Adam Stadius: 5 tips for teaching acting
Adam Stadius is one half of Both Feet, which trains actors in the Meisner Technique. He is currently head of acting and course leader for musical theatre at SLP College in Leeds
1. Encourage your students to fail (and actually mean it)
It sounds cliched but if you want your students to thrive, create a safe space for them – somewhere they can be free of their ‘inner critic’. If an actor doesn't have that permission to make errors, then they'll never feel safe enough to take a risk or create something extraordinary. A dancer learns more from falling out of a triple pirouette as he or she does from nailing an easy single. It's the same for actors. An actor with safety to go out and fail spectacularly is liberated from the paralysing fear of getting it wrong. I truly believe talent comes from fearlessness.
2. Teach your students to listen to each other
We are the centre of our own world. We with see our own eyes and experience the world through our own bodies only. So, inevitably, we unconsciously believe that the world revolves round us. As trainers it’s our job to help our students to see beyond themselves. Actors are often so concerned with their own perceptions, objectives and actions that they forget the simple act of listening to the other person in the space with them. Sanford Meisner's repetition exercise, when taught correctly, is a fantastic tool for getting actors to deflect attention from themselves and focus it on their scene partner or partners.
3. Don't over complicate the process
Acting shouldn't be complicated. Living truthfully, under any given circumstances, in any given moment should come from a place of instinct. Often there is a risk of over intellectualising the process, or making it too academic so that it prevents actors from being 'present'. As a student actor, I thought I had to break a text down microscopically, which actually only buried me in my head even more when I actually got up and tried to work. Actors (especially students) should always be keen and curious, so there is always room for research, but the audience shouldn't have to see the homework. Eventually, actors have to leave themselves alone to just be present in the space and in the moment. There can be real profundity in simplicity.
4. When dealing with emotions, put safety first
A huge part of actor training is about trying to give an actor the emotional freedom to deal with the requirements of a role. This is a very delicate subject and needs treating with real care. I have seen actors absolutely destroyed from emotional memory exercises. When the class ends, the student is left shaking and often in need of therapy, having brought up something they might actually be unable to deal with. Whether you’re in a drama school offering excellent pastoral care, or an individual teacher guiding students safely through exercises, tread carefully.
5. Be Honest
Your job is to teach an actor to be truthful so lead by example. First, don’t always tell your students they’re fabulous. Part of nurturing their development is challenging them and giving them the tools to improve. You’ll only add to their insecurities if you never pull them up on their bad habits because they’ll start to question themselves.
Second, if you don't really know it, don't teach it. We all know you can't learn to act from reading a book. There are some techniques that, unless you've experienced them first-hand as a student, from beginning to end, you can't possibly understand enough to teach others. You could risk health and safety, emotional well-being or actually just teaching the subject badly, which can have a huge ripple effect.
So, invest in self-training and put new work into your teaching practice only when you’re finally ready. Be open about this. I have found students more open and willing when I have been truthful and honest with them. Everything is an experiment and we are all learning together.