Training and learning is a massive part of the life of an actor. Whether it is learning about a specific character we are rehearsing or training the craft of acting generally, being in a position of self improvement is (and should be) a priority in our careers. I have graduated drama school and subsequently participated in dozens of drop in acting classes, masterclasses and short courses with the intention of “sharpening the saw”: keeping my craft refined and ready, so that I am prepared for when the next opportunity should arise. There is nothing worse than a significant audition popping up after several months of complacency about my skill sets as an actor. It happens. We will all go through periods of time of rigorous focus and development of our skills as actors, and periods of distance from the craft. That’s ok. However, there are ways in which we can maximise the usefulness of our training when we are in a learning environment, whether it is a full time drama school environment or a one off class. Here we will talk about both of those learning experiences, and how to get the most out of our training, if nothing else so we can get our money’s worth!
Let’s begin by talking about drama school. Drama school is a period of 1-4 years of concentrated full time study, which is an experience I’d recommend to everyone pursuing a career in acting or considering becoming an actor. This time is a once in a lifetime opportunity to focus and get better at acting without the external pressures the industry pokes at us like getting the job, getting an agent or going for auditions regularly. No, this is a time where you can go to a building, be surrounded by like minded people and play. It’s an incredibly valuable experience but the value of the experience is determined by your commitment to it and your intention behind it.
This is really a “I wish I knew then what I know now” segment of this article. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on my time as a student at drama school, and have come up with a number of ways in which I feel I could have used the time better. Short of a time travel machine to be able to go and redo my time as a drama school student, I’m instead putting down these points on the page here, in the hope that you’ll be able to maximise your training experience instead!
Aghhh. It’s so difficult to not quote Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” right now. No- you know what? I’m going to. My article, my rules. “If you had one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment would you capture it or just let it slip?”
This is the core of what I’m talking about, folks. This is Mum’s spaghetti. You only do drama school once. It is the one time in your career when you will be free from the pressures of the industry and able to immerse yourself in your development as an actor. I can’t stress how valuable and unique this experience is. For myself, 6 years on from drama school, the idea of going to a place to train on a daily basis is so appealing to me, especially in the leaner times when the auditions are few and far between.
Do whatever you can do to commit to your time at drama school. I know, like any extended period of learning, things can start to drain you and you might lose interest or be studying a unit which doesn’t interest you as much. However, I’m pleading with you right now to have a bigger picture perspective when times get tough. If you haven’t already gone through a process of identifying your intention for why you are at drama school, do that as soon as you can. This intention will be essential for you to refer back to in difficult times, to remind yourself of why you are there and what you hope to achieve.
Now, drama school may not be ‘one moment’ like in the song, but it is a collection of moments over an extended period of time. If you can train yourself to seize what you want to achieve in as many moments of your training as possible, you’ll greatly increase the value of your drama school experience.
Here’s an acting exercise for you: play the role of a sponge. Be the sponge. Live as the sponge. Be like the sponge who absorbs as much content and information as possible. A phrase that is synonymous with ‘be like a sponge’ is ‘adopt a ‘beginners mindset’. I have written about ‘beginner’s mindset’ before, but it is worth reiterating here.
Adopting a beginners mindset in your acting training is making a commitment to openness. It is putting aside, for the moment, any preconceived notions of what it means to be an actor or how to act for the duration of your time at acting school (or at least for a large part of it). The majority of people, myself included, come to an acting institution with strong and rigid opinions about what acting is and how to act well. This is a good thing, especially out in the industry where it’s better for us to back ourselves than be wishy washy with our craft. However, in a learning environment, these opinions, or a ‘fixed mindset’ can drastically decrease the value of your drama school experience.
Hey, I get it. There is great confidence that comes from having a strong opinion. And conversely, allowing yourself to not know the answer to something can induce feelings of vulnerability. But know this: you’re in a school. It’s a learning environment. You’re a student. Going in feeling as though you have all the answers and being a student is a conflicting equation. If you know all the answers, you should be teaching the class. Allow yourself to not know. This openness and curiosity will allow you to consider things you may not have before, and broaden your horizons with what is possible with the craft.
There are five main components of a beginners mindset:
- Embrace challenges (rather than avoid them)
- Persist in the face of setbacks (rather than give up easily)
- See effort as the path to mastery (rather than seeing it as fruitless)
- Learn from criticism (rather than ignore it)
- Find lessons in the success of others (rather than feel threatened by it)
By embracing these 5 points, as challenging as it may be, you will greatly increase your desire and tendency to learn. You will reach high levels of achievement and a greater sense of free will. If the rewards of this path are not inspiring enough for you, perhaps the alternative road and it’s consequences will be a motivator for you; a fixed mindset may lead to you plateauing early, and achieving far less than your full potential.
