Bringing Up Broadway: Does Your Child Need an Acting Coach?
At some point, my little girl became a Broadway hopeful. What began as a fun extracurricular activity evolved into a career aspiration. That's when dance classes and vocal lessons were added. And she continued performing in every show possible at our local children's theatre.
I was under the impression that her acting skills would develop during show preparation. But as I would soon learn, I didn't have that quite right.
I recently interviewed Michelle Evans of MJE Acting Studio, based in Kansas City, Missouri, about developing acting skills. Michelle has experience as a performer, a director, and an acting coach. We chatted about the evolution of theatre training, how acting coaches became more prevalent, what you can expect from an acting coach, and the essential acting methods or styles your child should know.
How did you go from a performer and director to an acting coach?
I was finishing up a tour after college, and I started working with a Youth Theatre in the Atlanta area. I was teaching classes and directing shows for children ages 8-18, and that is where I first started coaching. Beyond just the classroom and on stage, I began working with many one-on-one. And a lot of those started with kids that just needed to get ready for auditions. Because when I was younger, coaching really wasn't as big as it is now, I never really thought of it as a career option. Sure, I had voice teachers, a piano teacher even, but no one really did private acting. So, when all of a sudden, a parent was asking, 'Hey, can you help my kid get ready for their audition?' I'm like, 'Oh, this is a thing?'
So, private acting instruction has really grown a lot over the last ten years. I've seen my students grow because of that one-on-one attention. Anytime you get one-on-one in anything, whether it's acting, or you're having a pitching coach or a batting coach, it can help you increase your skills.
Why do you think that private acting coaching didn't exist when you were younger and only came around recently?
I think one of the big reasons is that there were not a lot of children/youth theatres around.
There were a handful of TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) where adults performed shows for kids to come and watch. However, there weren't a lot of youth theatre companies where the kids were actually the main focus and the ones being cast. There were always community theatres that would cast a youth ensemble or need children for specific roles.
I grew up in a time when there still weren't a lot of people that were pursuing acting or musical theatre in college. I had many friends that forfeited college and just moved to NYC or LA to try and 'make it,' and many of them struggled and ended up going into another field.
So, I think I was kind of on the cusp of when more and more people were starting to go, 'Okay, we've got to go to college for this. We've got to train for this.'
One of the things that we've noticed in our journey with our child in theatre is that once she made that turn from dabbling in this or that to thinking she'd found something she's really serious about, then we immediately jumped to looking for dance classes and a voice coach. It didn't even occur to us until much later that, like you said, that an acting coach is a 'thing.' And we'd always just assumed that she was getting the acting piece in the context of a show. So can you talk a little bit about what you can get from an acting coach that you're not getting from direction in a show?
Yeah. Well, I'll talk first of all from a director's point of view, and why your child might not be getting the acting training that you think he/she is getting during the course of a show. And part of it just comes down to time management.
When directing a show and especially if it is more of a children's youth theatre show where you're dealing with 20, 30, 40, 100 kids, sometimes the director themselves is spending very little time with anybody that isn't a lead. And when you're looking at a few days a week, maybe two rehearsals a week, you're going, 'Okay, I've got to get all this stuff in. I don't have a lot of time to really sit down and do character development.' We are throwing out little things to them, but we never really get the time to really dive into it, especially not to get to any type of technique training.
So, with an acting coach, they're actually taking that time to, first of all, meet the students where they're at because everybody is starting at a different place. Everybody has different ways that they learn, different ways that they absorb things. So you're meeting them right where they're at. Whenever I start with the student, and it's always kind of like, 'Do you have an audition coming up? Are you in a role right now? What do you need for this moment, as well as building on those foundation points?'
So, you have someone that's working with you at your pace. It's also someone you can trust. Acting is hard sometimes, it's hard at any age, but especially as you're in that school-age, to be in a group of peers and to really feel like you can be yourself. Sometimes in that one-on-one, you can just be a little more vulnerable.
