Acting Coaches: who needs them anyway?!

Last week I was asked by Phil Darkins of NZ Equity to do a Q&A with Jennifer Ward-Leyland, Britta McVeigh and Miranda Harcourt on the Actor-Coach relationship. Flattered to be included in such exulted company, I accepted. The evening has come and gone, and it was a real pleasure. But the invitation itself presented something of a challenge. I know that an acting coach can’t instill talent. We can’t even magically implant good character or a work ethic (factors in the long run probably more important than talent). And, just because an actor gets a role and you happened to have coached him or her, this doesn’t mean that your coaching was actually responsible. So before I can even discuss the relationship, I feel I have to justify its existence.

The truth is that I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of actor training. Actors may need it at the start of their careers but, wherever it comes from, talent tends to rise to the top. You just can’t stop a force of nature. I’ve always thought there was a lot in David Mamet’s observation that the best drama schools in the world are because they are known to be so and therefore get the first pick. Being the best to start with their graduates are more likely to go on and have successful careers, therefore adding to the reputation of the school.

There are undoubtedly techniques that unfailingly work – inner objects/ internal landscape say, for screen. But I’m deathly suspicious of acting ‘systems’ – the idea that an overall set approach, if faithfully applied to any acting task, will inevitably produce a good result. This idea can condemn actors to wasted years trying to master some school or technique – that will undoubtedly have some benefits, but which cannot guarantee a result: nothing can. Some teachers love systems. And good actors will always do well with such teachers not so much cos the system is good but because the actor is – and perhaps the teacher is. But I do think it is telling that Meisner’s own wish, for example, was that they stop teaching his technique when he died. My experience as an actor myself is that nothing works for sure every time. It’s a slippery fish that can’t be possessed for long. Each role or script makes unique demands and each individual will have a different and eclectic approach to open up the work. Paul Minifie, an Auckland actor, did me a great favour when he told me: ‘only you know what works for you.’ Acting students need to be cautious. As William H Macy has advised: ‘if it looks like doo-doo and it smells like doo-doo – then it is doo-doo. If it sounds like complete nonsense for too long and every cell in your body is saying, “What does this have to do with acting?,” it is complete nonsense.’

So what good are we? Frankly not much if we overestimate our importance… but if we aim to empower the actor, and encourage their own quirky and unique approach, I believe we can be of use.

A start is to compare acting coaching to sports training. There used to be a fallacy about weight training, based on the known fact that a person of smaller size could sometimes perform greater acts of strength than another and bigger person. It was thought that if the smaller person got more muscle bound then somehow they might lose that edge. In fact this isn’t true. The smaller person is naturally stronger.  This can be explained because genetically some people are able to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibres at any one time. BUT if that person trains and grows more muscle mass, they will be even stronger. In the same way sports coaching will make a really good athlete even better. And in theory sound actor training should also make a naturally talented actor better – and a strong actor excellent. As well the coach – who will usually be someone who has their own experience in the industry, and has learnt along the way – can save the actor time, money and embarrassment by imparting practical wisdom. Critically the coach can provide an environment that supports the actor, a space that exists solely to improve their craft, free of bitchiness, commercial competition and professional consequence. A place in other words where the actor can make mistakes, investigate their craft, explore their range and inner world.

I believe the actor needs this kind of coaching on occasion because the industry, while it can sustain actors economically, was never designed or interested in our needs as artists. There’s a technologically driven revolution going on in production and distribution shifting us all from a scarcity of supply to a surplus of product screen model. This means that creators of TV and Film will increasingly be able to make what they want and if they can connect with an audience be the direct financial beneficiaries. In the long run that bodes well for our artistry – the middle money folks will be pulled out of the equation. But in the short term the income side is yet to be figured out. This means that for now for paid employment we’re still stuck with the old commercial system. And traditionally, a commercial career holds the risk of consuming but in important ways not replenishing the actor.

Work is of course a fantastic education for actors. But time constraints and commercial pressures encourage actors over time to produce consistent results using tried and true old tricks. This is because producers are risk averse. They are not interested in artistry but what has been done before and can be repeated. Casting directors and many directors can find it inconvenient when actors grow or develop: they want the confidence of booking again a guaranteed, unchanging product. It’s up to the actor whether they abet this, to become stale, commoditized and, ultimately, discarded – as the new cohort comes through – or whether they take responsibility for their ongoing artistic development. A well-intentioned acting teacher or coach can be a useful part of such an ongoing investigation.

