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Tips for Finding the Right Acting Class

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Tips for Finding the Right Acting Class

Picture courtesy of Dan Anderson Flickr

Tips for Finding the Right Acting Class

A short while back I was given my next assignment for IMTLA. It was a tantalizing idea that would make a tantalizing headline:

 “The best acting classes in Los Angeles.”

I pondered how I could possibly choose from the myriad of acting classes/programs in LA. Then I did some research, realizing almost instantaneously that I couldn’t objectively answer this request. Even with the years of investigation that it would take: auditing acting classes, interviewing teachers and students – I felt that the answer would still be painfully subjective.

So instead, I focused in on something I felt might be more in the realm of possibility: recommending five acting classes that I felt I could trust. I sent out questionnaires to acting friends, I audited one of their classes – again, I found an issue in moving forward. Things were still much too complex, at least for an article. On principle, I cannot recommend an acting class that I would not take myself.

After auditing one, and signing up for another very well-regarded one (which I left early because I felt the approach might possibly be harmful to me.) I realized the only approach I could endorse was to explain what I watched out for in selecting an acting class. Ultimately, I arrived at this caveat:

Educate yourself on your education.

There are no shortcuts. You have to take responsibility for the choices you make, how they are right for you personally, and accept that you’ll possibly make some wrong turns. In the end, even though I believe what I believe, I would take my advice with a grain of salt. Don’t take my word for it; go out and see for yourself.

Clearly this wasn’t the sexiest article idea, but it was the only thing I could in good conscience put my name to. If you want some slightly more raw emotional opinionating, please see my LA neighborhoods article.

So here it is:

Tips for Finding the Right Acting Class

First of all, some simplistic market-based economics. Los Angeles has a vast supply of actors, and thusly there is a great demand for acting teachers.

Obvious side note: The entertainment business is a female dog. In conclusion, there is by default a great number of acting teachers who are there for mainly economic reasons. These teachers would never view themselves as failed actors/directors converted into acting teachers but you could really dig into their insecurities by painting them in this (sometimes) unjust light.

Ideally, teaching acting, like any artistic profession, is something of a calling. A great teacher is not a failed anything, they have recognized, or others have recognized along the way that they are gifted at nurturing talent in others. Some are directors, some are actors, some are casting directors, or at least that’s how they got started.

So, how does one select from the vast trove of studios/conservatories? I’m still investigating/pondering this question. Inherently, there is subjectivity in what makes a good acting teacher. Clearly though, there are also some objective success markers for any given studio that is separate from their profitability.

The two common reasons that prospective students choose a certain acting studio are:

1) A friend or colleague highly recommends the studio and tells them how great it’s been for them (Subjective).

Or

2) A studio boasts many success stories; it is well regarded by the industry (Objective(?).

Either way, you probably feel like you’re not moving in totally blind. Let’s examine them however.

Side note: The ability to audit for free is invaluable, and I would strongly resist the urge to join a class without the ability to first do so. Classes that don’t have free audits usually have either great industry reputations or marketing and don’t need the free audit to get people interested. They also may have other reasons, namely that their studios would be overrun with people auditing because of their popularity, or have people pretending to audit who have other intentions of being there. It makes sense. However, I would really do a lot of research on studios like this and possibly even see if you could pay only for a single class and not have to jump in for a month’s worth of classes before being sure it’s the right fit for you.

 

The Recommendation from a Friend.

friend

Obviously there are random people recommending classes to you, but you are also bound to run into someone whose opinion you really value and trust and take their recommendation with a little more pepper and a little less salt. I see nothing wrong with that, but I do think a practice of trust and verify is recommended.

I think it’s really important to talk to this friend/acquaintance and ask them some specific questions about the nature of the class, some of them subjective and some of them more objective. The subjective nature of their transformation is important, but hopefully their responses will be intelligible. I am suspicious of blanket statements that it: “just changed the way I act.” or that they: “just feel so much more present.”

I believe these things are probably true, but I also believe that most acting classes will do that by virtue of weekly practice. What I’d want to know is specifically how the training and its technique has helped them. Do they have better cold-reading skills? Have they found an approach they can bank on? Do they get business-of-acting advice? What have they specifically learned that they can share?