I always say not to look at me as your coach, look at me as your teammate. We're here together getting this done. My job is not to preach at you at all the things that you need to do and how you need to be perfect. Let's get this done together because if you're not progressing in the right way then maybe I need to change something as an educator to help you get there. Maybe I need to approach it in a different way because everybody can learn and everybody can grow. Sometimes we just have to figure out what works for that student.
And so that's just one of the main benefits. I have students ages 10-40, and they all learn differently, they all need different things. It's like a Rubik's cube. I'm constantly kind of working on trying to find the right combination for each student. But that's just part of the job, just to find what works for that student. And we use those techniques for both their acting and their acting through song.
So let's take that song, let's break it down, let's put the acting into it. Because as a performer, if we don't have that foundation of acting, then odds are you may never make it past the ensemble. We're more likely to put someone in the lead or supporting role that is a great actor, someone who can sustain a character and tell the story, rather than someone who is a great singer and dancer but can't act.
Are there certain things that seem to be particularly challenging for young actors?
I think the biggest one, and this is not, I don't think, a shocker when I say this, is just their self-confidence. Especially in areas where there are a lot of youth performers and companies, they're constantly looking at all of these other people that they assume are way better than them. And they're always just looking outside going, 'Oh, they're just better than me.' And it almost sort of starts to defeat them. I think the confidence thing is the biggest hurdle. Unfortunately, this is something that we struggle with at all ages, but maybe if we can tackle it at an earlier age we will not struggle with it later!
I was also wondering if you could just run down some of the most popular acting styles. I will say this was eye-opening to me when I started looking at classes, seeing names like Stanislavski, Hagen, and Chubbuck.
So Stanislavski, in my opinion, is kind of like the foundation. He's the first; he's like the godfather of acting, you know? His techniques are things that a lot of kids do naturally; they just don't understand it's a technique. "Who's your character?" "What do they want?" All of those things- objectives, obstacles, and tactics, those are things that we talk about. Even when I teach the itty bitties like eight-year-olds, we start doing basic character development using Stanislavski.
After that, explore what really speaks to you, what works for you. I think that you need to learn them all. Not because I think you need to do them all, but because I think you need to understand them. It's that whole 'knowledge is power.'
I always give this analogy to my students that the different acting techniques are kind of like religion. There are a lot of different ones and depending on who you're talking to is which one is the 'right' one.
So it isn't that one is better than the other. I already mentioned that I start with Stanislavski, then I often use Shurtleff, Hagen, and Chubbuck. In a classroom setting, Meisner can be great for actors to learn to trust themselves and their impulses. With my private students, I do a lot of actioning and emotions, but as I said before, I try to meet them where they are, so I might introduce different techniques to different students based on their needs.
I'd say to challenge yourself not just to take a class, but really understand those techniques you may be learning. Because anybody can sit in any class and just take it, and then they walk away and go, 'Yeah, I have no clue.' But to really take the classes and if you can understand them, then you're on a good foothold to help you understand, too. If you can get through them and you still enjoy it, that's a really good indicator that this might be a path for you. If you enjoy the hard work that goes with those classes or lessons, when the teacher is telling you to do it again constantly, and you're willing to get up there and try it, then you can probably then move on to the collegiate level where they're just going to push you even harder.
Are there differences between how you approach thinking about acting for musical theatre versus acting for straight theatre without song and dance?
I train straight actors the same as musical theatre actors. Technique is technique, and my goal is for them to have a great foundation. The only difference between a straight play and a musical is some singing and dancing, the one thing that is absolutely the same is the acting!
I also think it is important for every actor to have voice training; they need to be comfortable with their vocal instrument. Also, as a performer, you should always be ready for everything. You want to be ready for any opportunity that comes your way.
This excerpt is an interview from the podcast "From Atlanta to Broadway," which is produced for Broadway hopefuls and their families. If you would like to hear the full interview and contact information for Michelle Evans, you can find it here on our podcast website.