Another good show squandered
Jane Clifton, Dominion Post, Tuesday 23 May 06

The stupidity of it is gobsmacking: TV2 commissions an intelligent, engrossing reality series which would hook in children and parents in mega numbers, and screens it on a Saturday afternoon at 3.30 where it will be really difficult for most viewers to catch.

The relegation of Tough Act, which follows students at the New Zealand Drama School, Toi Whakaari, doesn't even make commercial sense.

Here at last is a show of the most vital interest to most children and young teens – for what young person hasn't dreamed of training as an actor? – which their reality-TV-averse parents would also enjoy watching, because it's not schlocky or artificial, and follows a process which is genuinely fascinating: how do you teach people how to act?

How often do you get that demographic in a reality show?

What's best about the programme is that even those who might roll their eyes at the thought of watching acting luvvies training try-hard youngsters with probably unrealistic dreams of stardom will have their prejudices assaulted.

This school is tough. It's like being perpetually subject to the judging panel from NZ Idol, only without the one nice judge.

And it is very personal. Saturday's first episode made it clear that the school's auditioning panel is not looking for earnest, hard-working people who have already trained and learnt bits of Blake and Ibsen to wow them with. They're looking for the inner person. It's not about your work, it's about you. Do you already connect, communicate, command, project?

As the nicest-seeming Toi Whakaari auditioner, Annie Ruth, says in her gentle way that it's nice that many of the prospective students have "a bag of tricks to show us". But that's not what they're interested in.

Acting teacher Miranda Harcourt is more blunt. She says while the school is all about ensemble acting, that doesn't mean it's a lovey-dovey, touchy-feely environment where everyone supports everyone else all the time.

While there is obviously a collegial ethos here, there's a time and a place for it, and that is not necessarily during classes. That the training is physically and emotionally remorseless is coming through loud and clear.

Beneath the bright, cheerful displays of Maoritanga, this is a school for ambitious young people, who need to have enough inner strength to take blunt and even hectoring direction.

This is not a million miles from army-style discipline, only the sergeant major is roaring at you for your lack of authenticity rather than your grubby boots.

It may seem mean, but presumably will stand you in good professional stead when some overpaid ego on stilts is having a tantie at you in the real world.

Some of the teachers make David Benson-Pope look a pushover. The movement teacher has the hopefuls hurling themselves, rugby-style, at the chipboard floor, demanding that they make it seem like sand.

"You're not a Barbie girl in a Barbie world!" he harangues one student. Another is gasping "like a chimpanzee that's escaped from a smoking trial". "It's fake!" he tells them.

The directing coach is even scarier.

"You're manufacturing!" he chides ever more desperate students. "How about I be the director, and you be the actor?" he cuttingly suggests to another, who is unable to follow his instruction to slow down and stop jiggling about.

FOR this first episode, and next week's, there's a large element of the traditional reality show competition. Who will get through?

Will it be the bright, funny one from Hawera who works in her father's garage, the reformed alcoholic one from a wretched family background in Mangere, the desperate one from Dunedin who's on his second audition and keeps "blowing it" in his anxiety to make the cut, or the Catholic Sunday School teacher, or the Bollywood band singer?

Surely wanting the thing so much should be qualification enough, but there are only 22 places in the new intake – out of 200 applications, and 48 hopefuls who make the second cut, or callback.

But once that competitive element is over, I'm picking this will still be a terrific watch, because it turns out to be surprisingly fascinating to watch acting classes in progress.

Shamingly for TVNZ, this is only the latest in a long line of cruelly wasted local programmes.

Unlike dancing or sporting training or other things requiring behind-the-scenes graft, acting requires more than just dogged repetition and honing.

Actors need intelligence and imagination as well as athleticism. Most demandingly, they need to leaven it all with restraint and judgment. Already you can see the budding actors fighting against their natural drive to give it their all. As the directing tutor admonishes, "Too big! You don't have to hurry!"

The viewer can't help but wonder, how would I make that chipboard seem like sand?

It's crisply directed and edited, with helpful use of split screens to show action and reaction; the original music is furnished by Barnaby Weir, which is a bit of a coup; and, most winningly, it's an incidental celebration of Newtown, where the school is located.

Shamingly for TVNZ, this is just the latest in a long line of good local programmes wasted in hopeless time slots, and it's almost certainly the highest quality of recent casualties. If only there were a rigorous Toi Whakaari school for turning out intelligent TVNZ programmers.

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