The more objective realities lie in the make-up of the class. Some classes have a tiered system, separating the “experienced” actors from the “beginners.” I only put these in slightly sarcastic quotations because to me acting shouldn’t be like racing.

It shouldn’t make a huge difference where anyone is in their creative process. I’d also make the argument that it can be very helpful to act in a scene with someone who is less experienced. Sure, your scene can be less successful, but the practical experience can also be of tremendous value to you.

After all, in the professional world, you will be expected to act convincingly with models, ex-athletes, and even actors who aren’t very good at acting. Granted, these tiered systems are made so that when you get to the advanced level you are showcased with “better” actors, but I am suspicious that in some cases these actors haven’t simply paid their financial dues.

In any case, this tiered system can be something to be mindful of. You need to find out how long it takes for you to advance to the next level, which teachers teach what levels , what this whole process will be worth to you, and also what it will cost you, both in cents and sense.

There is a value to having “experienced” actors around you, meaning experienced as in working, which makes the question of advancement to this level very pressing. It is one thing to hear reports back on how training has helped in audition situations, it is another to hear reports from actual studio set-experiences and hear of the applicability of various techniques.

Progress should be quantifiable as well. I was recently auditing a class when the teacher asked, “Anything new work-wise?” It was a room of almost thirty. They were usually boisterous when critiquing each-other’s work, but at this moment, not a single one of these LA actors had anything to report.

No successful auditions?
Not a single job landed?
No one on “avail” for a commercial in Guatemala?

This was in a smaller but seemingly well-regarded studio, but I also had the same experience auditing a very well known acting studio, with a teacher who drops the names of his famous clients left and right. When he asked the class about “work-news,” only one person responded that they had a student film. This was a class of over thirty people. I see this as a giant red flag.

To compare, in my class of twelve people and under, nearly every person almost always has something to report. People are booking, or at least nearly booking, or they’re talking about the commercial or guest spot that just aired and how they did or didn’t like their performance. There is quantifiable motion, momentum, and most importantly, feedback.

 

A Studio that Boasts Many Success Stories

bp

In my opinion, it’s less about how this studio has taught Brad Pitt or the latest success stories, and more about the “little people (that’s you and I, right?).”

You will have no real way of knowing whether or not the studio is the reason that celebrity got successful, or if this studio was just a passing point. Sure, some celebrities continue to use these teachers and they shout their praises to the rooftops. It’s obviously working great for them, but will it work just as well for you?

My point is less on the efficacy of these star teachers. I am fully aware that some of them are considered objectively brilliant. My concern is not about the teacher, but rather in how the studio is structured for the new student who has little connections, and perhaps little understanding of what good training looks like.

If the class has a structure that makes it difficult to arrive to the level where this amazing teacher is, and must slog through a year or more of paying high prices and being taught by a mediocre apprentice teacher, all to pay his/her due, I am suspicious. If the structure of the class means that you go to class to hear the teacher dazzle everyone with stories and examples of how deep they are, leaving little time for everyone to work every class, I am suspicious. If the class seems to be populated with a larger number of actors who are not showing tangible progress (i.e. working), I am suspicious.

Clearly this suspicion is not to say that these studios are not right for some people, but only to emphasize that they are most likely not right for all people. There are some very enticing things about studios that allow you to sit in and watch working actors, sometimes even stars perform scenes and you’re able to observe their process. There is also a big advantage to advancing up the ranks of these studios so that you can showcase yourself to agents and casting directors.

One must simply evaluate the cost and asses if this is a good place for you as a creative artist. It might be that you realize it’s not the best creative environment, but it is the best place to advance your career by being seen. I don’t see anything wrong with that on paper.

I do see something wrong with that; however, if the creative environment ends up making you a worse actor and not a better one.

The number one thing every actor needs to do is become a better actor.

Obviously you can’t get anywhere without the business of acting, but I feel that novice actors especially should take a step backwards and examine things with a slightly longer curve.

