Though all actors will tell you they never stop learning, what they learn, how, and from whom are complicated questions with unique, often amusing, answers. From dubious acting schools to pricey coaches, to masters of the craft who delight in berating their students, the search for the right environment in which to develop artistically and professionally can be an education in itself-or will at least give you a few good stories to tell your kids.

Back Stage West recently spoke with a trio of L.A. actors currently studying with a variety of acting schools and coaches who were willing to tell their tales of struggle in the belly of the beast.

Good Nights, Bad Nights

by Laura Weinert

Renee came to L.A. from New York with a theatre degree from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, so she didn't feel she was in the market for more acting classes per se. She was ready to work. So when, some months after moving to L.A., Renee received an unexpected phone call asking her to come in and audition for a casting director workshop at a well-known actors' studio, she jumped at the chance. At the time she didn't bother to ask such questions as how they got her name or phone number in the first place; much later she discovered that the acting studio gets lists from casting directors and agents who receive blind submissions.

The studio required a brief audition with sides, after which she was asked to elaborate her goals and was paired with a consultant-a relationship that became, over time, a fruitful alliance.

"The consultants will call you when they have something new they think you'd been interested in," Renee said. "They'll look over your resum , answer questions, become friends of yours. They're supposed to be there for you and they are. They're all actors. They know; they've been there."

Renee's main goals were to find an agent and get in front of casting directors. Yet before she was allowed to sign up for a workshop, she was required to take a cold reading class-three hours weekly for four weeks, for about $175-despite her theatre degree.

"I didn't learn anything in the class, because it was the kind of thing I learned in college," Renee said. "I didn't need it. I took it because I was naive at the time and they said to me, "Before we let you go to the casting directors series, you should take this course.'"

Renee was then given the choice to enroll in a variety of courses and workshops, with one-night sessions going for around $40 and a series of four for $200. She opted for the four-week agent series, and later for a four-week casting director series, and described the drill: Most are showcases in front of invited agents or casting directors, and last from one to three hours, as 15-20 actors work through scenes and monologues. Typically, the industry guests talk for around 20 minutes, telling students what they like to see and occasionally focusing on the actor's craft. Sometimes the guest will discuss each scene afterwards, or stop actors in the middle of the scene if they're not quite there, or see if they can take direction. Other times the guests just sit there and say, "Next."

Still, said Renee, "It's a great establishment, and they bring in really good people. I met my scene partner there and we've gotten a lot of great responses." In her year of attending these workshops, Renee said she has gotten two offers of representation: one that she took temporarily, and another that is contingent on her getting cast in a major project. Renee even believes that these workshops can, in fact, serve as a kind of substitute for training.

"People learn by watching their peers," Renee said. "My philosophy is that the way you hone in on what you need to work on is by going to the showcases, working through the scene, getting their responses, and either failing miserably and knowing why you failed or having success, having that one person call you and say, "God, you were great-don't have anything for you now, but we're gonna keep your picture.'"

To see one of these showcases firsthand, I accompanied Renee to an agent night. Above all, I was struck by the wide range of acting styles and abilities, from people who obviously had extensive theatrical training to those who evidently had some kind of experience in front of a camera, to those who appeared, well, a little green. (Renee explained that at some of these places, the audition process is more a formality than a true screening process.)

The workshop was held in a tight office room in which a spirit of camaraderie pervaded. The agent opened by describing her agency for about three minutes, then opened the floor to a question or two. Who was her agency looking for? asked one participant.

"Mostly minorities," she replied. Looking around at the predominantly Caucasian audience around me, I doubted this response was encouraging, though it certainly didn't seem to dampen anyone's eagerness to perform.

Then it was on to the series of scenes and monologues, run by a no-nonsense woman with a checklist and a harsh voice who wasted no time in calling each actor "on deck" (out in the hall) to be promptly ready to give his or her performance. The agent sat patiently and silently through the evening's offerings-mostly selections from film and television-laughing heartily at the right moments and courteously indulging one actor's odd decision to deliver his monologue directly to her. At the close of the session-which lasted around an hour and half-she politely explained that if she was interested in anyone, she'd call. Then she left.

