I do my best to lay out to all incoming students exactly what the class entails, but in spite of that, I find they are certain things that always seem to take people by surprise. I wanted to take some time do address these things now.
Accountability: Expected levels of preparation are laid out all along the way during the 10 weeks, and students need to attend to those. This includes memorizing lines, attendance and punctuality, availability for out of class rehearsal, and analytical and imaginative preparation work on the role. When students put a scene up for the first time, I question them at length about their understanding of the character and the scene. I am actually interested in hearing what they have to say, and how they have thought about these matters. I will have feedback and input about it, but I always want to hear the student articulate their point of view before I give them my thoughts.
Talent Is Not the Issue: I think some people come into the class imagining that I am going to pronounce them talented or not. When they discover, as we get into the scene work, that I am seriously committed to a methodology, a way of working, and that I am interested in helping them learn that, and not in gazing into my crystal ball to find out whether they are going to make it big in Hollywood or not, they are usually relieved. They realize they can relax about having their creative potential assessed and found wanting, and focus on grasping the principles I am presenting, and putting them to work.
Constructive Feedback: I think sometimes people imagine that when they do their scene, I am going to tell them immediately everything that I think that they did wrong. My critical organ will go into overdrive and I will provide them with a brutally honest evaluation of where they fell short. This is not my way. Acting is in part a confidence game. The more you believe you can do it, the more likely you are to succeed at it. Giving you feedback that robs you of your confidence would be totally counterproductive. Does that mean I blow sunshine your way, tell you how wonderful you were, and collect your tuition? No. There is no one who comes to my class who doesn’t feel challenged. But I make sure to offer that challenge in a way that is about how much more you could achieve, rather than where you fell short. It’s a line I have to walk, but I think I have gotten pretty good at doing it in the seven years I’ve been at this.
Lectures: I lecture. There, I said it. It’s one piece of the class. The other pieces include exercises that I lead, and scene study. But after the exercises, I take time to talk about what we saw or experienced and relate it to the methodology I am presenting in the class. Both my teachers at Yale, both of whom chaired the acting program there for years, lectured when they taught. I don’t think it can be avoided, really. Experiential learning is great, but it needs to be translated into concepts at some point. That doesn’t mean the lectures are dry or boring: I do my best to bring the subjects I am discussing to life, and to excite the students about implementing the things I am describing into their work. But the lectures are there, no way around it. I have been in classes where all we did was exercises of various kinds, and it was never made clear to me what the point of the exercises was. As in most things in life, it’s about balance.
Intellectual depth and rigor:Often people think of acting as a “light” profession. It’s not. It’s a vocation, if you’re going to be good at it. And part of what is challenging about it is that you need to a) find a way to understand people and their encounters that stimulates you and arouses your creativity, and b) put that understanding to work. Arriving at that understanding involves doing some serious reflection on people and how we understand them and their actions, and how we can empathize with them. So students in my classes are asked to read, to think, and to daydream in structured ways. It isn’t about getting up there and enchanting us with your personality; it’s about a craft that takes a lifetime to master, and that craft has an intellectual component. Everyone who goes through my class has to come to terms with this. Also, students in my class spend ten weeks working on a scene. I know this is longer than in most acting classes. But that’s because I want students to have a chance to experience the depth of the material and the richness of opportunity afforded by the scene they are working on. I once had a student email me and thank me for making the class work as important as it was.
Friendship/Community: I meet every prospective student for coffee before they enroll, and that is because I want to approach my work with them in a spirit of friendship. That doesn’t mean that there is no hierarchy; when we’re in class, I am the teacher and they are there to learn. But there is no reason that we can’t appreciate each other as people as we move through the process. And I know that this attitude bears fruit, as by the end of the ten weeks, a real camaraderie has blossomed between the students, and significant frienships have been formed. I will see people interact on Facebook years after they took my class, and I know I’m doing something right.
It’s normal to have an experience like a class turn out to be something other than what you thought it was. It’s also normal to discover that the substance of a professional activity, is something other than what you thought it was. It’s at that point that people have to decide whether they want to go further down that road, or find some other path of happy destiny. But I’m there to make it clear what the pursuit actually involves.