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Careers Clinic: How best to improve my technique?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I have just returned from spending some time in New York. Although it was a hugely invigorating experience, I’m not quite ready to book my one-way ticket back to Broadway just yet, attractive as that prospect may seem in these nervy post-Brexit times.

Joking aside, one thing that did strike me while I was there was how committed working actors in New York seem to be to ongoing training. Every actor I met was ‘doing classes’, sometimes several at once. Having graduated a few years ago, it has certainly prodded me to look at polishing up my own technique. The question I have is how to decide which technique to polish – or to acquire in the first place.

Having done an enjoyable but somewhat general course at university, going into detail with one particular acting technique will be new to me. Each course seems to make great claims and I have friends on both sides of the Atlantic recommending that I choose one over the others. Unfortunately, nobody seems to agree on which one. What’s your advice for choosing the best technique?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE From Stanislavski to Stella Adler, Meisner to Chekhov, there are lots of great names from history (as well as their present-day disciples) that can guide and develop the actors of tomorrow.

Some actors swear by one particular technique; others have become equally successful through combining several. Like any other ‘marriage’ it often depends on how effectively a particular technique or teacher complements and challenges you as the unique actor you are, which will determine which is the right choice for you.

Bear in mind that there may be several different ‘right choices’ during your career. Whichever class you choose, it is really important to have a specific goal in mind for what you want to get out of a particular training.

If, after a reasonable amount of time invested in a particular course or coaching relationship, there is no evidence that you are getting any closer to your goal, it is definitely time to bring it up with your teacher. If there is still no progress (or bringing it up gets a negative response) that would be a signal to consider whether it is worth persevering.

Detail really is the key to that decision. If you have very general goals such as ‘I want to get better at acting’ or ‘I want to get more parts’, you are not really giving yourself or your teacher much chance of achieving them. Much better to know what aspects of your acting you want to improve – the more specific the better – and what kind of castings you want to get more of, so you can work on the techniques most appropriate to that medium.

The other reason for being clear about your goal is that, just as you need to move on if you are not getting closer to it, evidence that you have achieved your aim would normally be your cue to start thinking about the next challenge. Any decent acting teacher will probably suggest this move before you do. We are all human, so sometimes it can be tempting to stay in a comfortable routine and continue to practise our work in a ‘safe space’ rather than taking it out into the scarier place where paying audiences and critics await.

Safe spaces to explore are important at every stage of a career, but equally important is an actor’s ability to cope with change and even adversity. That is a muscle that can sometimes only be built up at the coalface rather than in the training room.

So, whichever training room you do end up in, I hope it’s the start of an exciting new chapter for you.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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