What does it mean to be a good teacher?
By Bruce Miller
Outstanding teachers, it seems to me, are a combination of their innate talents and the craft they have been willing to master. A teacher’s natural talent is a gift. It cannot be learned. But craft is a different story. The best teachers continue to pursue mastery in their teaching, whatever their level of natural talent. They do so because they are driven to be the best teachers they can possibly be.
Acting teachers, because of the nature of art and the training it requires, have special responsibilities. They must teach a subject that is, like teaching itself, a combination of art and craft, and they must teach it to students who want to channel and develop their varying degrees of talent through a dependable technique. It is no easy job teaching young artists. Each is unique, and they are often a challenging combination of sensitivity, drive, and insecurity.
The best teachers communicate clearly what they think and feel about the work, about how to work, and about what to value most in the work and in the process of producing the work.
To teach acting effectively requires a complex combination of many skills. To begin with, you must have an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of theatre. You must have training and experience as an actor. You have to have a solid understanding of craft, your own clearly defined technique, and a game plan for teaching it to others. You must have outstanding communication skills, and you must not have an actor’s need for ego gratification. You must be able to understand human behavior, and able and willing to manipulate it according to the individual needs of your students. You have to know how to inspire, cajole, flatter, and persuade. You must be willing to become a role model. You have to know how to be critical without being hurtful. You have to have the energy and commitment to do anything and everything that is necessary to create success in your students. And above all, you have to be willing to continue to learn, develop, and change.
Each of us who teaches young actors about the craft of acting and about the theatre has taken a different route to the classroom or studio in which we find ourselves today. Each of us has brought with us a set of skills, ideas, attitudes, information, and craft that is a composite of our education and experience. What follows is my subjective accounting of what makes a good teacher. It is based on my own observations and experiences as a student, as an actor, and as a teacher. The conclusions I draw may not completely match your own, but I suspect that underlying whatever differences there may be, there is a core of shared truth worthy of some consideration. Whether your journey matches mine or not, I expect you will find in my experience some of the same qualities that make your work effective in the classroom. My purpose is simply to keep us all thinking, and striving to become the best we can be.
I had been a professional actor for ten years when I got my first teaching job in theatre, as the chair of the theatre arts department at a private arts high school. My then girl friend (now my wife) saw an ad in The New York Times and insisted I send in my résumé. I was not interested in high school teaching, but she was so persistent that I finally gave in and submitted an application. In barely more time than it took my letter to get there, I received a phone call, and two days later I was flying to Boston for a job interview. It was the end of the school year, and someone had already turned down the job. My future employers were desperate, and after a long day of interviews and one hour of coaching monologues, I was offered a job at the Walnut Hill School.
During the last few years that I had lived in New York as a struggling actor, I had been asked on occasion to coach friends working on scenes and monologues, and I discovered that I had a knack for isolating what was not working in a performance. And whenever I took acting classes, I was always good for a useful comment or two, if the teacher let students speak. But there was no real structure in my approach to the work, or to the way I made my observations; they were purely reflexive responses to what I was seeing. I couched my comments, of course, in the vocabulary of acting that I had learned during my years as a student and professional actor. But the truth is—in spite of the lingo that flowed out of my mouth—I don’t know that I could distinguish between what was essential to making a scene work and what was simply a useful detail.
No doubt I was oblivious to this fact at the time. I knew that I had impressed the administrators and young actors at my Walnut Hill audition, and the whole interview process had happened so quickly that it took a while for the reality that I had actually gotten the job to set in. Then I panicked. In my own training I had been exposed to many bad acting teachers—people who could not clearly articulate what they wanted or what they were trying to do with a piece of material—so it petrified me that I might actually turn out to be yet another fuzzy-craft acting teacher.
I began to borrow and buy every book on acting and directing I could find. In my own education as an actor, I had seldom been directed to read acting theory. With a few exceptions, my acting teachers had occasionally referred to the work of the theoretical giants but seldom demanded that I do so. And I seldom did. I think I believed that each teacher I worked with held the answers to all of the acting questions, and that reading on my own would be futile because I didn’t have the keys to open a book’s portals.
In my first year of graduate school I had to read An Actor Prepares, but I found it vague and unorganized. I had to read Boleslavski’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, which I liked, but my teacher never connected it to the work I was doing in class. It remained for me a coldly analytical and distancing examination of acting. As an acting class text we used Robert Benedetti’s The Actor at Work, which now seems very much a product of its era, the late sixties and seventies. Because of its focus on relaxation and emotional connection, this early edition of Benedetti, in combination with the work of my teacher, made acting seem a mysterious process, more spiritual and Buddhist than nuts and bolts. It seemed that acting technique simply descended on one, after proper preparation, like Zen enlightenment.