"You have good nights and bad nights," explained Renee. "It depends on the casting director or the agent. With some agents, you work your ass off and they bolt out of there, whether the talent was good or not. They make it seem like it was an obligation, like they have to be there, not like they want to see the actors."

Though Renee is basically satisfied with the support she receives from her fellow classmates and the staff, she has developed her own terse personal motto: Respect and suspect.

"You need to make it a safe environment for yourself," she said. "You can walk off and know that you sucked that night and people are going to come up to you and say, "That was the best I've ever seen you do.' Everybody walks downstairs, pulls out a cigarette, and talks about the night. You need to know who it is you trust. There's a lot of superficiality, but you need to be above that, to look past that.

"The main thing is that you network with new people, because the people that you work with now are the people that you're gonna work with tomorrow. There are always people you meet that are going to say, "You know, I'm doing this little independent thing-I want to use you.' "

Get What You Pay For

by Laura Weinert

Carl hadn't saved much money when he came to L.A. three years ago from Ohio with his theatre degree, but he knew right away that he wanted to be in a class. At the time he didn't have a car and was relying on buses, cabs, even roller blades to get to auditions. And of course, rent in L.A. was steep.

He started auditing classes, but most places were too far away, too expensive, or "had a lot of Scientology or theology floating around," which Carl wasn't interested in. Other places wouldn't allow him to audit, or required a recommendation to do so. Eventually, Carl found a school with an offer that was hard to refuse: the first few months were free.

"It was hilarious, like something you read about," recalled Carl. "It wasn't a total scam per se, but it was kind of sketchy. It was this old cowboy who had been around for decades and would talk about people like Farah Fawcett. I mean, where did this guy come from?

"I knew it was over for me when I was all of a sudden the star of the class. You want to be in a class where there's a challenge and there are a lot of people either at your level or better, and everyone else was pretty much a beginner. But I did learn about things like hitting your mark, little things that were different from theatre. Once the free time was over, though, that was the end of that class."

Carl went on to audit a class given by one of the best-known acting teachers in L.A. and was impressed by his students' performances in and out of class, both onstage and in films. But when he decided he wanted to enroll, Carl was presented with a long waiting list and a $300-a-month price tag.

"Once you break it down to the hours you spend in class [more than 10 hours a week], it's really not that bad. But when you think, "Hmm, that's just about rent,' you realize that's a lot of money."

Finally, Carl decided to audition for a reputable ensemble theatre company which offers a variety of free workshops to its members, along with the opportunity to be cast in the company's season of shows.

"There's a lot going on every month there that you can be involved in, whether it's a class, or a workshop, or a speaker," said Carl. "They do a voice class, a movement class. I've done a very good workshop there with a commercial casting director who came in, put us on tape, and we worked all day."

He described the company's audition process as a competitive, "straight-up theatre-type audition," requiring a contemporary and a classical monologue. Auditions are held every six months, and the board gets back to you within a week or so. After being accepted to the company, Carl was required to pay $50 a month, which he describes as typical and reasonable, having considered joining a number of ensemble companies. The difficult part came with the time commitment.

"Every member has a job at the theatre," he said. "Whether it's taking tickets at the box office or cleaning toilets once a week, seating people, making calls. Usually it's just one hour a week, but then you might have a technical assignment that you must complete every year, which could be backstage or lighting, and that's a commitment for the entire run of the show.

"It's hard to do, especially if you're rehearsing for something else. You just have to clear that time on Fridays and Saturdays. But if you're waiting tables at night, those nights are pretty important. It can be trying. You can be losing money while you're paying money and working at the same time."

Before committing to a company, Carl suggests doing your homework, which for him was not simply auditing a class, but also going to a few (not just one) of the company's shows, reading the members' bios, talking to the artistic director and members, and finding out what kind of work the company typically produces. Despite the heavy time commitment, Carl believes the experience of being in an ensemble theatre company can provide an important antidote to the frustration L.A. actors feel doing so many "two lines and a look" auditions for film and TV.

"What you get back is the communal feeling that the theatre offers you, the family atmosphere, being around people with the same passion as you," said Carl. "The people there are very serious and dedicated to theatre, not just people who want to be seen. You're not around that a lot in L.A. When you're working with a company like this and you go to an audition, you have a different feeling about yourself, as opposed to someone who's not in any kind of class. You go in and you're polished."

