To train, or not to train, that is the question! Well, part of the question. It just gets more complicated from there! The answers will depend on your child, their age, their location and what they wish to do with their career. In this article, we will explain the types of acting classes so that you can be a smart consumer and choose what is right for your family.
It is not unusual for professional young performers to take classes in some or all of the categories below. Normally, very young children will start with an on-camera commercial class, or perhaps an improvisation class designed just for little ones. We caution you against taking classes too early because it tends to make kids too "showbizzy" or "pageant-like". The trend in TV, film and commercials today is for children to be authentic and natural.
By the age of 8 or so, casting directors expect professional young performers to have some training. The goal is not quantity (every class you can find) but quality: acting styles the CD is looking for, and teachers they recognize.
Classes can range from one day intensives to once a week classes for 10 weeks. Do not agree to long term contracts for training...no classes should be longer than 10 weeks (most professional classes in LA are 4-8 weeks long). Kids' needs change and sometimes teachers aren't the right fit for your child. Long term contracts are simply unnecessary.
Here are some of your choices:
TYPES OF CLASSES
Cold Reading -- Refers to the ability to pick up a scene (aka "sides") and within about 5 minutes, create a character and be able to act out the scene. Memorization is nice, but not necessary as long as the child can keep their face up and out of the page. This is a very difficult skill, but it can't really be studied until the child is reading independently (about 8 yrs old).
Monologue -- the practice of a short speech, delivered in character. Monologues are very rarely used in TV/film auditions, but they are sometimes requested for agency meetings and theatre auditions. It's always good to have one age-appropriate monologue ready to go, but don't spend too much time on them. One class is plenty, and most actors can perfect a monologue more effectively in a private lesson instead. Monologues can be "contemporary" or "classical", with classical being Shakespeare and other literature of that era and quality. Kids will almost always be asked for contemporary monologues.
Commercial -- most television commercials these days require kids who appear natural and unrehearsed. We suggest taking ONE commercial class, just so that kids can learn the basics of how the auditions will go: slating (saying your name and age), profiles, etc. Very young kids may also want to start with a commercial class, since this is usually the first type of audition they will have. Again, don't live there: one session is enough.
Improvisation -- learning to think on your feet! Even if your child is not a comedian, an improvisation class (improv, for short) is a must-do. This skill is extremely useful for actors in all areas of the industry, but especially for comedy work, voiceover, and commercial, where producers expect the actors to come up with some of their own material in the auditions. Improv can be extremely helpful in getting kids to "come out of their shell", and learn to take re-direction in theatrical auditions as well. Many actors continue to take Improv classes throughout their career to keep their skills and comedy ideas fresh. Classes usually consist of improv games, followed by some sort of imagination-based skits. There are two types of improv: short form (improv games: think of "Who's Line Is It Anyway?") and long form (where the characters are related by story or theme, commonly performed in full length shows). Sometimes classes will allow kids to have a comedy "show" at the end of the session. Warning: be careful where you take improv classes. Inexperienced teachers tend to let the kids run wild or be undisciplined. Consider looking into adult improvisation troupes and stand-up comedy clubs who offer kids' classes (aka Groundlings, Second City, ImprovOlympic, ComedySportz).
Audition Prep Classes -- Like commercial classes, this can be a short session or an "intensive". It is really helpful at the beginning of an actor's career. These classes are not about ACTING per-se, but about how you present yourself. Should you shake hands with the casting director? Dress the part? Use props in a scene that mentions them? What kind of small talk is expected? Look for classes from working casting directors or working actors, who know what the current trends are.
Voiceover: Read about the world of Voiceover here: Voiceovers for Kids
The best voiceover actors are just good ACTORS...they can cold read easily, and improv as well. Voiceover-specific classes are often expensive because they should take place in a sound studio with an engineer and a booth that must be rented. Look for classes that offer booth experience and maybe even a CD of your work at day's end. Sometimes that CD can be used as an introductory demo tape to introduce your child to a voiceover agent.
On-Camera Classes -- This isn't really a type of acting, but since the phrase is used often in advertisements, we thought we would mention it. "On-camera" simply means that they will be filming your child during class, and showing the film to the students as they go, critiquing it along the way. This can be a great learning tool, because often actors don't know how they appear on camera. A good on-camera commercial class can show a child that they need to stop fiddling with their pockets (nervous habit), rolling their eyes, or using hand gestures that are just too over-the-top. On-camera classes are great for newbies, and for commercial classes or audition prep classes.
Scene Study: This is the meat of real acting skill. It involves the ability to pick up a script, read it, dissect the character arcs and meanings (like you would in a college literature class), create an interesting character that brings even more life to the words, and perform the whole thing. You are literally STUDYING a scene. That's a tall order for most kids! As you might imagine, real scene study classes can't happen until the child is mature enough to read independently, comprehend what they are reading, and be able to make independent choices. When people say "You should always be in class", this is the class they mean.
