Act Smart!: Getting more out of acting class

For the entire time I pursued acting professionally, I was in some kind of acting class. They seemed different as I proceeded through them, running the gamut from auditioning technique (both commercial and theatrical) and improv comedy classes to scene-study and Method acting classes.

In hindsight, however, I see the similarities between them. Or rather, I see the similar way I approached each one: by looking at what I could get from it.

Of course, when you’re paying for a class, you’d be a fool not to expect something in return; the folly is in expecting something that no one ever promised you they’d deliver. And what I really wanted wasn’t the techniques these teachers were offering, but a slew of other things that were unrelated to acting—that may even have gotten in the way of acting—like validation, love, respect, and/or a magic key that would unlock the doors to these things (i.e., you will teach me the tricks that will make me the great actor who earns the love of millions.)

I had no idea of this in the moment; I merely thought I was being a good actor, seeking out ways to improve my value in the marketplace. I mean, actors acted, right? And consistently worked on their craft. How else could you get better at it?

Now that I am out of acting professionally, doing it mostly for fun and for the generalized learning experiences it affords, I see that most of my improvement (and therefore my “success”) as an actor stemmed from two things: practice and failure. If this sounds like a sound byte from Captain Obvious, consider the time you have likely invested in attending classes & workshops, studying other performances, and of course, devouring books, scripts, podcasts, and reading material like this, looking for answers.

My latest revelation, which struck me after taking a recent acting class after many years away from one: The answers are not in this room or this teacher or this technique; the answers are in us already. All those things we do and study and absorb are there to awaken the thing that is already in us, so that we can be the magnificent actors we want to be.

Before this gets hopelessly esoteric, let me ground my newfound wisdom in some concrete specifics you might possibly apply to your next acting class—things I will definitely apply to my own next acting class, whenever that might be.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Does that sound contrary to what I’ve just shared about inner magnificence being unlocked and revealed? Yes. Is it strictly necessary? No. There is a perfect actor locked inside you. Given enough time and breaks, he (she, it, whatever) will be revealed. But having your lines and blocking down frees up some space for the unlocking procedure, and keeps you from getting booted from class or shunned by scene partners, either of which can really slow down the process of discovery. Plus homework is healthful discipline, as well as helpful practice for the rigors of the so-called “real” world.

2. Release expectations. It’s hard to be in the moment if you’re beating yourself up about what happened (or didn’t) yesterday, or worried about what will happen later. Jack Plotnick, whom you’ll be reading about in-depth in a future column, has built a beautiful career as both an actor and a teacher of actors on letting go of the need to be good. He does it through affirmations, many of which he shares on his wonderful website. Or, if you’re like me, sometimes writing about them in a meditative way helps. For this—or any other kind of meditative writing—I like to choose a short piece that I find inspiring and clear from a master on the topic, and free-write for 10-20 minutes on it. (For releasing expectations, there’s nothing like the buddhists—Pema Chodron and Jack Kornfield are favorite teachers of mine. But there are many spiritual traditions that talk about letting go of attachments, which is basically what this little exercise is about.)

3. Embrace the suckage. The horrible truth is that while pleasant things—chocolate-chip cookies, uncomplicated parties, kicking ass in your scene—make life pleasant, we almost never learn from them. That is strictly the province of falling on our asses. The nice thing about doing that in class is that it is class(which, presumably, you are paying for) and not a job (which, we hope, at least has the potential to put bread on the table). I have read that smart salespeople look at selling as collecting “no’s”—meaning, you have to lose a certain number of times before you win. That’s a nice way of looking at any kind of gain. Your failures are bringing you closer and closer to your next breakthrough. (Here’s a wonderful story about a would-be-doctor-turned-New-Yorker-cartoonist who adopted this technique for great success.)

4. Replace judgment with observation. Yes, I’m judging you. But only because I’m judging myself, and even more harshly. To hell with that nonsense! A keen eye is a gift. Comparison, on the other hand—whether it’s between you and someone else or you and where you think you should be—is, as my friend Mark Silver says, of the devil. It’s hard to shake judging, if that’s your jam. What’s working for me lately is to let myself judge without beating myself up over it. After noting it dozens—okay,hundreds of times, I’m finding that I’m less inclined to do it, which is very heartening.

These techniques take time and practice to get better at, let alone master. But as a bonus, with each of them, you’re also practicing core actor skills: discipline; being in the moment; and listening. It’s like getting a bonus acting class along with each acting class!

* * *

Colleen Wainwright spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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