By Ryan R. Williams
As a working film and television director, I have to clean up the messes that outdated actor training creates on set. Here are some classroom practices that I firmly believe are harmful to the film actor. If you see any of this going on in your current acting class, I want you to run!
1. There’s no discussion of eyelines. Film editing is a dance of the eyes. The performer’s eyes guide us through the world of a film. They are the communicators. If you are allowed to hide in your class, it is time to bail. If you have never heard your instructor utter the phrase “points of focus,” beware.
2. Cold-reading happens every week. Cold-read classes offer fast food answers for actors who don’t want to rehearse. How often do you arrive unprepared to a real audition? Almost never. Proper text analysis and rehearsal technique are both essential for serious film actors.
The lazy actor might argue, “Well, Ryan, sometimes you don’t have time to rehearse on set.” And I would counter, “Well, hypothetical naysayer, paid actors sure as hell don’t have scripts in their hands either.”
An actor should build a strong foundation of fully realized performances in weekly classes. That body of work is what you will draw from on a chaotic set. Practice and train at the level you would actually like to work in films. I would not spend 15 minutes in a parking lot learning my script for a Steven Spielberg film. And I would not attempt it in scene study class for the same reasons.
3. A camera is being used, but not from a cinematic angle. Plunking down a camcorder mounted to a junky tripod—one that is operated by the underqualified T.A. who is seated on the front row—tells you nothing about how your work could truly look in a feature film or TV show.
That perspective can only be gained by using prime lenses with shallow depth of field, on a location shoot, with production audio. Granted, most on-camera classes don’t shoot footage at that level, but if you can find one, you have arrived at the right place. Watching playback of amatuer footage is self-abuse and should be avoided.
4. Playing to the room is encouraged. The audience in a true film acting class must lean forward to hear and be regarded as crew. Classes where performers are encouraged to speak up or entertain fellow students should be avoided at all costs. Projection is for legitimate theater, not film.
You want to perform in a room full of actors who appreciate nuance. It must be a respectful, quiet place where everyone locks it up like they are on an actual location. You should not have to shout your scene over the din of a rowdy class like a commodities broker hoping to unload soybean stock before the bell rings.
Watch out if you hear the teacher say: “They can’t hear you in the back!” Better then the boom operator never being able to hear again.
5. Unmotivated blocking is encouraged. Moving your feet means moving the camera. While scenes are not static in movies, they only move when they have to in order to tell the story. It takes too long to arrange lights and rig cameras to block arbitrarily. In acting classes, the blocking often sends actors from one side of a 25-foot stage to the other and back again.
Unless the movie is about being chased by a swarm of bees, it will not be done this way. Please stop running around and resist instruction to do so.
The playing field in film is limited by light, art direction, and the presence of gear. Get used to being crammed in and unable to move much. You wouldn’t want to reveal a grip eating red vines when the camera pans beyond the allotted frame because you’re used to covering ground.
6. Precision is not the norm. Film takes must be repeatable. Notes from a teacher who likes to change everything “in the moment” do not develop your muscle memory correctly. You need to be able to create within the confines of very precise, repeatable staging.
A distinction must be made between improv and scene study.
Watch out if you hear the teacher say: “The lines don’t matter, just go with it, follow your impulses!” The lines might matter to Aaron Sorkin. And the camera operator, DP, focus puller, and dolly grip may be even less inclined to follow your random impulses. Inspiration and impulse are two very different things. Impulse is the reason you buy beef jerky in line at Target. Inspiration requires homework.
Now, if you are realizing that your current acting class is not fit for the film actor, take heart. Some actors don’t even have a class to contemplate. Not being in class at all is the worst mistake you can make, but attending the wrong class can knock you out of the film game before it even starts. You want the right class. Now you have a clear scorecard, so be discerning.
Train correctly and get ready to play for a living!
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Ryan R. Williams is a Los Angeles based on-camera acting teacher and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Williams’ full bio!
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson