4 Lessons to Learn From Abusive Acting Teachers

Article Image

I wrote this article with no small amount of reservations, but I am getting so frustrated, deeply saddened, and downright disturbed by the stories I have been hearing repeatedly from actors about the abuse they have endured from other acting teachers. I feel called to protect actors from this type of “theatrical malpractice.” When they reach me, their talent and natural instincts have been completely flattened. Just as my good doctor friend is horrified by the care some of his patients have received at the hands of other negligent, ego overdriven practitioners out there, I too am outright horrified by the abuse my students have endured at the hands of other “qualified professional coaches” paying their bills by denigrating actors.

When I was a student, I definitely experienced both my fair share of phenomenal, life-changing teachers, along with ones who should go off and open candy shops in Vermont and leave the entertainment industry well enough alone. Looking back on my experience, here’s what you can learn about human nature and the human condition from even the worst acting teachers.

1. The human ego knows no bounds. Have you ever heard that “love is boundless”? Well that works both ways. Self-love is also boundless and there are truly no limits as to what certain acting teachers or “delicate geniuses” (as George Costanza would say) can reach when it comes to tiresome expressions of egotism: namedropping, unbridled condescension, the endless stories about the shows/films/plays they worked on regardless of relevancy. Understanding the powerful breadth and depth of the human ego is important. As you go on your way, you’re going to encounter many more egotistical people. Many bad acting teachers are also egomaniacs, and being aware of this can help you understand the power dynamics at play when you deal with such people. Egomaniacs have a knack for making anything (including your struggles with a scene or an audition technique) about them. Your successes are used for further self-aggrandizement.

2. There is no lesson to learn from abuse. I hear actors rationalize abuse-based classes all the time. They claim there’s something to be learned or some form of development that goes on when an acting teacher will “cut someone down” or “put them in their place” or mock, deride, or otherwise make an example of other actors. That is complete BS. These actors are simply making an excuse for bullying, and are thus enabling it. I would love—and when I say I would love, I mean it would be my dream—if a class of actors walked out on a teacher that did that asserting an ultimatum: We’re not coming back until you talk to us like the equals that we are.

When acting teachers engage in such unacceptable behavior it’s simply akin to them attempting to feel empowered. Other times, it’s the teacher expressing frustration through a mini temper tantrum. If you’re not going to call the teacher out on such behavior—and who more better suited to doing this than the actors who pay (ostensibly employ) this teacher—then at the very least, you should make certain to make severe mental notes to yourself on the matter, and hopefully view the teacher through a new lens and greater scrutiny.

3. Yes, some teachers are jealous of their students. This might sound crazy because why would a teacher (or anyone for that matter) be jealous of a bunch of struggling actors, but the reality is true: some teachers are. They envy your success, your talent, your fearlessness, your energy, your fresh perspective, and likewise, your lack of jadedness. Sometimes this jealousy comes out in bullying behaviors, as discussed above. Other times this jealousy manifests as the teacher being negative, projecting negative outcomes, or being overly critical (and masking that criticism as “instruction”).

Before studying privately with me, one of my hugely talented and award-winning musician/singer-songwriter clients described being publicly berated and humiliated in front of her peers by a well-known, abuse-based acting teacher in L.A. simply because her acting career was starting to take off and she needed to take a break from studio classes.

4. Fear manifests in a variety of ways. Fear doesn’t just rear its ugly head through bullying or hysteria—sometimes it’s via the soft and saccharine-esque environments of certain acting classes which have the demeanor of a summer camp session. Some acting teachers manifest their fear and insecurity by not offering any real correction. This largely manifests via warm and fuzzy classes where actors are coddled and not given any real corrections or points for improvement. Acting teachers like these generally have a very warped viewpoint of what their job is or, I find, are uncomfortable saying anything unpleasant. As many of you have learned, it is through unpleasant realities, presented respectfully and professionally, that we all learn to grow and adapt—and in the context of an acting class, hopefully become better actors.

Sign up here to get Pearlman’s free Acting & Career Tips delivered to your inbox, and email info@JosephPearlman.com to schedule an audit.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

Author Headshot
Joseph Pearlman
Joseph Pearlman is a celebrity and on-set acting coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients such as Zooey Deschanel, Skylar Grey, Michael Welch, and Julian Sands, and he also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies. Pearlman Acting Academy was voted the best acting studio in Los Angeles by the Backstage Readers’ Choice Awards.
See full bio and articles here!