Take/ Create as Many Opportunities to Act as Possible
This is probably the one I kick myself about the most post graduating. There should not have been a week at acting school where I didn’t act. Unfortunately there was. There were quieter times midterm where we were working on theory or, for whatever reason, weren’t acting. This was not the fault of the school, this was my fault for not instigating these opportunities.
You are at school with a dozen or more like-minded actors. I can guarantee you there will be someone who is keen to rehearse a scene or shoot a self tape outside of school hours or at lunch time. If you were to do an extra self tape once a week for a 3 year course at drama school, you’d have practiced hundreds of times more than your peers. That, in the long run, is hugely significant.
This doesn’t have to be a huge time or energy commitment. In fact, I’d encourage you to make this habit as easy to commit to as possible. The simplicity of the task of practising will increase the sustainability of it.
With this in mind, I’d also encourage you to embrace every chance you get to act with as much commitment as possible. You may indeed get to a stage where you become complacent and just do what you need to do to pass. This is understandable, but AVOID THIS COMPLACENCY AT ALL COSTS. This is not an industry with guaranteed work for everyone, so there is no room for complacency. Don’t embrace these opportunities to act because you want to look good or get top grades; do it for yourself with the knowledge that the more you practise, the higher the likelihood of you booking work post graduating.
Another habit of the good student I’m kicking myself for not embracing more: reading. Read as much as you possibly can whilst at drama school. Read acting books, plays, books on theatre theory and different practises. Read about movement principles like Biomechanics or Laban or Viewpoints. Read Greek Mythology. Read non-western dramatic literature. Read novels. Read stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with acting. Whatever it is, just read.
An interesting actor is an interested person and reading is a shortcut to increasing your curiosity and world view. That’s really all I have to say about that. Prioritise making a habit of reading and you will see the positive benefits for yourself. One final point on reading: make notes. Particularly if it is acting related. As you’ll read in the next section, taking notes will increase the amount which you learn. Simply reading something and letting it wash over you may not result in the retention of valuable information. On that note…
Take Effective Notes
Writing (and I do mean handwriting more than typing) creates a neuromuscular connection between what you’re being taught and your understanding of it. It’s essential to take notes during drama school so you can remember what was said but also so you can process the information that is coming your way.
There are a few factors which will increase the value and effectiveness of your note taking. These factors come under three headings: Preparation, Duration and Debriefing.
Firstly, prepare for taking effective notes. Review the notes you took for the same subject in the last class before this class starts, so you can prime your mind for taking on board new information. Additionally, make sure you have the equipment you need (journals, pens and pencils with different colours). Format the page you will be working on to make it easy to reference down the track; include the date and subject of the lesson, and layout the page in a way you feel will be effective. I like to include a ‘questions to ask’ or ‘things to research’ section on my page for easy reference.
During the class, prioritise taking down the key points of information rather than writing out the lesson verbatim. If you’re writing down everything your teacher says, all you are practising is the craft of handwriting. Take down what rings out as most important to you, and jot down any additional thoughts or questions which come to you in your own words. Understanding is key; if you need to abbreviate or write a point down in a way which resonated with you, I’d highly recommend this over trying to copy the vernacular of the teacher. Make sure your notes are clear. 5 well written points which are clear and meaningful to you post class is infinitely better than five pages of illegible scribble.
After the class, to make sure what you’ve listened to and written down actually becomes learned information, conduct a debrief. You can do this yourself or with a friend or with a group. Identify the key points of learning from the class and the key areas you need to work on. It is also work debriefing on a course or subject after its completion.
It’s worth mentioning the topic of self-care in a learning environment. Again, this is an area I was not well versed in during my time at drama school, and boy oh boy I wish I was. The crux of it is this: take care of yourself and you will be able to get more out of your time at drama school, (or any learning environment). Drama school in particular can be a very complicated time, with workload, social dynamics, pressures around who is playing which role in your next project ect. I understand and appreciate this. All these points I’m outlining here today will be fruitless if ultimately you don’t look after yourself. Understand what you need, whether it is rest, time away from acting, exercise, mindfulness practise, someone to talk to or anything that works for you. If your mind is full because you’re worrying about personal elements of your life, your learning will be negatively impacted.
