TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine has interviewed many actors, directors, and producers over the years. Each time we have always asked how they received their start in their respective careers. Education has always been our focal point in giving our student readers a foothold towards success to achieve their dreams.
With that in mind we wanted to explore the beginnings of an actors career, and dwell on the education that they would need. Professor Ken Elston of George Mason University, located in Northern Virginia, excels in teaching students the fine art of acting and helps them hone their careers and thus realize their dreams. Ken, tell us about your own early education in this field and where you studied.
KE- I was lucky enough to have exposure to the arts early in my life. Besides a strong high school experience in theater and a family who scheduled weekends around theater and art, I began working in professional summer stock while still in middle school. I was a double major (Political Science and Theater) as an undergraduate at Temple University, a state school that gave me a scholarship support to study what I valued. Then before attending graduate school, at Ohio State, I worked in a “company system”, as an actor in repertory theater, which is something that hardly exists in the profession anymore. In many ways, that is the problem that educational theater has to solve: How do we provide experiences for our students that access the kind of journeyman learning previously available after graduation?
TAEM- How important was this education for you ?
KE- Excellence in available, public education and the impact of special, individual teachers made all the difference in the world to me. I have a tremendously high value for education and the role of the arts in it.
TAEM- What feelings of elation and accomplishments did you feel for your first college performance ?
KE- You know, I look back at them now, and I think, my goodness, I was an awful actor, mostly because I was playing characters who were far to old for me to pull off. But, at the time, school productions were a place of learning, as well as a place of great joy and society. Having the opportunity to risk, and potentially fail, was incredibly important to my growth as an actor (and a director) and working with fellow students, faculty, and guest artists gave me great reward and, what was your word, elation.
TAEM- You also trained with Marcel Marceau to hone your style and have specialized in movement for stage. What importance do you give this facet of theater, and who else have you trained with ?
KE- Working with Marcel Marceau was one of the great educational opportunities of my life. Not only did I gain a great deal of technical knowledge from him, he modeled a style of teaching that I try and emulate. He had great respect for students and came to the studio with the assumption that we were all present to make art and grow our aesthetic sense. His ability to make the invisible visible, and his appreciation for the world of expression that begins with the crafting the physical response to an idea, was of tremendous influence. Besides a group of incredible teachers at Temple, the University of Missouri- Kansas City, and the Ohio State University, I worked with Jacques Lecoq, Peter Hoff, and several talented masters of stage combat. It is no surprise that I found my way into theater education as a movement specialist. I approach performance and directing from an active, physical perspective first.
TAEM- You, yourself, have earned many credits with stage, screen, and television appearances. Please tell us about this aspect of your life.
KE- I have lived and worked in London, New York, Seattle, Florida, and, of course, the places I have studied. Now I am in Northern Virginia, and, besides the work I do advancing the growth of Theater at George Mason University, I continue to act, direct, and coach performance in all media. I believe in remaining an active artist. It informs my teaching. My mother likes to tell friends that I worked with Woody Allen and appeared in movies and on television, including the first episode of The Sopranos, but I think the work I have done across the board, including producing and writing, has shaped me as a teaching artist.
TAEM- You are also the director for Footsteps in Time. Please tell our student readers about this and what it is dedicated to.
KE- Footsteps in Time is a not-for-profit theater company that I helped launch in 2005. It has a mission to advance history education and promote deeper understanding of contemporary America through an examination of history through theatre, film, and the arts. As a company, we have produced several history based shows.
TAEM- What performances has this entity performed and where were they seen ?
KE- Some are more traditional theater productions, like the Civil War play, The Gray Ghost, which ran for three summers in an amphitheater (the Mary Louis Jackson Amphitheater on NOVA’s Manassas campus) just off the Manassas National Battlefield Park. We have also done several readings of history-based works in that amphitheater and at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. Others are smaller projects based in the Virginia school’s history curriculum. These smaller shows have been performed in venues from schools, to museums, to historic sites, and two have been made into short films. In 2011 we teamed with the National Park Service, the City of Manassas, and Prince William County to produce the National Jubilee of Peace. This unique show celebrated the centennial of the first Jubilee of Peace, and it became a historic event in its own right. I wrote and directed that project. It was the subject of an exhibit at the Manassas Museum, and it was so gratifying to see an exhibit dedicated to the creative development of a theatrical work.
TAEM- You have also written a number of stage plays dedicated to the preservation of history. Describe these and the variety of actors who performed in them.
