4 Ways to Learn Outside of the Classroom

I know that we are taught that actors should always be in class. As usual, I happen to disagree. Sometimes you just need a break, or there simply isn’t time or finances are an issue. Whatever the situation, there are always things you can do to grow as an actor outside of class.

1. Watch TV. That’s right plop yourself down in front of your TV and get busy. I try and watch every show at least once. That is a lot of TV. It’s my job. When an actor comes to me and is auditioning for a show that they haven’t seen, then they are at a disadvantage. Would you approach Shakespeare the same way you would Ibsen? If you are auditioning for HBO, that is a very different style of acting then, let’s say, ABC family. Shonda Rhimes is a modern day playwright and her shows have their own type of iambic pentameter. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

We get very little time once given an appointment. If you know the tone, feel, and style of the show, you have just saved yourself a valuable hour or two.

It’s also a great and inexpensive way to learn comedy. I tell my actors to take any comedy and keep the remote in their hand. Anytime there is something that makes them laugh or even smile, then pause and analyze why. First start by imagining how it was written on the page and then examine how and what the actor did to make it funny. Was it a movement or the way they drew out a word? Did they give a look or take a pause where it wouldn’t have been expected? Matt LeBlanc did that with the line “How you doin’?” on “Friends.” Turning it into the well-known Joey way of saying hello which was “How YOU do-in?” The old formulaic ways of approaching comedy have changed and it’s much more individualized and original. Watch contemporary actors and see what it is that they are doing and find your own funny.

2. Get experience. I don't care how vivid an actor’s imagination is—nothing can substitute for experience. Go out and live. Get a Groupon and do something you've never tried. Become more fearless by facing some fears. Talk to people, put down you phone, and let life affect and change you. Open your world up instead of focusing solely on your career. Go to dinner alone see what it makes you feel, sit in a courtroom and watch a trial, volunteer…anywhere. So often we can get caught up in how much we are or (most times) are not auditioning and forget that our toolbox comes from our journey.

3. Rehearse. If you want to act, you must exercise your memory. Last week while filming a pilot I was handed two new pages of dialogue and given 10 minutes to learn it before we had to get the shot. This happens all the time and if an actor isn’t prepared it can really damage an opportunity. The memory is just like a muscle and the more you work it out the stronger it gets. So download sides, grab an actor friend, and spend an hour a day working out.

4. Practice being honest. If I had to boil everything we learn about acting into one thing, I would choose honesty. That is what I respond most to when watching an actor: Do I believe them and are they truthful in what they are saying? This is something we can find hard to do in day-to-day life. However, juts like being in the moment, if we practice it in real life it gets easier on set and in rooms.

I got used to being broke a long time ago. Anything that I made always went back into my career for anything from new headshots, skin care, my car, a website, the dentist, better audition clothes to gifts that I would send to my agents once or twice a year. I wasn’t in class but I did go to Costa Rica to volunteer in the rain forest, sent money and plane tickets to a friend with cancer, went to Scotland for a New Year’s Eve, produced a play and a movie, and even a Web series. I have shared, given, and lived—all of which has enriched me as an actor, but more importantly a human being.

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Sara Mornell
Sara Mornell is a working actor, coach, and Backstage Expert.
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