Another point on this subject: self-care does not mean self-medicate. Putting it simply, actors and drama school students typically love going to the pub and celebrating as much as possible. This is great, and the friends you make at drama school will be with you for a long time to come. But one thing I’ve noticed post graduating is that I should’ve prioritised my learning over the social elements of drama school more. And in terms of self care, I should’ve used other methods to get myself back to pay performance level rather than stress release through visits to the local bar. It’s not my intention to seem like a grandpa right now, (though I am known to be an old soul) but rather I’m just giving you the heads up to prioritise what you need. It is your time at drama school which you are paying for. Do it how you want to do it, not how other people think you should be doing it.
Do Anything and Everything
Drama school can be hilariously odd. In what other field would you find yourself in a classroom lying on the ground, humming and doing voice exercises, practising funny accents, wearing strange masks learning about weird styles of theatre and performance art or playing make believe? Drama school, no matter who you are, will push you out of your comfort zone. Embrace that! And, if you are out of your comfort zone, learn from that experience. Who cares if something makes you feel naff or you don’t like doing it; you may never do it again after this class or this subject.
Again, this fits into the beginners mindset conversation. Be open to new experiences. There’s no point being in a learning environment having made up your mind about what you will and won’t explore.
Serve the Ensemble
Working in a team is a skill worth practising. Especially as an actor. In no acting job will you be working alone, even in a one-person show. You will always be required to work with writers and directors at the very least, then on top of that you will be working with many other actors and creatives in your career. Drama school is the perfect place to practise being a good team member. A group of actors, like the group of actors in your year at drama school, is an ensemble. Ensembles, at their best, are a thriving group of people who work effectively together to create work and maximise the success of the individuals within them. At their worst, an ensemble is a stressful dysfunctional group of individuals only hoping to serve themselves and causing severe stress and conflict for those around them.
Serve your ensemble, and always strive to be the best group of actors you can be. “The rising tide raises all ships” is a phrase of great pertinence to an ensemble of actors. Work with all the people in your year, not just your friends. Encourage them and congratulate them on their successes. Support them in their times of struggle. Be the model for how you would like to be treated by those around you and you will eventually notice the increased sophistication of the work of everyone in the ensemble.
Acting, as a craft, will always be changing and evolving. What is appealing to an audience today may be outdated tomorrow. With this in mind, be wary of the pursuit of getting things “right”. There will never be a ‘right’ with acting. Sure, there may be ‘wrongs’ in acting, but striving to act in the ‘right’ way may only lead to a mediocre performance. Always be testing the boundaries of what’s possible with acting whilst in drama school. Always be experimenting. It’s much harder to do this once you’ve graduated! An audition is not really the place we want to be trying that kooky acting method we’ve just discovered for the first time.
Acting school is the place where you can put the craft of acting under the microscope. In the same way a doctor trains at university in an environment free from the risk of harming a patient, so too does the actor in drama school train in a risk free environment. Sure, you may risk discovering a ‘wrong’ in acting or get a chuckle from your classmates, but who cares? What is laughter in comparison to learning? If your classmates ridicule you for trying something new, that’s on them, not you. Always be pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
Work With the End in Mind
The end of your drama school days come around so much quicker than expected. It’s important not to forget this. Have an awareness of the fact that your last chapter of drama school will primarily be concerned with your introduction to the industry; don’t rely on this time to get yourself ready for graduation. Learn, play, experiment and get things wrong whilst in class, but always keep a clear intention for how you want to finish your time at drama school in the back of your mind.
The end of drama school can cause fractures in your ensemble dynamic. It’s an unfortunate reality of introducing the industry into a previously safe space of an acting school. Identify before this happens what is most important to you; how do you want to be remembered post-graduation? What are your priorities for entering into the industry? How can you serve yourself whilst remaining true to others around you?
I can’t answer these questions for you, but I can encourage you to consider them. In the same way the Stoic Philosophers use a memento mori as a reminder of the brevity of life as a way to best use the time they have, so too should you consider the fact that drama school will be over before you know if, enabling you to get out of it all that you can.
Let’s move on now to training opportunities post drama school. How can we get the most out of them? I’d say that all of the above points will continue to apply to any learning environment you find yourself in, but there are a few additional points I’d like to throw into the mix.
Post graduate training takes many forms. From acting classes, short courses through to voice and movement specific classes, there are many ways to continually grow as actors. It has always been a belief of mine that we should never stop learning as actors, so wherever our bank balances allow it we should throw ourselves into the deep end of a beginners mindset experience as often as we can.
The value of post graduate training is priceless. It keeps us switched on and ready for “when preparation meets opportunity” (a phrase used by Dacre Montgomery explaining his process prior to booking his role on Stranger Things). It also helps us form community and keep tapped into the industry.
