By Marci Liroff
Scam alert! Are you feeling abused and beat up when you leave your acting class? Could you ever imagine it’s coming from the very person who should be your mentor and your guide – your acting teacher or coach?
There are plenty of amazing teachers across the globe, yet I’m hearing horror stories of instructors who sound more like cult leaders.
Would it strike you as odd if a teacher asked you to rub his feet while you were delivering your monologue? A well-known teacher uses this method to get his students “out of their head” while they’re doing a scene. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next—which is why I think finding the right acting teacher and coach is often like finding the right shrink. You’ll only let some inside that very secret, dark place inside you. But once inside, I’d hope that along with calling you on your bad habits, your teacher-coach would lift you up, not demean and debase you. There are plenty of ways to do this same exercise without being unprofessional. This same teacher refers to her students as “Nazi,” “Basketball Player,” and even one 16-year-old as “Porn Star” rather than learn their names. To me, this crosses the line of impropriety.
Actor and licensed marriage and family therapist Julie Carmen remembers one New York acting teacher’s gross direction for a scene mate to spit in her face. “The point was to teach me to respond spontaneously and to not censor my anger, but even at age 18 it just destroyed my trust in that teacher,” she says.
“I felt manipulated and nauseous. Why was the teacher unable to teach spontaneity in a more respectful way? Why would my acting partner take the advice of that teacher? Why do we hand over our power to these people?”
I spoke to acting teacher and coach Jeffrey Marcus about this methodology. “In the past people learned by being bullied, from the military to Bikram Yoga, but it died out with disco,” Marcus says. “Who would want to be shamed and trampled upon, when all studies show that people bloom when given the room, time, and support to flower? Even though Stella Adler was a tough teacher, I doubt that she shamed her most famous pupil—Marlon Brando.”
Adds Carmen, “I studied with Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Bobby Lewis, José Quintero, and, recently, Patsy Rodenburg. They were extraordinarily perceptive, but their humility and love of teaching guided their approach. The intention was to push us toward deeper work at our own pace. One important phrase they taught was that ‘Actors wear our hearts on our sleeves but need the skin of an alligator.’ Therefore we manage the contradiction of being private in public, highly sensitized with the survival skill to detach.”
Actor and acting teacher Jack Plotnick weighed in on the outrageous foot-rub story. “Actors have a fear-based and result-oriented voice in their head while they act, called their ego,” he says. “Exercises like these can get actors to stop focusing on these result-oriented thoughts, but the issue with exercises like these is that the actor leaves with no tool with which to recreate the experience; no ability to quiet that fear-based ego voice. Either way, any class that does not empower actors to trust their own instincts and abilities is destructive and should be avoided.”
Check out Part 2 of this exposé June 12, when I answer the question, ”Why would actors continue to pay great sums of money to these kinds of teachers?”
What about you? What are some of your horror stories?
Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.