Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!
I created it so that I could share acting tips with you; things I've learned over the years, working on set, teaching classes, coaching actors, auditioning actors, etc.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Smart Actors Get Better

“Teachers open the door. You enter on your own.”
-Chinese Proverb
          There are so many bad teachers out there that the odds of finding a good one to train with, are stacked against you. Acting classes are one of the most scam-filled areas of the entertainment business. 
Literally anyone can call himself or herself an acting teacher, take out an ad, and get students.  Anyone.

Nowadays, I see acting teachers everywhere espousing that they teach “Acting On-Camera”.  Problem is that many of these “teachers” have never really WORKED on camera, or even on set or, in many cases, they've never even trained at all! Where do they get their knowledge? (Or their nerve for that matter!) 

I remember one guy who worked as an extra on a TV show that I was the acting coach for.  He worked three days and got union vouchers for each day (someone did him a "favor") and he got his SAG card. Three weeks later he took out an ad proclaiming he taught "on-camera acting technique".  
And. He. Got. Students!  
Don't be a sucker. Really check out any teacher you are considering training with.

  Your goal should be to find an insightful teacher that doesn’t abuse or direct you but instead, uncovers your walls and helps you to focus so you can break through them; a teacher that tells you where to look but not what to see. Your teacher doesn’t get you jobs or “manage your career”. They are not your agent or your psychiatrist. I would be very wary of teachers who claim to do these things. 

Often these "teachers" offer to do other things to "help you in your career" if you take their classes. Sometimes they offer head shots or career advice.  Sometimes they offer to cast you in a movie or create a "reel" for you.  (Please see my Blog post aboutwhat Reel really is!)  One should wonder why they offer these things. Are you paying to learn or to get (poor-quality) head shots and a (worthless) reel? And if you are paying to learn, what qualifies this person to teach you?


First, I’d want to know the teacher's professional work background. This means projects they were hired to work on, not movies they shot themselves, in their back-yard. You can find their professional work background on IMDB - BUT look closely at their credits.  Are they mostly professional jobs they were hired to work on or are they all short films and "features" that they produced & wrote & directed & did camera/editing/props for? 
Even if they’ve been teaching in college for the last 20 years, they might be very knowledgeable about theory and the history of drama but they might not have the practical knowledge about the industry that you may want. Or, perhaps they only know about “stage acting” and don't have any on-camera knowledge. 

 Second, are their students getting (paid) work and can you ask them about their classes? Will the teacher supply you with references? 

Third, are you allowed to audit a class? Many teachers allow you to watch a class to decide if you like it. Now I have to admit, I don’t allow audits of my classes—ever. In fact, many teachers don’t. But if they do, I would highly recommend auditing a class before you pay your money. 

You may be wondering why a legitimate teacher wouldn’t allow you to sit in and watch a class? At my studios, new students must sign-up for a minimum of two-months. How can I ask you to commit to two-months without having watched the class? Fair questions. I, like many teachers, don’t allow audits because everyone in the class is taking risks, everyone is “up on the tightrope”. And if people—even just one person—are watching, the atmosphere in class goes from being a safe place where everyone is taking chances and risking together, to a “performance”. You’re not all in the same boat. Someone is watching. You become self-conscious. Constricted. Tense. This hurts the whole class. So, I simply offer a money-back guarantee for the first class. If the person doesn’t like their first class they get their money back, no charge and no questions asked. But, when they are trying the class out, they are a student. They do all the exercises with everyone, get up on the same tightrope—and risk falling. (And incidentally, they get a much better idea of what the class is like than would someone that was just watching).

Fourth, does the teacher require you to do something that crosses any moral boundaries you may have?  I know of one teacher in L.A. that has worked with many recognizable actors and even wrote a fairly popular book on acting.  As a part of his training he asks the actor (more often the actress) to sit on stage and "explore and express their sensuality". Yes, this means what you think it couldn't possibly mean. In front of the entire class.  And to succeed in his class, you have to "succeed" in this exercise. I had two students of mine, that moved to L.A., call me in tears to ask if I thought they should continue in his class (I said no and gave them a list of reputable teachers in L.A.). But the thing is, they were not stupid girls.  One had a masters degree in theatre. Yet, they still considered staying in the class! 

Bottom line is, do a little digging on the teacher. Check out IMDB for film and TV work experience (keep in mind that  the word "Uncredited" next to an IMDB credit means they were most likely an Extra). You can check university records, check with other actors, and (shameless self-promotion alert) read books that the teachers have written to see if you agree with what they teach. But the most important litmus test will be; are you really learning from themevery class. If you are, then stick with them!

 You see, I don’t believe, as some do, that you should train with a lot of different teachers. You end up leaving one teacher as soon as you feel a little stagnant, as though you’ve reached a wall. Then you start all over with another teacher and take several months to reach that same wall – and the process repeats. You never get past that wall. 

About "Walls"
I tell my students that Walls are the boundaries of your "Comfort Zone". To expand your comfort zone (and get better) you must break through these walls.

The way to break through a wall is to lower your shoulder, focus, re-double your efforts and keep pushing ahead. I had a client we’ll call “June”, who got some acting work and boasted that she had studied acting with 12 different teachers. Her resume had over half a page of “Training” listed. After watching her do a scene in class, I told her she was a very good technician but lacked heart. At first, she was mortified. But upon discussing her work more, she admitted that, although she appeared to be devastated in the scene, she actually felt almost nothing. In other words she “showed us” devastated but didn’t really feel that way inside. (Be wary of teachers that want to teach you how to "show emotions"). I gave her some exercises to do and told her to bring the scene back in a few weeks. 

 A few weeks passed and she came to me after class one day and said she was frustrated and and confused and needed to take some time off. I asked why and she said she had been working on the scene at home and it felt like she wasn’t getting it and it was driving her crazy. I asked how long she had been feeling this frustration and she said “about a week”. I asked if she had felt this frustration before and she said she had in other classes. (In fact, this was what she felt just before she left each of her twelve acting teachers.) 

I told her that I would not allow her to take time off! She laughed and I explained that this was her underlying problem. Every time she felt stagnant or frustrated, she changed teachers and started the process all over again. I told her the only way she would succeed as an actor would be for her to stay in class, focus on this scene, and stick with it no matter what. I also told her it would most likely take another two to three weeks of work and then I was confident she would break through this wall. And that’s exactly what she did. When she put that scene up again it was truly remarkable. She finished the scene and sat there, on stage, sobbing. When she finally stopped crying she continued to shake but she said she had never felt anything like that before in her life. She had become so good at indicating the emotion—such a good technician—that she was able to get by (and get some day-player jobs) by just doing that. She told me later that that had been the most thrilling moment in her life as an actress. She's gone on to book quite a few co-star roles and two series-regular jobs.
I’ve found that when an actor feels the most stagnant, it typically takes about two to four weeks before they have a breakthrough. It’s like clockwork. This is the process. And once you have that breakthrough you feel great and you love acting – you finally “get it”! But be warned—down the road there will be another wall (and another after that). It never stops as long as you continue to grow as an actor.

The thing to keep in mind is this: Walls are actually good things. If you weren’t learning, improving, and having these breakthroughs, you would never have reached this wall that you’re at now! 

Your entire career/life as an actor should be spent reaching new barriers and breaking through them.

So find the teacher that really helps you get better and then, 
as Shakespeare wrote, “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”.

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