Becoming a better actor is not something that happens in a flash. If you are an actor who thinks they are fully trained and ready, and what they mostly need is exposure, then it may be that one of these “select” studios is the right choice. If you are an actor who often stops and examines his or her own abilities, then I would caution against jumping the gun of exposure before you are ready to be seen. After all, first impressions are pretty memorable.

 

How Do You Know if You’re Trained?

athlete

I’m not sure if anyone would readily admit that they are fully trained. In the same way that an athlete must keep training to keep their body ready for action, so does an actor with their abilities. It would best serve the actor then to be in an environment where they are getting credible feedback from someone that really knows them. There is a difference however, to use the athletic analogy, between a runner who has a set routine of stretches and drills, and performs well consistently without suffering too many injuries, and one that experiments every month with completely new routines and performs sporadically well, resulting in sprains and tears.

What does the injury/training metaphor mean?

For me, it means being ungrounded. It means falling into existential despair. It means feeling lost. It means constantly re-examining one’s technique instead of trusting what you know works and adjusting small things periodically.

A real technique is only strengthened by use. A false one seems to complicate things the further you go along. There’s always a deeper level. You’re never “there.” You’re always incomplete, unworthy, not enough. You’re always hanging on to the master teacher’s words for another pearl of wisdom. Maybe this one will unlock all these problems I’ve been having.

A real technique empowers the actor and makes the teacher less powerful (and yet greater) a false technique disempowers the actor and makes the teacher more powerful (and yet lesser.)

(Perhaps I’m getting lofty there…but I’ll stay on this limb until someone shakes me off)

All I’m suggesting (as previously stated) is to become educated about your education. This is such a problem because acting is often talked about in mysterious terms. Sometimes it feels like it’s spoken of in almost religious terms.

People ascribe to being “Meisner” actors, to being followers of this or that “guru.” They feel anointed in their presence. This teacher studied with Sandy, or that teacher taught blah blah blah.

Classes are small performances for these teachers, where their own psyches and that of our shared humanity is discussed in terms that would make a monk blush. People yell, they cry, and unfortunately it’s not always left on stage. It’s falsely taken for granted that this is acceptable and even expected for an acting class. It’s supposed to be intense, in your face, people are supposed to break and be born again. For some people, they can’t imagine an acting class in any other way. For some, this is the way they recognize a class as a really good class. Stuff seems to be happening. The air is electric. A storm is brewing. Look out world, here we come!

Of course stuff should be happening, but is stuff really happening if it always seems to happen? Also, it conveniently seems to happen when people are auditing, on the hour, every hour? Someone is hitting a wall, almost in tears, and the teacher seizes the opportunity to enlighten them.
The teacher seems to have epiphanies by the minute. He’s just so inspired.

My point is that although you may have attended a class where you genuinely witnessed a breakthrough, I find that hard to believe in every instance. Many classes seem to have a dynamic that makes these “breakthroughs” almost commonplace. I don’t think it’s a good barometer for selecting a class.

More salient to me are the things that can be easily observed during a class. Notice if the class is really listening to their teacher. Notice if they’re really watching the other scene. Notice their feedback and whether it is clearly defined in a shared language. Notice if they’re working/booking!
Notice if the teacher is really taking in the student. Notice if the teacher is sometimes unsure about what to say (that can be a good thing!) Notice if they seem thoughtful.

In Conclusion

I don’t recommend getting lost for hours on the internet looking for that class that will make your career. For a moment, I thought looking through previous “Backstage” acting class winners might be a great place to start. Of course, the three negative experiences I discussed were all Backstage winners.

However, so is my current studio that I truly value. I simply haven’t found any pure resource for finding a class on the internet (though I challenge you to link me to one.) Being able to audit, as stated before, is a great safeguard, but come armed with questions and an ability to observe the qualities you deem important. If you commit to a class and find it is not doing you any good, don’t hesitate to leave. Something that is working great for others may not work great for you. Respect yourself and your point of view. Acting, after all, is not a pure science.

Good luck! You’re going to need it, but I hope slightly less with these precautions.

Hugo Martin

Hugo is an actor from the San Francisco Bay area, currently living in Los Angeles. More at www.hugopierremartin.com

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