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Acting Coaches and Classes: Making a Right Selection

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Why hire an acting coach? That's the question we posed to both actors and acting coaches for this week's spotlight on actor training.

Responds Patricia Velasquez, one of our actor interviewees: "In classes, you interact with other actors. You can experiment with many different styles and approaches as you develop concentration, sense memory, and work on scenes and monologues…. A coach, on the other hand, focuses on your individual needs."

Individual needs, such as those expressed by actor Laurence Lau: "If I have a week [to prepare], I can let the organic choices come up…. But when I'm in a hurry, a coach…helps stimulate the appropriate choices, and steers you away from the inappropriate ones." Actor Julianne Nicholson uses a coach to help her connect with a role that she doesn't "initially connect with." And Josie de Guzman admits that a coach gives her a "sense of security" in helping her fully realize her character.

We interviewed five acting coaches for our feature story that begins on page A2. But, as you can see for yourself by glancing over our list of almost 300 acting schools and coaches, there are dozens upon dozens of other coaches offering their services.

How do you choose the coach that's right for you? Or for that matter, how do you choose an acting school or class that's suited to you?

The first thing you must do is to assess your own individual needs. You can't possibly start working with a coach unless you have a good basic foundation in acting. Do you want to study in a school situation, or take independent classes? Are you a musical performer, or do you have a flair for the classics? There are classes in technique, scene study, improvisation, speech, movement, and so on. You have to decide which class or classes will fulfill your wants, focus on your weak areas, and, most importantly, hone your strengths.

Once you've figured out what you need, start asking your actor friends for teacher references. There are actors that you may not know, but whose work you admire. Try to find out whom they've studied with. There are also a huge variety of books that have been published on acting technique. Try to read as many as you can. One of these acting philosophies might strike a chord with you, and will give you a specific direction in your quest for the perfect teacher.

Now that you've narrowed down the field somewhat, there are other basic factors to consider and questions to ask your potential instructors when you interview with them or attend their orientations.

First, find out if auditing of classes is permitted, but don't be put off if it's not. Teachers may feel the need to protect the privacy of their students. Instead, make sure that you have the opportunity to interview with the coach or teacher. And don't feel intimidated. Be direct and honest. Here are some of the questions that you'll need to ask, especially because there's no association that oversees the schools that are not universities—affiliated, and non-accredited. Anyone can just hang a shingle on his door and be in business as an acting school.

1.) How long has the school been in existence and/or how long has the teacher been teaching?

2.) What are the teacher's credentials? Where did he or she train? What are his or her professional work credits?

3.) How large is the class? Also ask about the ability of the other students. It's best when you work with others who are of equal ability along with those who are somewhat on a higher level than you are.

4.) What about costs? And the payment policy? What about a refund policy?

5.) Are students accepted only on the basis of audition and/or interview? There should be a screening process.

6.) Is one allowed to make up for missed classes? I know one teacher who used to tape classes (she still may do this) so that if any of her students were out (on a job, hopefully), they were able to view the tape of their missed class at their own convenience.

7.) Does the teacher assign material, or is it up to the actor to bring his own material? The teacher (and, certainly, the coach) is the one to best assess what's most appropriate for that person.

8.) Ask the teacher to explain his or her particular method or approach to acting. Does it feel "right" to you? Can you see yourself comfortably adapting to this style? Is the style easily adaptable for TV and film work as well?

9.) Does the school or class produce a showcase at the end of the term where agents and casting directors may be invited? Not all schools do this; it's certainly not mandatory, but it obviously does have its advantages.

* * * *

Acting is mostly about instinct and feeling, and that's exactly what it's all about when choosing the person you decide to work with. If working with that person feels right, then that's the person for you. If your gut is telling you something else, trust your gut and move on to someone else. Know, too, that you gain from every experience, whether positive or negative. It will help to enhance your next encounter and further define your own unique approach to acting.

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