Is There an Acting Teaching Approach With Which You Disagree?

Penny Templeton, Penny Templeton Studio, New York

Yes: idolatry. Acting is a craft, not a religion. I disagree with any philosophy that claims it is "the way"—the only way.

All of us who endeavor to help actors develop as artists owe an undying debt of gratitude to Stanislavsky and the great master teachers who came to us from the Group Theatre. They gave us the tools and techniques that today's teachers draw on when creating what they feel is the best approach to help the actors they are working with master the craft.

The tragedy is that as these great master teachers developed their own specific techniques, they became entrenched in their methods. This created a rift in the industry, as actors were forced to choose which way was the "right" way. Today this has left us with legions of actors and teachers who worship their particular god of Strasberg, Adler, or Meisner, et al. This causes many actors to feel afraid, ashamed, or disloyal if they dare to explore any other techniques—techniques that in fact could be valuable in helping them to become more complete artists.

The truth is, we need all of these approaches. Each is filled with valuable tools that actors draw on to develop and create their craft. In standing alone, each of these schools of thought has gaping holes that can only be filled by looking at the totality of what these great teachers gave us.

This worship of a particular philosophy presumes that a true artist is the result of that technique or teacher. I believe true artistry is the ability of actors to draw on their creativity, uniqueness—and all the valuable techniques—to fulfill the potential of their talent.

David Kagen, David Kagen's School of Film Acting, Los Angeles

Two kinds of acting training are misleading and unhelpful for actors who want to have a real shot at competing successfully in the acting profession: 1) training that teaches formulas and gimmicks, and 2) short-term training for those actively pursuing an acting career.

Formulas and gimmicks only focus on the end result and lead to performances that are too simplistic to be compelling to watch. Formulas and gimmicks are shallow. They do not thrill us or make us go to the movies or the theater.

It is destructive to be too concerned about the end result, especially in the early rehearsal stages. That's not how creativity works. Your performance will barely scratch the surface of what each of the characters in the scene is going through emotionally and will become simply logical and predictable.

Human behavior is much more interesting and complex. It goes beyond intellectual logic. You could spend years in therapy trying to figure out why you do and say what you do and say. If you could figure that out through simple mechanical analysis, there would be no therapists and everyone could always figure out the right thing to do and say.

The first step in preparing a performance is to allow yourself to experience what each moment does to you: to experience as many possible responses in a scene as you can, without limits or preconceptions. When you give yourself total emotional freedom, your performance has a chance to evolve naturally to your deepest unique performance that serves the scene. If that doesn't happen, you can then choose which way you feel is the best way to do the scene from your rehearsal experiences.

But you always want to leave the door open to have surprising and new experiences with every scene, every time you do it. That's a little scary, but it's what the best actors do.

Acting training takes time. Fine acting requires emotional openness and freedom learned over time. Many of us have emotional blocks for a variety of reasons. Like music or dance or anything worth doing, it is a long-term process of training and discovery. There are no gimmicks, no formulas, and no short-term training to get past our blocks and fears. There is only the ongoing process—doing the wonderful, hard work that real actors love to do to be at their best.

Glenn Kalison, New York Film Academy, New York

No, unless we're talking about using paddles or rulers. The teacher is much more important than the philosophy. A breakdown in communication between teacher and student will stunt progress within the framework of any philosophy.

The learning process for actors cannot be forced or rushed. Fantastic teachers need to be patient, dynamic, smart, confident, and inspirational. They need to inspire commitment and trust in students and remind them that acting is about the storytelling, not emotional output. Classes that wallow in emotion can feel like therapy and can take joy out of the process (not much different than the paddle, actually). We need to work on our skills, on broadening our emotional palette, of course, but without losing sight of the bigger picture. Good teachers keep that in check.

The most important learning moments I've had as an actor have been moments in which I have genuinely discovered something—about listening, about placing all my focus on the other person in the scene, about playing an action, about making a strong choice in service to the story, about how others perceive me, etc. Some of these discoveries happened in the classroom and others on stage or in front of the camera. The best teachers I've had in my life have pointed me in the direction of these discoveries without taking the credit, knowing that they might happen at a later time. The work of an acting teacher is sometimes covert, in that it's better to say nothing and gently guide in a certain direction.

Other actors require a stronger push to realize their potential. Genuine discoveries, even small ones, are mind-blowing, monumental experiences that stick with us and become building blocks for our future work. They build our constitution as actors and people. Some are insidious. We are really all teaching the same thing, and the key is having it make sense to the student, not to prove our philosophy. Different approaches will work for different people, so we need lots of tools in our chest.

Bruce Ducat, Studio Actreel, Los Angeles

I am generally excited by the work of other teachers and coaches. The fact that there are so many different paths to achieve wonderful results is inspiring to me. There are as many approaches and styles as there are actors, but there are two approaches that I find abhorrent.

I am speaking of those approaches that deliberately attempt to make the actor feel bad about himself and his work. I have seen many actors have their souls crushed by a trusted teacher. Teachers often do this under the guise of giving actors a dose of "industrial reality." They decimate the spirit of an otherwise powerfully creative soul. Demeaning actors with cruelty and hostility is not only unacceptable; it is counterproductive. It is even more devastating when the actor in training is a child or teen.

This business is arduous. Deciding to dedicate one's life to this incredibly difficult profession is tough enough. This is especially true of an industry where there are so many thieves and soul crushers around every corner. Sadly, when a trusted teacher rubs all of that negativity in one's face, it is unnecessarily destructive. Studying acting should be a joyous experience filled with fun and self-discovery, not torture.

Equally upsetting is when a cult of personality is established in an acting workshop. Teachers who seek to elevate themselves to guru status make the work less about mastering a process and more about celebrating the so-called brilliance of the instructor. The central focus of any actor training should be the actor, not the teacher.

To the actor, I strongly suggest asking any prospective teacher several hard questions about what and how they teach: May I audit your class? What major influences shape your approach to teaching? Do you teach just one technique or a cross-section? How do you handle classwork feedback? What is your personal philosophy about acting and actors?

Make your questions personal. Don't ask questions if the answers will not serve your decision-making process. Listen carefully to the answers. Before signing up, you must make sure that you understand their teaching style. Do not sign up before you have been convinced that this is the kind of training that will serve you.

Finally, your success as an actor will depend on what you bring to the work. It is your passionate willingness to think outside the intellectual box, imagine beyond the script, and learn to play from your heart while listening to the hearts of others that will determine how far you go. If your teacher does not or will not support this, perhaps it is time to train elsewhere.