The Importance of Training, Part 3: 3 More Things You Shouldn’t Tolerate in Acting Class

After the publication of Part 2 last week, I was really touched by your comments about your personal experiences with abuse, politics, and hostile class culture in acting classes. Please feel free to email me your experiences, even if it’s just to vent, and I will try to respond to each and every one of you.

As a thank you to Backstage for making all these awesome articles and experts’ advice available to you and to you for reading my articles, for the next week I am making my new book, “Commercial Acting in L.A.: A Session Director’s Guide,” available to you all for free. Just download it here, and feel totally free to share it with others.

Continuing on last week’s list and concluding this series, here are three more things you absolutely shouldn’t tolerate in an acting class. All the same disclaimers apply.

Unreasonable large class size. Yes, it’s not as profitable to have smaller class sizes but the studio’s bottom line is not your problem. Your focus should be on your development. And acting is not an intellectual craft. It’s an experiential one. You’re not going to become a better actor just by listening to a teacher talk. You learn how to act by doing it, repeatedly, and getting the lessons in your body. Some classes have 20 or even 30 students in them and some of them get as little as five minutes or don’t even get to act at all in each class! If you’re in a class that is too large and you’re not getting enough personal instruction, find a smaller class. Put yourself and your needs first. I’m not saying you can’t still grow in a large class, just not nearly as quickly as those getting more personal time actually working out and experiencing the lessons in practice.

It reminds me of Jerry Maguire’s movie-opening epiphany that cost him his job: “Suddenly, it was all pretty clear. The answer was fewer clients. Less money. More attention. Caring for them, caring for ourselves and the games, too.”

Teaching to the test. A teacher’s job is to teach you how to fish, not give you the fish. It’s my job to train my students to develop their craft and process so that they aren’t dependent on me to create and perform amazing work. I do not believe that there is one right way to do a scene, only many great ways waiting to be discovered. You and I could make the exact same choices, but because we are uniquely different people, it won’t wear exactly the same on us. And it shouldn’t. That’s what makes you, you, and me, me.

If any teacher constantly tells you how to do scenes, gives you line readings, and tells you that only their way is the right way, run, don’t walk, and get the hell away from them as fast as possible. Nothing will kill your individual essence and creative voice faster. And, of course, I’m not referring to being asked to try a scene a particular way just for instruction, experience with re-directs, play, or experimentation purposes. I’m talking about a teacher always making you feel like you’re perfectly reasonable, personal, and great choices are wrong simply because it’s not how they would do it, or how they have seen it done well by others.

Class should be your laboratory, your practice field—where you try things out and see if they work so that, calibrating your sense of what serves the story or distracts from it, you can be better prepared for actual auditions and work. Your teacher needs to help you develop your own artistic voice and competence so that you’ll have the confidence to know you’re making great choices resulting in brilliant performances that are distinctively your own. 

In other words, don’t a let teacher train you to become dependent upon them for all the answers. You’re an artist as much, if not more than, they are. The answers are inside of you, too. With good instruction, practice, and guidance, you’ll learn how and where to find them.

Secondary teachers. Most of us go to audit or join a studio to work with the teacher whose name is on the door. We want to be in their class—the advanced class, master class, whatever. That’s who has built the reputation that drew us to their studio. But in some cases, we are not initially allowed to join those until we reach certain career or skill milestones or have worked our way up through their lower-level classes. So, we may be placed in classes taught by their other teachers. That can be a problem. The way that secondary teacher teaches and manages their class may differ greatly from the main teacher. You should be able to audit their classes before being placed with them. What if you don’t like them or are beyond them? There are too many great places to train to settle for that. If you can’t train with whomyou want to train and they won’t let you audit a class taught by a secondary teacher before being placed in it, consider moving on. 

That’s it for now. I probably missed some, but those are the main issues that stuck out for me. What do you feel you shouldn’t have to tolerate in acting class? Put them in the comments below, tweet them to me @shaansharma, or email me. I’d love to hear about it.

All I’m asking is that we hold our training institutions to a high standard. We deserve it. We commit so much time, money and energy to them that we should be able to expect that they do the best they can for us in return. The stakes are so high for us, shouldn’t it be the same for them?