Most have at least some spirit of the artist in them and want to approach their craft with sensitivity and integrity. Yet there's rent to be paid. Especially in today's volatile economy, business is business -- and that includes show business.
Back Stage recently spoke with four acting instructors who teach the business side of the craft while also encouraging their students to find and love the art in themselves.
Do Right by the Writer
Amy Lyndon (Cold Reading Classes) is an actor and teacher in Los Angeles who owned a talent management company for nine years. She also recently wrote a book, The Lyndon Technique: The 15 Guideline Map to Booking. In her teaching, she shares what she learned -- on her own and from mentors -- after moving to California from Syracuse, N.Y., in her early 20s.
"When I came out here," she says, "I had all this great juice flowing, but I had no idea how to get a job. So I had to learn the hard way."
Lyndon teaches "booking classes" rather than acting classes. They're geared toward helping actors land film and TV work, though she thinks some of her principles would be just as useful for theatre. Students come to her sessions as if they were going to a gym, dropping in and working out as needed.
Her 15 guidelines are designed to help actors analyze a script in order to get to the writer's intention. Acting choices meant to "stand out" at auditions are pointless and damaging if they run counter to the intent of the script, Lyndon explains. Actors need to know exactly what they're auditioning for. "You don't want to go in and read for Scrubs with a Law & Order read," she says.
Part of Lyndon's technique involves recognizing who you are as an actor, so you're not trying to sell qualities you don't possess. This is not to say she necessarily endorses typecasting. After working with actors for a time, she'll "stretch them," she says, enabling them to play a variety of roles within the boundaries of their particular "essence."
Lyndon acknowledges that her classes emphasize results over process -- a focus that would be anathema to many acting teachers, particularly those at the college level. Yet she claims she's helped Yale and Juilliard graduates harness their formal training to get better results at auditions.
There is a no - nonsense element to Lyndon's approach that actors steeped in a particular acting orthodoxy might find refreshingly concise. Her students, she says, are "there to do the work, book the job, and get the hell out."
Show Business as Usual
Dwight Weist and Bob Barron started the Weist-Barron school (Weist Baron) in 1956, when TV production in Manhattan was at its height. Their principal aim was to train New York theatre actors to work in front of the camera. Later, Weist-Barron added franchises in Hollywood and Atlantic City, N.J.
Valerie Adami came to Weist-Barron when the founders were still actively teaching. Then a musical theatre actor, she audited a class on commercials and heard Barron's "business talk," which included tips on mailings and meeting agents. "I was fascinated that there was an actual psychology behind this," she says, "and that you actually could be more proactive in your career than I had ever dreamed."
Now, many years later, Adami heads Weist-Barron and continues to stress the importance of tending the business side of your career. She delivers a lecture for beginning actors called "Getting the Business," and four times a year the school offers a seminar with an agent or casting director. Last year Weist-Barron's guest lecturers included Kevin Urban and Jodie Bentley of The Savvy Actor. "They're extremely clever and thorough," says Adami, "and they address not just the actor's career but the actor's entire life."
The term business, she adds, seems "sort of dreary" and may dishearten or alienate some actors: "It's better to encourage actors to think of it as just another aspect of what they do. Because if indeed they love acting and they want to get out there and perform, there are certain steps they have to take. And if they don't take them, they might as well stand in the middle of their living room reciting their monologue."
Each class at Weist-Barron focuses on a specialized area of acting and runs for a specified number of weeks. The school also has a structured course of study for actors who want to attend three or four days a week.
Weist-Barron students come in all ages. "The adult division starts at 20 and goes to death," Adami jokes. There are also classes for children and teens and for parents of infants and toddlers. Aspiring stage parents often have little or no knowledge about the industry, she says, and Weist-Barron courses include tips on how to avoid showbiz scams.
In the current economic downturn, Adami has seen many laid-off workers enroll in acting classes: "They're thinking, 'What the hell? I'm just going to do what I wanted to do when I was 18. I'm going to try to be an actor.' " While cautioning them that completing Weist-Barron's courses is no guarantee of future employment, she tells them that a beginning class can give them a taste of the challenges of serious acting study.
But "if you're doing it for your heart's satisfaction," Adami says, "sometimes that can be enough reason."
One thing that sets Bjørn Johnson (Bjorn Johnson) apart from many other Los Angeles acting teachers, he says, is that he's out "in the trenches," working as an actor and director. He recently shot a guest role on the final episode of ER and directed the Open Fist Theatre Company's production of Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky.
