Finding the right class
Acting classes with too many people
It’s always exciting to visit a class that is brimming with people. It creates a certain electricity. It gives actors confidence that they’ve probably stumbled into the right class. After all, if the class wasn’t effective why would there be so many people present? While this may be true, it’s not necessarily a great situation to get into. Acting is a doing sport. You need to practice it on a regular basis. If you can’t get on your feet and rehearse a scene with your teacher at least once a week, you might want to look for another class. Arguments are made for the fact that you learn a lot by watching. This is true. But even in the class where you get up once a week, you will still spend the remainder of that class watching other people work.
When classes become very successful actors clamor to get in. Since the teacher is only one person and since this one person is in business, he or she is going to want to make the best living they can. Which can sometimes mean over-filled classes. It’s completely understandable, but if you want to get the most out of an acting class you’re going to need to get on your feet as often as possible. A word to the wise: if you have a choice between a very popular class with too many people and a very good class that is smaller and allows you more time on your feet, pick the latter.
Solid time on your feet with a good coach will be worth much more then spending most of your time on the bench in a popular class. Don’t waste your time joining a trendy class just because someone told you it will look good on your resume. That’s baloney. I’ve auditioned over 10,000 actors in my career and all I ever focused on was their ability when they auditioned. That’s all that matters. The rest of it is just ink on a resume. The ink never gets you the job, your ability does. Practice, practice, practice as often as possible.
If it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense. Don’t be intimidated.
One of the biggest commodities sold in most acting classes today is confusion. If you can keep actors confused, in a never ending maze, yet still tempt them with the dream of a big career waiting at the end like a block of cheese, you can have students for life. It’s like being sold a drug that creates a symptom, and then making you believe the only way to cure that symptom is to continue taking the drug.
Any teacher can master the art of confusion. Actors sit in confusing classes, feeling uncomfortable, and wondering why they can’t quite get it. They see a recognizable actor in the class and figure, if that person is there then it must be a good class. Or the instructor will talk about the old days when he once had a beer with Marlon Brando and how Marlon slapped him on the back and told him he was a good egg and he really knew his onions. So the actor stays, even though he feels uncomfortable with the silly exercises and never quite understands the acting jargon. He stays because he feels intimidated.
The biggest problem I have with these old or overwrought techniques is that the confusion they create leads to insecurity and insecurity is systemic. Being insecure effects every aspect of the actor’s career, from meetings with potential agents, to auditions, to just having a happy and sane life. Folks, we’re ultimately discussing and dissecting real life, something you should be very familiar with. It’s not quantum physics. If it’s not crystal-clear and if it doesn’t make perfect sense, flee.
Don’t be intimidated. Trust your instincts. You’re smarter than you think.
The actors should improve after receiving help from the teacher
You sit in an acting class having just watched a scene performed. You listen to the teacher give notes on the scene. The teacher makes a lot of sense. Certain, often heard platitudes are used. Undeniable wisdom is offered. The teacher makes a very good case for what is wrong with the scene. The teacher also makes a very good case for what the scene needs. You find yourself agreeing with the teacher’s criticism and notes. You look around the room and see lots of other heads nodding in agreement.
The same actors do the scene again but there is no real difference in their work. The problems remain and no improvement is made. The first thing you will think is, “I guess those actors don’t have the ability to understand and implement what the teacher was saying.” I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. If the actors don’t improve after the teacher’s notes, why are they in the class? Are they there just to have their flaws pointed out to a group of people?
Therein lies the difference between a teacher and a lecturer. A good lecturer is someone who can impart clear and useful knowledge. A teacher is someone who not only imparts clear and useful knowledge but also impacts change. A good teacher will not only make good sense with their notes but will also have the ability to connect with their students in a way that will facilitate positive change in their work. The best teachers are able to get immediate improvement from their actors. That’s what you’re looking for. Find one of them.
You shouldn’t have to rehearse with your scene partner outside of class
I think rehearsing with your partner outside of class is a bad idea. I’m not talking about running lines with someone. I’m talking about full blown rehearsing, blocking, props, etc. I can give you plenty of reasons why I feel this way. Number one is that you are never given a similar opportunity in a working environment. Professionals don’t get together to work on scenes on their own. It’s all done, on stage, on set, in front of the director and crew.
Okay, but what would it hurt if you did it anyway?
The actors I’ve worked with who come from a background of rehearsing on their own with scene partners are frequently lost when they get up in front of people and try to rehearse a scene for the first time, which is exactly what you’ll be doing every time you book a job. You will have made the mistake of having gotten used to working your stuff out and getting comfortable with your scene partner before ever coming to the set. This is a false security you do not want to nurture.
Sets aren’t always quiet focused laboratories, where concentration can be found in abundance. There are all sorts of distractions. You often meet the star of the show right before you run the scene. As you’re running the scene with the star you just met, there is generally a person down on the ground placing colored bits of tape corresponding to where you seem to stop in the scene. These bits of tape are used as focal length marks so they can keep you in focus when they shoot the scene. In your periphery you may notice a lot of crew silently milling about, not out of disrespect, they just have to get ready for this scene or the next.
