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What everyone can learn from actor training

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A few years ago, following up on a dream from my youth, I went to study acting in New York. I was fortunate to have been accepted into the Stella Adler Studio for a 12 week course with Maureen Megibow, and I made the most of it by taking all the additional training I could get my hands on. Famous for producing talents like Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Martin Sheen, the Stella Adler Studio is one of the great old New York acting schools, and I quickly realized that I had made a wise choice. In terms of technique, Adler’s version of “the method” has always struck me as being a lot more accessible than many of the other variants. With Adler technique, the focus is on “what does my character want?/what is in the way?/what will he do about it?” In short, I don’t have to relive the death of my childhood dog to play a father paralyzed by grief at the loss of his child. It’s make believe – get it?

Rob Duncan and fellow cast members in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings

Rob Duncan and fellow cast members in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings

After I returned from New York, I was able to draw on my actor training in a number of ways. The first was through acting itself. I was quite pumped up by all my New York acting experiences, and was able to get cast in both short and feature-length films, as well as a play. But perhaps more interestingly, I was able to use the training and coaching I got in a number of useful ways.

Actor training made me a better teacher, speaker and manager – and can help you. Consider these examples:

Developing stage presence: Theater training helps you understand your body as an instrument of expression. You learn how you move, which of your mannerisms and habits help you express yourself, and which are a hindrance. You also learn simple tricks like understanding where the light is in a room and how it is (or isn’t) hitting you so you can get into a position that makes you look less like a shadowy goblin!

Hitting your marks: Another trick of the trade is working with marks. When you do stage and film work, everytime you move, you are aiming to land on a particular spot. Most of the time, the mark is literally marked on the floor with a masking tape “X.” The same is true in giving a presentation or teaching a seminar. By scoping out the venue, I usually like to work out a few choice spots to stand, where the lighting is good and the audience gets a good view of the screen if I am using one. Masking tape is usually part of my gear, but I have also used pennies on the floor in a pinch. The idea isn’t to remove sponteneity, but rather to have some guidelines of where to come to a rest – this actually frees you up to be more spontaneous!

Exercising your voice: I worked with great coaches like Roger Simon and did a masterclass with Andrew Wade from the Royal Shakespeare Company who showed me how to treat my voice like a muscle and exercise it, so that you can actually relax more, and project farther at the same time. Roger has a great workout where you power up your voice in 20 progressive increments, with a view to “smashing the lightbulb across the room” with the final one. Both Roger and Andrew were great for clarity and enunciation.

Learning how to improvise: I trained in improv at the Gotham City Improv, and it is an incredibly valuable skill to have in the workplace. Improv at its best involves creating a hilarious shared story with a group of people – a story that moves fast, never misses a beat, and ends up where nobody predicted! The trick with improv is to understand that when the story comes to you for input, all you need to do is move it along a tiny little bit – you don’t have to hit a grand slam or deliver the knockout punchline everytime! Removing that anxiety from yourself lets you be a more effective and giving team player. Sometimes you just have nothing, so you simply offer up something like “…and then she jumped on the bus and…” and toss it over to another team mate. The key is to keep it moving, and then when you least expect it, you’ll say something hilarious. Will anyone who was in our class ever forget the substance known as “boil matter?”

An early film poster from my ongoing "Before he was Famous" days!

An early film poster from my ongoing "Before he was Famous" days!

There are many more lessons to be drawn from acting training, including the power of intention, making bold choices and growing a thicker skin. But no matter what you do as a profession, I highly recommend heading down to your local community center or night school and taking a class in acting or improv. It will enrich your life and career in ways you never anticipated, and you might just have fun! To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about theater in the workplace, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

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