If you've taken more than one acting class, you know there's no one-size-fits-all rule of etiquette any more than there's one method of acting that works for everyone. But certain elements of classroom conduct and procedure are worth examining. Students and teachers alike, listen up.
Mundane an issue as this is, when students arrive late to class or to a scene-partner rehearsal, it can demoralize others. James Tripp, head of acting at New York's Stella Adler Studio, expects students to be quiet and seated when he comes in. (Adler required proper dress and posture, plus a chorus of greeting.) Karen Kohlhaas, master teacher at New York's Atlantic Acting School, says flatly, "No one is admitted late to class. Ever." She also enforces 15 minutes of silence at the beginning of class for actors to prepare. In Los Angeles, teacher Doug Warhit gears his classes toward professional work in the industry, so if an actor arrives late because of an audition, "I'm thrilled." But you're expected to call ahead.
Being responsible about punctuality also means respecting your scene partner's time. The general feeling is that if your scene partner is late or a no-show, confront him or her immediately. "If you get stood up, that's original sin," says David Strasberg, creative director and CEO of the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles, so get yourself a monologue or find someone else to partner with, he advises. As for lateniks, "Let them know. Make it clear what's acceptable."
Chicago actor Sarah Ibis was working on a scene with an actor who was busy planning his wedding. She offered to come to his house for an hour several times a week rather than schedule larger chunks of time. Although the former is not her preferred way of rehearsing, it worked under the circumstances.
Strasberg says every type of problem that exists between people in society also materializes between scene partners. And the biggest problem, he says, is one scene partner trying to direct another, which is never okay. When it happens, Ibis takes a deep breath and says, "I'd really appreciate it if you let me discover this on my own." But other problems can arise. Says Strasberg, "Some people memorize fast and get frustrated if the other [actor] is still on book. Some like a slow, exploratory rehearsal; another wants to get things clear and march through the scene."
Sometimes students aren't happy with their partner for whatever reason. Chicago teacher Ed Hooks says occasionally a woman will ask him how to handle rehearsing romantic scenes when a male partner is making her uncomfortable. "You don't take a scene from Picnic and turn it into a pickup routine," says Hooks. To avoid such situations, he usually has new students rehearse in class at first so he can show them how to establish a professional, efficient working partnership. He tells students to decide together when they want to present the scene, so they don't get locked into an open-ended rehearsal period, which can de-energize the material.
"I tell them to grit their teeth and go on with the scene," says Tripp of students' complaints about scene partners. "But if he's physically out of control or approaching her in ways that are sexual or unprofessional, then I tell them to drop the scene, and I send him to counseling [at New York University, with which the Adler Studio is affiliated]." At Atlantic, which is also affiliated with NYU, Kohlhaas tries to put partner personality conflicts in a professional context. "It's to their benefit to work it out themselves as adults," she says. Atlantic student David Morris remarks, "If people don't want to work hard, and if we're working on something I'm passionate about, I confront them: 'I want to work on this because I don't want it to look like shit.'" For another Adler Studio student, Franklin Killian, it's all about straightforward communication: "If what I'm doing is crap, tell me. If you don't believe what I'm saying, tell me. If you're uncomfortable with me, let's stop, talk about it, ask why. I say, 'I'm uncomfortable; what can we do about this?' rather than saying, 'You have to do it this way.' "
In some classes, actors are encouraged to applaud and/or critique scenes; in others, that's a no-no. Strasberg, for example, discourages applause — "You don't want it to be a contest," he says — but his mother, Anna Strasberg, says, "Don't deny them that." Strasberg notes that his late father, Lee Strasberg, didn't encourage class feedback. "Group participation can be a wonderful thing, pulling a group together, helping students learn to evaluate," concedes the younger Strasberg, "but in the end the teacher is entrusted with feedback."
Hooks, however, thinks critiquing scenes is a learning experience for those commenting and he encourages it as long as it's constructive and not directorial. He also says student comments help him assess whether the class understands acting theory. But Tripp says it's pointless to take time for students to critique when he himself has so much to say. Terry Ross, who teaches on-camera acting independently in San Diego, says students are not paying to get feedback from other students, and besides, class time is limited. Los Angeles teacher Margie Haber, who focuses on on-camera audition technique, discourages applause but accepts student feedback. Says one of her students, Debbie Campbell, Haber keeps it from feeling like a personal attack by having students address comments to the teacher, not classmates.
