6 Questions to Ask About a Potential Acting Class

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Aside from obvious considerations such as location, price, and your capacity and willingness to actually commit to the work, there are a number of important things to keep in mind before jumping in on (or continuing) an acting class this year. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, I hope it helps guide your choices in finding a class to make this year your year.

1. Will you be taught or directed?
As I have discussed before, there is a significant difference between being directed and being taught. The acting class you choose must be offering specific techniques that you can later do, reliably and consistently on your own, or at the very least help you translate generalized direction into specific action.

Ask other students about the classes they’re attending. If they say, “It’s so much fun,” “It’s amazing,” or “My teacher taught so-and-so celebrity,” smile and ask again what they’ve actually been taught. If they tell you they now know specific and doable techniques to solve common actors’ problems, perfect. That’s your class. If not, keep looking.

2. Will you act in every class?
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….

You can learn a great deal from watching someone cook, but eventually you need to throw on the apron and fire up the pan yourself. A maximum of 20 (hands-on) minutes a week in the kitchen will not turn you into Jamie Oliver, and there’s limited demand for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

3. Will you see all your footage back?
Your feelings of how you went into a performance are useful up to a point, beyond which they actually begin to hamper your learning. Feeling great is not equal to being great, just as feeling awful is not equal to being Tommy Wiseau.

Watching back your work and assessing it with newfound knowledge and objective technique is the only way to ensure you are feeling better about your work and actually improving. If you are not reviewing footage from every single class, it’s entirely possible, ironically, that you are slipping backwards with great confidence. Watching footage back in class is good, but it eats into your acting time. Find out how often you will receive your work to take home, and how much of it you are likely to get your hands on each week. Johnny Depp claims to never watch his work once it’s shot, but he can afford to. You can’t.

4. Will the class provide room for growth and advancement?
Many actors take a class hoping it will be the magic pill to solve all their issues. Other students loyally commit to 10 years of sessions in which they are slowly becoming worse. In between is a class in which your commitment level is matched by the length to which your instructor will go to stretch you without breaking you.

You are probably concerned about landing in a class of people slower, less experienced, or less talented than yourself. Makes sense. But depending on the actual teacher, your level of experience may or may not matter at first. As long as you have a great deal of work to do, and receive regular, new, personally tailored, and practical feedback, you could be acting alongside a scarecrow and it really shouldn’t matter…in the first term at least.

Having said that, if a class fails to offer you the opportunity of advancement into higher experience levels, it may be one to avoid. Knowing you are reaching higher levels as the terms progress is a legitimate consideration. Ask the teachers/current students what’s required for people to advance through the levels, and how long it generally takes. The last thing you want is to be kept in a beginner class simply because the teacher needs to pay down their mortgage or the school needs a new wing.

5. Is the teacher kind?
First of all, just because you say you want to be stretched and challenged it doesn’t mean you do. Be honest with yourself, because if you ask for directness and truth, you can’t then run away from the class when it gets difficult. Otherwise, look for a safe and cozy class and just stick with that. Whichever way you go, ensure you have a teacher on the same page that is able to support your choice fully.

Many acting teachers claim to be “harsh, but fair” when really they’re just harsh. One can still be direct with respect and humor. If you feel attacked, humiliated, or ridiculed, then ask the other students if they’ve noticed, and then let the teacher know. You may be misunderstanding or misreading them. Conversely, they may get angry or agitated at the suggestion. Either way you’ll know if their course is the place is for you. If there is no miscommunication and they are actually being condescending or rude towards you then run for the hills. A teacher who can’t take confrontation and feedback is likely emotionally abusing you.

6. Does it provide you with the platform from which to leap and fly?
Now is the time to set yourself up for a terrific year. The decisions you make about classes now will create a domino effect for what comes next.

Having said that, not every single class is going to provide you with life-changing paradigm shifts on a weekly basis. Some classes are just paving the way for you to learn more at a later date. I honestly believe that bad classes can actually make you a worse actor, but let’s face it, surrendering to a term of endless mirroring or repetition exercises is not the end of the world. After all, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

And sometimes you simply have to just take a leap of faith and “build your wings on the way down,” as Ray Bradbury once wrote. Or in Daniel Day Lewis’ words, the pursuit of acting is best when done with a “prevailing sense of joy.” If you can master that, it matters far less where you study, because wherever you train you’ll be living the dream.

Like this advice? Read more from our Backstage Experts!

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.
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