You Don't Need To Be Damaged To Grow: What An Actor Should Expect From A Teacher

Tatiana Ikasovic

Photo by Marcelo  Jaboo from Pexels

Photo by Marcelo  Jaboo from Pexels

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”       -Carl Jung

I once gave this quotation to a movement teacher I trained with in New York City. She possessed the rare ability to be both assertive and corrective when necessary, yet also endowed her students with the wisdom of her years and maintained an equal, collaborative atmosphere. She held the space with a graceful, intuitive intelligence and was utterly accepting of each student’s individual needs. The impression she left was unforgettable, and formed the basis of my life-long pursuit of mentors who will enable me to grow as an artist and as a human being. It is one of life’s greatest searches, and also among it’s most challenging. A truly brilliant teacher has the power to enhance the human spirit— to conjure a sense of purpose and direction in the malleable young minds they agree to shape. 

An acting studio is, ideally, a sacred space—a place for creative exploration where the darker aspects of behavior are frequently unearthed. Acting teachers and their students often broach delicate subjects in the exploration of a script or a character, and many young actors find themselves deeply considering certain intensely personal experiences for the first time in the context of class. In responsible studios, there is a clear etiquette in such cases—whether explicit or implicit, and a great teacher is sensitive and attentive when listening and responding to a student’s story, ideally helping them reach a moment of breakthrough in both the scene at hand and, more importantly, their lives. 

My early training provided many wonderful teachers. I had always been careful and thorough when selecting classes, soliciting referrals from fellow actors whose opinions I trusted. Training has always been the traditional pathway to acting, and there was a familiar pattern that the great actors I admired followed: move to New York, study and perfect your craft, establish a career in theatre, and eventually transition to Hollywood. However, the landscape of the industry has shifted dramatically over the last twenty years to accommodate the advent of the Internet (and more recently, social media).  Studying acting in the traditional thorough, painstaking, theatre-centric way is no longer the standard, and as a result a slew of acting studios have popped up in NYC and LA in the past decade, offering gimmicky training aimed at young actors who want a fast way to learn “the basics”. Through diligent research I managed to avoid these places—though I would often hear horror stories about them from fellow actors— but until recently I didn’t fully grasp how troubling taking the “fast track” to training can be. 

Late last year I audited a two-day master class with a renowned teacher, expecting her to be challenging and emotionally engaging, but still respectful, as my previous teachers had been. Imagine my shock when the “master” teacher interrupted a weary young actor at the apex of a very intense scene and threw personal information she had revealed in class back in her face, saying, “Well of course you’re screwed up and you’ve never had a boyfriend at the age of 25; your father is a mail man, for Christ’s sake: you're ashamed of him and yourself because you’ll fail just like he did and amount to nothing!” I remember practically the whole class reflexively covering their mouths in shock, clearly dismayed by his harsh proclamation. As the student began to weep, the teacher instructed her to carry on with the scene, seemingly unperturbed by the way she had just verbally abused her. “I’m like a psychologist,” the teacher explained. “I see things.” Except, of course, she wasn’t a psychologist. In fact, the commentary she provided about this girl’s family was unbelievably cruel and completely irrelevant to the scene. 

Unfortunately, I have witnessed this type of reckless and egotistical abuse of power by an acting teacher enough times to know that this was far from an isolated instance. Some teachers, searching for the student’s breaking point, fish around for morsels of sensitive personal information, private family affairs or previous abuse to publicly announce to the class. The more sordid the allegation, the more satisfied the teacher becomes, as these revelations will then be used as ammunition to humiliate and denigrate the student as they stand literally and metaphorically bathed in a spotlight. The student invariably has a breakdown, nodding in agreement between sobs of shame, and the class thinks the teacher has orchestrated this deep exploration of self. This is teacher as puppeteer: pulling the strings of the student’s psyche, pushing them to the limit of feeling, then reeling the student back in with tired acting class tropes familiar to any actor who has endured an irresponsibly manipulative teacher: the emotional ‘breakthrough’ was necessary to understanding the character, the actor can ‘use’ their traumatic personal experiences in the scene, the public exposure of private shame was not traumatizing but “empowering”.

This kind of overt emotional manipulation seems designed to demonstrate the teacher’s ability to produce an overt display of emotional pain every time an actor steps onstage. The actor then proceeds with the scene, broken, disparaged, responding tearfully to the incessant questioning, stunned by the personal attacks they have just endured that may take years to recover from.  While it’s worth noting that a well-meaning teacher may simply be passing on the kind of training he or she was personally exposed to, many actors leverage their side hustles to pay for these kinds of classes, only to leave not only emotional bereft, but financially strained for the sake of being verbally abused. 

To avoid becoming despondent, I have devised a list so that you can navigate the muddy waters of professional and vocational training. Some things to look for in a teacher and studio include: 

Professionalism. A studio should maintain a safe environment, emphasizing appreciation of the unique personalities and opinions of all of its students. Acting classes generally require independent, unsupervised rehearsals by students outside of class time and often off studio grounds. Violent outbursts by other actors and verbal abuse in rehearsals with scene partners should not be tolerated. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for acting students to cross a line during rehearsal and make their partner feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. In such an instance, the student should feel protected by the institution. Feeling as though your voice is heard and your complaint taken seriously is extremely important. Studios that dismiss complaints for the sake of keeping the offender in the class for monetary purposes are best avoided. I once had an incident occur with an acting partner wherein he violated my personal space outside of the studio and sexually harassed me. Upon turning to my acting teacher for help, I was met with a condescending tone and was essentially told that this was a natural occurrence for a woman in the theatre, and that I should move on and forget about it. Looking back, I realize that hers was the entirely wrong advice to give a 20-year-old woman from a foreign country living alone in New York City. A responsible studio has a standard of care, and students should have professionals to talk to when issues arise. This behavior would not be excused at a university or any other place of higher learning, so why should it be acceptable at an acting studio?

