Classes Query, Need for Nerves

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Dear Jackie:
I feel that taking classes is a great way to exercise my acting muscles when I'm not working. I often take one class that lasts six to 10 weeks right after another, and I do casting director workshops in between. I did two years at a respected studio and found some of the technique classes a little repetitive. The cost is adding up, and the training section of my résumé is starting to get longer than my credits. I feel isolated if I'm not taking a class, but I feel like new headshots or a new reel would be more beneficial. I want to switch things up for the new year. What do you suggest?
—Stuck in a Rut
via the Internet

Dear Stuck:
In a world where money was no object, I'd say you should always be in an intensive technique class. To counter the problem of repetitiveness, I'd suggest you look for an ongoing scene-study class as opposed to a series of short courses. I can only imagine how irritating it would be to go through the "first day of class" routine every couple of months. An ongoing class might also do more to alleviate any feelings of isolation. Short courses or CD workshops are unlikely to counteract that problem.

Moreover (in this perfect, money-free world), I'd suggest you rotate additional classes designed to help with specific skills—sitcom, commercial, voiceover, singing, and so on—as well as take various fitness and self-care courses, such as yoga, kickboxing, and Pilates. While you're at it, join a gym, get a color consultation, hire a personal stylist—and how about a weekly massage?

Back to reality. While classes are crucial to keeping performers fresh and well-tuned, actors do sometimes have to make hard choices about where to put their resources. Headshots and reels aren't luxuries; if you need to update your marketing tools, do it. Use the time off from class to research another acting course, one that's ongoing so you can avoid the repetition that has bored you in the past.

Additionally, to combat the isolation you mentioned, join a theater company. Working with a group of artists to put together quality productions is the antithesis of short, career-focused workshops. Even if you're aiming for a career in film, a good theater company can offer numerous rewards. Beyond providing an artistic outlet and introducing you to like-minded artists, some companies offer member benefits such as workshops and readings. Even going to company meetings and taking tickets at performances can yield surprising educational and networking opportunities.

Research companies in your area. Look for groups that are open to new members, do work you respect, and express an artistic point of view you want to get behind. Ask how you can get involved. Although you'll want to get back into class when finances permit, it's possible your theater company will keep your acting muscles in shape during your break.

One more thing: Though it may be heretical to suggest, I believe everyone needs a break from classes now and then. It's possible that your dissatisfaction with the status quo is really a need for time to absorb what you've been learning or a simple desire to look more actively beyond your craft and into the world around you. While you need to stay in practice, you also need to respect the occasional urge for a break.

Dear Jackie:
I feel like I'm stuck in a major rut. I used to get super-nervous—and I mean legs shaking and having a hard time functioning—before an audition or performance, but once I actually did it, it always went really well. I kind of got into this trance state while I was acting and didn't overthink anything and always got great responses.

I realized that when I'm super-nervous, I do much better. But once I realized that, I stopped getting nervous and therefore lost all the nervous energy. I began to overthink everything while performing or auditioning. So lately I've been trying to coax myself into being nervous, but it isn't working. I'm just too aware of myself while I'm acting, and I haven't been getting as many gigs either. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but do you have any tips?
—Nervous Because of No Nerves
via the Internet

Dear Nervous:
I always do better when I don't want the job. And I can't fake that either.
You can't rely on your ephemeral emotions to get you in the mood to perform. Despite our profession, we can't control our feelings; we can only lay the groundwork and invite them out to play. You've undoubtedly been cultivating such groundwork for your acting, in classes and rehearsals. Time to lay a pre-performance foundation. A solid warm-up is your best shot at getting your head—and gut—in check.

Most acting training programs spend numerous hours helping students develop warm-up skills, but many actors cease using these techniques once they leave school. Who really wants to lie on the dirty ground repeating inane, meaningless phrases such as "buh-duh-guh" just to go into an audition and say, "Yes!"

Unfortunately, some actors throw the baby out with the bathwater. No, a 45-minute voice and body warm-up usually isn't needed before a Honda audition, but a brief mental and physical check-in will do you a world of good. You need to tailor your warm-up to the task at hand, using the more vigorous preparation when necessary.

Actors without formal training may not have any warm-up skills or patterns to fall back on, so to them I suggest cultivating your own ritual. You'll want to include some basic stretches, vocalizations, and something to get your energy up. Draw from techniques you've learned in yoga, sports, singing, or meditation. If you need help, ask an acting or voice teacher to get you started. Don't ignore the benefits that a warm-up can offer simply because you don't know where to start.

For those of you who have a great warm-up but lose that centered feeling as you stand next to the audition-room door or offstage/off-camera waiting for your entrance, you need a quick, 10-second version to do at the moment of truth. Whether it's an affirmation, a long focused breath, or a partial roll down the spine, find something that relaxes and centers you—preferably something that won't draw others' attention. Practice this calming ritual daily. Its repetitive nature will be what makes it work, so don't expect immediate results. Over time, this controlled practice will gain power and be ever so much more reliable than your transient nerves.

Dear Readers:
Remember, the questions we answer in The Working Actor are from real people like you—actors, students, amateurs, professionals, anyone seeking advice related to the acting field. So, if you have a question, query, dilemma, puzzle, inquiry, or curiosity, don't hesitate to write to us at [email protected]. We may include your letter in a future column, which might help fellow actors with similar questions. Looking forward to hearing from you.