Acting Classes

Acting Classes
Where Art Meets Business

This page is a lot of reading. Consider it homework at college. Take your time to absorb these words. If you’re in a big hurry, acting is not the life choice for you.

The concert violinist practices every day. The doctor keeps abreast of the latest medical advances. The lawyer had better review recent rulings or he’ll be sending his guilty clients to jail. The actor graduates from college or the university, or takes a few classes, and thinks “Well, that’s it. I’m an actor now… I’m sure glad all those classes are over. I can’t wait to be a star now.”

Actors, in my experience, are the laziest of all the professionals. There are reasons for this that would fill volumes, but to summarize, I would just say that actors, for one reason or another, think that their “talent” or “technique” or “skill” is something instinctive, always at the ready. Once they get their “degree”, or finish a workshop or two, they think they have it all down pat.

I know actors still in training after fifty years experience. In my early training at the Strasberg Institute and other places, I sat in the same classes with people I had seen in movies and on television from the time I was in high school. Many of my teachers were still studying somewhere else when I was studying with them. Without belaboring the point, get used to the idea that you will always be improving yourself as an artist, in one way or another. Even when you are too busy to attend a class or workshop because you are working as an actor, the job itself will be training for you.

Think of it this way. You might play Stanley Kowalski when you are doing a high school play, and everyone may tell you how brilliant you are, and you may even believe them when they tell you that. Then, during your last year of college, you play Stanley again, and you say to yourself, “Woah… I never knew Stanley had all this stuff going on in his life.” Ten years later, you have achieved some success as an actor, and some hotshot director comes along who has decided he is going to make a TV remake of “Streetcar Named Desire”, “the best one yet”, and guess who gets to play Stanley again? But this time it’s very different for you. You’ve gone through a divorce or two, a bankruptcy, lost a few loved ones to the afterworld and finally recovered from a six year bout with alcohol. Fortunately for you, the one thing that remained constant in your artistic life is that you continued to study the art of acting. You continued to grow as an artist as you continued to grow as a human being. You learned to transform your new experiences in life to old performances you did before you had enough experience in life to really breathe life into the role. So when the director saw you at the audition for “Streetcar”, he said, “Man, that actor was really connected to Stanley. I saw Stanley’s frustration. His anger. His strength.”

Which Class Is For You?

Aha! The answer to that question, obviously enough, might well depend on who would like to separate you from your wallet, and there are legions of those types out there. Beware! Especially if you are in one of the major “acting” centers — New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. So let’s start logically here. I have no desire to try to persuade anyone which approach to the actor’s art is best. There are many styles, each serving a purpose, each filling a “need” in society. Millions of people need to go see Clint Eastwood at the movies. Other millions can’t wait for their next Jim Carey fix. And Julia Roberts even manages to attract some of those millions for reasons other than being a “Pretty Woman”. Then there’s all those funny sitcom actors. Millions and millions of Americans tune in every night of the week to escape what they have to do during the rest of the day. I can’t be more specific here, because I seldom watch television, and when I do, it’s usually dramatic programs. Although I surfed into “Third Rock From The Sun” one night and got some good yuk yuks, which I needed at the time. Thanks, cast, for filling that need.

And the “soaps”, now called “daytime dramas”. When I worked on them in small parts, I was amazed that the actors often had to memorize a new script every night. It’s no wonder there’s not much substance to what they can bring to their parts, there’s just not enough time. And still, millions of Americans are hooked into the substance-less lives of the “characters” these actors fabricate. They fill a need. More power to them.

What about commercials? Are there different techniques for commercial actors? Uh huh. Sure are. Is there a need for the commercial actor? Well, the sellers definitely need them. They need them to create a need in people to go out and buy something they probably don’t really need. And the techniques the commercial actor uses to accomplish this dubious task are offered in schools around the country. I studied commercial acting at the Weist-Barron School of Television in New York City. They taught me how to analyze the commercial script, how to mark it up, how to slate my name, and dozens of other techniques, including the technique of smiling even when you don’t feel like it (Direct quote from that school: “It’s simple. Just take the bottom of your top teeth and place it on the top of your bottom lip. Nobody will know the difference.”). When I watch commercials, and I see the actors doing that, I know the difference, but it doesn’t really matter. Nobody pays that much attention. The actor got a nice residual check, the sponsor sold a softer toilet paper, and the consumer treated himself to a properly pampered posterior. Everybody wins.

And acting for the stage? Is it different from film acting? Hmmm… well… it might have been interesting to see Laurence Olivier playing Don Corleone in “The Godfather”: “To make him an offer he can’t refuse, or not to make him an offer he can’t refuse, that, O Horatio, is the question.” Of course I’m making an attempt at levity, but film acting has its techniques, mostly those of applying what you know as an actor to what you are technically required to do in the medium of film (shooting out of sequence, matching the master shot with the close-up, etc.). Then there are the heavyweights. The masters. The undisputed kings. The dramatic actors who etch their performances into the center of your soul, and leave a permanent mark there. Al Pacino’s done it. Marlon what’s his name has done it. Dustin Hoffman. Robert DeNiro. Patricia Arquette. Shelley Winters. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Billy Bob Thornton. Martin Landau. Frederic Forrest. Even Paul Newman.