I read voraciously all through the summer. By Labor Day the vocabulary of acting and the various approaches to craft that grew out of Stanislavski’s original work were clearer to me than they had ever been when I studied acting as a student or as an actor in New York. Having to teach what you know, rather than simply knowing it for yourself, requires a vastly higher level of consciousness, I discovered. Now I would need to be able to communicate clearly what I formerly could simply nod at, give lip service to, and fake.
By the time I met my first classes I could clearly articulate the differences between Stanislavski’s early work and late. I understood the connection between Stanislavski and the method put forth by Lee Strasberg. I understood how and why Stella Adler fell out with the Group Theatre, and how fellow Group member Sanford Meisner evolved his own focus and approach to the problems of acting. I had a much clearer picture of how I thought and operated as an actor, and I knew how I was going to teach my own students. I would focus on the physical action work of late Stanislavski, I would stress the importance of script analysis and imagination as Adler did, and I would try to develop in my students the critical skills of listening and staying in the moment, highlighted and developed so brilliantly by Meisner.
Knowledge, training, and experience
Teaching was something that I always wanted to do. Long before I ever thought about being a professional actor, I was imagining myself in front of a class, making Dickens and Brontë come alive for students. In fact, I began my professional career not as an actor but as a teacher. I taught English on the secondary level for four years after earning my B.A. in English and getting my teaching certification as a minor.
I discovered that I had a natural gift for teaching, but I learned a lot more about it in college through coursework in education as well as in English and many other subjects, through comprehensive reading, and most importantly by on the job training. Nothing is more valuable to a teacher than experience. I taught high school English for four years and by the time I returned to graduate school, I had developed into an outstanding teacher. I had learned how to deliver material to a group of students in a way that they would learn, because they wanted to.
After a brief fling with journalism, I found myself in an M.F.A. acting program. Graduate school provided me with invaluable theatrical experience. I have reservations about much of my graduate education, but acting in plays made it all worthwhile. I was cast both in lead and supporting roles, working on as many as six productions a year in a relatively safe environment. Never again would I have the opportunity to work as an actor without interruption or distraction. Never again would I be able to focus so exclusively on my craft.
I learned how it feels to be an actor, a gift that cannot be acquired from any book. I learned how it feels to audition, to be cast, to not be cast, or to not be cast in the role one wants. I learned about the insecurity of the rehearsal process, about not understanding what the director wants, about working around a bad director, about accepting myself when I was not good, about graciousness and generosity to and from fellow actors and the design and production team. I learned about egos and selfishness and meanness of spirit. I learned about how to survive on stage, and in theatre in general. All of these experiences would help mold the acting teacher I was to become, because I understood the experiences and feelings that my own students would be going through. The most successful teachers are able to make the best teaching choices partly because they understand the points of view of their students.
In my classes, I learned specific skills to develop my instrument for stage performance. I learned how to use my voice (though teaching five classes a day was equally valuable to my voice development). I learned how to relax and make my body more expressive. I learned how to deliver elevated language. I learned some dancing and some stage combat. I learned to recognize and adapt to the style of the play. I learned how to character act physically and vocally. I learned to put my trust in long-term training when I could not see the returns on a daily basis.
What I didn’t learn in graduate school was a specific reliable craft, a dependable craft that would enable me to make good acting choices despite a poor director or a poor script. I didn’t know it then, but my failure to master a reliable craft meant that I would never feel secure in my approach to acting, until I somehow could change that situation. It also meant that I would never be able to articulate a learnable craft to others.
I was fortunate to have one wonderful acting teacher during my graduate school days. My experience with him during one of the three years I spent in the M.F.A. program planted the seed for the realization that tangible craft really existed. But I was afraid, at that point, to face the fact that I didn’t yet possess it. I left graduate school with an M.F.A., a lot of unanswered questions, and a supply of self-doubt that would last me several years. At the time I was able to convince myself that craft is supposed to be fuzzy.
Back then, I didn’t know that I had been cheated at graduate school. But what I have since learned is that we, as acting teachers, must be able to help our students develop a reliable craft. Reliable craft is the ability to make and carry out choices for the characters we play that will best serve the script. In order to do that an actor must be able read a script accurately, analyze its content, and convert that analysis into playable actions. If an actor can’t do that, all the other skills that he or she might learn are ultimately worth little more than dust. It took me years in the profession to discover this basic truth, and it was only when I had begun to teach again that enlightenment came.
