m just looking.  And when I see something that appeals to me then I start thinking about casting feasibility, i.e. whether I think this actor has a chance for a career. Careers are built on auditons, bookings and experience.  Presumably the training gained at these conservatories and college programs prepares the student actor for professional life.  Presumably.  Afterall acting is an art, a craft, and the technique gained serves the actor in audition preparation and job performance.  They will know how to break down a script and prepare an audition and how to keep a performance fresh 8 shows a week.  Or will they?  These are the intangibles that no showcase can tell an agent.  So the selection process becomes a gamble of sorts.  I’ll choose the actors that appeal to my aesthetic, who I think I can “sell” to casting directors, who will beat the competition and book jobs, stay positive in this business of rejection and be patient for their luck.  Time will tell how it all plays out.  

In the midst of all this watching, selecting, and interviewing, I began to muse about the old nature versus nurture debate in terms of acting.  This has to do with genetics versus environment.  There have been studies of twins separated at birth which explore how elements of environment affect the development of native abilities.  Nature refers to genes; nurture to environment. Pertaining to acting, the debate plays out in the following questions.  Is there a talent gene?  Can you train a great actor?  Does a great actor need training?

This brings to mind the phrase funny lady Mariah penned in the letter to Malvolio, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” We all know how reading this sent the old buffoon into apoplexies of delight appealing to his overblown sense of self-importance.  However, when extracted from the context of Shakespeare’s play, we can use it to illustrate nature versus nurture in acting.

We all know those actors who just have “it.”  They are naturals and don’t seem to require any training.  They step on a stage, or in front of a camera and it all flows without any kind of artifice.  Those would be the ones “born great.”  In sports they are the kids who outshine from an early age in athletic prowess.  One tennis coach said he sees greatness in the early vision of his protegees, i.e. how well they see the ball.

With respect to “achieving greatness,” those are the actors that work hard.  They train hard, they network hard, they go about the business of building a career with steady perseverance, continually improving themselves to create their opportunities.  The greatness they achieve is relative to what they start with and what they are able to build with their portion of talent.  A recent sports article on the nature versus nurture debate compared the two tennis players Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, discussing how the former was less gifted naturally than the latter and used a strenuous regimen of training to make up for what he lacked.  He literally trained himself into a champion.  Lendl’s training is the equivalent to all the workshops, seminars, gym memberships and training methods an actor employs to improve and enhance his instrument.

Having “greatness thrust upon you” could refer to stepping into the lead role on a lucky break.  Didn’t Sutton Foster begin her ascendance by stepping up from a position in the ensemble to the lead in the “Thoroughly Modern Millie’ tour? Or could it point to the media’s penchant for manufacturing “stars” to appease the current taste for celebrity stalking?  I like to think it’s more the former and recognize how luck plays an important part in the trajectory of a career and how experience is the crucial element for longevity which creates the opportunities for greatness.  These are my current musings as I navigate the flood of talent sweeping into New York harbor these days.—Margaret Emory

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