TV and movie sets are always in a battle with the clock. It can all be more than a little distracting and you really can’t afford to be distracted. You need to get used to the way it’s going to be. Daniel Day Lewis is not going to invite you to his house to run the scene a bunch of times and then drink wine with you while you the two of you cook pasta and laugh the night away. He’ll just show up on set looking like Lincoln, you’ll address him as Mr. President, and then get on with it. Rehearsing alone with your scene partner is a lousy habit. It won’t happen in a professional circumstance. Avoid it whenever possible.
Yeah, but still, what would it hurt if you did it anyway?
The worst part of working without a director is the need for the actors to watch themselves. If there is no one to assess the situation for you, you will need to do it yourself. You’ll have to pay attention to your behavior in a way that you wouldn’t in life. You’ll end up subtly directing each other and yourself. This is not genuine human behavior. We are certainly conscious of most of our behavior in life, but two actors in the scene by themselves will have to be extra vigilant. This will necessitate concerning yourself with details a real person would never concern himself with. This will become a bad habit and will lead to the actor always bringing a little bit of false behavior into his work. You want to be in an environment that’ll allow you to most honestly pursue the needs of your character. Always rehearsing in front of a teacher or director can solve this problem.
(Classroom acting vs. real life acting)
Avoid classes with too many “exercises”
Most acting methods want to have their actors first stew in a pot of analytical scene analysis. Actors are told they need to breakdown every line, every idea, every nuance, and every possible double meaning in the text. They are told to do relaxation exercises, which implies they are tense. They are told to work harder on their script breakdown, which implies they are probably missing something. They’re told to focus on their breathing, which implies they are breathing incorrectly. These kinds of statements only succeed in knocking the actor back on his heels and off-balance. What the actor first thought he understood and had a handle on is suddenly out of reach. Now, he’s thinking too much, he’s in his head, and he’s questioning his instincts.
It’s not the busywork of script analysis that I object to, it’s the adverse, detrimental effect of training actors to deal with their lines in an unnatural manner. Classes will make the argument that these exercises give the actor a good foundation. A good foundation for what? Something to stack more unnecessary exercises on? If a school wants actors to pretend like they’re walking around inside a whales womb, fine. I have no problem with that. Playing make-believe can be fun. However, I don’t ask adult actors to engage in these types of theater exercises. People often say, “Theatre exercises help get people out of their shell.” What shell? The people who show up for my classes are there to become working actors. These types of people tend to be natural storytellers and extroverts. These people weren’t brought up in caves and raised by wolves. People looking for acting classes generally don’t wander in from foreign prisons where they spent the last 10 years in solitary confinement.
Try to find the class that focuses on the matter at hand and the matter at hand is always the scene. Scene work should be approached the same way we approach similar scenes in real life. How do you prepare for a scene in real life? You probably go over the facts, you decide why you are right, why the other person is wrong, you decide how you want the argument end up, but do you ever do exercises to get ready for them? Do you do a relaxation exercise? Do you do tongue twisters? Yet every time you enter into one of these very important scenes in life does the fact that you didn’t engage in any of those exercises ever hold you back? That’s how life works. That’s how scene study should be conducted. The rest of it is overused, antiquated malarkey.
Avoid it whenever possible.
(Questioning common ideas)
You should leave class feeling inspired and motivated, not humbled and beat
I don’t really have any issues with tough, demanding teachers. It is an incredibly tough and competitive business, so there’s nothing wrong with a teacher who reflects that toughness. However, at the end of it all, a student should walk out of a class feeling inspired, not beaten. Acting teachers will argue that because it is such a tough and demanding business they shouldn’t coddle their students. I would agree, but I don’t think that means they should set out to break their students spirits and create insecurity. Being tough is the easiest thing an acting teacher can do. They can justify their behavior with some of the aforementioned facts. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s generally a lazy way out of a lesson; blame the inability for the student to improve on the student. Criticize their work and chastise them for not be “committed” enough.
Anyone will tell you, building something is harder than tearing it down. The student will encounter enough hard knocks in real life, the classroom should be a safe place, an oasis of patience and understanding. A place where a good student can work hard and not be criticized as much as enlightened and inspired. Throughout history, the best teachers in any field were remembered for being able to do those two things. They enlightened and inspired. Effective teachers instill confidence. Artists tap into their true potential when they are confident.
There was a study done amongst highly successful people and the one constant they found in all of them wasn’t their socioeconomic background or the schools they attended, it was simply that when they were young, their parents instilled confidence in them. A good acting class should ultimately instill confidence, enlighten and inspire you.
The entertainment industry will kick your ass and try and steal your confidence.
You shouldn’t need to pay an acting coach for that.
(The Real Life Actor on Amazon)