LFC: Introduce yourself to the LFCommunity by telling us your top 3 favorite movies.
Miriam Laurence: That’s a hard one, as I’ve been watching films for decades! I guess I’d have to choose at least five and say Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck; The Miracle Worker with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft; Run Lola Run with Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu; E.T.; Pulp Fiction; The Big Lebowski. Oops. That’s six…But I could go on and on. And then there’s the stellar television series on now – I just watched American Crime Story – wonderful acting, directing and cinematography.
LFC: Tell us about how you got your start as an acting coach.
ML: I was already teaching actors of all ages at various schools in Toronto. My lovely teacher, Samantha Langevin, was leaving and suggested I take over her classes. I don’t know if I was really ready, but I jumped right in. Then a few years later, David Smukler, my amazing voice teacher, suggested I take over a dialect reduction gig on a television movie – and then I got my first coaching job on a series – CBC’s Street Legal.
LFC: You’ve worked with a lot of really amazing actors – was there a moment in which you knew you had helped to create something substantial?
ML: Not really… I always strive to create something substantial with each actor. But in my classes I have a sense about which actors will actually ‘get somewhere’ in the business; Tatiana Maslany comes to mind as someone whom everyone would know.
LFC: What’s one misconception you would want to clear up about what it’s like to be an acting or dialect coach for those who may not know?
ML: It’s a hard on-set gig. You arrive and no one really knows who you are – no one wears name tags on set. It’s sort of like a feudal Japan system – everyone discerns who has power. It’s a very delicate position to be in – knowing when to go in to give a note, when to hold back, etc.
LFC: Who have been your most influential teachers?
ML: I already mentioned David Smukler and Samantha Langvin, but before them definitely Madeleine Sherwood, who, despite our age difference became my life-long friend – and, of course, Lee Strasberg.
LFC: We’ve seen (and are big fans of) a lot of the projects you’ve worked on! What has been one of your favorites so far?
ML: 11/22/63 was definitely the best experience overall! It’s a mini-series based on Stephen King’s novel about the Kennedy assassination. It was produced by J.J. Abrams and James Franco who also starred in it. The actors I was coaching were wonderful and I was really made to feel like part of the team.
LFC: How (whether it be throughout one of your projects/pieces of work, through your character, or anything else) would you like to be remembered?
ML: As a first-class teacher, coach and director!
LFC: The entertainment industry has been under scrutiny for their treatment of women (amongst other things). Do you feel that you’ve had to overcome obstacles that men in the same/similar industries/job roles have not faced?
ML: Definitely. It’s been extremely difficult for me to gain a foothold as a director.
LFC: What skills have been the most beneficial for being successful?
ML: Being present. Breathing and listening.
LFC: What is one thing you’ve learned about yourself throughout your career journey?
ML: I’ve learned to keep a positive attitude and how not to pick up – or to ward off – any negative energy.
LFC: What does being an #entrefemmeur mean to you?
ML: I love the way the La Femme Collective is striving to empower women to go for their careers. I would hope to inspire younger women to go for their dreams in the entertainment ‘industry’ – tell their stories and aim for the top positions!
ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists)
I’ve been very busy this month working and attending the ACTRA 2017 Winter conference held in Toronto. Thanks to Karen, who manned my promotion table with my postcards and posters.
Congratulations to Alex Cruz and his team who were one of two winning entries for the ACTRA 24hr co-op film challenge. Their film ‘Ambiguity’ can be seen here.
And many congratulations to all the actors from class who are working on their craft in student films, theatre, their own projects, commercials and major television and film projects!
Class is full of actors working with bravery and passion.
As always, actors I’ve trained in my studio in Toronto are welcome to arrange an audit.
The Importance of Proper Training
To illustrate the sacred relationship between student and teacher, I think of a moment in the 1962 Academy Award-Winning film, The Miracle Worker. It is the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller’s struggle as teacher and student. Helen, deaf, mute and blind from infancy, is forced by Annie to learn letters from the Manual Alphabet for the Deaf. However Helen doesn’t understand that these letters form words and that these words have meanings. At the climax, Helen realizes that there is a word for everything. As she manically puts out her hand to know the word of the object she is touching, Helen suddenly stops and pats Annie. Annie responds by signing that her name is ‘Teacher’.
This fundamental struggle between teacher and student points to what we need to look for in teachers – consistency and strength of will. I was lucky in my training. I experienced many teachers and was exposed to their greatness and their flaws. These early exposures are essential to my teaching. After interviewing prospective actors I frequently accept people who have never trained before. I do this because even though there are some wonderful teachers out there, I often have to help actors “untangle” themselves from training that resulted in self-doubt, paralysis, overintellectualizing and over-analyzing.
There are many excellent programs throughout North America and Europe – but they are expensive and time consuming. They can also present their own challenges. Sometimes there could be teacher politics to contend with; at times you don’t know who the teachers will actually be, and your teachers might not be communicating about your progress so that they can have a unified plan for your growth.
