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How to Choose an Acting Class

How to Choose an Acting Class
Photo Source: Illustrations: Adam Lee

No matter your age, going back to school is always a good idea—especially if it’s acting class we’re talking about. Whether you’re brand new to acting or a seasoned vet, it’s crucial to the success of an actor that he or she keeps their skills sharp while also learning new techniques, methods, and approaches, and acting class is the perfect way to do just that. From beginner level courses that teach the basics to something more specialized—voice, movement, combat—there are an incredible amount of classes to choose from. So how do you choose? How do you separate the classes that will truly help you on your actor journey from those that will just take your money and time? How do you know which class/teacher/format is right for you?

Fear not, we’ve got you covered. Here are the questions you should ask yourself and the things to consider to pinpoint what you should look for in an acting class:

Just want to be famous? This isn’t the right way to do it. Fame and success don’t happen overnight and certainly won’t happen without serious training. You have to truly be passionate about acting, enough so to devote your time to studying the craft. And even then, proper training doesn’t guarantee success. Acting classes aren’t cheap and they aren’t a quick fix—your fellow students won’t appreciate you taking up precious time in a class they’re truly invested in if your answer to the “why are you here” question is something along the lines of “to become famous.” Want to become an actor the right way? Check out our Backstage Guide on the subject.  

What kind of actor do I want to be? What kind of skills do I need to develop?

First things first: identify your needs. “Be honest about why you want to be an actor in the first place,” says Paul Barry, Backstage Expert and acting teacher. “Though you may claim it’s a pure artistic calling, if it’s really for fame, glamour, or to prove something to your parents, be honest about that. If you want to exorcise your demons—though acting may not be the most reliable therapy—it’s your life, your choice. Just be honest, because it will guide every decision you make.”

If you’re starting from scratch, figure out where you want to do the majority of your acting. Do you want to tread the boards? Work in front of a film camera? Musical theater? Comedy? Drama? Yes, there are general “acting” classes, but if you have an idea of what you want to focus on, that can help you choose the right class to help develop that particular set of skills. If you’re further along in your training, you may decide it’s time to tackle a facet of acting you’ve never considered before, or one that your agent recommends you add to your resume to expand the types of roles you can submit for.

 

Some of the most common types of classes—and ones every actor should consider at some point in their training—are:

Scene study + technique
According to Backstage Expert and acting coach Carolyn Berry, “Scene study primarily involves individual scenes or monologues from a play or film, which are assigned to the student actors. The instructor directs and teaches his/her approach using material as the vehicle. He/she might have some warm-ups or exercises, but the main focus of their instruction is the scene work.”

Auditioning
Though auditioning and performing go hand-in-hand, these classes focus on the former. Even if you’re a fantastic actor, if you’re not a good auditioner, that talent won’t ever be acknowledged. To help students nail their auditions, these classes teach script analysis, proper audition behavior, monologue prep, and how to approach a casting panel.

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On-camera (screen)
Unless otherwise specified, most classes focus on acting for the stage, which requires a very different approach than acting for the screen. An on-camera class teaches students the technicalities and nuances of acting for the medium, as well as knowing how to interact with and move for the camera, and voice level control.

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Cold reading
Cold reading, the act of performing from a script or text with little-to-no rehearsal or practice, is one of the most important skills an actor can have (especially those who audition for commercials frequently). Cold reading classes teach the skills needed to quickly prepare a text—understanding the character and situation so you have more time to think about the performance, instead of interpreting the text.

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Improv
As the name implies, these classes teach actors how to improvise, a crucial skill in this industry. “It is the best work for helping actors to build confidence, courage, creativity, and teaches them to trust their instincts,” says Barry. “Also, it’s helpful in teaching (anyone) to stay out of their head, listen, and respond honestly.”

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Commercial
For actors interested in auditioning for commercials, this is an obvious necessity. Though they’re all filmed work, a commercial shoot is a very different experience than TV and movies—things move much faster and actors often have to improvise. Commercial classes can teach you what to expect and how to handle it.

Vocal
For anyone looking to pursue a career in musical theater, vocal classes teach actors how to properly use their voices and the technique necessary to not injure their vocal cords. That said, vocal classes can also be useful for non-singing actors, especially when it comes to handling emotional dialogue and sounds, such as shouting or screaming, without fatiguing or damaging the voice. 

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Body + movement
Whether it’s yoga, the Alexander Technique, or stage combat, movement classes are important when it comes to actors really knowing how to use their bodies. These types of classes will bring awareness to your limbs, how they move, and the space they take up.

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What part of an acting class is most important to me?  

