The Bilingual Acting Workshop has dedicated its repertoire to quality drama and comedy since its inception by Amy Werba in 1995, honing some of the finest emerging talents in the acting industry. As its name suggests, the driving ethos behind the company is integrating a diverse selection of multilingual and multicultural content which is engaging, accessible, and inspiring – and unafraid to challenge controversial material. From Rebecca Gilman’s darkly disturbing Glory of Living to the stylistically captivating Medusa, BAW’s provocative line-up of current and past productions reflects a crucial appetite in the field of performance – to first-handedly decipher the deeper reaches of the human psyche, and undergo an immersive process of creativity and technique in representing new insights.
Composition in the Cross-Continental
Ben Fritz’s revealing article on cross-cultural coaching points to some interesting dynamics in the approach to practice. “More and more acting coaches from the U.S. are spending time in cities from Paris to Rome to Moscow to London teaching aspiring European film actors to act more, well, American” Fritz states, observing that during the golden era this relationship was reversed. So why the shift? Is it because European acting industries continue to uphold optimistic perceptions of American culture, even during the aftermath of a recession? Or can the Old World provide a new and thoughtful interpretation of film and theatre which is rising in demand, largely fuelled by the increasing presence of non-Hollywood and independent film companies?
Both arguments carry some weight, with indie film valued at $4.5 billion in North America alone, and the bulk of investment and immigration riding the wave to America. Additionally, as globalization expands its trajectory in the world of multimedia, access to film resources are also improved and the inclusion of a wider range of topics, as well as social, linguistic, and creative influences. But how does this relate to getting down and gritty with heavy material?
The Spirit of the Universal Stage
The very fact that multiculturalism itself is a topical issue while strengthening the core of companies like BAW gives it an immediate edge in both style and content. Acting is one of the most powerful mediums to effectively portray and unravel the complexities – ugly and beautiful – of any range of social situations, yet these portrayals are often restricted in mainstream media. BAW embraces an open environment in which these depictions can find a true voice because of its rich multicultural legacy. And while these paintings may focus the lens on a highly-specific concept – for example race, gender, religion, etc. – the message becomes universal. “Every person – no matter what their background – speaks the same language, the language of the heart,” says Amy Werba, resonating the same sentiment which gives literature, art, and music such powerful appeal.
But this isn’t just about lingering on the past. A good play, film, and masterclass (let us not forget the revelatory process of rehearsal) should open up a dialogue between the audience and actors and establish context between the production and its social role. BAW gives exposure to actors who may not otherwise have taken center stage, and nurtures a strong relationship between players of different backgrounds who can collectively strive towards achieving a sense of being which is fulfilling both professionally and personally. And because each individual weaves their own cultural story, they not only evaluate but educate the world around them through collaborative work. That BAW was the first company to put on a production of Glory of Living in Paris meant that new audiences could absorb their own perspectives on the roles of women living in difficult circumstances, while experiencing the same kind of empathy felt by a North American audience. And perhaps this meant that some left the theatre with a stronger conviction or changed impression about the theme.
The Re-Advent of Style
Collaboration also incorporates various forms of media innovation which is often neglected via mainstream production, so what BAW teaches is a resourceful and diversely-angled approach to the content. While Medusa shifted the focus towards a multi-sensual, imagistic retelling of the tale, other productions – like Christopher Durang’s hilarious Beyond Therapy – provide a simpler setting, letting the discourse do all the work itself, so to speak. Possibly one of the most humorous yet poignant examinations of human psychology, the off-Broadway play explores a society which is obsessed with over-diagnosing. The irony is that the psychiatrists’ own problems overshadow their patients’, and it’s a riveting critique on the business of psychiatry. A parody of America’s self-help and institutional programs which seek to treat disorders by over-medicating, rather than healing, resulting in treatment for treatments gone awry (treating addiction to insomnia medication is one example), it remains one of the many topical subjects BAW has taken under its own wing, helmed by the expertise of director Sei Shiomi in Paris’ Musee D’Orsay: heavy but with a light-hearted character.
As theatre and film continue to forge an increasingly vital role at the social level as well as the creative, BAW remains one of the fundamentally essential schools in collaborative and eclectic production. With a rich tradition of project work with The Living Theatre, Mugwumpin, Elastic Theatre and more, BAW is constantly expanding its artistic scope, while challenging itself to raise the caliber of acting technique. A multicultural voice is the one which sings the clearest, and the one which will produce the most talented and energetic artists of this generation and the next.
by freelance writer Lisa Jarman