Reflecting on Teaching for Almost Half a Century

(You read that correctly – I’ve taught for over 48 years of my life) 

When I started teaching and coaching things were a lot different than today. Everything changed when social media became the main source of “word of mouth” to promote acting coaches and acting schools. 48 years ago, acting coaches did not advertise, research and deploy Google trigger words. They did not speak of empowerment, branding, booking, or spiritual awakenings. We grew with our students with/by the word of mouth of our students. 

We spoke about the craft, dedication, integrity, and the search for truth from within. We helped to instill in actors the desire to get better and grow as artists, not how to hustle Casting Directors for a job. 

When did acting become a military operation of “own it,” “kill it,” “nail it,” “command the space,” etc.? What happened to sharing and the revelation of self through the words the writer gave you to speak? 

We did not feel the need to encourage our students to call themselves “creatives” or “storytellers.” These buzzwords only feed our egos (students and coaches alike). This doesn’t teach humility or how to strengthen our capacity for empathy. It creates a false sense of uniqueness. It separates us from our collective purpose as human beings to bring the text alive by sharing all that we are at that moment in time. 

48 years ago, coaches and teachers encouraged you to observe and engage with life, to ask contemplative life questions not “what does casting want” or “how do I stand out?” We didn’t want to brand you like a cow or distract you from the pursuit of a shared truth by encouraging you to make bold and interesting choices. Really there is nothing more tedious than someone trying to stand out or be interesting! It is the human choice that is fascinating not a fetish to stand out from the crowd. 

In Greek mythology Narcissus became obsessed with his own reflection after being led there by the God Nemesis as a punishment for his insensitivity to the love of the nymph Echo. At the stream, he fell in love with himself and fell in and drowned. If not used in moderation or without comprehension, the selfie shots of one’s self in a mirror (that it is a reflection, it is not you) will lead to the drowning of the soul. It is an electronic manifestation of you! This is not you! 

I fear the net effect of all of this electronic manipulation has created a gordian knot of self-doubt. Ironically, or perhaps tragically, this precipitated the need in young actors to seek empowerment and feel the drug of military talk. I believe it was Machiavelli who said, “take away a people’s Gods and they can be conquered.” The true belief in self grows out of doing and practice, not seeking salvation in the blessings of others. 

The truth is that no weekend workshop or 6-week course will give you the secrets to the kingdom. Hard work, courage, will, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck will, over time, enable you to fashion your own keys and help you create your own kingdom. 

The most successful actors who have trained with me or at my studio achieved real success after 7 or 8 years in the business. They never gave up hope and never stopped training. The prize was to get better and the joy of creation not the desire to impress. 

The Long Journey Back to Here and Now
We are born with a powerful set of lungs that can bellow clean and pure with the piercing intent of a factory whistle or an ambulance wail. Yet actors spend 4 years in acting school learning how to breathe in an attempt to “find their natural voice.”

We can shift emotions in a nano-second from red-faced rage to a delightful explosive giggle. Yet we spend 4 years in an acting school learning to “get in touch and access our emotions.”

We are impulsive, daring and spontaneous as children. Yet we spend 4 years in acting school learning how to be impulsive, daring and spontaneous.

We have no difficulty playing an objective as a baby or a toddler – we know how to get what we want from a parent or a grandparent. Yet much of the first two years of an acting school is taken up with learning how to play an objective or tactics.

Is a pattern starting to emerge here? Is this not starting to feel like a WTF moment? I began to increasingly believe that I had nothing to teach students, but everything to help people unlearn. It became the birth (excuse the pun) of an approach to acting based on the premise that the goal was to help actors relearn how to do consciously what they do unconsciously anyway.

This became abundantly clear to me when I became a parent with my wife, and we were raising a child of our own. Like all dutiful and loving parents, we tried to spare our child from harm. It’s a wonder that children even survive past the age of 3 years old. We found our child putting things in his mouth from dirty raisons on the floor to Lego bricks. Pulling tablecloths with expensive china to crawling towards certain death at the foot of the stairs. The most frequent word out of our mouths was NO! Perhaps one of the saddest and happiest day of my parenting life was when our son, approaching the cupboard full of poisonous cleansers, stopped and turned towards me to check me out. It was the first time that I saw him suppress an impulse. I was ambivalent. I was happy, in that the odds of him killing himself were greatly diminished, but he had also reached a point in his life when there was a separation between an impulse and an action. The irony was that if he ever wanted to become an actor he would have to have to unlearn a great deal of what we had conditioned into him to save his life, but the sacrifice was the loss of spontaneity. 

There is a unifying foundation between religion on the left, science on the right and philosophy in the middle; they all start from the same place – “before there was something there was what? Nothing.” In religion and all creation mythology they say “in the beginning there was nothing and God (the Gods) created something.” But who created God? Did he invent or create himself? You must have faith. In science they will tell you that in the beginning there was the big bang. If you ask what was before that they will tell you that there may have been an infinite number of big bangs with the universe contracting and expanding for all eternity. But before that? So in the end no matter which way you cut it, slice it, dissect it, twist it or express it. It requires a leap of faith.

From “to be or not to be” to “to do or not to do.” 
In the end an action must be taken. Those who can make this leap of faith into action enter the world of imagination. In the beginning was the act, not the word. Whether dealing with it on a Meta level or the micro level whether we like it or not Nike got it right “Just do it.”

There is a story of the man who went in search of the meaning of life and thus discovered who he was. He searched the world over until he was told that there was indeed a holy man who sat way up in the mountains that knew the answer. He inquired as to why others did not make the journey. They told him it was too perilous and would take enormous effort. They couldn’t be bothered. He decided to make the journey. When he got there after nearly losing his life many times and experiencing several crises of confidence he finally arrived on top of the mountain and found the holy man. He asked the holy man “what is the meaning to life” so that he might discover who he was. The master told him that he had asked the wrong question. The question was not “who am I, but what am I.” The only real question was how to conduct one’s self moment to moment in the world and depending on what one did answered the question to you and the world who you are.

We all have a predisposition towards certain emotional patterned behaviours, which will work for some roles but not others. For ex. Tears turn to anger, anger to tears. 

There are a whole myriad of specific and idiosyncratic conditions, which affect everything from text analysis to character choices to the specific physical, psychological, and breathing patterns of the actor. I will delve into these in greater detail at a later time.

Instead of looking for “the methods” to follow, actors should look for tools and not rules. Rather than approach acting from the metaphoric base of a cultist, one should look at it from the base of the carpenter. The carpenter accesses a situation and chooses the appropriate tool for the job. The cultist applies the doctrine according to whomever.