Things They Don’t Teach in Acting School
B.A. Ed. English Lit and Drama University of Northern Colorado ’66-‘70
5 years post graduate work Charles Conrad Studio ’77-‘82
“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
“First do no harm.”
Any discussion of things they don’t teach in acting school must include things they do teach that do not prove to be useful. If a student is diligent and approaches any class in an altruistic fashion, they will derive benefit from it, even if the teacher is less than stellar and the information is out of date. It is an aspect of, what the great philosopher Joseph Campbell, calls “following your bliss.” Any effort you make in that pursuit will be rewarded with greater understanding, awareness and the stirring of your creative psyche. Of course the ideal is when the teacher has practical wisdom to share and the information is golden. What follows are some things I have learned in the real world of professional acting that were omitted from acting school.
I have learned that the traditional, entrenched approach to acting that is taught in academia and many private acting schools is obsolete and impractical. It has been accepted and propagated that the approach of Stanislavski, Strasberg and others taught eighty years ago should still be the template for actors today. In light of the latest research on human creativity, it appears that acceptance is faulty, impractical, and can actually impede an actor’s creative impulses. It is only common sense that, just as the classic Greek actors wore masks, and Elizabethan actors had a handbook with drawings showing them how high to hold their fist to express extreme anger, acting continues to evolve. As Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed in his Essay on Art; “The Soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”
A relatively recent and very exciting development in the field of creativity that is excluded from traditional actor training is based on neurobiology. The two sides of the brain, left and right, have very specific functions and the research being done about this is growing exponentially. For a moving and powerful explanation of this, I urge you to watch Harvard neurobiologist Jill Bolte Taylor’s lecture “A Stroke of Insight” at www.Tedtalks.com. The left brain thinks. It is the voice in our collective head. It makes choices, it worries, it hopes, it fears, it praises and condemns, it is the home of the ego and self consciousness. It disturbs our concentration and often keeps us awake at night. There is not much talk of the fallible, devious nature of the left brain in old school education. Instead, most schools attempt to use the left brain to get at creativity. They do this by teaching text based script analysis, making choices, finding beats and using something from your personal life to use in creating a character. They say you must “analyze the script.” For a good chuckle, break down the word analyze into its component parts.
The biggest problem with this antiquated way of working is that it comes at the expense of the considerable power of the right brain. A recent study in Psychology Today revealed that a high degree of activity in the left brain causes a near cessation of activity in the right brain. This is deeply problematic for actors because the right brain is the repository of our receptors for instinct and intuition and is deeply connected to our emotional centers and our ability to empathize (feel). All these factors are essential to an actor attaining his optimum state of creativity. Emerson, again, from his Essay on Experience; “The great gifts are not got by analysis.”
Something else I learned in the real world is that you will never have enough time to prepare in the manner taught in many schools. The “homework” they insist is necessary before performing is time consuming and tedious. I cannot tell you how many times in my nearly forty year career that I’ve had last minute calls to major auditions. Or how many times I arrived at that audition to find I had to read an entirely new scene that had just been written. Or how many times I showed up for one role, read for it, and was asked on the spot to read for a different role entirely. If I had only traditional training to rely on a great deal of anxiety may have occurred. And, of course, anxiety is one of the most toxic enemies of good work.
A greater understanding of anxiety, stage fright, and nervousness occurred after my formal training ended. Most people have experienced “butterflies” but not many know their biological explanation. The left brain usually labels them a sign of nervousness and gives them an extremely negative connotation. This is the conscious mind creating a problem and then worrying about solving it. The fact is “butterflies” are our friend and ally. When early man walked the planet, we weren’t that fast or strong and our teeth weren’t a very good weapon. Through the process of evolution (sorry Fundamentalists)
Human Beings developed the adrenal gland to help us in times when we had to fight or flee. The adrenal gland secretes adrenalin into the stomach where it is absorbed into the blood stream and circulated throughout the body. It arrives to help us jump higher, think faster, see further and respond quicker. Once this is understood, you will never be nervous again, only excited.
