Tips for the Beginning Actor
by Ruth Kulerman
Let's take a good look at the real basics. Why do you want to act? What is your goal? How do you feel about performing in public or auditioning?
Recently a man phoned to say that he had retired early and had always been interested in acting. Henry (not his real name) had never studied acting, had been in one high school play twenty years earlier, and now had time to explore something that interested him. Henry is 37. People have asked if 27 is too old to begin. Or 55. Or 21.
By the end of Henry's first coaching session, I realized the earlier article on getting started in acting presumed that the actor already had taken acting classes, already had headshots, already had something to put on a resume. In other words, my earlier notion of "getting started" actually was way past the real "starting line." Actors with classes or theatre diplomas, with headshots and resumes were light years ahead of Henry, who was starting with nothing but a twenty-year delayed dream.
And so let's back up and start with the delayed dream. That is, let's look at the real basics of the basics. I am an Olympic expert in this area, having been way past middle age before taking my first coaching session. I write as one who stumbled and fumbled and had nary a notion of what to do or how to begin my own delayed dream.
Back in the 1980s when the urge to act could no longer be ignored, I assumed I should take some classes. In spite of a basket full of degrees, I didn't have a clue what "taking classes" in acting meant. Perhaps in some Oz land I expected just to stroll down the gold brick road, sight an emerald stage, get up on it, and start acting. That did NOT happen! Over a hundred coaching sessions later I auditioned for and booked my first role.
- A vital question: Why do you want to act? Henry's response was, "I don't know. It just always interested me." My own answer: "I wanted to act all my life."
- Next question: What is your goal: Fame? Money? Performing? Self-exploration? Henry said he just wanted to see what he could do if he studied some. My own answer: Conquest.
- Another question: How do you feel about the idea of performing in public or auditioning? If it terrifies you, then go back to question #1 and do some real soul-searching. Why? Because until radio drama returns, acting is something that almost always involves auditioning and performing in front of people. It occurs on a stage in front of an audience or in front of a camera with dozens of techs around. Acting is in front of people!
In a larger city, finding a coach or acting classes is not difficult. In a small town, ask the high school principal or go to your local junior college and ask about acting courses. Someone somewhere not too far away has acted and can point you in the right direction.
I strongly feel that a brand-new adult actor should consider coaching rather than taking a class--unless he can find a class composed solely of serious adult newcomers like himself--not dabblers. Being in a class with younger or experienced actors can be overwhelming. This is the most vulnerable stage in a newcomer's acting life. Avoid discouragement at this step. Discouragement awaits us all, but hopefully by the time it hits we'll have enough confidence
to not crumble. A newcomer's confidence level is notoriously low. So go the coaching route rather than the class route. There's less stress and more personal attention.
Another way to start acting is in community or church theatre. Volunteer. Talk to the head of the acting group. Tell them what you would like to do and ask their advice. If necessary, form your own group.
What are the really basic necessities?
One absolute necessity is a knowledge of the vocabulary of acting. You have to know Stage Right, Down Stage, ad lib, upstage left, close-up, hit the mark, and...action! The first commercial class I took in NY taught me only one thing: The word "slate." For that one word I paid over $200 for a six weeks course. That's pathetic! Which is precisely the reason for this article on the basics of the basics. To help you avoid being "pathetic."
I realized the importance of a basic vocabulary during the first coaching
session with "Henry."
He was reading a short monologue from "Homicide, Life on the Street." At some point during our session I said to him, "OK, let's start from the top." His blank look spoke volumes. "The top???" Vocabulary is a basic.
Therefore? Find a book containing basic acting vocabulary. They exist. I have seen them. Try a bookstore or Amazon.com or visit Actingland.com.
Another "must" for an adult newcomer is to start working on material immediately. The most basic acting requirement is the ability to say a line and sound real. It's hard to imagine an audition or a scene without having to speak. And his potential to sound real when he says a line is precisely what all beginning actors must discover. This is BASIC.
If you cannot learn to sound real, then acting is not for you.
It's best to discover your level of sounding real before spending too much money and building up great expectations. You MUST find out if you can say a line believably. THAT IS THE BASIC OF THE BASICS.
To summarize, if you are an adult who has always wanted to act, begin either with community theatre or with coaching sessions. After several lessons you can then decide, based on an intelligent assessment of your potential and an honest evaluation by your coach, if you want to spend the next several years following the delayed dream.
PS: A word of encouragement to the older newcomer: Every minute for fifteen years I have loved LIVING THE DELAYED DREAM. My regret? Not having started when I wanted to--at age five! Live your delayed dream!