How To Choose an Acting Class

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Photo Source: Jasmin Garcia-Verdin

Whether you’re brand-new to the industry or a seasoned vet, it’s crucial that you keep your acting skills sharp. From beginner-level courses to more specialized instruction—voice, movement, combat—there are an incredible amount of acting classes to choose from. So how do you pick the right one? How do you separate the acting classes that will truly bolster your career from those that will just drain your money and your time? How do you know which technique, teacher, or format is right for you? In this in-depth guide, we’ll walk you through exactly what to look for in an acting class.

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Do I need acting classes to become an actor?

Acting classes are not a requirement for becoming an actor—if there’s anything that’s 100% certain in this industry, it’s that there’s no single path to establishing an acting career. But most people agree that classes help you become a better actor, and not just if you’re a beginner. “There is no substitute for studying with the right teacher,” says Secret Agent Man. “Even experienced actors flex their muscles in class because they know that’s the best way to stay focused.

“You’ll also learn a ton by watching the other students,” he continues. “That’s why you never want to be the best actor in your class. It makes more sense to surround yourself with performers who challenge and inspire you.”

Acting classes have the added benefit of allowing you to easily network with other actors. Plus, if you study with a well-known teacher, putting their name on your acting résumé can boost your profile. If a casting director recognizes your teacher, they likely know what kind of training you received—and confidence in the teacher can translate to confidence in you. If you have an agent, ask for acting class 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.

What are the different types of acting classes?

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. Some of the most common types of acting classes include:

  • Scene study: According to 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.”
  • Technique class: There are a number of famous acting techniques taught in the U.S. “The Meisner technique, Strasberg Method, Chekhov technique, and Stella Adler technique are a few of the most highly renowned,” note Backstage Experts Joanne Baron and D.W. Brown. “This type of class will be particularly helpful to actors starting out who want to learn about these techniques. Many actors rely on one for a lifelong career while others may explore many techniques and even construct one of their own.” 
  • Audition technique: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 necessary 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.
  • 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.”
  • Commercial: A commercial shoot is a very different experience than TV and films—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. But 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.
  • Body and 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’s the difference between an acting workshop and an acting class?

A common misconception is that acting workshops and acting classes are one and the same. Essentially, acting classes are for continued training and development, while workshops serve as an opportunity to get associated with industry players and discover what they look for when hiring talent. In a workshop, you will pay a one-time fee to perform for someone that you are hoping to make a professional connection with, like an agent or casting director. This is not an audition, but a period where whoever is leading the workshop can give you tips and discuss what they look for when they are actively casting a project.

What are the most common acting techniques taught in class?

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.

Stanislavsky: Developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Stanislavsky’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 Stanislavsky’s system searches for inner motives or experience to justify action and what the character seeks to achieve in a given moment.

Strasberg’s 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 Stanislavsky, and her “method” built on the work of Stanislavsky 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.

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.

What are the best acting classes for beginners?

Beginner? Consider general interest classes to make sure you actually like acting and want to pursue it and spend more money on training. These classes tend to be larger and, therefore, less expensive, so if it turns out you’re not that into acting, you haven’t wasted so much money or time.

Intermediate? You have a solid foundation but are looking to take your acting to the next level. One-on-one or small group training is probably best for you, as these setups will ensure you get to perform and receive personalized feedback in every single class.

Advanced? This is where things get really specific since at this stage in your acting career, you’ve probably already taken dozens and dozens of classes. Hone in on medium or skill or niche when researching potential classes—the pickings may be slimmer, but it’s likely that those few uber-specific classes are taught by true masters.

How do I find an acting class?

To help you find your first acting class, we’ve rounded up hundreds of acting classes, from New York to L.A., and everywhere in between. Your perfect fit is out there, we promise!

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 acting class recommendations from actor friends who you know and admire, or ask if a studio will connect you with another one of their students you can talk to.

Online research is also key. Search for reviews of specific teachers and studios, and pay attention to any themes that pop up frequently as possible pros and cons.

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.

What are the signs of a good acting teacher?

Nothing will make or break a class faster than the teacher. “First and foremost, you need someone you can trust so that you are willing to let go and move past your blocks,” says acting coach Cathryn Hartt. “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.”

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.

It’s also difficult 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 Backstage Experts 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.”

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.”

What’s the ideal size for an acting class?

Acting classes should be small—like private coaching in a class setting—so you have the chance to get up and work on a new piece every week. “Do not join a class where you are forced to work with a scene partner,” advises acting coach Joseph Pearlman. “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?”

Another thing to consider is how long you’ll have to actually act during class—something that directly correlates with the size of the group. Acting teacher 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...”

Are acting classes expensive?

There’s no way around it—yes, acting classes are expensive. If you’re on a serious budget, consider taking a few less expensive classes to get a sense of what works for you before committing to some more pricey. 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, after all.

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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Should I take an online acting class?

There are some substantial benefits to online acting classes. Online classes serve as a way to connect with other professionals and avoid feelings of loneliness in the midst of social distancing. “You can take other classes that are not just acting classes to get that connection and find ones that in the end, will help you in your acting like public speaking or classes to manage anxiety,” according to Backstage Expert Michelle Danner. “There are many different techniques and exercises that can lead to tackling all those turbulent emotions in a very creative way.” 

Virtual instruction also means no geographical restrictions or obligations. You don’t need to stress about driving, finding a ride or paying for public transportation to get to a class, or even have to miss out on participating in something that seems like a great fit for you due to travel barriers. 

With that in mind, to be sure whether an online acting class is worth continuing, you’ll have to evaluate its effectiveness. Backstage Expert Joann Baron discusses a few methods for deciding whether an online class is effective, including researching a school or teacher’s proven results over time, assessing the quality of the work artistically and checking for substantial growth in your work as well as that of your peers. 

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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Author Headshot
Allie White
Allie is Backstage’s director of editorial operations, whose professional background includes women’s interest, news, health, beauty, and, of course, entertainment. Despite a crippling fear of singing in public, she still believes she’ll be a Broadway star one day.
See full bio and articles here!

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