I often tell actors that they can “put together their own program” by finding excellent voice and movement classes and other short-term workshops. It’s great to study many techniques and approaches, but is also valuable to find one teacher who can see you through; someone you can study with for a good span of time and then keep going back to over the years – who knows your acting instrument thoroughly.
I will sign off with stellar director Elia Kazan’s famous vow. It is applicable to all arts, including the art of teaching:
The Actor’s Vow
By Elia Kazan
I will take my rightful place on the stage
And I will be myself.
I am not a cosmic orphan
I have no reason to be timid.
I will respond as I feel; awkwardly, vulgarly,
I will have my throat open.
I will have my heart open.
I will be vulnerable.
I may have anything or everything the world
Has to offer, but the thing
I need most, and want most, is to be myself.
I will admit rejection, admit pain, admit
Frustration, admit even pettiness, admit
Shame, admit outrage, admit anything and
Everything that happens to me.
The best and most human parts of me are
Those I have inhabited and hidden from
I will work on it.
I will raise my voice.
I will be heard.
3 Points For Your Consideration
Finding a great acting teacher or coach is a quest in itself.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in Toronto or another city, all of the best acting classes share similar traits. In the 30 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve noticed 3 points that differentiate a B-level from an A-level acting class. These points will help you achieve the artistic standards you need in today’s competitive industry.
Most actors and people who want to be actors recognize the fact that they have to put in the time – the hours it takes to become a true artist. At any level, it is important that you are getting your money’s worth– you should be given a range of techniques and exposure to material that specifically confront your challenges as an actor.
Find teachers or coaches who:
1. Are Still in the Game
This means that they have an education and experience both in the art and ‘business’ aspects of the acting world. Good acting teachers and coaches continually challenge themselves and inspire the actors they train. They know what you need for your craft – and when you need it.
They have a life, a sense of humour, and are teaching because they love doing it and love anyone who has the urge to express their creativity in this art form. Teachers and coaches should ignite constant commitment in the actors they train and lead by example. They should know that no one teacher or technique is ‘it’ and that they themselves are still learning.
The best acting teachers or coaches can ‘cast’ an actor in scene study or
film/television roles that help them grow; this is because they have a vast knowledge of both historical and current material. They provide a range of in-depth, ongoing instrument stretching of mind, body, voice and soul.
2. Establish an Experimental Environment
A worthwhile teacher or coach creates a nurturing but challenging environment and gives meaningful feedback. They are honest and kind but also tough and brave –they are original in their communication. Each individual is told what they need to work on, but are not put down; actors, however, need to understand that at times coaches must instill their will into the actor in order to push them past a block.
Coaching needs to be powerful, honest and ruthlessly helpful to get the actor to where both coach and actor have agreed the actor needs to go. A teacher who continually praises, coddles and builds false expectations is not really being helpful.
Each actor is given equal time and attention; over time, scenes are worked on with various tasks and repeated – time is spent experimenting. In on-camera classes it is more valuable to be coached while being filmed so that when you watch your play backs in private you can see the differences that your coach’s adjustments make. This allows you to track your growth and saves precious class time.
A good teacher knows that, as in all artistic mediums, acting is therapeutic; but that they are not therapists. They build up what is in each actor; they don’t break you down to ‘build you up’ again. Self-investigation is encouraged and undermining confidence is avoided. A good teacher inspires through timeless artistic, cultural and historical references and avoids trendy, inane references to self-help and ‘creativity’ books.
When actors are working on scenes a silent and fully focused atmosphere is insisted upon. Class members are not permitted to critique classmates’ work in a free-for-all. Rather the coach encourages actors to reflect on what they witnessed and what it means to their exploration.
A good teacher does not allow auditors of any kind – prospective students who might disrupt and take attention away from experimentation or people from the ‘business’ whose presence can be intimidating. When auditors are present, it can prevent actors from taking chances and growing. Teachers or studios who are also agencies or claim to have connections with people from the ‘business’ risk setting up false expectations.
3. Maintain a Professional Distance
First-class coaches try not to talk about themselves too much and if they do their stories have a point regarding the actor to whom they are giving notes, or the class in general.
They are involved with the growth of the actors, but try not to become enmeshed in their personal lives. They welcome your questions and even challenges with grace. They know when it is time to say ‘off you go’ to experience something else. They tell actors when they are really ready to face the professional world. They are not threatened when someone tries out another teacher; they embrace their willingness to grow.
“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
I’ve been extremely busy coaching on 11/22/63, a mini-series starring James Franco, Chris Cooper, George MacKay and Daniel Webber. It’s based off the novel by Stephen King, about the Kennedy assassination. It’s been wonderful to meet great Canadian actors like Shauna MacDonald; to coach exciting younger actors like George, Daniel and Lucy Fry; to watch seasoned actors like Cherry Jones, James Franco and Chris Cooper work.
I’ve recently re-branded my site and other online materials with the help of one of the actors I’m training. I plan on being more active on Facebook from now on so I can better connect with students from my Toronto studio there and encourage students to be more involved in the community as well. I am also planning on creating short 2-3 minute clips with acting advice that I’ve had for a long time.