Before his major auditions, Carl also works with an acting coach who charges $50 an hour; the coach was recommended to him by his agent. Usually, they work only on sides Carl has been given to prepare.

"I've had the sides for at least a day, so he wants me to have already broken it down into beats, then we try it different ways," said Carl. "We work on speech patterns, vocalization, dialects. We go line by line, attack the script, work an hour on three to four minutes worth of sides, which is a lot of time."

Though Carl emphasized that having a coach is not a substitute for being in a steady class, he does feel that it is money well spent.

"Ninety-five percent of the time I feel I get what I pay for," explained Carl. "He knows I'm not wealthy, so if I come prepared and we only work for half an hour, sometimes he'll say, "Hey, this one's on me--but if you get the part, you owe me 100 bucks.' "

Out of the Rut

by Laura Weinert

Having already completed her M.F.A., Laurel was looking for an ongoing advanced-level class with variety and flexibility, which she found through word of mouth at a local resident theatre company-but only after many years of study in often trying circumstances.

One such trial included some time studying with the late Stella Adler. Laurel offered an eye-opening description about what life in the presence of the master was like.

"If she didn't like what you were doing, she'd throw you off the stage, and that was totally accepted," Laurel said. "It was brutal; people would be breaking down in tears. I had an entire notebook filled with the most appalling things I've ever heard a human being say. She once told a girl that she should give up acting, and the girl said, "But acting is my life,' and Adler said, "Well, then, you should take your life.' "

Going on to take classes from countless local teachers, and later in graduate school, Laurel found that "the boot camp mentality" was more often the rule than the exception.

"So many classes in this town are so strict and rigid, and have so many rules, and I don't think that nurtures creativity," said Laurel. "I think it produces a neurotic need for perfection, where people aren't experimenting and they're not growing because they're not going to do anything they might be bad at. It becomes about giving a good performance, which acting class shouldn't be about."

Laurel has also grown wary of schools run by a single teacher, at which you only hear one person's opinion about how to work-one person's technique. In other places, she found that people were more interested in working out their own personal emotional issues than working on craft.

"When you're taking an acting class, if anything else is happening in that room other than your own creative growth-you feeling comfortable with different kinds of material, learning something so that when you go out the next time, you're a better actor-there's no reason to go," advised Laurel. "If you're going through a lot of personal grief, frustration, or politics, and you're paying for that? I don't get it."

Laurel described her current class with the resident theatre company, on the other hand, as "a small community. It's not the kind of class where there's anything to master. You can challenge yourself as much as you like."

With a class of around 30 students, who are mostly working actors or members of the company, the workshop is team-taught by a man and a woman-Laurel calls them "the yin and the yang"-whose approach is varied, covering cold readings, scenework, improvisation exercises, classical monologues, Shakespeare, drama, sitcoms, scripts that people in class have written, or sides they have to prepare for auditions. At the moment, they're working on sci-fi scripts, practicing their exotic technical jargon.

The class meets one night a week at 7 p.m. and continues until work is done, which can occasionally be until 1:00 in the morning, though no one is required to stay. Each class starts with cold reading for about an hour and a half-even auditors are encouraged to jump right in and give it a try-and then moves on to scene work and monologue work that students have signed up for.

The instructors "don't so much critique you as try to find what works, steer the ship," Laurel said. "They watch you try different choices and get you out of some kind of rut. There's not a lot of class discussion. It's more people coming out with ideas, suggestions, or pointing out something new in the text."

Often the instructor will take private time with students, or stay late at night if someone has an audition the next day. Auditions take priority. "They'll spend time on it until you get it," said Laurel. "It's not unheard of to spend an hour on somebody's audition."

A teacher herself who works with freshmen at a local university, Laurel is delighted to have finally found a class environment that is both serious and humane.

"You have to find a place to support the idea that you are an actor, even if you have an agent. Before I came to this company, acting class always felt like an obligation, like being in school and having a paper hanging over my head. But here, it's always been a pleasure. There's never the sense that I have to do this or I'm not really an actor. But some people want structure, or a specific technique. You have to find what you respond well to." BSW