What to Consider When Choosing An Acting Class or Coach

An acting coach or teacher is the only service provider I know, who, when they fail to help you can turn around and tell you that you aren’t talented. If any other service provider where to do this in your life you would ask for your money back. In the acting world you end up thinking you are the problem. This is especially true in University and College programs.

Acting Studio’s and higher learning institutions are just that, and no more. They have become confused by many as churches, where somehow the coach/teacher is elevated or elevates themselves to the status of a high priest or guru with prescient powers and abilities: This could not be further from the truth. We are for the most part “failed something else’s.” Most acting coaches and teachers were directors or actors who started coaching and teaching as a means to supplement their income.

In what other business can you take responsibility for the successes of some of your students, but not accept responsibility for the failure or limited success of others. A coach’s booking to coaching/ teaching ratio is rarely if ever at a level warranting the accolades we receive. Just because we have coached or taught a half dozen “stars” doesn’t mean that we haven’t failed the hundreds, if not thousands of other actors, who entrusted us with their hard-earned money and dreams. We can’t take credit for some, and not take responsibility for all. It is a shell game that might even make an Ad Executive blush. The truth is we were lucky to have these wonderful actors pass through us. It is highly probable they would have been successful anyway.

Can an acting coach make a difference? The answer is yes! They can make a difference by providing a safe and supportive environment sprinkled with the knowledge they have accumulated over the years.

The verbally abusive and psychologically manipulative teacher “in the name of art” is not a new phenomenon. It has been a systemic part of our industry for at least 70 years. It still plagues us today. The problem, in my opinion, can be traced back to the Actors Studio in New York. Before I get started, I want to say, that I will always be indebted to Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner for opening me up to myself and the artists world I wanted to be a part of from an early age. However, they were Acting Coaches/Teachers not Gods! They were flawed like the rest of us. Their words were often wise, inspiring, useful, and insightful. But they were not gospel: not everything they said or did was safe or healthy.

“The Method” was a mash up of Stanislavsky and Freudian psychotherapy. Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Eli Kazan, Sanford Meisner amongst them (wittingly and sometimes unwittingly) contributed and even to some degree sanctioned this ongoing behavior. I’ve provided a link to an article pointing out some of the damaging behavior perpetrated on actors in the name of getting a great performance. It was no dark secret. Strasberg and Meisner recount “actor stories” in their books that will chill you to the bone. It is no surprise that women were the easiest and most likely victims. They created a culture that is still alive today. Please read the essay provided in the link below. It will provide you with graphic details of how insidious and cruel these teachers could be. This was how a culture of abuse was perpetrated and how the abused became abusers without even realizing it. Many acting classes, schools and studios have institutionalized and normalized abusive behavior in the name of training.
A class size should be no larger than 12 (unless a lecture style class). 8 to 10 is ideal.

You must consider how much time you get up in front of the class to work on your material or have analyzed during playback. Anything less than 20 minutes is suspect. Ask yourself was the time you spent up there valuable? Are you more confident or more assured than you were before you went up? Or do you feel you were able to do the work on your own without your teacher’s guidance better than before class?

When you get a note from the teacher can it be applied to the task at hand? You should never feel rushed: remember, it is your time!  You must not feel afraid to ask questions, even if your questions challenge the “wisdom” of the teacher. You are entitled to your question. You are not wasting their, or the classes time. You paid for it! It is your time.

It is true an acting teacher must walk a delicate line between creating a nurturing environment, and a challenging one for you. However, under no circumstances should they ever speak harshly to you. They should never verbally or physically abuse you in the name of “getting you there” or “helping you become a better actor”. They are not allowed (by law) to physically touch you without your consent and even then this is a shady move. You are paying him/her for a service. You are there to learn how to become a better, more self-sufficient actor not to be psychoanalyzed by those not qualified to do so.

Be wary of statements like “we need to break you down, before we build you up”, “You have trust issues” etc. Your trust must be earned not surrendered or co-opted.

You are not required nor should you be asked to divulge personal details of your life in a class. I believe a good coach will ask you personal questions that are relevant to the character or scene you are exploring, but the details of your life is nobody’s business. I often will ask personal questions, however I preface it always with “the answer spoken out loud is none of my or the classes business”.

What we teach and our lessons must meet the criteria of common sense and conform to the laws of physics. (It must be doable). A metaphor should be used to inspire or clarify. You can’t apply or do a metaphor.

There should always be a “how to” with every note.
Any statement a coach makes must be verifiable by survey’s, scientific studies or sufficient anecdotal evidence to be worthy of your consideration.

Also be wary of statements like “In LA”, or “Casting is always looking for this”

Beware of “Branding.” You are not a herd animal or a slave. You are an artist. It is true there are some limits to what roles one is capable of playing. An awareness of the way you are perceived, and the consequences of your behavior(s) is a vital piece of data to understand. But it is not the place of a teacher to place or impose limits upon you. It is the duty/responsibility of the teacher to aid in your growth and the expansion of yourself. They should balance between roles that are in your sweet spot and those that will stretch and guide you to places you did not think yourself capable.

Is your teacher available before or after class to discuss questions you don’t feel comfortable asking in front of the class? If not, will they arrange an alternate time during the week.

Does the teacher play favorites? Does your gut instinct tell you his/her judgment is getting confused with their libido?

Make sure they are spending more time on you and your development rather than talking about themselves and who they know or worked with unless it is pertinent to the lesson. Do they have a passion for their work? Do they seem to care or are they teaching by rote?

Above all listen to your heart and heed common sense. Distinguish between being challenged and abused. You must feel safe in order to create.

Think of your Acting Coach/Teacher like you would any other service provider not like a guru! Expect value for your hard-earned money and never give your power to somebody else.