"She could be abrasive. She could scare the shit out of people," a former student of the late Uta Hagen told Back Stage West columnist Jean Schiffman. Though famous for her tough-love techniques, Hagen had a reputation for also treating her students as colleagues and never putting them down. Hagen, like many great acting coaches, knew where to draw the line between tough love and abusive criticism. But let's face it: Most Los Angeles acting coaches aren't Hagen.
Many actors will weather insults, shouting fits, or arrogant diatribes at the hands of abusive acting coaches at some point in their careers. Because of the teachers' stellar reputations, actors will continue to study with these teachers regardless of how they are treated. But over time, coaches who cross the line take a toll on actors' psyches, destructively undermining their confidence and inhibiting their performances for years. BSW spoke with a number of Los Angeles coaches and actors to see where that line is.
After five months in an intensive acting course, Tony's (name changed at his request) coach lashed out at him during an improvisation exercise, berating him in front of 25 classmates for neglecting the physicality of the role—he was playing a disc jockey—and for improvising too much dialogue. "His way of trying to get through to me was to yell and scream and basically humiliate me," says the actor. As class progressed, the coach singled out Tony more frequently. Tony eventually started talking back, increasing the tension between them. "There was just an underlying thing between me and him, and everyone in the room could feel it," Tony says. "I didn't enjoy going to class anymore. I'd be walking up the stairs to his classroom, and I'd be wondering if I was going to get yelled at. It's not a good feeling."
The coach told other students they had "breakthroughs" over the course of the class—but not Tony. The lack of acknowledgment began to impact his performances. "I'm up there, and I'm literally terrified," he recalls. Despite the abuse, Tony weathered the coach's attitude and arrogance for another year before finally quitting after he was laid into for answering a question incorrectly.
Four months after his last class, Tony still stews over what happened. During his final confrontation with the teacher, he brought up a passage in the teacher's acting book that said yelling at students only made them behave defensively. "In his own pompous way, he kind of apologized, but he never actually said, 'I'm sorry,'" says the actor. "My opinion of teachers is very low right now." In retrospect Tony wishes he had quit sooner, saying he never got a "good vibe" from Day One.
"I think that there are a lot of teachers out there who are on power trips and ego trips and truly believe that by demeaning people they can make [actors] work harder. Well, that will work for some people, and [for] some that will absolutely destroy them," says Carolyne Barry, a Los Angeles commercial acting coach since 1982. "There are some [coaches] who have been doing it too long, and they lose their patience. But obviously there are actors who are getting benefit from those [coaches]. Otherwise they wouldn't be there."
How Much Will You Take?
Despite the benefit some students might glean from a tough-love teacher who raises his or her voice, Barry says teachers cross the line as soon as they lose their tempers with students. On the flip side, coaches can't constantly lather students with praise. "If you give [actors] acknowledgment all of the time, then they don't trust it," she says.
Acting coach Colleen Quinn, a self-professed "stickler," says tough love means refusing to "pussyfoot" around actors by providing honest criticism that addresses the performance, not the performer. She won't tolerate lazy actors who don't do their homework, and she considers herself to be a demanding taskmaster. "You're not getting away with shit in my class," she says.
Coaches who cross the line may have histories of failed acting careers, according to Quinn, and often take out their frustrations on students. "You are not going to get a good performance out of an actor if you scream and yell and throw things. It's not going to happen. It's completely against what you're trying to do, because the actor needs that safe space to create the character to spread their wings as an actor." She should know: A teacher once threw a notebook at her head to make her cry.
Quinn uses tough-love strategies to elicit performances from her actors instead. When a student was having a difficult time portraying a tennis player leaving the court with an injured foot, Quinn placed a chip clip on the actor's toe when the actor wasn't looking. The actor squealed in pain but never had trouble acting in pain again. Quinn says she remains friendly with the student to this day. "Actors can take directness," she says. "They can take straightforwardness, and there's a security in it. But when you cross that line into abuse, you're defeating your entire purpose of being in the room."
Anita Maria Taylor, a professional actor for 10 years, studied with an abusive coach who taught destructive cold-reading habits that haunted her for years. Taylor knew she couldn't trust the coach after he told her "to get her pretty hair out of her pretty face" and to avoid leaning forward when she sat because it reminded him of sitting on the toilet. Though she didn't take the teacher's comments personally, Taylor didn't find them useful in improving her acting. Under his tutelage, Taylor saw little progress in her work or that of her classmates and left the class frustrated after a year and a half.
"What undermined my confidence was sucking week after week after week, and then going out to real auditions and sucking audition after audition and not getting better, and not knowing what I was doing wrong," says Taylor. The impersonal nature of the large class didn't help either. "He didn't give a shit," she notes. "He had an acting factory. This was how he paid his bills."
David Kagen, who has coached for 35 years, says actors need to consider the teacher's perspective. Acting coaches in Los Angeles constantly deal with immature, ignorant young actors who think fame will be delivered on a silver platter. "My God, it's very hard to talk about in general because unless you teach, you don't encounter the arrogance, the frustration of students," Kagen says. "Sometimes, because they're afraid, they get hostile. They act out." He suggests that, instead of automatically quitting classes, actors should confront the offending teacher outside of class and tell him or her their feelings were hurt. "Teachers are just people. You have to help the teachers help you," he points out, noting that young actors, in particular, need to be mature enough to realize their feelings about the coach are not necessarily fact.