The class you choose should obviously check off more than one box, but figuring out what one thing is an absolute non-negotiable will be helpful in narrowing down your choices. Want a class that ends in a showcase? Need a teacher who specializes in the Strasberg method? Only have so much money to spend? You get the idea. Here are the things to seriously consider in your search:  

Technique

According to Backstage Experts and acting teachers Risa Bramon Garcia and Steve Braun, “Acting teachers are often guilty of desperately clinging to the validity of the technique they teach. When you stake your honor and your mortgage payments on one technique, you’re probably not going to be super objective about it. You may even talk smack about another technique in order to build yours up. But make no mistake. There is no one correct way to act. No technique can guarantee that you'll book work or be a brilliant actor. If a teacher tells you that her or his way is the only way, walk away lickety-split.”

That said, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into should you choose a class or teacher that focuses on one technique in particular. Below, you’ll find brief explanations of the most well-known acting techniques, courtesy of Jackie Apodaca, associate professor and the head of performance at Southern Oregon University, and actor KC Wright.

Stanislavski
Developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Stanislavki’s system advocates naturalistic behavior and believable emotions, placing an actor inside a character’s “magic if,” establishing motivation, and identifying objectives and obstacles. The technique evolved over the years, moving from personal memory-driven emotionality (“emotional memory” or “affective memory”) to more physical, active preparation (“method of physical actions”). Simply put, an actor who studies Stanislavski’s system searches for inner motives or experience to justify action and what the character seeks to achieve in a given moment.

Method
Inspired by but diverging from Stanislavsky, “Method acting” was created by Lee Strasberg, and encourages actors to magnify and intensify their connection to the material by creating their characters’ emotional experiences in their own lives.

Adler
Stella Adler studied under Stanislavski, and her “method” built on the work of Stanislavski and Strasberg. Adler’s technique differs from Strasberg’s in that it emphasizes imagination in addition to emotional recall. She famously said, “Drawing on the emotions I experienced—for example, when my mother died—to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it.”

Meisner
Meisner taught his students to “live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances.” His approach is an eminently practical one; his famous repetition exercise, in which two actors sit opposite each other and respond in the moment with a repeated phrase, breaks down overly structured technique and builds openness, flexibility, and listening skills.

Chekhov
Stanislavski’s star student, Chekhov pioneered a “psycho-physical” approach to acting, focusing on mind, body, and a conscious awareness of the senses. 

Practical Aesthetics
This action-based acting technique was developed by playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy, and incorporates elements of Stanislavsky and Meisner. It involves a four-step scene analysis that simply focuses on pursuit of an action; actors are taught to focus on what is literally happening in the scene and what is desired of the other characters. 

Hagen
Uta Hagen’s technique emphasizes realism and truth above all else; “substitution” (or “transference”) encourages actors to substitute their own experiences and emotional recollections for the given circumstances of a scene.

Theater Games
Viola Spolin’s unique “Theater Games” approach focuses on directorial and improvisational exercises, and teaches actors to live in the moment and respond quickly and truthfully to their present circumstances.

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Teacher

Nothing will make or break a class faster than the teacher. Cathryn Hartt, Backstage Expert and acting coach, says, “First and foremost, you need someone you can trust so that you are willing to let go and move past your blocks. Everyone is different and you should consider that someone else might work for others but not you. It’s like falling in love. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason—it just works. Find someone that fits. But find someone who will keep you moving out of your comfort zone.”

Here are the questions to ask yourself when it comes to finding the right teacher:

Does the teacher have experience as an actor?
It’s hard to teach acting without having experience as an actor. That said, “When you’re in class, your teacher should be a teacher, not an actor,” say Risa Bramon García and Steve Braun. “Yes, it is remarkably helpful if the person with whom you are studying is, or has been, a working actor. That practical, on-the-ground knowledge is invaluable. But when teachers are teaching they need to remove their acting hat. It cannot be about them: their ego, their skill, their career, whatever. You don’t pay a teacher to indulge. Teachers are there to train you. Nothing else. Anything that a teacher does in class should be in the interest of training you to be a better actor.”

Is the teacher interested in my learning/progress?  
If not, this is a major red flag. Teachers who aren’t invested in the success of their students are likely only in it for the money. Similarly, any teacher who says he or she can make you a star is lying to you—no teacher can turn you into Meryl Streep. “A good teacher introduces you to exercises and a practice that allows you to discover your pre-existing talent and then express it in all its brilliant glory,” say Garcia and Braun. “You have the raw material and a good teacher helps you mine it and shape it.” 

Is teacher reputation important?
You could take all the classes in the world, but if your resume is filled with training from unknown teachers, casting directors may not be confident that you have the training and skills they need. If they recognize your teacher, they likely know what kind of training you received and that confidence in the teacher can translate to confidence in you.

If you have an agent, ask for suggestions. Sometimes agents care about where you studied and who you studied with. If they have other clients who have had good experiences with a teacher, they’ll let you know.