A game plan for instruction
Thus I had the beginnings of a game plan for a structured building of technique. I purposely did not include in my approach much more than a nod in the direction of emotional recall and other early Stanislavski techniques that had been co-opted by Strasberg. There were simple and practical reasons for this. First, like Stanislavski, I had come to feel that the use of emotional memory and substitution is not as reliable and controllable as physical action is, nor does it necessarily work to support the script. Second, approaching acting through emotion without first mastering a way to fulfill the requirements of the script can lead to the belief that the play itself is less important than how the actor as character feels. But most importantly, it is risky business for a teacher to undertake personal emotional exploration with young actors. Why go there when in the limited time available much basic and equally important actor training can be accomplished, without risk of damaging a student or being sued and ruined?
I made another discovery as well—that an acting text could be a useful supplement to hands-on teaching. A good text is linear, sequential, and articulate. It puts craft in an organized, systematic package. I quickly came to appreciate Acting One by Robert Cohen, Acting Is Believing by Charles McGaw, and A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder, et. al. My own recent text, The Actor as Storyteller, certainly was influenced by these books and several others. Unlike many of my teachers—those who felt that acting wisdom from any source other than themselves or Stanislavski was impure—I quickly began to build a curriculum that reinforced the work I did in class with solid supplementary reading from these like-minded texts.
By the end of my first year of teaching I felt I had a foundation on which to build and develop my acting program. I had come to believe that free play and imagination were less important than understanding and using a script. Spending a lot of time on improvisation might a good improviser make, but it has no bearing on how good an actor one might be when forced to deal with words on a page. I also came to believe that actors act with their bodies as much as with the words they say, and that good listening and reacting at every moment of stage life is far more important than being able to repeat a memorized choice over and over. I began to build my curriculum on these concepts.
Your own decisions about what is most important to teach may be very different from mine. Ultimately, your curriculum depends on so many different things: your own philosophy of teaching acting, the kinds of students you teach and what they want from a drama program, your specific teaching objectives, the given requirements of your program, the amount of time you have with your students, the number of students you have in a class, and various other considerations. The important point is that you make your decisions based on your knowledge of craft and an understanding of what you can accomplish within the given framework. But it is always our responsibility to make sure that our students leave with something more than having had a good time. Those students who really want to do the work should leave with a solid chunk of craft that they will always be able to rely on.
Profile of a good teacher
Like myself, many of the acting teachers I have worked with over the years have been professional actors. Some of them are extremely talented performers. Some, but certainly not all, have made outstanding teachers of acting as well. The most famous acting teachers in America have been first-rate actors—Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Elia Kazan, to name just a few. But there are other actors who have been unable to make the transition from actor to acting teacher, in spite of the fact that they may be excellent communicators of craft. In a few cases, I have taught with former professional actors who were so terrible as teachers that I had to let them go. How is this possible?
Perhaps it is because some professional actors have turned to teaching for the wrong reasons. Often it is for the relative financial security of a steady job. Those teachers may secretly harbor feelings of resentment for having had to leave their first chosen profession, and those feelings eventually find their way into the teacher’s work.
Others turn to teaching because their requirements for ego nourishment have not been met in the profession. More often than not these teachers have a need to take ownership of their students’ successes and failures and make them their own. A student’s brilliant performance is theirs once removed, and a student’s lackluster showing may become a personal embarrassment and a blow to the teacher’s self-worth. This kind of teacher, over time, may begin to show favoritism to some and muted disdain for others. It is not unusual for them to develop a cult following, the members of which are required to offer up adulation in order to stay in the teacher’s good graces. This whole picture is, to say the very least, unhealthy.
I have also worked with and been taught by actors who candidly described their stage work as second-rate, but who were excellent teachers. Their ability to communicate craft effectively, in spite of the fact that they are unable to shine individually as performers, may seem strange. But this phenomenon is common in many fields of endeavor. Consider music teachers or coaches in sports, for instance. It is not unusual at all for the winningest football coaches and the most brilliant baseball managers to have been lackluster athletes during their own playing careers. Nonetheless, they have formidable abilities to teach basic skills, to produce outstanding execution, and to motivate, build confidence, and inspire. So it is with excellent teachers of acting.
The best teachers tend to be the ones who measure their own success by the growth of each of their students, not the product of their work. Granted, that growth is most commonly measured in the subject matter being taught, but it is certainly not the only kind of growth from which a teacher can feel success. Creating the desire to learn in our students is a success. Seeing our students become better, wiser human beings is a success. Having the satisfaction of watching our students learn to think more deeply, to feel more empathetically is a tremendous success. The acting teachers who measure their successes only through the successful acting work that passes before them are probably not the best kind of teachers. Ego is selfish and the best teachers are not. They can’t afford to be.
