People spend thousands of dollars of their hard earned money, take years of their lives off to enter acting conservatories and toil countless hours in black box theaters studying acting… and it’s all for nothing.
When someone in the industry sees an actor who’s just bad they say the same thing, “You need to take more classes.” After a few dozen classes they’re simply bad actors with another line on their resume and a big hole in their checking account. And no matter how many classes they take, it never seems to further their career or noticeably improve their “craft.” Why is this?
Acting can not be taught. There, I’ve said it. You can not learn how to be a good actor. You can learn the technical skills that allow your actual abilities to shine through (on camera work), you can learn new styles of acting (Kabuki, Improv) and you can learn how to read a script and look for things that are important. But you can not learn how to act.
Take the most tone deaf person you’ve ever met and give them a few singing lessons. Do you honestly think they’ll become a good singer? If they’re lucky they’ll learn that they have no business singing and quit. Singing requires a natural ability to move your vocal chords in a certain way and the ability to hear when you’re doing it right. Acting requires a face/body/voice that can show emotion and an ability to know when you’re doing a good job.
Most actors have a warped sense of the second part of that requirement. It’s very easy to know when someone else is doing a bad job, it’s hard to tell if you’re doing it yourself. No amount of acting technique or class is going to help. And you think your teacher’s feedback is useful? Read on.
Acting teachers are in business to teach acting, not make you a better actor. An acting teacher needs to pay rent. They’re not going to do this by telling their students that they’ve, “learned everything they need to know” or that they have a “natural ability that doesn’t need more classes.” No, they need to tell their students that they must stay in class. Even big names like Larry Moss have bills to pay. For every drop of positive feedback you get, you’re going to get more requiring you to do further work. I studied with a teacher that had students with him for decades. Do you think they were honestly still learning anything?
Acting class is about pleasing the teacher, not putting on good work. I’ve seen this one a million times. The students pour their hearts and souls into the piece, finish and turn to look at the teacher wondering if they did a “good job.” And for the reasons above, we know they’re going to say, “no” more times than they said, “yes.” That’s not what acting is about. Acting is not about pleasing one person who isn’t motivated to putting up good work. You want to please your director while doing a movie, but the guy is also looking for the work to be good, not for something to criticize.
It never mimics real life experiences. Scene studies classes are the biggest culprit here. You get a scene to work on, you go home and have a week to work on the scene, you show up and do it once. Then the teacher tells you to go home and work on x,y,z. You come back the next week and do the same thing. This never ever happens in real life. If you were rehearsing a play you’d just do the scene again until you did it to the directors satisfaction. You wouldn’t get a week between takes. Some classes require you to meet with your scene partner on the days between your classes. That’s absurd. Do you know how often you get to rehearse with someone before an audition or shooting? Maybe if you’re the star of the movie the director might work with you and your co-star for a few days but don’t plan on that happening more than once or twice in your career. Most of the time you get a script a couple days before or show up on set and are told what you’re doing. You get no feedback prior to shooting and you never meet your cast mates until you’re on set.
There are auditioning classes out there that try to mimic the audition process. They give you the sides at the class and have you step out for a few minutes. Often times you get more time for real auditions but this is quite common at commercial auditions. The best thing you’re going to learn in these classes is how to best show your work in front of a camera. But you can also learn this with your own camera. Tape yourself auditioning, and watch it. If you see stuff that interferes with your read, change it.
No one cares where you took classes. That’s a bit harsh. Going to a “name” acting school is the only way for a first-timer to get something recognizable on his resume. I’ll go into my whole “recognizably of resumes” thing on another post. But if you just stepped off the bus from Kansas City, MO (home of one of the worst airports in the country, even factoring in the free WiFi) you’re going to need something that someone in casting will recognize and a class is your best bet until you book something. Anyone who’s ever held auditions can tell you they’ve seen some pitifully bad actors who’ve studied with Stanford Meisner, Uta Hagen and Lee Strassberg. Just because your check cleared at their acting school doesn’t mean you’re good. Also, that line on your resume could mean you studied with them for a weekend… or an hour long seminar.
And if you think anyone cares which celebrity “studied with” those teachers… you’ve got another thing coming. Celebrities are like other actors, they struggled for a while at first. And like many struggling actors they took many different classes. When they hit it big every one of those teachers buys ads in Backstage West saying, “Eitan studied with me!” Which may be true but it’s also true for a thousand other actors who didn’t hit it big. Daivd Mamet said it best when he said that an acting school that claims that they’re a good place for actors to study because actor X studied there is like Corsica saying they’re a good place to raise a future Emperor.
If you want to hone your craft, do a play. You’ll get to work on your scenes in a nurturing environment and at the end of it do it for people who matter, an audience. And better yet, you won’t have to pay a penny.
Classes are good for one thing: to fail. When I’m at an audition I can’t be bad, I can’t try out something absurd and off the wall. When you’re on set there’s rarely time to experiment. When I’m in a class, I can do whatever I want and not care. My teacher’s not going to fire me because I took some weird pauses or did the character ten times more intense than the script calls for. This is the only purpose of a class. But depending on your director, you can often get away with experimentation in rehearsals. After trying something completely off the wall and zany during the rehearsals of a play I got my favorite note ever from a director: Eitan: WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?! I still have the original notes somewhere. I should get them framed.
You can probably find a better use for your $325 a month than an acting class. Heck, doing 5 workshops a month is cheaper and you might get some work out of it.
And don’t get me started on classes that let the students critique each other’s work…