Their “technique” is not technique at all, but rather “art”. They have journeyed the darker sides of their souls to dig up that which “illuminates the life of the human spirit”, so that you may go about your business on earth a better human being — hopefully. They practice the mysterious “method” approach to the actor’s art.

So what is all this leading up to? Hopefully, I’m trying to get you to dig inside yourself a bit, to decide for yourself what only you can decide for yourself: Why do you want to be an actor? If and when you take the time to seriously answer that most meaningful of all questions, you will have a better idea of what kind of classes you will want to get involved with. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. There is only the answer, and how the answer can lead you in the right direction for your own personal journey. If you are in college, you will be learning all about theatre history, and theatre craft, and reading the great dramatic works of mankind, and (depending on which college) you might even learn a little about acting. The basic foundation you receive there can’t hurt you, but don’t expect many doors to open after you leave there, if that’s what you’re using for a resume.

The truth about who works as an actor can be staggeringly frightening. People have literally come to Hollywood with no training whatsoever, been at the right place at the right time, and having the right “personality” at that time launched an unexpected career as an actor. Others have had masters degrees in drama or acting or theatre or whatever, and have spent years chasing their tails endlessly. Some of them even have “talent”. There is no formula for succeeding as an actor. The only thing you can control is how good you will be “if” you get the chance to show the right person at the right time.

I’ll use myself as an example for you. When I first decided to make acting my life’s pursuit, I just wanted to do anything an actor does and get paid for it. Commercials. Television. Movies. Stage. Soaps. Anything. So I studied all of these things in different classes over several years. I was lucky enough to be told by my first acting teacher in Los Angeles, Barbara Ann Walters, that I should go to Lee Strasberg. She saw in me that “type” of actor, and although I had only studied with her one month, she was trying to help me by telling me to quit her and go there. Thanks again, Barbara.

So I went to the Strasberg Institute and studied there 10-16 hours a day for six days a week for a couple of years. I wasn’t in that many classes there. I was just always there. I was living the life of “the artist” and loving it.

Then I took Maxine Anderson’s Commercial class. She was a commercial casting director in Los Angeles, and I thought I would learn something. I did. I learned how to say fifty tongue twisters in under thirty seconds, and I got to meet the girl who was the original baby model for “Coppertone” suntan lotion. I think her name was Jodie Foster, but at the time the name didn’t mean anything to any of us. But she was “the Coppertone baby”! I met a star!

Then I moved to New York and studied commercial acting at the Weist-Barron School there, and became good friends with the Co-owner, Bob Barron. I think he liked me because he knew I knew he was full of it, but I accepted that as part of his “charm” as a human being. We had fun, and I learned all about doing commercials from a master salesman. What the classes offered, more than anything else, was showing the hopeful commercial actors how to have fun in their work.

Then I went back to Los Angeles and renewed my association at the Actors Studio, and kept going there indefinitely, while taking acting from Martin Landau in his private classes. So, basically, I stayed with the so-called “method” approach to the actor’s art, because it suited my need to go everywhere the human soul travels, while affording a good excuse for my moods and attitudes. Also, the actors whose work I most admired used Strasberg’s procedures.

The lesson here for you is to get as much training in every aspect of the actor’s art as you can, because no matter what you end up doing as an actor, if it helps pay the rent, you’ll be happier than if you had to do something else you don’t like doing. But if you find one particular “school” of thought, concentrate most on it. I can recommend the Strasberg Institute and Lorrie and Dianne Hull for “method” acting, and the Weist-Barron School of Television for commercials and soaps, because they are part of my personal experience. That doesn’t mean there aren’t scores of equally valuable workshops and institutions at which to study.

If you avoid those places that promise you work after you “graduate”, you’ll be doing yourself a big favor. And avoid those schools that give you the “package” deals, offering classes, photos and job placement for a huge fee. They just want your money. In Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, you wouldn’t be hurting yourself by taking a commercial class that is given by a well known commercial casting director. That way you get excellent training, and they get the opportunity to see fresh talent and use that talent in upcoming projects. They are always running out of fresh talent in commercials. Other cities also have casting directors who offer classes. You might as well take one. It’s a good way to learn and be seen at the same time.

Call the local talent agencies to find out who the casting director(s) are in your city (but make sure you call only the talent agencies who are franchised by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, The Screen Actors Guild, or both. They’ll give you the straight scoop without trying to rob you). Colleges and Universities often have acting classes outside the regular academic program. Just be careful that you know what you are getting into. If you want to be a “Robert DeNiro” and someone at the college is teaching “Jim Carey”, you might develop habits that will be hard as hell to break later.

Once you start your training, much of what you have to learn about the business end of acting will take care of itself, because you will be in the company of like minded individuals who will support each other — sort of like “networking”. Just make sure you don’t fall in with the inevitable groups of “complainers”, who blame everybody else for the fact that nobody recognizes their genius. That trap can keep you mystified for years, and you don’t have years to waste.

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