This point is definitely applicable to drama school students, but I felt it more pertinent to include it in this section of the article. Perhaps it is due to the anxiety brought about by space between auditions or a lack of feedback on our work postgraduate drama school, but there is definitely a need for actors to seek validation from teachers in acting classes. I’ve been there too, and can vouch for the feelings of safety and comfort gained from a thumbs up or “you’ve done great work” gained by positive reinforcement from a teacher. I’d just like to flag here that this is not always entirely useful for us, nor is it what we should strive to gain. Being told we are good or we got something right will rarely make us better actors. In fact, it can often have the opposite effect by closing our mindset and allowing us to decide that we’ve got it nailed and don’t need to do any more work.
It’s crucial to remember with any acting teacher or class that any opinions expressed about your work are just that; they are opinions. They are subjective. Both good and bad feedback – both criticism in their own right – are only useful to us when dissected and analysed. If your acting teacher says something was great, great! Now dig into that feedback. What was great? How did it feel vs how was it perceived? The same rules apply for feedback which you deem to be negative.
Be very wary of what you’re hoping to get out of an acting class. If it is simply to be told you’re doing a great job, save the money and give your best friend a call. Go to an acting class to work, to be challenged and to be pushed outside of your comfort zone into a place of learning.
Remember, as always, you’re there for yourself. Not for anyone else.
Re-engage With the Beginner’s Mindset
I’m including this point again for a brief moment to reiterate its importance. An acting class is an opportunity to release the tight grip we have over our craft. It’s an opportunity to allow ourselves to be curious and ‘not know’ the answer. In doing this we stand to grow. I’m reiterating this point because post graduating drama school I have definitely been in classes where I wanted to demonstrate the fact that I knew how to do something rather than allow myself to not know and therefore get better at the craft.
It’s a vulnerable and humble position to be in, but a beginners mindset is essential for every learning environment.
Ask the Right Questions
Again, very relevant for drama school students. Ask your teachers the right questions. What do I mean by that? Well, it fits into the above point about validation. Asking questions to demonstrate your understanding or get a thumbs up from your teacher is a fairly useless endeavour. I do not mean asking for confirmation of your understanding; that is useful. I mean asking a question which deep down you know you are correct for the little rush of endorphins gained from a confirmation from your teacher.
Ask questions which will dig even deeper into the subject you are studying. Figure out what is truly a gap in your understanding before speaking. If you’re unsure, then wait. Your question may be answered later on in the class.
I suppose this goes against the phrase “there’s no such thing as a wrong question”. In a post graduate environment, however, I do believe that you can scrutinise which questions you would like to ask. In doing so you increase the value of the class for everyone around you.
A few final points to finish up with.
Post graduate classes are a great place to start experimenting again. They are not an audition, you don’t need to be getting things ‘right’ or strive to be doing ‘good acting’. Instead you can use the classes as a place of practise and analysis. One phrase I would be wary of is that of making “bold choices”. It is an often thrown around phrase in the acting world and learning environments.
Here’s my two cents on the matter: bold choices for the sake of being bold are not bold. Bold bold bold. Now that word is starting to lose all meaning…
Folks, don’t just shout or cry or do some grand gestural action in a scene because you want to seem interesting. “Bold choices” are a result of depth. They are a product of the commitment to process and craft, and will only truly emerge when you have done the work on the scene or character. A ‘bold choice’ in its true nature is about sophistication and understanding rather than a desire to be unique. Definitely pursue the bounds of a scene and test the limits of what is possible when acting, but striving for difference for the sake of difference actually becomes really boring really quickly.
Risk boring your audience through careful scrutiny of your craft before you seek to wow them with your ‘bold’ spontaneous choices. Rant over.
This one is particularly applicable to acting and auditioning classes. Practise your process for audition situations. Definitely explore and experiment as I said before, but also take every opportunity you can to practise for high-pressure scenarios. You may have lean periods of months or weeks between auditions, so treating an acting class as an opportunity to feel nerves and manage them is an invaluable process.
Finally, debrief with yourself after each class or course. Apply the same practises I’ve outlined in the draw school section of this article for your postgraduate study. Take the lessons you’ve learned in a drop in class and then practise or experiment with them in a self-tape session with a friend. Lessons left in isolation will lead to minimal impact on your craft and career.
Conclusion: That’s a Wrap
As actors, we will be and should be continually learning. It’s a privilege of this career pursuit that we get to do this. Apply these methods to your next learning environment and I’m sure you will be able to squeeze more out of the experience. Don’t just assume that learning will happen through osmosis by the mere fact of being in a classroom; practically and consciously apply yourself to the process. Learning itself is a skill which requires development, and by prioritising this development we can exponentially increase our potential as actors.