The dynamic can be different in a conservatory setting like the Adler Studio, where you're working with a small group for several years. Killian says that if you can't critique your fellow students in class, it happens anyway outside of class, and students will take it personally and become angry at each other. "At the beginning [of my conservatory studies], there was a lot of trash-talking behind backs," Killian says. "Rather than saying what might help a student, they'd say things like, 'They sucked; they obviously just memorized their lines last night.'" Besides, he says, it's all about what the audience sees, not what you think you look like, so the more feedback the better. At Atlantic, where feedback is acceptable and conservatory students are split into groups, Morris says the system works: "You get to know the students in your group, and they call you out." Ibis thinks it's important for students to applaud. "There's nothing worse at the end of a scene than to be greeted with oppressive silence," she says. "Whether or not the scene was good, it was a brave act."
Students are presumably in class to learn from their teachers, but sometimes students are so defensive about being criticized that it disrupts the class. Hooks had one actor who refused to take adjustments; he'd argue no matter what Hooks said. The student got angry and abusive, and Hooks finally kicked him out.
When students challenge the teacher like this, everybody loses. "If students take up time questioning some of the things I'm saying, I feel like saying, 'Go somewhere else,' " says Ross. Killian hates it when his classmates debate with the instructor. "The instructor knows more about the play and about acting than you do," he says. "It just wastes time." "Nobody likes criticism," acknowledges Tripp. "They all think it's an attack on their egos or personalities. But it's always about the work."
At Steppenwolf Theatre Company's acting program in Chicago, teacher (and company actor) Jeff Perry admits to losing his temper with students who haven't done their homework. "I remember screaming in frustration, saying, 'That's just selfish; you're holding everybody back because of how you're behaving,'" he says. "What frustrates me is when people come to class but don't give it their all," says Campbell. "That's disappointing for teachers and other students."
Ibis emphasizes the importance of actors being quiet when scenes are performed and not out in the hall preparing their own scenes. She also raises another important point: Sometimes newcomers don't understand how deep actors work. "Actors bring their personal experiences to the [classroom] stage," she says, "[and] there's a sort of respect that's required, that their dark secrets and emotional outbreaks are safe, not gossiped about outside class. What happens in this room should stay in this room."
Watching One's Back
If a classroom is rife with a competitive attitude rather than a supportive one, that kind of negative atmosphere is coming from the top, says Ross, who notes that in their student days, she and Haber experienced controlling, ego-driven, verbally abusive teachers. Some teachers obviously play favorites; some foster a guru quality. Haber had teachers who threw chairs at people, who required students to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Once, when she forgot her lines, a teacher yelled at her to stop masturbating on stage. "People always want to be teacher's pet," says David Strasberg. But, he points out, when you see a good actor do a good scene, it can inspire you to rehearse more, to set your sights higher.
Killian agrees: "If your good friend does a tremendous scene, you might say to your partner, 'Let's do a good scene; let's knock it out of the park.' " The sense of competition goads you into working harder. Campbell says that when she gets an email from a classmate who's appearing in a TV show that week, it's uplifting: "If they can do it, so can I."
At Atlantic, says Kohlhaas, it's all about each individual growing in his or her own way. However, she has been in classrooms elsewhere where you'd want others to fail, you'd want to have the best scene, you'd vie for the teacher's acceptance, and teachers had pets. But at Atlantic, each classroom is treated like an ensemble, she says.
Ross says she learned from mentors Richard Seyd and Tony Taccone to establish an open, honest environment. At the start of each class, students share experiences from the week, such as what auditions they had, providing a supportive vibe. Ross says she works hard to give equal time and feedback to all students; in her classroom she also sets up a mock audition-waiting-room scenario in which actors try to derail each other or lie about what's happening in the audition, so students learn how to handle such situations. "These are real things," she explains. "L.A. is cutthroat." She also notes that some teachers, such as Larry Moss and Howard Fine, have connections to agents, and that adds a lot of competitive tension to the classroom.
Warhit says he shows his students how to view competition from a perspective that's empowering, not destructive. Recently, for example, a producer from CSI was a classroom visitor, and one student ended up with a guest-starring role. "You can take that as, 'What's wrong with me?'" says Warhit, "Or 'Great, I'm in the same class as this person, so that means there's work for me.' You can have the perspective of 'My competition's getting more work,' but everybody is on their own path."
Tripp says, "Everybody's competing for attention. That's a given." But he enforces classroom discipline and doesn't play favorites, he says, so it's not an issue. And at Steppenwolf, Perry also considers competition a nonissue because the program's entire focus is on developing an ensemble sensibility. He also observes that in Chicago, unlike New York and Los Angeles, you can't really get rich and famous if you stay there. He thinks that eliminates some of the competitive atmosphere.
"The actor's fear — that person's doing better than me; that person's prettier than me — that's there all the time," says Haber. "It's up to the teacher how to handle it." The bottom line: Students and teachers alike must contribute in equal measure to create a constructive working environment. Says Ed Hooks, "Uta Hagen wrote Respect for Acting, and to me everything boils down to that in terms of classroom etiquette and approach. Acting is an art and deserves that respect."