Choosing the right acting class can sometimes feel like looking for a needle in a stack of needles. First of all, there is the sheer quantity of classes available on the West Coast to grapple with—more than 400 in our listings alone. The proliferation of acting coaches in L.A. is indicative of the general over-abundance of choices in our supermarket culture. But 50 brands of chocolate chip cookies can't all be the same, right?
If your eyes haven't glazed over from the telephone-book thickness of this Spotlight list, the more immediate question is, How do you tell one "brand" from another? As past Back Stage West interviewees from Sydney Pollack to William H. Macy have pointed out, anybody can set himself up as an acting coach, since, after all, what truly are the qualifications?
Many would point to education and experience as obvious indicators of a legitimate coach. And indeed if a "coach" has no apparent performance or production experience, or education, for that matter, you can safely consider that a red light. Beyond that, it's a question of degrees—and we're not just talking about M.F.A. vs. Ph.D. How much experience is necessary for a coach to have—and what kind of experience? Many actors would argue that they've learned more from a few months working with their peers in certain class situations than years with so-called experts. And this is often undoubtedly the case.
What it all boils down to is that some people like Chips Ahoy and some like Toll House. Choosing a class is a very personal decision. It's like choosing a roommate. And as with roommates, there's always the possibility you'll get burned. But keep in mind, you're paying for a service. The coach may consider it paying for the privilege of working with him—but trust us, it's a service. So, as with any service, make sure you get your money's worth.
To help our readers find the class that's right for them, Back Stage West has put together this guide of sorts—a set of guidelines would probably be a more accurate description. If used correctly, these hints may help you make your way through the labyrinthine list that follows. Because no one likes to get lost in the supermarket.
It's All About You
Because selecting the best class is such a personal thing, the most important questions you need to ask before you go on your quest are those that you can answer yourself. Where you are in relation to your performance goals and dreams has everything to do with which class you should be in. What have you accomplished so far, and what do you wish to accomplish in the future? Have you been formally educated? If so, to what degree and in which techniques?
It helps to write down your past training in detail, just to have it in front of your eyes, but not in the shopping-list format as it appears at the bottom of your resumé. Instead, write down what training you specifically rely on as a performer, in order of relevancy. For example: "As an actor, this is what I'm best at: Improv (from studying with Paul Sills), Improv performance (from two years with Second City), Movement (from three years of dance at University)," etc. Be as specific as possible. Sure, you got a degree in Theatre from Carnegie-Mellon, but what did you learn exactly? Maybe you got everything from that clown class but really didn't connect with the Method work. Figure out where you stand by including all of your past training and performing experiences, good and bad.
When you complete this list, it should be clear where you're at in terms of your training—and a lot more precisely than your resumé indicates. Next, figure out where you are in terms of your career, with a specific goal in mind. At the bottom of this list, write down your overall goal, whether it's to be "Lead in a sitcom," "Action star in feature films," "Artistic director of my own theatre company,"or "Member of the Royal Shakespeare Company."
Then, from your training list, select those experiences that have brought you closer to your goal and write them above your goal. For example, if your goal is to become a member of the RSC, your list may look something like this: "Classical Performance (two lead roles in regional productions); Classical Training (versework for one summer at BADA with Derek Jacobi); Text in performance (class with Andrei Serban, worked on Midsummer), etc." This will probably be a much shorter list, but that's OK. It will make it immediately clear how much work you have done toward your goal—and how much is left to be done.
Now you know exactly where you're at and how you got there. You can also see how much of your training directly relates to your goal, and how much does not. The next thing to ask yourself is, What am I missing? What are the steps needed to achieve my goal? And can a class help fill those gaps?
The answer to that last one won't always be "yes." There are certain actors out there who have all the training they need to qualify them for their goal, and what they need now is simply more experience. Or perhaps they have both all the experience and training they need—they just have to keep working until they get their break.
However, if you're looking for a class, you're probably not among these lucky few. More likely, there are certain holes in your performance experience and training that a good class might fill. For example, let's say your goal is to work in episodic TV drama. You've trained extensively in the Method in college, acted in numerous dramatic theatre projects around town, have a good agent, and yet your auditions are not going as well as you hoped.
Well, try to figure out exactly what's going wrong. Is the camera cramping your style? Maybe an on-camera class is what's needed. Are you having difficulty honestly reacting to what you're being given by your scene partner (often a reader)? You could look into some Meisner classes. Are you just too serious and rigid in your readings? Maybe some improv work would loosen you up.
The more honest you are with yourself about what exactly you need in order to take that next step toward your goal, the easier it will be to find the right class.
The Four A's
Once you've figured out your problem and the kind of class that might address it, the rest is much easier. Write down exactly what your ideal class would be, such as: "A three-times-a-week scene work class which will help me build confidence in dramatic character work, preparing me for the roles I will eventually play in new theatrical productions on Broadway." It might sound a little silly, but it will help.
Now you're ready for your plan of action. Let's call it the "Four A's." Easy to remember, right? First, ASK AROUND. Your best chance at landing in a satisfying class is always by referral. If your friend knows a coach he swears by who teaches a class similar to what you're looking for, you should check it out. Likewise, if you hear of a class that seems to match your description, find out if anyone you know has worked with the teacher or school before. Ask them questions about what they got out of it and what they were hoping to get. Remember that their goals might be different from yours, so ask more specific questions than, Was it good?
Whether you come up with a great suggestion from a friend, or whether you find the class on your own—perhaps from the following listing—the next step is to AUDIT. Auditing a class, even if it's for a fee, is always worthwhile. It won't be the same as fully participating, but you'll get a fairly good idea of what you can expect. Not all schools allow auditing, but don't be afraid to ask. It can save you money and time in the long run.
Once you've settled on the right class for you, your next job is to ACT. In other words, finding the perfect class is only half the battle. Investing yourself in the work is the other half. Take your class seriously and really do the work. You're paying for it after all, so get your money's worth. Otherwise you'll never know in the end whether the class was lacking or whether your work in it was.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after about three sessions of class, ASSESS. What have you learned? Is what you've learned so far what you took the class for in the first place? Is it worth it to continue? Again, it's your money. Don't be afraid to take a hard look at a class once you're in it. There are too many fish in the sea to stick with a program that's not right for you.
And when all is said and done, of course, the final step is the step you take onto the stage or in front of the camera. It's then that the true test of your training will come. But if you've gotten all you need from your classes, this will be the last thing in your mind. You'll be "in the moment," secure in the knowledge the you have the skills to meet the challenge. Instead of learning, you'll be doing. And that's the goal of every actor.
So there you have it—make your lists, follow the Four A's, and good luck. Because as the sprawling list that follows indicates, it's a jungle out there. BSW