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The Working Actor

Classes, Classes, Classes

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Classes, Classes, Classes
Dear Jackie:
I've been taking this scene study class for about six months. I really like it, but lately I'm not sure if it's worth my money. See, for our scenes, we just find our own partners. Up until this point it's been fine, but lately I haven't been able to find anyone who needs a partner, which leaves me not doing a scene for that week, or a couple of weeks. So then it feels like I'm wasting my money if I can't work on a scene. The class is ongoing, so I can't decide if I should find a new class. I like the teacher and some of my classmates, and I feel like it's a good connection to have networkingwise. Any advice?

—Partnerless
via email

Dear Partnerless:
This should not be your problem. I can't figure out how this teacher can justify his or her lack of organization and oversight of the class. Sure, sometimes things slip through the cracks, but in what circumstances is it okay to allow certain students to miss out on working through an entire round of scenes—or several rounds? No, every student won't get exactly the same amount of coaching every week, but for your teacher not to notice an ongoing problem like this is unacceptable.

It is a teacher's responsibility to make sure that his or her methodology for class assignments is working and to rectify problems that arise. Unless a conversation with the teacher yields a quick apology and assistance in fixing the situation, I would have serious reservations about continuing to pay for this class. I know that sometimes it can be hard to make requests of those in authority, even teachers—especially if they're the guru type—but you need to get this taken care of or leave the class.

Teaching is an art, and it certainly requires skill in the subject area, but it also requires focus on various organizational and practical matters. A good teacher must balance those demands. The only way I'd stay in a class so disorganized and willy-nilly is if it were being taught by Stanislavsky himself.

Dear Jackie:
I'm taking this class, and we have to prepare a very, very short monologue. Do you have any suggestions or ideas on where to pick them? I'm looking for something contemporary, but trying to avoid a movie or something that everyone has seen.

—Looking
via email

Dear Looking:
Let's start with the obvious: As an actor, you should be regularly reading plays and screenplays. This is the primary way you'll find interesting material and become (and stay) informed. For plays, make frequent trips to bookstores such as Samuel French or the Drama Book Shop and consider subscribing to American Theatre magazine. Don't stick to the full-length-play section either; there are plenty of interesting and lesser-known monologues and scenes in short plays.

The complete texts of many scripts are also available for free online at sites such as Simply Scripts (www.simplyscripts.com), which links you to tons of plays and screenplays, as well as television, radio, musical, and yet-to-be-produced scripts. There are entire websites devoted to the public-domain works of many better-known writers. The Virtual Library for Theatre and Drama (www.vl-theatre.com/list4.shtml) lists several of them, including sites containing full texts of the complete works of Shakespeare, O'Neill, Molière, and others, as well as some new material. And for screenplays, check in at the old standby, Drew's Script-O-Rama (www.script-o-rama.com).

For monologues—and especially short monologues—you might also try going off the beaten path. First-person fiction, essays, and published journals or letters can all be great sources of interesting material. One example, the book "Working" by Studs Terkel (which was made into a musical), is full of riveting first-person accounts of life in America. Just be sure the selection you choose is active—in other words, stay away from rambling story monologues and go for material in which your character has an objective.

Whichever way you go, the more you read, the more material you'll find, and the less you'll be tempted to use one of those horrible monologue books.


Dear Jackie:
My acting teacher spends a lot of time talking to us about our personal lives and figuring out how to use them in our monologues and scenes. Sometimes I feel like he goes too far, questioning people about their lives. I think he's a nice person, and I really felt connected when he was working with me, but I worry that this is not a healthy situation.

—It's Personal
via email

Dear It's:
I can't make a sweeping judgment about a class I have never attended, but generally I'd say that if you feel like a teacher is going "too far" in the personal arena, you're probably right.

Many popular acting techniques involve delving into one's feelings and history, but in the wrong hands such methods can be destructive. Requiring actors to reveal the specifics of painful events is wrong-headed and possibly dangerous. Yes, when employing sense memory, an actor might reveal to the class that he or she is using a painful past event, but the actor doesn't sit down and tell the story. He or she doesn't say, "I'm using the time that my father beat me." The instructor doesn't say, "A painful experience? Tell us all about it!" The teacher might help the actor make a connection between the event and his or her work by having the actor recall the color of the carpet and the smell of the coffee on that painful day—the basis of sense memory is the recall of these sensory experiences that hold our emotions—but the student shouldn't be asked, or permitted, to reveal the specifics. The instructor should by no means act as therapist, psychoanalyzing the past or the student or saying things like "Perhaps that's why you're so guarded. Just let this old hurt go!"

I have witnessed several such inappropriate interactions. In one, a guest teacher pushed a classmate of mine to talk about the recent death of a parent in a car accident. The student repeatedly refused to use the event, saying he wasn't ready, but the instructor threatened and shamed him into giving it a try. The result: The scene was emotional, but it wasn't acting. Watching it, I felt sick. In another class I observed, the instructor had the students pick a real fight with one another, and when they were fully engaged in lambasting each other's failures as actors and shortcomings as scene partners, he shouted, "Go!," and they began the scene. Again, those actors were feeling lots and lots of stuff—but it wasn't acting.

You say you have felt connected to your work under this teacher. Is this connection something you can create in future performances or was it a one-time whipping up of emotions? Anyone can make someone cry. It takes skill to teach someone to act.


Any questions or comments for The Working Actor? Please email Jackie and Michael at theworkingactor@gmail.com.

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