As for his take on actor training, "I'm not pitching some philosophical approach because of some deeply held belief," he says. "It's really mercenary, my approach."
Johnson, who has operated his studio for about eight years, is no stranger to traditional approaches to acting. He studied with such heavy-hitting teachers as Nikos Psacharopoulos and Larry Moss and was apprentice fight director to B.H. Barry. But Johnson wants actors to develop a technique that meets their own particular needs: "I sort of laughingly refer to the invisible banner on the back wall that says, 'Whatever works.' "
A class session usually begins with discussion of some particular point of the craft, followed by a warm-up exercise. The rest of the class is devoted to prepared work: scene study and additional exercises. His classes are designed for advanced students rather than beginners.
Pure "business of the business" matters are not his forte, Johnson admits. "We don't spend a lot of time in the studio checking up on whether people are doing their mailings or what kind of contacts they've made. But we do deal a lot with being in the business and living a life as an actor, with how you put together a career and the things you need to keep your concentration on a career."
Talking "craft versus business" is pointless anyway, he says: "We're in a strange life where our product is our self. It's kind of erroneous to talk about the business apart from the craft or the craft apart from the business, because they're so twined together."
When students share experiences with one another, everyone benefits, Johnson says, and sometimes he'll have his class do "bragging exercises": "We have these victories in our careers, and because societally we're kind of geared against [bragging], it's easy to not recognize and benefit from things that you've done well." While sharing tales of career breakthroughs, he says, actors are also imparting practical knowledge.
If a student has an upcoming audition, Johnson will sometimes involve the class in what he calls open coaching. This is neither a free-for-all of feedback nor a cheerleading session, but the student tends to benefit from the concentrated attention of peers, he says, as Johnson coaches him or her through the work. And the peers find it valuable as well.
Johnson believes that working on challenging theatrical scenes in class builds creative muscle that students can flex in film and TV assignments. "[If] I'm the guy who's been working on Tennessee Williams all this time or Arthur Miller all this time," he says, "I feel pretty great about my capability of walking in the park and nailing [a scene about] a father whose daughter is in an alcohol-induced coma."
Bring 'Antigone' to the Sitcom
Like Lyndon and Adami, New York's Penny Templeton focuses on teaching on-camera skills. But like Johnson, she also recognizes the rewards of deep theatrical training. A guest casting director in one of her classes once told students that if they only wanted to work on camera, there was no need for them to study theatre. "I never invited that casting director back again," Templeton says.
Her students work in ways that mimic what they'll find in the theatre, film, and TV industries. For instance, they're not told to practice with scene partners outside of class. "You wouldn't do that with a professional theatre," she says. "You don't take an actor and go to your apartment and work on a scene." Instead, in-class rehearsals parallel the rehearsals that actors get for an actual production. Templeton notes that Broadway's recent revival of The Homecoming had only four weeks of rehearsal, with the fourth week devoted largely to tech. "You have to be ready to jump into that," she says.
Templeton videotapes much of her students' work and plays it back on a large screen for evaluation. The students then use their own cameras to shoot retakes -- and in so doing they pick up information about the technical aspects of filmmaking.
Although taking charge of their careers is important, beginning actors sometimes worry about the business side too early, Templeton believes. She advises them to not concern themselves with résumés and agents before it's time: "We find that when they're ready, the work almost comes to them." She recalls a man who cornered a student of hers at a screening and guessed, based solely on the student's bearing, that he was not only an actor but a "New York actor," then invited the actor to audition for a Showtime project the man was helping to put together.
What about actors in training who become so focused on their craft that they neglect business realities? Templeton has taught acting for the camera in academia and other settings where students work as a group for some time, and she finds that students in these "fishbowl" environments don't always receive a thorough grounding in how the industry works. They sometimes think the outside world will be "indebted to them" upon graduation, and they ask her, "Why should I work on sitcom exercises when I've played in Antigone?"
Templeton advises them to "bring Antigone to the sitcom." Not only do many of the same skills apply, but lucrative TV gigs may someday offer them the luxury of working on the classics to their heart's content. "I want you to be able to do everything," she tells them. "I think there's joy in doing all different kinds of work."
"Success is transient, evanescent. The real passion lies in the poignant acquisition of knowledge about all the shading and subtleties of the creative secrets."
-- Konstantin Stanislavsky
"If you wanna make it
Twinkle while you shake it."
-- Electra, in the musical Gypsy