The true nature of the “business” of being an actor is seldom addressed in acting school. It is important to know that the odds of success in Hollywood are astronomical. The Screen Actors Guild did a study some years ago that revealed that 7000 people a month arrive in Hollywood to be actors and the average length of stay is six months. Also,
getting an agent, even getting in to see an agent in LA is the most difficult and frustrating task you will face. This process is more mysterious to me than crop circles. The sheer number of actors in LA makes it difficult to find “audition friendly” employment. This problem is compounded by the fact that LA is a very expensive city to live in. On the other hand, it does possess the finest climate on earth.
The endless obstacles you will face in becoming a successful actor are just part of the reason one must learn to do it simply for the love of doing it. If you predicate your happiness on succeeding in this field, you will lose sight of the joy in pursuing it and cause serious damage to your spiritual core. In the Shambala tradition, hope and fear are the twin dragons at the gates of heaven. Hope places your happiness in the future and fear is usually based on something in the past. Don’t be a “young hopeful.” Emerson once more, from his Essay on Experience; “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” This approach to a career was not discussed in acting school.
No acting school can completely prepare you for this life that has chosen you, but solid, practical training will certainly enhance the journey and, most importantly, give you greater confidence in your own ability. That is the greatest gift a good school can pass along to a student. I am at the age now where one begins to reflect. I did my first SAG job 40 years ago. It was the Universal feature “Joe Kidd” with Clint Eastwood. As I tell my students, ”I’m not in the barn, but I can smell it from here.” A summary of what I’ve learned since leaving acting school can be found in a new college text book written by Daisy Nystul, Head of the Theater Department at Central Oklahoma University, where I have done some work with young actors. It is called “Interactive Introduction to Theater.” She asked me this question in a phone interview, which was, then included the book.
What is the most enjoyable thing about being an actor?
“What is the joy in dreams of flying? What is the joy in training yourself to experience detailed, nuanced, mixed emotion on demand? What is the joy in base jumping, extreme skiing, fighting a bull? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that joy is not about anything specific. It is a moment to moment experience that comes to you when you following your bliss. When your work is your worship. I have had many more powerful “religious experiences” in a darkened theater, on stage, on a movie set, and in a good class than I ever had in church. I feel that you are never closer to the Creator than when you are creating. I also love and respect the actor’s archetypal, historical link to the ancient shamans and story tellers, to the English romantic poets, to the impressionistic painters, and all other artists. What some people consider to be a narcissistic, shallow vocation (acting) is actually a noble, high calling. Our work, when it is good, literally lifts the spirits of people and can bring about massive social change. It is also an avocation that can continue to fascinate a human being for their entire life. The act itself never gets repetitive or tiresome no matter how old you get. In fact, it is just the opposite. Deepak Chopra and other neuroscientists have found that exercising one’s creative intelligence only enhances and extends a human life. Being a part of the tapestry of actors is also filled with wonder. We are gypsy knife fighters, at a campfire under a full moon. We are the dreamers and the sharers of dreams. In Jungian psychology we are the wild woman archetype. We are the women who run with the wolves, with only our instinct and intuition to guide us. It is truly a labor of love that brings the experience of love as you do it. It is a return to childlike wonder where there is poetry and beauty all around you. What we feel, not what we think is the most present centered thing in our moment to moment existence. How a heart feels is one of the great mysteries of the universe. And the actor gets to spend his life immersed in that glorious mystery.”
This I learned from experience.
Steve Eastin has taught acting in Los Angeles for 22 years (www.eastinstudio.com.) He is currently re-occurring on the Showtime series Dexter, and can also be seen in national commercials for Verizon and UPS as well as a starring role in the film “Things Fall Apart” with Ray Liotta, 50 cent, and Mario Van Peebles, to be released in spring ’11.