Here I am in my first Method class, and I have this amazing instructor as my guide, I think to myself. I'm ready to learn and let her direction drive my creativity.
I sit in my chair on the stage, eyes closed. I drop my head, stretch out my arms and attempt to relax my body. I tried to focus on my thoughts and what they mean at that moment—letting them morph and spiral into emotion.
Although it was hard to concentrate with the cries and moans coming from the other students warming up, I continued to stretch and tried to focus. It wasn't working.
"I feel distracted," I said, honestly expressing what I felt. She didn't respond. I sat and waited, eyes still closed.
"Move, Kelly!" she barked. Move how? I don't get it. I sat frozen, then continued trying to find my way in this chair. Unclear what to do, I just did what I could to warm up—no guidance, no explanation.
"You can come down from the stage now," she said, not looking at me as I returned to my seat. She asked for the first scene to get on deck as she circled the group, smirking and smiling to herself. Coming in fresh, without any concrete acting training before this class, I had no idea what the hell was going on.
What had I done wrong?
Al Pacino once said an acting teacher can ruin an actor. It's one of the most delicate things to instruct, and there are so many hacks working out their own shit on new actors, you have to be very careful whom you hire.
Even so, I went forward with my desire to learn about acting from the best.
From what I had read, I thought Method would be an appropriately challenging place to begin. The roster of actors who'd practiced Method was aspirational and motivating. I knew by reputation that this celebrated tradition would enrich and strengthen my acting IQ. Plus, this teacher came personally recommended by one of the most well-respected character actors working today. "You're in the right place," he told me, validating my choice. It was hard to resist.
As I walked the plank to my maiden class—held in a nondescript building a half hour's drive across the Hollywood Hills from my West Hollywood apartment—I had no idea what to expect.
A tall, gray woman materialized with a weathered expression and a secret smile: The Guru of the Valley.
The first class was frustrating, I'll admit. As it happens so often in my life, I chalked it up to the universe testing me. I was never one to give up easily. And I was determined to see the class through it its end. So I kept attending.
The next few sessions were a mixed bag. Week and week I put my heart into each moment in class, trying to see exactly what it was she was trying to convey. Some of it I found useful, but most of it less so. There was one common denominator, however: Each class brought me to tears, more from feeling hurt and confused than from catharsis.
Nothing I did in class was perceived as good in her eyes. Worse, nothing was actually taught; I was forced to learn by observation. I didn't ask why because no one did. I just assimilated, as I naturally do in new situations, and quickly. I did the exercises as the other students did—and honestly—but was met only with harsh feedback and negativity.
With no real training to compare to this experience, I chalked it up to learning the ropes. This is Method. Only the strong survive, right? A great actor had endorsed her class. As so many people do, I respect his opinion, and it allowed me to justify the effort I spent to make this class work for me. It must just be me, I thought. But I can power my way through any initiation.
After a month of classes had passed, I remember waiting outside the building, anticipating what was in store for this new month, new moon, new energy.
I had just booked a student film and attributed it to what I had (not) learned thus far. I was pondering the juxtaposition of the Guru and my director. A fellow student approached me.
"Wow, you're so lucky, she gives you so much attention. She must see a lot of potential in you," the girl said in her awestruck voice.
"Yeah, right," I laughed. Is she serious? I felt mentally battered and she was envious of this 'attention'? Haha... masochism.
The class became dark comedy among my friends. "Maybe you just remind her of someone she hates," my friend Adam suggested. "Yeah—herself," added Rachel, laughing. "She's just a washed-up actress who never lived up to her own potential. Don't take it personally."
Well, it felt personal.
The following week, Jill, one of the Guru's seasoned students, substituted. The difference in the classroom was like night and day—a very good day.
In that class I did my first scene, solo. The scene was simple: I was alone with my breakfast. Jill gave me some positive feedback, and added a bit of direction.
"Think of the scene in 'Unfaithful.' Diane Lane is on a train home, remembering her day with the man she's having an affair with," she described. "She has no actions, yet the scene is filled with her emotion."
I started thinking about meaningful experiences I might mull over first thing in the morning. I sat in my kitchen with my coffee mug and thought.
When Jill called 'scene,' I sat there terrified, awaiting a battery of criticism. Instead, Jill loved what I was evoking. She made me feel good about myself, which in turn caused me to believe I had something to offer as a performer.
The next week the Guru returned. She asked us to begin our exercises at the top of class, and during the improvised scenes, she became very aggressive toward me right away.
"Kelly, I heard you did really well on your first scene last week," the Guru said. "I guess it was a fluke."
I sat there, stunned. Wow, this is what I pay for? Why? She waited for me to respond to her, but I didn't.
"Tell me to fuck off," she said. Why would I want to do that?
I didn't say anything. I believed if I did what she asked that she would use it against me down the line.
So, the only choice I felt I could make was to do nothing but stare at her blankly, trying not to emote—I wouldn't give her the satisfaction. If she was trying to drive me to make a risky choice, I wasn't going to be made an example of. Fuck that.
"All I see is a scared, plain girl. Pretty, but plain," she said, sarcastically. "You remind me of me when I was your age." Great, that's what I want to hear. I smell manipulation.
All the other students shifted around uncomfortably.
"Good taste in shoes, though. I like that," she chuckled at her own commentary.
"Thanks," I said. "They're vintage." She turned and walked away.
I've always believed that trust between a teacher and student is absolutely key. Chemistry is preferential, but trust is the foundation. And at that moment I knew that I felt nothing for her and that put me in a difficult position.
After a few more classes—including one the Guru dubbed a breakthrough, but I felt was the result of more negative emotional manipulation—I'd had enough. I decided to tell the Guru I was leaving class.
We stepped out into the hall toward the end of class. I told her this isn't working out for me. I told her I tried to be open to her 'Method' and give it time, but it felt wrong continuing to go against my instinct.
"I'm trying to sell doubt here," she said, "and you're not buying it."
"Well, that's not how I live my life," I said. "I'm not a liar."
"Maybe you're way more enlightened than me, Kelly. Maybe you should move to the Palisades and teach acting to all the rich housewives. You'll make a lot of money," she said matter-of-factly. The Guru looked at me, arms crossed, with a satisfied, dry smile.
I walked out, not feeling manipulated, but feeling like I've been let out of an internment camp. I freed my mind from the slippery slope of believing my time and money spent with her would pay off, and I wouldn't be returning for more abuse.
Reflecting on my experience over the next few weeks, my mind kept going back to a brief conversation I had with the character actor who supports her work. His words rang in my ears: "You're in the right place." I heard them over and over in my head.
After what I endured, I can genuinely say I disagree. If he witnessed one session while I was a student, he might have different advice. I think what he saw was only what she wanted him to. He bought it.
Months later, I ran into a former student of the Guru, who regularly witnessed me being manipulated. "She was so hard on you. I felt sooo bad for you. It was really hard to watch. I never saw her treat anyone else like that."
"Yeah, she almost ruined me," I said, "but she didn't."
Actress, writer, and songstress Kelly Frazier resides in sunny Los Angeles. She has acted in many short films and indie projects and has recently made her mark on popular series such as "Mad Men" and "The Mentalist." She has studied acting in San Francisco and L.A., soon to be seen performing Improv at IO West. Kelly achieved a B.A. in English and is currently writing lyrics for her first album. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.thekellyfrazier.com.