So you have got a gig as an acting teacher! Great work friend. Proud of you. Welcome to the wonderful, rewarding, powerful and enthralling work of training actors. Finally, you get the chance to impart all the lessons you really wish someone taught you years ago! Seriously, I love teaching actors, it is so much fun and a great opportunity to examine your own process and ask yourself, what is really important? How do I go about getting inside the given circumstances and really letting myself breathe in an imagined world?
Okay so let’s get down to brass tacks. Just like acting, we need a bit of who, what and how to get ourselves rolling here. Then it’s time to make a plan to get them comfortable and ready to work, and then to challenge them in that comfortable space. This may be a personal preference, but I dont think acting is easy. Quite the opposite I think it’s incredibly challenging and the classes should be challenging too, in the sense that the work should be challenging not the environment that you are working in. Actors need to feel that they can express themselves in all manner of ways in a safe, supportive environment but the work they do needs to encourage them to push themselves further than they thought they could go.
The balance for the teacher is finding out what that limit is, and creating an environment that people can safely head out and explore that on their own creative journey, facilitated by you!
Who are you teaching? Kids, teens or adults? Beginners, intermediate or working actors? Each one of these groups will require a slightly different approach. You need to tailor your material to the group you are working with. For example, I am not great working with little kids, I am not the most patient person and I want them to do what I want them to do – which isn’t always the best way to go. Moral of the story when I am teaching classes of kids I want to have a lot of preparation done in terms of games to play and things to do, as their attention span is short and we need to keep them constantly occupied so they don’t go causing trouble.
When it comes to teens, the big question is – do they WANT to be there? Did they choose to do it? Or is it being forced upon them? This seemingly tiny difference is everything in this age group. If they have chosen to be in an acting or drama class chances are they are going to be interested in the material and up for getting into some scenes and improvisations. If they have been forced to be there, you are going to have to work exceptionally hard to get them engaged and keep them interested.
Similarly, your best option for dealing with teens who don’t want to be there is to over-prepare. Get backup plans for your backup plans, keep them on their feet for as much as possible. As soon as a game or scene starts to fail or result in disinterest, move on immediately – don’t give them time to think about it. Think like a shark and keep on moving forward.
Adults in my humble opinion are the easiest group to deal with because they are only going to be in a class if they desire to be there. Usually, they have paid for the pleasure. The question becomes one of experience. Absolute beginners are great because they are usually more than keen to jump straight into some wild situations. Make sure you get a gauge of their experience, the danger is teaching people how to suck eggs, if adults feel like they know all of this and you are wasting their time and money you are going to be in for a tough time.
Okay now, let’s talk about content. Once everyone is in the room, introduce yourself and jump straight into a warm-up. The only exception here is if you are teaching beginner adults, for beginner adults they are going to be doing stuff which is really outside their comfort zone and they generally fare better with a bit more of an introductory chat before kicking into action. I tend to go around the room and get everyone to tell me their name, age, acting experience and what they hope to get out of the class. This gives me a clear idea of who these people are, the level that they are operating at and a scope to impart some knowledge.
This can be useful for teens as well, especially if you are teaching in an after school, extracurricular drama program, where they might not all know each other. For school groups, I just want to get them in and get them moving. Don’t let them have time to think about all the wild stuff they are doing as drama exercises.
So I like to start with voice. We have heaps of guides to voice warm-ups here, here and here. Essentially your voice warm-up consists of four key elements: stretching, breath, sound and articulation. Now the exercises you chose to use for those are going to vary depending on the group you’re teaching. At an acting school, getting everyone on the ground to do leg raises and exhale on a ‘z’ sound is absolutely appropriate. Doing that with a group of 10-year-olds after school? Good luck. Pick the exercises that are an appropriate match for your age group and experience level.
Once you have got those voices nice and warm, let’s get these humans alive in their bodies! A rigorous, fun, engaging physical warm-up. Again, if it exists and it’s about acting, StageMilk has an article on it, take a gander at a few great ideas here, here and here. Now, these exercises, they aren’t some kind of holy text, they aren’t Shakespeare folks, you can mess with them, change them up to suit your group! The space you’re working in! Don’t have access to yoga mats or squash balls? No worries, just take them out and see if you can adjust the exercise to achieve a similar outcome. You run this show!
