Ethics and Actor Training

Mary Luckhurst
Professor of Artistic Research and Creative Practice, VCA, University of Melbourne

The days when an actor’s body was seen as a tabula rasa for a director to inscribe have not yet gone, although most actor trainers would argue that they have, and perceive themselves as more enlightened than their forbears. An actor’s body is the instrument of her craft and trainers and directors can require actions or impose a psychological mapping which goes against the actor’s ethical values. Actors are affected by challenging roles and, increasingly, trainee and established actors are going public with the ways in which they feel directors, in particular, need to implement more ethical practices and allow room for discussion and debriefings.

Actors have raised a range of ethical issues, including the gender and sexual prejudices of directors; the difficulties of being asked to inhabit a violent or very disturbed character; and the ethics of representing a real person. Does an actor have the right to say no? When might an actor feel that an ethical line is being crossed? How does an actor negotiate an ethical position? Currently actor training programs do not incorporate ethics as a study in its own right and tend to stress the virtue of psychological risk while failing to balance this with developing ethical practices and safety measures.

This paper builds on my invention of the term ‘ethical stress’ in relation to acting. I give some examples of ethical challenges documented by actors and the extreme stress they underwent in battling through a situation with which they could not reconcile themselves. I discuss the need for a pedagogy of actor training which encourages actors to consider and develop their ethical practice and suggest ways in which those practices might be encouraged and implemented.