(This article was published as an editorial in Backstage on April 28, 2011)
In his Business of Acting column “Turning Pro” (April 7), Jeff B. Cohen puts forth some important tips for young actors on how to transition from being a student of acting to being a professional actor. He draws attention to a truism: The art of acting and the business of acting are often at odds; in order to get work, or even agent representation, one must learn to “sell oneself”—that is, represent oneself as a business. This includes understanding one’s type and how one is seen by agents, casting directors, and producers. Actors must also, in Mr. Cohen’s words, “constantly push, market, schmooze, cajole, and fight to be noticed.” All this is undeniably true and covered in any responsible actor training program’s “business of the business” class, usually in the final year of training.
However, in my opinion, Mr. Cohen overstates his argument when he claims: “Acting classes are great at teaching you how to succeed in the ‘show’ of showbiz. But much of what they teach does not help with, or in some cases actually hinders, an actor’s success in the ‘biz’ part.” Such a position sets up a false choice for a young actor. It implies, “I can either be an artist who doesn’t work or a salesman who does.” It thereby encourages young actors to sacrifice the cultivation of themselves as actors and human beings for the sake of commercial success.
This in no way corresponds to anything that I have experienced in my 16 years as the artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and the Art of Acting Studio in Los Angeles, or the lifetime I spent before that in and around the business. I’ve never once heard an agent or casting director complain, “This actor is far too sensitized, open, and artistically enlivened. He should study less Stanislavsky and read more Variety.” In fact, I hear the opposite. Agents, casting directors, and producers want what the public wants, craves, and needs—that is, human beings. Actors are human beings who train themselves to reflect for humanity what it means to be human. Actors therefore serve a vital role in our society and in civilization as a whole.
I sense sincerity in Mr. Cohen’s article and in Back Stage’s decision to publish it. However, his fear that actors will be confused by Stella Adler’s statement that “One way to enliven the imagination is to push it toward the illogical,” or that Lee Strasberg’s observation that “Acting is the most personal of our crafts” will in any way hinder young actors’ ability to make lives for themselves in the business, is not only misplaced but a complete misunderstanding of what actors are and what they need. Actors are smart; they are capable of distinguishing the difference between inspirational teaching and their marketing of themselves. Furthermore, an actor’s artistic impulse—often cultivated and nurtured by a strong teacher or school—provides the fuel that propels him or her to work, which attracts agents, casting directors, producers, and, ultimately, audiences.
So if you are a young actor and have taken steps to arm yourself with the techniques and artistic principals of Stella, Strasberg, or Stanislavsky, and if after reading Jeff Cohen’s article you become doubtful of the value of your training, I say, by all means “schmooze, cajole, fight to be noticed,” but never forget who you are. You are actors!!! As Hamlet says, actors are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” Never forget what you are fighting for: the edification and uplifting of humanity. Never forget the means by which this is accomplished: in the words of Hamlet, “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”