The best teachers have the kind of persona that inspires, instills confidence, and creates in their students the desire for learning and self-improvement. Those teachers motivate their students by understanding, on an individual basis, those they teach and how they best learn. They find time to work with each student independently in order to create a relationship with each. They modify their approach in accordance with the specific needs of the individual student. They find the challenge in teaching every student—the most talented and the least. They avoid judging their students in terms of their potential for success. Instead they focus on the small successes that become growth. These teachers are positive rather than negative, and much of their success comes as a result of creating role-model teaching characters that they play every day at school.
On occasion my wife has said to me, “Why can’t you be at home like you are with your students?” It’s a question that is filled with stinging criticism, but not totally unfair. In the classroom and studio, I have trained myself to play the role of best possible me. I know that I am a role model, and over the years I have learned to play the role well. In the studio I am charismatic, fair, ever positive, upbeat, honest, and supportive. I am selfless, generous, magnetically enigmatic, and kind. I am insightful, yet dispassionate in judgment and passionate about the work. I find that every real transaction I have in class has an analogous dramatic one, and I display the insight of Solomon in my analysis of each. I often use real life and compare it with the necessities of theatrical performance. I am ever vigilant about the fact that my students are constantly judging the value of what I say based on their observations of what I do. If and when I fall short, I give them tacit permission to do the same, so I avoid doing so at all costs.
On one hand all this is a tremendous burden. On the other, it is just like playing a role. The best teachers live the role of the classroom character they create. And the best teachers can take pride—privately—in the creature they have created. If only I could play my role as husband and father with equal effectiveness. But the best teachers are performers in the classroom, and to a large extent, it is that day-to-day performance that most effectively works on our audience, the students we teach.
Our role as teachers requires us to possess finely honed insight into human behavior and find ways of using it in our teaching. Each of our student actors brings to our classes a unique palette of strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to discover what those strengths and weaknesses are, and adapt our approach to each individual without losing the clarity of our overall approach to craft.
One of the things that our insights and analyses will often reveal is the fact that our student artists are fragile. Ironically, one of the attributes they most need to develop is the need to be strong and resilient. Unlike in other art forms, the medium used by actors is the actor. That means when the product is put forth for critical judgment, it is the artist who is judged—not the work that artist produces. There is no violin or canvas to soften the critical blow.
Thus in addition to teaching craft, it is part of the teacher’s job to teach the ability to handle criticism. Actors improve when they are told what they are doing wrong, not when they are praised for what they are doing right. Yet the prescription for teaching successfully is the ability to give enough praise so that even the most sensitive are able to handle the negative aspects of the critique. That allows us, over time, to build in our students the ability to handle any criticism and use it effectively and productively. We must teach them that the actor’s life is often hard, and the job includes the ability to persist even when the reinforcement doesn’t seem as positive as we would like. Most importantly, we must teach our students to love the work, not the praise.
The best teachers never stop learning. We learn from the work and we learn from our students. Each new scene is a learning opportunity for the teacher as well as the student. Before we can help our students with a scene, we must first master its essentials ourselves. Our own analysis must precede our attempt to help our students dissect and make their own choices about the work. Our ability to communicate should continue to improve as we get better in our roles as teachers. Socratic dialogue with the students we work with, and with the students who are watching the work, can keep everyone engaged mentally and make the process active for all concerned. Our ability to solicit thinking is more important than our ability to provide our students with answers that will work. In the classroom and studio we are teachers, not directors. What we want to do is build in our students the ability to work well independently, not give them answers that make them look good for the moment.
I regularly have the opportunity to work with teachers in workshops and continuing education courses. Most are very receptive to the new ideas I may offer up. But in each class and seminar, there are always a few who are clearly looking for reinforcement for what they already do, rather than for new ideas and new approaches. Clearly, the best teachers are the ones who want to grow and to improve their own teaching arsenals. The teachers who remain ever the students are the ones who continue to grow. They are the ones who never get old or stale.
Finally, our job is to teach—as effectively as possible. That means working tirelessly, and, as much as we are able, selflessly. Because we are teachers of artists, their successes and failures mean a great deal to us, and failure hurts. If we must change what we do in order to continue to be successful, then that is what we should do.
Twenty-five years ago, when I began my acting journey, Robert Benedetti’s book The Actor at Work was already a success. A quarter of a century later, it is still a success (in its eighth edition), but it is today a very different acting text, far more practical and less Zen than the book I read so many years ago. No doubt the changes in the book reflect the change and growth of its author as a teacher of acting. May we all possess the courage of Benedetti, to make the choice to change and grow.
Bruce Miller is director of acting programs at the University of Miami. He is the author of The Actor as Storyteller and Head-First Acting, and a regular contributor to Dramatics magazine and Teaching Theatre. You can reach him at email@example.com.