The tough acting teacher is such a familiar type as to be a cliche. It’s a ruthless business, so the reasoning goes, so teachers need to be ruthless with their students to prepare them for the brutal, cutthroat world that they will face in showbiz. Students often embrace this ethos. How many times have I had students say “I want you to be harsh with me”, believing that this harshness will make it more likely that they will succeed the next time. Suffering through the harshness becomes a badge of pride: “my training must have been good, it was harsh.”
I encounter this attitude in many students. There is no question that acting is challenging, and that teachers need to be challenging. Certainly no one who comes to my class walks away feeling unchallenged. Compelling acting is difficult to do, no matter how you slice it. I make no bones about this to my students, and I am always ready to invite them to fulfill the aspect of the scene or role that they may not yet have attended to. But it is also true that acting is a confidence game: being able to do it entails believing that you can do it, and harshness or abuse from a revered teacher is a great way to destroy that confidence forever.
I have heard stories of acting teachers saying things to students, in front of a whole acting class, such as “You know, you wouldn’t be having this problem if you weren’t sleeping with a truck driver.” There is so much wrong with this, I don’t know where to begin: betraying a confidence, inappropriate use of knowledge about someone’s personal life in a public setting, shaming about sexuality and pleasure, and humiliation, all rolled up into one ugly bundle. I shudder to think about what that student suffered. There is no excuse for behavior like this from teachers who have been entrusted with the creative aspirations and dreams of others. To my mind, it has more than a little in common with child abuse.
The truth is people like to be challenged, and they like the challenge of pleasing a demanding teacher. There is simply no need for this type of abusive treatment. That is not to say that people never need to be confronted about their foibles and evasions, but context and tone mean everything in that type of intervention.
And then there are the acting teachers who publicly harangue their students for a one-time lateness. It’s true that an acting class needs structure, and that that structure is part of what creates the feeling of safety for the participants. But there is simply no way that this kind of no-wiggle-room approach can truly foster an environment conducive to creativity. I have evolved my own set of rules for dealing with attendance and promptness, and I find that they are very adequate. There is no need to shame or humiliate anyone. in fact, the most important thing I can do to promote observance of the class structure is to start on time and have something really interesting to say, so that students will be motivated to be present for as much of class as possible.
There are a lot of people who gravitate to acting because they think it looks easy, and it can be a rude awakening for them when they come to learn how much work and dedication is involved. Sometimes I have to be the agent of that awakening for someone, but even then, I endeavor to keep it respectful: for all I know, they will be ready to dedicate in the fullness of time, but they simply aren’t right now. And that’s ok. Better that we both recognize where they are right now and move on.
Theater and film are collaborative art forms. As teachers, we have an obligation to prepare our students to work collaboratively by modelling the practice of standing for high quality in the work of the actors that we work with while adhering to a basic principle of respect for all people. There is simply no acceptable alternative.