Talented teachers are capable of pushing actors to their limits without crossing the line and damaging the actor's confidence. When Taylor began studying under Eric Morris, whom Taylor says is "revered and reviled" in acting circles, she was overweight and out of touch with her sexuality. Morris forced her to play Mrs. Robinson, a role quite uncomfortable for her at the time. Eventually Taylor lost the weight and began to feel sexy. "I was kind of horrified and pissed off, but at the same time I knew it was good for me," recalls Taylor, who says Morris' hard-nosed approach worked for her. But ultimately it's up to the individual actor to decide.
"If their heart's in the right place, a good teacher really wants to help you. I think when you go to a class, you know whether this is true or whether they're just sounding off," says Jack Heller, an actor of 48 years, who tolerated abusive coaches in his early years as an actor. As he grew older and learned more about technique, he felt more qualified to judge a teacher's abilities. Heller, who now directs, says he draws the line when a coach cares more about tooting his own horn than helping his students become better actors. "I guess it's all up to the individual on how much you'll take and how much you feel is harmful [versus] how much you feel is beneficial," he says.
"The people who love me really love me, and I cherish that. The people who don't like me really don't like me," says Barry, who doesn't hesitate to comment on her students' appearances. She has argued with male students who refused to pluck their unibrows and has told female students they would look better with bangs. "I don't volunteer what I call 'drastic information,' but if someone says to me, 'Do you think I should get a nose job?' then I would say, 'You know, I had one, and it helped me.'" To Barry, these comments do not cross the line, though revealing personal information an actor has shared with her in confidence would.
But every teacher has different boundaries. Quinn, for example, doesn't hesitate to tell actors when their headshots are terrible or when their performances are unfocused or do not resemble the work of a trained actor. "I think people who end up with me as their coach know I'm doing this with love, because this is my passion," she says. "But out of that love and passion for my actors, I'm not going to let you get away with anything, ever. What are you paying me for? To tell you you're great when you stink?"
Drawing Your Own Line
How does an actor decide when a coach's criticism is inappropriate or when their relationship with a coach just isn't right? "I think you know deep down inside," says Tony, who has weathered negative experiences with three coaches in Los Angeles.
Coaches, too, can sense when a relationship with a student isn't working. Barry once confronted a student who refused to look at her while she gave him direction. She gave the student his money back, but he returned, promising to look her in the eye at her next class. After readmitting the student, he again refused to make eye contact. Frustrated, Barry found herself shouting, "Look at me!" at the student, who accused her of picking on him. She released him from the class again because she didn't like who she was becoming while instructing him. "You have no right getting angry with a student, especially in front of people," says Barry. "And it isn't fair to the rest of the class because it makes them feel afraid of me. And I don't want people to be afraid. I want people to respect me."
Actors should be careful not to send mixed signals to their coaches. Barry says actors sometimes ask her to be tough and push them but balk when she cracks the whip. "I've had people walk out," she says. "I've had maybe five that I know of. I'm sure there are people who have stayed in [class] that are pissed off at me"
"When they get upset with us, it's not really us they're getting upset with," she continues. "It's some authority figure in their life that didn't treat them well." Barry avoids admitting students who upon first interview seem more in need of therapy than acting lessons. Kagen encourages actors to "work on themselves" outside of class so they stay on track and avoid blaming the teacher for their failings.
But sometimes coaches fail. An actor of 10 years who preferred to remain anonymous says she has stopped taking group classes and started training privately because she tired of unqualified coaches criticizing her performances with vague comments, telling her, for example, she didn't "make a choice" in a scene or her performance was "too broad." She feels many Los Angeles coaches "cut down" actors to get their money. "I don't even think a lot of teachers want to teach. I've run into a few that really want to help people, but the rest kind of do it as a side job," she says. "That's a kind of scary thought."
To avoid landing in a destructive teacher-student relationship, actors must do their homework on coaches before spending hard-earned cash for what could turn out to be weeks of abuse. Barry recommends that actors audit classes by various teachers before signing up to determine whether they like the coach's teaching style. Taylor suggests actors find the right teacher for the skill they're hoping to acquire—be it improvisation, cold-reading, or auditioning—or they will grow frustrated. Actors should inquire about the maximum number of students allowed in a class, if they will work in each class regardless of whether their scene partner shows up, and if they will receive individualized attention. Barry says prospective students should pay attention to whether the coach tells self-aggrandizing war stories, as well as to whether they click with the teacher.
Tony admits that had he acknowledged his negative first impressions of his abusive coaches, he wouldn't have wasted years in their classes. "Trust your gut," he advises. "And if your gut tells you that there's something not right with this teacher, you do not have to put up with it."
Quinn agrees. "When it comes to mean people who don't have [actors'] best interests at heart," she says, "don't weather the criticism, leave." BSW