Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Acting Classes

Acting classes are a funny thing. I think it goes without saying that it's important to find the exact right fit, sort of like picking a glove that fits your hand perfectly. Now, generally speaking, it's nearly impossible to swing a dead cat out here in Hollywood without hitting an acting teacher. They're everywhere. It seems there are almost as many acting teachers as there are actors.

This is true, I've found, in New York as well (although, oddly, not quite so much in Chicago). The big difference I've found, however, is that acting classes in New York seem to be actual acting classes. Out here (there are exceptions of course) the 'acting class' is forever linked to 'networking.' That is to say, a lot of young actors don't take the class so much to learn about acting but to meet someone that might further their career. And I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, really. It just seems a bit misdirected to me.

I have, as a professional actor for nigh on thirty years, seen a butt-load of acting teachers in my life. A few are good at what they do, most are not. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" is the old adage. And I don't think it's a very accurate one on the whole. But with regards to acting professionally, it is uncomfortably true more often than not. I prefer Woody Allen's take on the phrase: 'Those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, teach gym.'

I was very luck as a young actor in New York because I, quite accidentally, ran across the brilliant actor, Michael Moriarty, as a teacher. I worked with Michael, off and on, for about five years. Right up until he started Law and Order on NBC and no longer had the time to teach. They were the most important five years of my life in terms of my craft. I've already blogged about Michael and his classes here so I won't repeat myself. Suffice to say, Michael simply assumed his students knew how to act already...he just made them more interesting to watch. Much more interesting. And in the final analysis, that's really what it's all about.

I'm not sure anyone can 'teach' someone how to act. One can 'build' upon talent, but not give it away. One already has the instincts to be a good actor or not. It's not something one can 'find' by looking or being taught. But that's just my theory. Others might disagree.

For example, I remember one class with Michael when a young actor said to him, "I don't want to hear about all of that stuff about Naked Face and internalizing and all that. I want to know how to ACT." I recall Michael taking a long pause, sort of sighing a bit, and then launching into an hour or so of breathing techniques; when to breathe, how to breathe, staggered breathing, full breaths, semi-breaths, top of the phrase breathing, quick breaths, breathing in the was absolutely fascinating and the young actor was overwhelmed. He ended by saying some actors do all of this instinctively. And if that is not the case it becomes tantamount to advanced's that complicated. In essence, Michael was telling the young actor that it can't be taught, or if it could, it would be so serpentine as to be almost incomprehensible. He was saying, quite wisely, that acting is breathing, first and foremost.

After that, he sat at his piano (Michael is a world-class jazz pianist) and turned the young man's monologue into an aria. He improvised the music and told the actor where the emotional peaks and valleys were. He stretched some of the sentences into soaring musical phrases and shortened some into quick, syncopated jazz riffs. It was remarkable. I can honestly say I learned more about the actual nuts and bolts part of acting in that hour than I had in the previous ten years of my life.

Before I ran across Michael's class I had ample opportunity to 'try out' some other teachers. For awhile I studied with the fabled Sanford Meisner. Certainly thought of to be one of the great teachers of the twentieth century in America. And yes, there were some cool things to learn from old 'Sandy.' But mostly it was a compilation of party games that had little or nothing to do with the actual work of the actor. Although I must admit, most of the time it was fun.

Uta Hagen's book, Respect for Acting, seems to be the one that most academic acting teachers espouse. It's a common sensical approach and not a bad book at all. My problem with it is that it is just full of 'right' and 'wrong' ways to do things. I've found over a hundred or so professional plays that this line of thought is simply silly. There is no right or wrong, there is only what works and what doesn't work.

I once worked with a teacher in New York who confused acting with personal therapy. There seems to be a lot of that going on. After I finished a scene once, before commenting about the work, he asked, "Did you have a difficult childhood?" I said, "Yes, I did. But not nearly as difficult as this asinine class." And walked out.

There's a charlatan here in LA, over in NoHo, who pretends to be an acting teacher. His background is mostly chorus work in big musicals. He's in his fifties now and runs a theatre, so a lot of young actors think he knows what he's talking about. After every scene or monologue he starts by saying, "How did that feel?" Which is okay, but that's as far as it goes. After the young actor describes how it 'felt' he says okay, and that's that. Next actor. Good Lord. The sad part is this guy actually has quite a few students that pay good money to be asked that.

There was one guy in New York (this happens all too often, I'm afraid) who used his classes to get laid. He abhored all the men in the class and everything they did. The women were all lavished with praise. It was so transparent as to be really uncomfortable.

The gist here, I suppose, is BE CAREFUL. Pick and choose carefully. A really good acting teacher is worth his or her weight in gold. A bad one can fuck you up forever.

Here's the thing: once an actor has reached a certain level of competence, he is competing against a whole gaggle of good actors. Everyone in the room is good. There ARE no bad actors in the room. Everybody knows what they're doing. It's not college anymore, it's not 99 seat theatre, it's not the Irene Ryan Competition, it's the real deal. And at that point it becomes not about being 'better' but about being 'more interesting.' Michael Moriarty understood this. That's what I loved about his classes. He really wasn't interested in teaching people 'how' to act, but rather how to make them a 'more fascinating' actor.

And in the long run, that's what it's all about.

See you tomorrow.