Saturday, July 7, 2012

"Good" Acting In Class?

How do you judge whether or not a classroom is any good for you?

Many people, when surveying classes, view them from the perspective of "good acting".  So, if the actors "suck", then it's a bad class.  If they're "good", then that's where you want to be, right?

There's only one major issue with this logic:  CLASSROOM WORK AND GOOD ACTING HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH ONE ANOTHER

Some personal alarms just went off, I imagine.  And I understand.  It's difficult to reserve that judgment.  But would you expect to find Einstein in a doctorate program?  Would you expect a mechanic to show you how fast his Maserati can go, while it's still in the shop?  Would you expect to enjoy beautiful arias at a singing lesson?  No, right?  Then why would you expect to find anything other than actors problem-solving in a classroom?

The classroom is a special environment.  It's a medium for growth.  In this cut-throat business, it's the only place you can fail.  Beyond that, if you aren't failing, you're not getting the most out of your classroom environment.  You come to a classroom to build new tools and habits that will help you become a stronger actor. 

If you think of building a craft like learning to juggle oranges, then just consider that the more oranges you add, the more orange juice you're going to get.  If you remain at two or three oranges, then your ego may love you for it, but you won't be growing in your art.  The classroom is the place where we can push ourselves beyond our natural habits and levels of comfort. 

In the case that you don't want to push yourself to your limits, don't join an acting class.  If you are satisfied with your current level of training, then all an acting class is going to do is to frustrate you.  Maybe what you need is to get yourself involved with a theater company or an ongoing workshop.  Many actors that join acting classes are just looking for an artistic home.  If you're happy with your work, then try your hand at an audition for The Actors Studio or Ensemble Studio Theatre - or other newer workshops.  Try to attach yourself to a company of actors.  Either way, if you fit into this group, I'd stop reading this post...because from here down, this is for the rest of us that have things we'd like to improve in our work.

So, for those of you still with me:  What should you look for in an acting class?  

1.)  It needs to be a safe environment.  YOU need to feel safe in it.  If you don't, find a new class.  But really listen to yourself.  Often times, investigative work can be so personal that you may feel attacked.  But that's not the teacher's doing.  That's you.  When in doubt, always bring up your questions and concerns with your teacher, and you'll be able to judge by the response whether or not this is a good environment for you.

2.)  You need to want to learn from the teacher.  That extends to both the instructor and the work that teacher is teaching.  Just because the teacher is at The (fill in the blank) Institute, it does not make him knowledgeable.  If there doesn't seem to be agreement between your teacher and what you've read about regarding this way of working, always ask about it.  Maybe YOU just don't understand how the ideas are connected.  If not, find someone that IS teaching the work you want to learn.  They are out there.  I promise.

3.)  Rather than looking for actors to impress you, make sure that you can see the actors growing - or being led in that direction.  So, really listen to the teacher's criticisms and see if you agree.  If not, then maybe it's not the class for you.  If the teacher has no comments, then it might not be a very good environment for growth.  BUT you still may want to ask why that teacher didn't offer any criticism.  Maybe that teacher is tired of giving the same note, didn't want to waste class time on it, and is planning to talk with the student individually.  Lee Strasberg would tell his instructors "never to work harder than the student is working - it'll only frustrate the student."  Also, make sure that the students are working in class and treating it like a professional environment by showing up on time and prepared.  They're going to be the people with whom you share your art. 

4.)  Be wary of teachers offering quick fixes.  You're not going to learn anything practical at an intensive.  No teacher is going to help you book jobs.  Maybe a career coach can help with that kind of thing.  But a craft of acting should really go far beyond an audition room.  Will building a craft help you book jobs?  Most likely...but not anytime in the near future.  If you're going to spend the time to join a class that focuses on technique and learn a craft, then it's not something you can do quickly.  It's a life's work.  You're engaging on a mission to personal discovery.  Your aim should be to learn how to get your instrument to do what you want it to do, when you want it to do it.  That's a HUGE undertaking.  Don't expect speedy results. 

5.)  Base your opinions of what to expect on the actors you know work this way in The Marketplace.  So, if you're interested in Lee Strasberg's work, for instance, then try to use people like Dustin Hoffman, Sally Field, and Paul Newman as good examples of artistic success - and please note that they are vastly different actors.  If the teacher has former students you know or can research, do so.  Choose actors that represent the 'finished' product of that work, rather than the people currently learning it.  I'm not meaning to suggest that an actor is ever finished, by the way.  Rather, I am suggesting that there is a point where you may not need an instructor to guide your exercise work.  But we all need a coach.  Even Strasberg employed my teacher, David Gideon, to be his coach when preparing for all his film work after The Godfather Part II.  If The Maestro still needed an outside eye at his age and skill level, so do we all.

6.)  You can't learn acting one-on-one.  So, give up the idea of private coaching right now - unless it's for a specific role or audition.  Otherwise, it's a waste of your time and energy.

All in all, embrace the classroom.  It's the only place you don't have to be good.  All you need to do is to learn.

Thoughts?  Stories?  Talk to me.  :O)


  1. I love the final thought - "the only place you don't have to be good"!!

    That's certainly true, and it's a good reminder that a class should be about trying to find your weaknesses and habits and working through them, rather than be about producing a finished product.

    It's also a reminder that it's hard to audit a class and judge from just one session whether or not the students are learning. You might see some "terrible" acting in a class, but unless you know the student yourself, you don't know what they might be working through that day, and you don't know how far they may have come to get to that "terrible" stage.

    I guess if ALL the students seem to be having a bad day, that might trigger alarm bells...! :-)

  2. I love this step by step guide for finding a class. Very helpful!

  3. I just read this and I recommend it to all actors who have wondered how to judge whether an acting class is right for you. - MA

  4. I think it's important for Actors to embrace a Process over Product attitude in general. Of course the product is important when it comes to a job but the day to day work is important for every aspect of being an actor. This certainly rings true in an acting class. I think one thing in general to keep in mind is if you take the Process over Product way of thinking in to a class and life, it also eliminates the habit/need/desire to beat yourself for not "doing it right" or doing it like last time.


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