Arts education is a tricky business. In fact, there are those who will assert that training in the arts—especially college-level training—is pointless, because “art” cannot be taught. I tend to agree with this point of view, but only up to a point.
Generally speaking, I think David Mamet was correct when he said, specifically of acting (and I am paraphrasing), that nearly anybody can, through instruction, improve their performance abilities. A vastly smaller number of people can improve their abilities a great deal. And a very rare few seem to have been born with prodigious capabilities, and require no additional training, apart from their own self-directed innovation. Mamet’s breakdown pretty much holds water across the spectrum of the creative arts.
Offering instruction in the arts requires the instructor to quantify aesthetic concepts that actively resist quantification. A budding painter can be taught color theory; an actor can be shown how to break down a script; a dancer can be offered exercises which expand body knowledge; a musician can practice scales; and so on. At the same time, though, it doesn’t seem possible to impart upon anyone that rare something, by which the commonplace is transformed into the sublime.
I believe fully that a teacher can provide students with, not only the nuts and bolts of a particular form of expression, but also with inspiration. General, wide-ranging inspiration, that allows a student to look both inward and outward, and to turn the will-to-create we all share in a direction that might bear the tastiest fruit.
Yes, I know. That sounds about as arty-farty as it is possible to sound; arty, farty, fluffy, soppy and silly. But it has the benefit of being true. At least as far as I am concerned.
In 1984 I arrived at the (now sadly defunct) College of Santa Fe. I went there because I wanted to be, and thought I was, an actor. Desire, however, that tricksy harlot, did not, and would never, make my shortcomings any taller, and so I turned to stage management, a job for which I was much better suited, at the time, but which also only infrequently allows one to manifest original creative expression.
During my first semester at CSF, a time spent in a baffled funk over why I won roles in everything at my high school, and absolutely nothing now, I met and soon entered into the tutelage of an extraordinary woman named Mary Sue Jones.
In the world of regional theatre, Mary Sue was, if not a legend, then at the very least a known and respected grandee. As an award-winning actress, director, scenic designer and painter, she moved in all theatrical circles. And as a person, she was, quite literally, one of a kind. Over my years at CSF, I was instructed by Mary Sue in acting classes, directed by her in Joe Orton’s Loot, stage managed four of her productions, and routinely popped by her office whenever I felt blue, or confused, or pissed off about one thing or another. At the end of each visit I came away with a new, or more wholly apprehended, perspective.
Being directed by Mary Sue, as can be attested to by many of my fellow undergraduates and more than a few professionals I’ve spoken with, was an often exasperating experience. The quantified elements of the unquantifiable I mentioned above as the foundation of arts instruction? Mary Sue not only threw them out the window, but watched in fascination as they were flattened by a sewage hauler. She spoke in her own distinctive vernacular, stopping actors mid-monologue to suggest that they play the scene more like a “Matisse painting,” or to be more “velvet,” or, one of my favorites, that a character was like a piece of “lime-green Velcro.” She once told me, after watching my performance in a student production, that I had successfully unlocked my “subconscious patriarch.” Mary Sue spoke the language of art in its most ostentatiously encompassing manner.
Most actors aren’t accustomed to being spoken to in such terms. Modern acting education revolves around some specific or combinatorial version of Stanislavski (and his “method”), along with some Hagen, Meisner, Adler and/or Strasberg thrown in, and as such, actors are used to hearing words like “motivation,” and “inner monologue,” and “staying in the moment,” and “active listening.” I don’t think these things interested Mary Sue very much. She was always chasing the essence of a character, a scene, an entire script, as she saw it, and since she had such wide artistic experience and abilities, she spoke in the language of many disciplines at once, with her every utterance intended to prompt in an actor a glimpse of that essence. Or, putting it in slightly different terms, she was always hoping to trigger a jolt of inspiration.
Watching Mary Sue work, from my position beside her as her stage manager, and those long talks in her office over coffee and ten thousand cigarettes, was, collectively, one of the most intense, informative, educational, thoughtful, weird, confusing, hilarious and important times of my life.
Just before graduating I stopped by her office. A few days earlier, I had given her a stack of thematically connected monologues I’d written, and asked if she might give them a glance and tell me her opinion. I didn’t talk about writing much in those days, because I was supposed to leave New Mexico and start stage managing, but I had ideas ricocheting around inside my rarely-organized skull, and knew of no other way of articulating them apart from words.
Mary Sue held my hand-written pages in her hand, and smiled her tiny amused smile. She told me that my prose was “painterly,” that it showed “promising maturity,” that it made her think of Alan Bennett (of whom I was completely ignorant), and of her wish that I would stop using so many “dirty words.” Did she think I should consider another round of education in a creative writing program? No, she did not. “Writers write,” she said, and I had a decent “block of wood,” which time and practice would “shape into something elegant.”
She concluded by saying that if I felt I needed help shaping my block of wood, I might consider “sitting at the feet of a philosopher.”
I told her I already was.
Mary Sue laughed her wheezy, smoky laugh, her eyes twinkling with happy mischief. She gave me a cigarette, and we talked about nothing much for a little while before I had to depart.
That was the last time I saw her. She died in 1992.
But, as the saying goes, she is with me still. Since those days in Santa Fe, my creative life has unfolded within the inspiring light of Mary Sue Jones.