101: How To Break Into The Acting Business

Edward O’Blenis, a multi-talented actor based in New York who studied drama at Yale, also teaches the craft to young students who catch the bug. In the first of a continuing 101 series, he shares advice for aspiring actors on how to move forward in a tough industry — and doing it the smart way, not the Heidi Montag way.

As a professional actor, teacher, and drama coach, I can tell you that I think acting is one of the most exciting career paths in the world to pursue. But, it can also be one of the most difficult professions to take on and end with success. If after knowing this you are still willing to take the plunge, over the next few weeks I’ll provide you with some pointers to help you get started.

The first thing that you need to do is learn the craft. Believe it or not, acting is a craft that needs to be learned and studied. Go figure. Beyond the Natalie Portman good looks, Brad Pitt charisma and Will Ferrell sense of humor, there is an artistic set of skills developed and honed through rigorous discipline, practice and study. I don’t know any successful actor who hasn’t taken some classes somewhere.

If you are still in high school and haven’t started to pursue acting yet, get on it. At the very least, putting yourself out there will give you some idea of whether you like the field or not. And while you’re at it, participate in any school plays or talent shows. For most actors, high school is the place to start. When I was a junior in high school, I quit the football team and joined a play to impress an actress friend. OK, I didn’t expect her to show up with a date, but I realized that I had a talent for the stage and the rest is history.

If you’re on your way to college, you might want to find one that has a good theater program to go alongside your academics. This way, you can explore all the different fields a university has to offer and, at the same time, dabble in acting or perhaps even go so far as to earn a minor in theater. A good example is Northwestern University. It has a great undergraduate theater program and is also held in very high regard academically. I have a few actor friends that have come from there and loved it. Or, if you’d like to immerse yourself inside a wholly artistic environment, consider enrolling in an acting conservatory. Conservatories provide a nurturing environment where you can join forces with all different kinds of motivated artistic students – much like in the movie Fame. Although that movie was based on a New York City performing arts high school, conservatories provide you with an opportunity to round out a variety of skills that can assist you in your career – dancing, singing, and writing as well as acting. For an equivalent college think of Juilliard which, by the way, for the young actor looking for training, can hardly be beat.

If you can’t afford college, just never saw yourself going there, or your high school doesn’t have an acting class, no problem, there are plenty of private schools and classes that may be right in your backyard. Quite frankly, many college professors often hold their own private classes and workshops. If so, find out when and where so you don’t miss out on learning from someone who may be very highly respected in the field. Search online for classes in your area or look for postings at local theaters, community centers or arts leagues. A really good site for this is TeachStreet.com.

As with anything, do your research and see what people say. Nowadays there are plenty of forums online where you can find comments and feedback from former students. Especially do your research when starting college. Is there someone on campus in theater that you can ask for advice? Find out what classes they’ve taken, what instructors they’ve had, and what they would do differently were they to do it all over again.

Watch whatever you can get your hands on — movies, television, theater, yourself in the mirror — not only will you understand acting better but you’ll have a whole new excuse to go out. (“Mom, can I borrow the Beamer to hit the flicks? I have to study!”) Or you can even purchase well known workshops and classes on DVD. A favorite of mine is Uta Hagen’s Acting Class. And for some really classical takes, watch John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare. Nowadays there are even online how-to videos. Take advantage of them. Although there may be lots of gunk to weed through, there may be a hidden treasure waiting to be clicked on.

Half of an actor’s job is to read and analyze scripts and plays. Even if you’re not yet performing, there’s no reason you can’t get started reading anything and everything– plays, screenplays, Shakespeare –just pick it up and read.

There are also tons of great books that have helped actors throughout the last two centuries. Sooner or later you will read An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski, so why wait, read it now! And while you’re at it pick up a couple of my favorites like Hagen’s A Challenge for the Actor or a newer book like Acting By Mistake by William Roudebush. These books may look at different approaches to acting so keep an eye out for what you connect to.

Throughout your studies you will find that there are many different approaches to acting. In order to do a crying scene ,one approach might tempt you to remember your dead cat while another approach might encourage you to forget about emotions completely. So what is the best method? Like many art forms there is no one right way. See what approach speaks to you and embrace it.  That’s what Marlon Brando did. He knew what kind of gritty acting approach he was interested in — that was the Method style — although it was uniquely different from anything anyone was doing on stage and film in the 40’s, the world couldn’t get enough of it.

When can you sit back and call yourself the acting guru? I think most actors might say never. Most actors say that after you have learned it all there is always something else to learn. Maybe it’s that, among other skills in acting you are entering the psyche of the audience, the character, and yourself. So, if the leading scientist can’t figure out how our emotions work, it might take you a lifetime as well.

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