I keep having all sorts of people writing me privately, after reading my post about, "The Seven Reasons Why Professional Programs Simply Aren't Worth It" -- asking me, "Kirsten, if you had it to do over again, what would you do now?" Many of these actors tell me they're already enrolled in expensive programs, and are now thinking, after reading this post, that they won't go. They're left feeling lost and confused. My advice to all of you is this. Get into a good Method Acting Class, based on Lee Strasberg, and learn to act in realistic ways, that will translate the best for Film and Television.
We've all heard about famous Method actors, like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Marlon Brando, but why did they all have so much success? Because Lee Strasberg was their teacher! And in my opinion, the man knew what he was doing! He was the best acting teacher of the last century, no matter what anyone else says!
Most professional acting programs train you with the intention to act with a broader style, mostly for stage plays. In professional programs, especially at the bigger University level (such as, at USC, or at a state school) you'll learn how to project your voice, get rid of your regional dialect or accent, stand tall, create interesting characters, move to command a large audience, and project your energy across a large stage, etc...
I learned all of these things at USC, in my Masters in Fine Arts program, in the early 1990s. I also learned broad improvisation skills which helped me create all sorts of original stage business, helped me understand the importance of props, big reactions, and thinking on the spot.
What most of my classes at that two year program, failed to teach me, was how to "just be me." I mention this in several other posts, but I want to stress this problem again here, perhaps explain it a bit better. I'd always had the leads in every single high school play and musical, all the way up through my under grad days (at Grinnell College) and on into my days at USC, in grad school. When I finally graduated, and started acting professionally around Los Angeles, started going out every day on professional Film and TV commercial auditions, and meeting with major casting directors (even for many commercials) -- I found out very quickly that I was "too big". Not too fat, just "too big" in my acting style.
My voice was overly trained, sounded almost fake in its perfection, my motions were big and over the top, and I looked terrible on film, like I was making bizarre faces and shouting my lines. Fortunately for me, I DID book several commercials, but I seldom booked TV roles or movies. When I almost booked a big lead on "Days of Our Lives", I learned later I didn't get the part (it was between myself and one other actress in NY) -- because my acting style was, you guessed it, "too big." The casting director called me in and showed me the screen test, the taped scene I'd done at the studio the week before, as part of my final audition. In it, I could see exactly how I spoke too loudly, moved too slowly, or intentionally, and just seemed like I was saying lines, not really just being in the moment, like a real person would.
A year later, thank God I finally found a new acting class in Los Angeles that changed my life forever. I will always recommend my old teacher, Catlin Adams, even though she doesn't even realize I always promote her, or even that I have a site like this. She changed my life forever, in more ways than just with acting. She was so wise and so patient and focussed on each student and each person's "problems". For over five years I took her professional class, with about 20 other talented actors (some even famous ones!) She had lived with Lee Strasberg's family when she was a teenager, because she'd been a promising young actress from LA, and he'd wanted to train her that much. She played the wife of the Cantor in "The Jazz Singer" opposite Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier. It was her first role.
Eventually, Catlin became a TV director, and now coaches several famous A-list celebrities, when not teaching her professional classes. I was lucky enough to be asked to be her assistant for several years -- and the things I learned about acting in her classes, mostly based on the Strasberg Method, made me a much better actress! They also made me a better director and teacher.
In her classes I learned to just to sit with my fellow actor in a scene and listen. I didn't have to move around or do anything else. I just "was". I also learned to stop running around like an idiot, doing a million different activities with props. I learned to let my voice be real, and quiet, and normal, like in a film. I learned how a sensory focus can heighten behavior, and make me look interesting, without even thinking about what I was doing. I was no longer acting my lines out in a pattern I’d memorized, but saying them fresh, and different, each time I performed them. I relaxed. It took me years to finally understand how important it was to be relaxed on camera, or on stage, and that relaxation wasn't about being laid back, but about being ready for anything, like a realistic emotional reaction. Sensory work brought back old memories I could use to create realistic feelings at the drop of a hat, and I wouldn't have to fake them anymore. It was a revelation!
So I guess my advice to all of you out there wanting to move to LA or NY, or those of you already acting, whether or not in a program, or professionally, is this. Don’t join “The Lee Strasberg School” if it locks you into a year long program, or any other kind of “Acting for Film” year-long program. If you want to act in film or TV, find a good private teacher who’s trained in The Method. Audit the class. And if you like it, GO!
In these kinds of classes, you'll learn everything you'd learn in a bigger more expensive program, but they'll be cheaper. And there, you'll meet other working actors, who can help you get started, help you find agents and contacts and classes. They will also know working directors. I also suggest a good improv class, because improv really helps with auditions, especially commercial auditions. And if you have voice problems, take some voice lessons. But I do not think you need to take movement classes, unless your posture is terrible and you move like a lumpen clod! :-)
Just start with a Method Class. That, and doing some therapy, and working out in some way, such as Yoga, will teach you to get in touch with your breath, your body, and your real inner feelings about your life and past. I find that the study of Method Acting helps you unlock those channels to your emotions, so that you can use them in your professional acting work. Hey, if you can't cry about your own past, how can you cry on cue in a film scene? You need to learn how to unlock your emotions. The Method style is the single best way to do this. And the sensory work you'll learn to use will take your acting to a whole new, even easier, level.
Hope this helps! And keep on acting!