Were you referred by another student?
A recommendation from a student who has already taken the class or studied with the teacher is a great way to really know what to expect. Ask for recommendations from actor friends who know and admire, or ask if a studio will connect you with another one of their students you can talk to.

Does the teacher have former/current students who are now successful actors?
An actor’s success isn’t based solely on his or her acting teacher, but when a teacher does have many working students, that’s a good sign. Be wary of teachers who constantly name-drop a-listers as former students—their focus should be on the “little people,” and helping them work up to that a-list status.

Are there reviews?
The internet is your best friend here. Search for reviews of specific teachers and studios, and pay attention to any themes that pop up frequently as possible pros and cons.

Will the teacher let you audit a class before committing? 

Acting classes don’t come cheap, and many studios have pretty strict “no refund” policies. So before committing to a multi-week class with a hefty price tag, inquire about whether you can audit a class before committing. Sitting in on a class will give you a good sense of a teacher’s style, how the class works, and how students interact with one another. Listen to your gut here.

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What kind of teaching style am I interested in/is conducive to my style of learning?
Teachers who are mean, verbally abusive, or constantly tearing down your work may think they’re doing you a favor by being harsh critics, but this will only lead to destroying your confidence and blocking your path to success. Find a teacher who can frame criticism in a constructive, helpful way, and one that you feel comfortable asking question, talking to, and soliciting feedback from. That said, any teacher who is too nice probably won’t help you grow, either. You’re wasting your money if your teacher isn’t pushing you to be better. According to Bramon and Garcia, “The type of profound progress needed to succeed as an actor is rarely achieved within one’s comfort zone. A teacher should take you to a place of discomfort and do it with nothing but deep care, respect, and your progress in mind.”

Class Format + Size

Will I be taught or directed?
There is a significant difference between being directed and being taught, so make sure the class you choose offers specific techniques you can do later on your own, or that help you translate a general direction into specific action.

Is the class so big that the teacher doesn’t even know my name? Will I be working with a scene partner?
According to Backstage Expert and acting coach Joseph Pearlman, classes should be small, like private coaching in a class setting, so you have the chance to get up and work every week on a new piece. “Do not join a class where you are forced to work with a scene partner,” he says. “When actors are required to partner up, it means the teachers can pack the class like sardines, What sucks about this imposed dynamic is the inevitability that your partner doesn’t take it seriously. Why should you be shit out of luck just because your partner wasn’t prepared?”

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Will I act in every class?
This correlates directly to how large the class is. Paul Barry says to think about it this way: “Even ignoring the time required for quick changeovers between actors, or breaks to go to the bathroom or sit and absorb what you’re learning, a three-hour class of eight actors leaves a little over 20 minutes per actor each week. Twenty minutes to rehearse and perform a scene, make mistakes, receive notes, make adjustments, and (hopefully) reshoot. Now imagine how little time you’ll receive in a class of 12, 16, or 20 people….”

Is the class environment positive?
Similarly to the question regarding the teaching style that’s most conducive to your way of learning, the class environment should play a big role in your decision. If the teacher is mean or overly-critical, chances are the vibe in the room won’t be great, with students too scared to truly act and explore their potential. You want a class environment that will push you to grow and evolve as an actor.

Cost

There’s no way around the fact that acting classes are expensive, which is why making sure you’ve answered all the aforementioned questions is crucial. You don’t want to plunk down a chunk of change for a six-week class you don’t love with a teacher who isn’t actually doing anything for your craft. If you’re on a serious budget, consider taking a few less-expensive (potentially not as good) classes to get a sense of what works for you before committing to some more expensive.

But if you’re serious about a career in acting, you need to be serious about acquiring the tools you need to get there. An investment today could make all the difference in the future.

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When is it time to find a new acting class? 

Knowing when to walk away from an acting class is almost as important as choosing one in the first place. An acting class that’s no longer in line with your needs and that no longer serves you as an artist is a waste of time, money, and energy. Maybe you feel like you’ve learned all you can from a teacher, or the format of the class has changed and you no longer feel like you’re getting as much individualized attention...whatever the reason, there’s no point in dragging it out.

So how do you know when it’s time to try something new? According to Anthony Meindl of Anthony Meindl’s Acting Workshop, you should be in a class that’s “constantly challenging you.” Think of it like a workout: when the weight you’ve been lifting starts to feel easy, it’s time to add on. The same goes for acting class: When you start to feel safe and comfortable, find something new. You’ll never grow and evolve as an actor unless your classes are making you a little uncomfortable and pushing you to try new things.

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Where can I find an acting class? 

Now that you know what to look for in an acting class and the things you want to prioritize in your search, it's time to actually find one. Luckily, we've got you covered. Check out our roundup of hundreds of acting classes, from New York to L.A., and everywhere in between. Your perfect fit is out there, we promise! 

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