KE- I have written several for Footsteps In Time. Besides the Jubilee of Peace, I wrote The Gray Ghost and a play called Civil War Voices. These are all plays with music, and productions have included professional, community, and student players. That combination works and speaks to the power of theater in a community and helps to connect Theatre at Mason to the region. I have also written several one-person shows that illuminate one character or aspect of history. For instance I wrote a piece about Clara Barton for the Red Cross, and I wrote an adaptation of a book for the Friends of Historic Brentsville. That play has been performed all over the region by several professional actors. Prior to these, I wrote a few plays for younger audiences, and these toured with companies in Illinois and in New York.
TAEM- You’ve also conducted a number of workshops on realism at Nanking University in China. Please tell us about them and your experiences there.
KE- I was in China for just over a month. It was a wonderful experience. The students at Nanjing were exceptional, and they were really hungry for the exposure to “conservatory” actor training. In China, the conservatory programs train actors and the academic programs, like at Nanjing, train academics and playwrights. My sharing of Stanislavski’s work, as I understand it from my graduate studies and collaborations with Dr. Rex McGraw, was something these students never get exposed to. This study with me was a voluntary experience, and classes were evenings and weekends in addition to everything else they were doing. I had 98 students and they all stuck with it. We were able to get far enough that I directed Chekhov scenes. The students were fascinated that I was able to direct them, while they spoke the play in Chinese. Good acting is good acting, and I knew the plays well enough to guide them in honing their performance skills. During that trip I also visited the Beijing Film Academy and the Beijing and National Conservatories of Theater in the capitol. It is my hope that we will have further collaboration with these institutions. We have several efforts going that are intended to make Theater at Mason central to an international exchange of theater, and I was delighted to have this opportunity.
TAEM- We understand that you also conduct on-line courses for high schools and universities. Please shed some light on this program.
KE- Well, I mentioned my belief that linking professional, community and academic populations is a powerful thing. We have engaged the great actor, Stacy Keach, to teach performance for stage and screen at Mason. To make it possible for him, we are utilizing technology in order that Professor Keach might teach from any location (L.A., New York, Nebraska, Poland, and Texas, thus far). The class has succeeded brilliantly, and we are working with other professionals to join us via technology. The high profile arrangement has given us the opportunity to make this class, and the work being conducted with our students, available in person and via the web, so that many others can benefit. Theater at Mason is working with many partners to explore the value of arts education, especially as it relates to science, technology, engineering, and math. Sharing this with our community, especially the schools, is a high priority for me.
TAEM- We have also learned that you are a personal coach for business people, politicians, and others. What do you teach them and tell us about the progress that they have gained.
KE- I have had real success with business leaders and teams teaching creative leadership and collaboration. I have worked with politicians and athletes to improve presentation to live audience and camera. Because of my background in movement for the actor, I am able to relate techniques that allow the speaker to make ideas visible and communicate deeper meaning visually.
TAEM- The department that you chair has gained help from well known people that have joined the campus, as well as other departments that have worked along side of you for many performances by your students. Please shed some light on these valuable resources.
KE- This year the Department of Theater at Mason becomes the School of Theater. We are so pleased by this development, and it is the result of efforts and collaboration across the profession and the university. We have graduate students through the Masters of Individualized Studies (MAIS) at Mason, as well as those pursuing a graduate certificate in Theater Education. We built Theater Ed studies in collaboration with the College of Education and Human Development. We also offer an accelerated BA/MA between Theater and Arts Management. The Schools of Music and Theater already collaborate to produce musical theater, and, starting in fall 2013, we will be able to offer certification in musical theater. Our BFA in Stage and Screen has concentrations is Performance, Design and Technology, and Screenwriting and Dramaturgy, and the BFA includes interdisciplinary options in Art, Film Studies, and Foreign Cinema. We offer incredible opportunity, but our primary strength remains providing a home for student talent to develop in many areas as these talented young people ready themselves for an exciting and changing marketplace. The engagement of top, A-list professionals and regional industry folks as teachers, who work alongside one of the great working faculties in theater in the USA, makes Mason a pretty exciting place. Thanks for asking.
TAEM- Ken, you are an inspiration to all those who have sought you out to shape their careers. We want to thank you for your time in our interview and ask you to share it with your students and colleagues. George mason University has been a great source of educational information, and we hope to continue to tap into the many experts there, so that our readership can learn of its many opportunities for their chosen careers.