Impartiality. When teachers demonstrate favoritism towards students, it sets a competitive, gossipy tone to the class that hinders creative freedom. Students should feel comfortable exploring the craft without feeling as though the teacher is grooming some of the students to be ‘stars’ (another divisive yet common compliment used by irresponsible teachers). Yes, some students might be farther along in their training or professional career, but everyone deserves the same amount of critique and direction, and you can always learn something new at every stage of development. 

Equality. Teachers who bring their egos into the classroom are best avoided. Sometimes egotism can rear its head late in the process of a class; be vigilant to catch these telling signs at the outset: name-dropping, boasting, prolonged stories of former glory, unnecessary criticism, humiliation and forcing students to adhere to a teacher’s personal process. A great teacher will be inclusive of every student’s unique point of view and establish an open dialogue about how each student can improve as an actor. A teacher should empower you in your choices and provide constructive notes that are clear, concise, and specific to you. Blanket criticism for the whole class is a lazy approach to teaching that you would do well to receive with alarm. I’ve seen teachers get up and instruct the actors to copy their exact behavior, believing there was one “right” way of approaching the scene. This is not only inhibiting but also quashes any sense of individuality rather than encouraging actors to think for themselves and make their own bold choices. 

Respect for the craft. Ideally, every actor in the class should have a deep love and respect for theatre and film. They should be fully attentive to every other actor performing: curious, inquisitive and open, and the studio should facilitate this by not allowing the students to use their phones or engage in chatter during class. Some of the best teachers I’ve had imposed a moratorium on talking in their classes and it made a substantial difference in my immersion in the work. Additionally, being unfairly critical and judgmental of other actors’ work isn’t helpful, as everyone is learning and learning is a process.  The ideal class will view students who engage in negative commentary between scenes as disrespectful and discipline them appropriately.

Respect for each other. Countless times I have heard from other actors that they have endured some form of emotional abuse or overbearing control from their acting partner. A friend of mine was traumatized when her acting partner decided to do a sex scene onstage (it occurred under the covers) stark naked, without her consent. Furthermore, he had an erection, which was so humiliating for her that she became overwhelmed and it inhibited her performance to the point that she was unable to carry on with the scene. Again, in any other professional environment this kind of behavior would be completely unacceptable. The actors should always feel safe, and any intimacy should be carefully thought-through before the performance. Last minute decisions without informing the other actor are irresponsible and can be potentially dangerous if there are weapons or fight scenes involved. 

Thoroughness of training. A full-time studio should have an extensive list of classes that will prepare you for your professional career and have teachers that are experts in various styles and techniques of training. Ideally, if you’re attending a private studio part-time, the teacher should have an understanding of current material that you may be auditioning with, and be able to facilitate your needs as well as have a complete grasp of classical and contemporary texts. The best teachers I’ve had placed a heavy emphasis on vocal work and Alexander technique, and this can make a substantial difference in the quality of your performance and your ability to live out experience without being constricted by maladaptive physical habits.

Some final tips: One of the best ways to determine the right class for you is to audit beforehand. Auditing enables you to observe the teaching style and environment before committing to a long-term situation. Many studios provide this option, and I find it extremely helpful. The worst thing you can do is spend a fortune on training only to decide halfway through that you are unhappy with the way you are being taught. There’s no one-size-fits-all training, you have to take the time to understand yourself and what you want from a teacher.

Once you have ascertained the environment and committed to weekly classes, it’s important to be realistic about the expectations you place on the teacher. It’s not uncommon for students to idolize the teacher, to put them on a pedestal and receive their instruction with a fervor that borders on the cultish, even regarding matters outside of acting. This is very easy to do when you feel that you've found someone who understands how to access your talent and creativity.  However, an acting teacher is not a guru, and treating them as such is damaging for both parties. They may offer advice that extends beyond the stage, but recognize the fact that they are simply human and not omniscient.

Another common error is expecting a teacher to ‘connect’ you with industry professionals. It’s generally not in their job description and will likely end in disappointment. Just because they trained famous actors previously does not guarantee you a career, nor does it automatically make them a good teacher for you.

Above all, listen to your inner voice, and trust your intuition. It can take time, but finding somewhere to develop your craft can be a transformative experience that will stay with you forever. A good acting studio is one of the few places in life that offers such freedom of expression and opportunity to explore wildly varied characters. Utilize the time to strengthen your understanding of your craft and develop a strong sense of yourself as an artist. Following the creative path is difficult enough as it is, and finding a teacher who will encourage and motivate you to be disciplined with your practice is imperative to your progress and emotional well-being. You should feel energized after class, eager to implement corrections, and revitalized by the teacher’s belief that you can are progressing on the journey to becoming the most skilled actor you can be.  

Tatiana Ikasovic is an Actress and Writer currently residing in Los Angeles. For more information about her and her work visit Instagram @tatianaikasovic