(© Amanda Charney)
It is widely accepted that taking an acting course is the best way for a young actor or actress to directly work on their skills.
But as a professor of mine once told me, "I never liked acting class--mostly because it so often consists of under-rehearsed scenes, directed by the actors themselves or by some very inexperienced student director, usually at 3 in the morning before the presentation in class. What follows is usually comments from the rest of the class, rarely helpful but often hurtful and critical with no real basis; and the students walk away having learned little, except how to hold back tears or refrain from assaulting their classmates."
Obviously, this is only one person's opinion. In an ideal world, acting class is a place meant for students to push their own boundaries and discover their strengths and weaknesses, in a supportive learning environment. Students also, through observing their peers, get to learn by example and see a wide spectrum of viewpoints and talent.
So, how can we as students of theater make acting classes really work for us? How can we avoid the problems mentioned above, and walk away after the semester having become better performers and people? I consulted my peers, professors, and past experience to bring you this list:
1. Be prepared One of the biggest mistakes a student can make is confining their learning to the classroom. It's just like being in a sport; while it may be true that you go to practice every other day, you still need to put in time running laps and lifting weights to really be the best you can be. Acting class is similar in that you can't just go to class twice a week then forget about it all. It is so incredibly important that you spend time living with the characters and the world they inhabit--otherwise, you're left without the depth that comes from asking yourself questions.
2. Be open It's tough to change the way you look at the world, and that's what most acting classes ask you to do. If you walk through the door determined to perform as you've always done, you may as well just walk right back out. Sometimes, a professor will ask you to do something that feels weird or counter-intuitive because of the habits you have already formed. Give it your best shot! If there's one thing I've learned, it's that growth doesn't come without putting yourself out there in a new and potentially scary way. Until you take that chance and open up your heart to the work, acting class might as well be your daily torture.
3. Be there to learn As my acting professor, Joe Anthony, says, "It's a mistake to walk into an acting class thinking you're supposed to know everything already. There's a temptation to show what you can do and prove your talent to your professor and classmates, but that's not the point of an acting class. Your focus should really be on what you can learn, and not on what grade you'll get or what everyone will think of you." It may seem almost impossible not to worry about your classmates judging you. After all, part of the class is discussing your progress -- or lack thereof! But that kind of thinking only leads to nervousness, artificiality, and acting for the wrong reasons. Remember that you're not supposed to walk into class and be ready for Broadway. The point is that you have improving to do!
4. Be present "Check the rest of your day at the door. You're here to learn, and preoccupations only get in your way. Get out of your own way." One of the biggest wastes of time is to show up in class and sit there thinking about other things. We all have the pressing college problems: midterm tomorrow, paper due next week, roommate won't stop eating all the peanut butter. But when you sit in class and all that's on your mind is your grocery list, you're only cheating yourself.
Watching others work is one of the greatest ways we learn. So when it seems like the hours stretch on and on, and you never want to hear that scene from A Streetcar Named Desire again as long as you live, shift your focus externally. You may find something new and intriguing in the story or the work of your peers.