Now you have got the group nice and warm, see if you can seamlessly transition into some exercises. Get people working on their craft without them releasing what the heck is going on. Following a physical warm-up I get my group to move around the room and play a simple game like the Opposites Game! Our Acting Games article is a real winner, it’s the most popular article on our site and with good reason, the exercises and games here are really fantastic and I totally recommend checking it out! Another classic is Thin As a Pin, where you get the group to walk around the space looking for the gaps between each other and consciously moving through them. Then you call out, ‘Thin as a pin’ and they stop, feet together and arms above their head, or ‘wide as a gate’ where they put their feet two shoulder-width apart and their arms out horizontally, or finally ‘small as a stone!’ where they get into a little ball on the floor, get them walking again and once they have learnt the three exercises, start eliminating people who don’t respond quickly enough or do the wrong one!
Either of these games can transition nicely into getting into groups and making tableaux. Which can transition nicely into the DVD Game you can see on that Acting Games link. Some other favourites for me on that list are, Threads, Word Association with Clicks, Build the Robot, Expert Double Figures and of course, the inevitable – Space Jump.
Pick a few games to suit the age and experience level of your group! Usually by the time you have done all that it will be time for a short break. So get them outside to have a bite to eat and head to the bathrooms.
Now for me, I love a bit of text work in the back half of the lesson. Whether that is a script the group is working on or something simple like an A/B script to throw at them and see what they do with it. Here is an A/B script I wrote and feel free to use it in your lessons!
A: We’ve been here before haven’t we.
B: Have we?
A: Haven’t we?
B: I don’t think so.
A: I am sure we have.
A: So it’s going to be like that?
B: Like what?
A: You know what.
B: Don’t you start
A: I didn’t start anything
B: Yes you did!
A: No, no. It was you.
B: What was?
A: You know what!
B: Wait… I remember!
B: We have been here before!
B: With the guy, and the thing?!
A: The thing?
B: The… thing.
A: Oh yeah…
B: Good times.
B: Hey, I’m sorry.
A: Dont worry about it.
B: No seriously.
A: It’s fine.
B: I don’t know what came over me.
A: It’s fine.
Again this may or may not be appropriate for your group but if it is – feel free to get them up in pairs and have a crack at this scene. You can use this as a basis to teach a range of acting techniques like objectives, image work, backstory and intention. It is a really useful jumping-off point!
Assigning them to break off into smaller groups and work on something to present at the end of class can also be a really useful way to go, that way you can move between the groups, see what they are working on and help them out as needed. When there is half an hour or so to go at the end, get them to go up one group at a time and present their work, you can then give them feedback and that should do you for your first class!
A quick note on giving feedback to actors. This can be really tricky, you want to be direct -and honest with people but there is no need to be mean, in fact quite the opposite, you want people to keep coming back and to want to get better, you don’t want anyone walking away feeling like a failure. I have found the best way to structure your feedback is Best Things – Ready For. Best things – what were the best aspects of this performance, what did we enjoy? What worked well? You can even throw this out to the group to feedback on the performance, be on your guard though, it must all be positive at this stage, if negative feedback comes through, interrupt it and ask them to give out something positive first.
Ready for – what is this performance ready for? What would we like to see more of from these performers? What aspects could do with a touch-up? Again try and keep the straight-up negative stuff out of the conversation. We need constructive ideas that can help the performers improve. Statements like ‘I didn’t like it’ are useless. Try and keep it focussed on the work and opportunities to improve it!
There you have it folks, a fully laid out lesson plan for how you can go about teaching your first acting class! As you can see StageMilk has a wealth of resources to help you do this! Once you get used to the group and have some good ideas of what they are looking to learn and what they enjoy you can start to tailor your lessons to suit them! Consider this a jumping-off point for you to find the confidence to be a great teacher! You will be fantastic, I just know it! Also if you want the full range of StageMilks resources including a play library and scene and monologue databases, sign up for the Scene Club below!