The Integrity of Teaching

My approach to teaching has evolved considerably since I began this journey. I started teaching 40 years ago, and the world was a much different place. Our artistic approach was also far different than it is today. My generation was steeped in the theatre and actually looked down our noses at the film and television world, I’m embarrassed to say. There was a more dogmatic approach to acting: a right way and a wrong way.

All the ensuing years have taught me that there is no one path to artistic truth. Stage actors who are astoundingly talented sometimes cannot master acting for the camera. And there are film actors who, when they step onto a stage, do not have that certain presence that is immediately noticeable in great stage actors. The theatre teaches us very important lessons, however: script analysis, discipline, collaboration, and respect for all of our co-workers.

At this juncture, I think the main idea behind my teaching is the issue of fear and how we use that to our advantage. We are all fear-based creatures. And fear can be the great killer. It kills your original impulses, your creativity, and it kills desire. Rather than deny fear, we have to find new ways of dealing with it. We actually have to dance with it, so to speak. You can never be great if you are afraid of being bad. We find ourselves second-guessing what people want, based on fear. Rather than trying to guess what “they” want, I teach, Why not bring your original fingerprint into the room and present yourself as the solution to their problems? The ever-present “they” are fear-based too. They are looking to have their problems solved by an actor who comes into the room, declares his talent boldly, and brings his personal point of view to his work. It’s as simple as that—although getting to that place is the trick, and a teacher should show you how to get there. We all have a very specific point of view. But, strange as it sounds, we are often unacquainted with it. We are often not even aware of how we actually feel. The best teachers help actors mate a solid basic skill set with a highly developed personal point of view.

By the way, and at the risk of sounding too important, I think this approach begins to inform your life as well. Life and art. They are obviously interwoven. People get a little skittish when we talk about art. I feel that creative ventures are hardly worth doing unless they are shooting high. What’s the point of aiming for the middle? In fact, we should stop aiming altogether. Get lost in the work. Break it apart. Make it messy. Then, and only then, can you begin to reconstruct it with meaning and a point of view. You have to declare yourself to be an artist. And know that it takes a lot of hard work to get there.

I also teach “funny.” So much can be taught with a dose of humor. Of course art is serious, but our real lives, which inform our work, are often ridiculous, foolish, silly, and hysterical. We need to embrace that as well. I believe that humor is the great door-opener. I’m an Eastern European Jew, for God’s sake. Humor is part of our DNA.

A renowned character actor, Jeffrey Tambor has more than 130 film and television credits. On Broadway he appeared in Sly Fox and the revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. He will teach a workshop, “What’s Keeping You?,” March 21 in L.A.

Look for our complete listing of Los Angeles acting schools and coaches in our March 26 issue; the New York listing is scheduled for April 9.