The alarming truth is that if I do my job right the outcome should be my own redundancy. It’s also true that the financial gains from acting in this country simply aren’t great enough for actors to be throwing money at their coaches endlessly. And a coach can’t DO the actor’s job for them. Nor should they. The coach must always remember that just as the actor is in service to the writer’s idea, and to the director’s vision, so must the coach be. As Michael Caine puts it, the director is the guv’nor. Just quietly, reading Chubbuck’s own book, The Power of the Actor, I get the sense that not every director has been thrilled to have their will contradicted by her contrary urgings to an actor or actress.

I’ve come to realise that I have to work alongside the actor as they investigate the scene. Otherwise I’m commenting on the surface of the work – the result. It’s up to the actor what choices they make, and over time learn which ones work better for them. I’m there to ask the right questions,  helping them see how different scripts and genres make subtly different demands. I tell actors there is no right way to do it. I tend to encourage the individual, even quirky choice, the one that creates a texture and resistance to the situation and words. The choice that is unique of that actor. That keeps the work interesting, different and original.

Yet, while the work I do with the actor has to be about their own empowerment, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of failure if, after a few years away, they feel the urge to return to classes or coaching. Mere insecurity (a normal part of the profession) shouldn’t drive them to it. If it aint actually broken then don’t fix if I say. But actors should I believe, to borrow Mike Alfred’s phrase, embrace the notion of ‘permanent training.’ Actors inevitably plateau from time to time and need to recharge or re-evaluate. We change and grow as human beings and what works for us changes. Actors rightly feel the need to extend their range and potential by trying new techniques, and be reminded why they became actors in the first place.

I believe that this work should never stop. Those talented actors don’t always last the distance. The profession is a marathon, not a sprint, and actors who are not easily satisfied but not too easily discouraged (who have good character in other words) – those actors tend to endure. Mike Alfreds’ reminds us that singers dancers and musicians know they cannot sing, dance or play an instrument without training. Their lives are accompanied by continuous coaching, study and exercise. But actors settle often for merely ‘competence.’ We diminish our profession when we do so.

Some coaches are ex-actors; some never were. I believe it does no harm that I still audition and work. But I’ve only ever been, or would want to be, a part time teacher. I love teaching and I learn a lot doing it (and for this I am very grateful to my students). But if I can help it’s only because I am also challenged, feed and replenished by other creative activity. I can’t have a superior approach when I myself am habitually confronted with the reality of barely remembering how to act, and pinching myself with surprise every time I pull it off (I’ve never known a better job to keep you humble). I also think it’s not such a bad thing that I don’t really have any importance in the industry. I don’t have any role in casting. Workshops by casting directors definitely have their place: they see so much raw acting and have immense experienced in fashioning it quickly into something better. But it’s hard sometimes not to feel that you might be being judged when a casting director in the room. As I’ve said, an acting class has to be a place where it’s safe to screw up.

A purely actor-coach relationship carries the risk, now I think of it, that you’ll only ever work on the actor’s present material, be it audition scripts or what they’re cast in. But the actor sometimes needs to also work on material better than this. TV – a medium dedicated to selling advertising – has its challenges and rewards. But working on three minute scripts forever may not stretch your acting muscle or excite your soul. Culture is not a luxury: story-telling is a human need that imparts necessary equipment for living. Working with great writing inspires the actor to grasp this and what the profession can be about – service to great ideas, rather than great egos. Fine writing invites actors to investigate more deeply, and they then carry this ethic back to lesser material. This is why so many great actors have strong theatre backgrounds. But it’s something you can also do in group classes. I learnt how to act largely in a scene group that ran weekly for several years with like minded peers, where we largely worked on good material.

At the equity talk I heard Miranda Harcourt and Britta McVeigh speak eloquently of their love for the work, and the actors they coach. I should add I coach a bit, and teach a lot; and I rather expect their workload is the other way around. In any case it is a privilege to able to explore and broaden our understanding not just of what works for people in acting, but what makes people work. I recognize that in class situation you’re experiencing a somewhat purist and rarefied version of acting, free of the necessary disciplines of commercialism. Acting employment should always be where the actor is headed. Only paid work can keep the actor engaged in their profession and – vitally important this – connected with an audience. But pay-cheques and applause alone cannot sustain them creatively. For that, classes and coaching can be a useful weapon in the armoury of the actor’s overall artistic plan for themselves.

So, alongside a mindset of permanent training and self-empowerment, I think acting coaches have their place. The premise of modern sports psychology and therapy is to start with where the person is, rather than where you think they should be. I think all good acting coaches adapt their approach to the actor’s needs, rather than imposing a ‘one size fits all approach.’ And like a good therapist, to be effective a coach needs to be someone the actor can trust. Trust that the coach is there for the good of the work, the good of the actor, and no other agenda. The good a coach can do depends on the quality of the relationship. That comes with trust – plus time.