Monday, October 10, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Studying From a Working Actor

By Jessica Gardner

Deciding which teacher to study with can be daunting. Some actors try to narrow their search by saying things like "I want to study with a female acting teacher" or "I want to study with someone who teaches this specific method." But should whether or not a teacher is a working actor affect your decision to study with him or her?

The Advantages of Studying With Teachers Who Act

The obvious advantage to studying with teachers who are working actors is that they understand today's challenges. They know what you are going through with your agent, manager, auditions, callbacks, and bookings. They can share with you things that have happened to them in the audition room, on set, or onstage.

Teachers who are working actors can give you real-world examples of how what they teach can apply and why what they're teaching is applicable to you as an actor. Actor Stephen Tobolowsky ("Groundhog Day," "Heroes," "Glee"), who teaches at Kalmenson & Kalmenson Voice Casting in Burbank, Calif., says he shares with his improv students how he had to use improvisation in auditions and on set that week. Rather than teaching a traditional improv class, "I teach a class on the way improvisation is encountered when you actually work," he says.

Actor-teacher Ken Lerner, who says his slogan at The Ken Lerner Studio in Los Angeles is "Work with a working actor," feels it is important to study with someone who is experiencing all the things that you, as an actor, are going through. That way, the teacher can "break it down" for you, prepare you for what may happen, and guide you through how to handle it. Lerner—who recently finished working on "The Mentalist," did three episodes of "In Plain Sight" earlier in the year, and was going to an audition after our interview—certainly understands the life and struggles of being an actor and says he shares his experiences with his students. "The first 15 minutes of [my] class is talking about agent meetings and readings we've had for producers and auditions," he says. "Then we open it up and talk about the experience they had and how they could have handled it better. I don't see someone who's not [a working actor] being able to do that. You can give an approximation or your opinion, but unless you've been there and been in the room and experienced that, I don't think it comes from a real honest place. I can't imagine studying with someone who hasn't been through it."

And the Disadvantages

Solely because someone is a good actor doesn't mean he or she is a good teacher. Many actors are instinctive about what they do and don't know how to teach it. According to teacher William Esper of The William Esper Studio in New York, legendary actor Alfred Lunt couldn't communicate to someone else how to act. He would only say, "Do it this way," and then he'd act it out for them. "You have to be able to communicate what you know," says Esper.

If you decide to take classes with working actors, make sure you haven't just chosen them solely because they work. They need to be able to communicate their process to you. "I can explain in different ways to different members of my class, so they'll understand it, what it is that I do and how they can utilize it," says Tobolowsky. "That's what makes a good teacher from someone who works a lot."


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