Within "scene study" there are specific types of material addressed: drama vs. comedy. There are also academic philosophies that teachers hold for getting the students to create characters and do the acting.
Most kids' teachers use a combination of tactics and philosophies. There are teachers who do "line readings" which means they just tell the kids what to do, and how to say the words, the kids parrot it. While temporarily effective, it doesn't teach real acting skills.
In contrast, some teachers focus on "Method Acting" as a philosophy. The teachers Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner are considered the pioneers of Method Acting, with each of them taking a slightly different take on it. Without getting too detailed, Method Acting teaches the actor to call on their own emotional memories and substitute that into the scene and/or to find the intent in the scene. Clichés like "be in the moment", "what's my motivation", "stop acting and just BE the character", and "be a chair/tree/dog" are all references to Method Acting. Children tend to lack the life experience to draw on for Method Acting, so you will rarely see children's teachers use the method exclusively.
Musical Theatre -- Because musical theatre is a very different art form, classes are usually separated. Musical theatre requires actors to be much "bigger" and to have skills singing and dancing, WHILE acting. Consider looking for musical theatre classes that are attached to a working theatre group. You'll also want to take additional classes in voice and dance if musical theatre is your goal.
Master Classes --These classes are for advanced students and are by invitation only. I only mention them because as your child moves on their career, there will be very intense scene study available to them. Working actors are in classes, they just aren't advertised.
Intensives -- Intensives can be offered on any subject, but are usually a one-day or weekend long situation. It's great for a "shot in the arm" or to try a new skill or new teacher.
Private Coaching: Coaching is a little different than a class, and is designed to address a specific problem or a specific audition. Privates run in the neighborhood of $80-$125 per hour. Most working actor kids in Los Angeles get coached for their auditions at least some of the time, and many agents require it for higher level theatrical auditions.
Camps: The residential camp format is far more common on the east coast than on the west coast. There are excellent theatre camps in the east (Stagedoor Manor, French Woods for example), but on the west coast, day camps and "boot camps" tend to be a code word for over-priced rip-off. Make sure to do your homework before investing in a camp.
CD workshops. We'll have a different article just to address this, because the concept is so controversial. Casting Director workshops run the gamut from really good, educational intensives, to nothing but paying for a bad audition. In any case, CD workshops do not go on your resume. You risk angering those CDs who do not approve of them, making it appear that you are desperate and willing to pay for a job. Not pretty.
HOW TO FIND A GREAT TEACHER
In smaller markets, we suggest calling the local theatre company and asking if they have suggestions. If you have an agent, certainly ask them for a list of coaches and teachers they appreciate. Finally, ask other WORKING actors who they take lessons from. There are ALWAYS good acting teachers in small towns. Keep looking until you find them.
In markets like Los Angeles and New York, the task is more about narrowing down the choices, but the process is the same.
Once you have a list of recommended teachers, start doing your homework to see which teacher is right for your child. A teacher is someone you will need to trust with your child's emotions, and with your child's safety (you won't be in class with them). Read more about that here: How to Research People You Work With
Ask questions about:
Teacher's Education Check to see that they have a college degree in theatre, acting, directing or television and film. Look for good schools like USC, UCLA, Julliard, NYU, Columbia, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, etc. Look for recent experience in the working world -- have they been on a set in the last two years? Are they just failed actors who never really made it?
Legality In some states, there are legal business requirements for acting teachers. For instance, in California, teachers are regulated by the Krekorian Act as a Talent Training Service. Make sure the people you work with are operating legally -- you owe that to your child.
Convenience and Safety of the Class Location Can you reasonably get to class on time every lesson? Is there somewhere close by for mom to stay while the kids are in class? Is the neighborhood safe for kids? Do NOT take classes in hotels!
Compatability of Students - age and ability level If your child has been working for a few years, you probably don't want to be in a class with newbies because it will frustrate them. If your child is 14, you probably don't want them in a class with 6 years or with adults, since neither option will be able to cover the kinds of subject matter in the scenes that they should practice.
Discipline The most common complaint we hear from parents is that they feel the acting classes are not organized, and the kids are "running wild". Make sure you agree on how discipline will be handled in the class.
Teacher Success and Reputation We see lots of teachers professing to offer acting classes without any proof that they can coach a child into a role. Ask about professional success stories: how many of their CURRENT students have booked roles this month? Don't be fooled by celebrity successes on the wall or on a website...ask the tough questions. Ask for references from those students and their parents. Ask around and see if they have a good reputation in the casting community and with talent agents. Their name will be on your resume! Feel free to email BizParentz and if we know the teacher, we will be happy to share our perspective.
Next, sample the goods. Ask if you can audit (the child actually takes a class), or if you can watch a class. Legit teachers will always allow you one of these options.
THEN, make your decision!