1. Your teacher/instructor is willing to critique the participants.
Be aware of the difference first between critique and criticize. To critique is to let the actor know that their work needs to grow and move beyond what they are comfortable with. To criticize is simply to put down and belittle without advice or guidance on how to get better. What’s possibly worse is allowing the workshop to be all “happy-happy-joy-joy.” You are happy, your teacher is happy, you become friends and everyone tries hard not to step on each other’s toes at the expense of doing real work. Oftentimes, the “perma-smile feel” that comes from the teacher is because he/she does not know how to critique constructively and would rather play it safe.
2. Your teacher is NOT abusive.
Much like criticizing for the sake of it, the teacher seems only interested in putting down the student to make themselves feel better. Oftentimes you see this when the teacher is a failed actor or an actor who hasn’t worked in a while because of self-sabotage. While it is okay to be put on the spot if that leads to growth, it is not okay to be put on the spot when it comes at the expense of hurting you mentally, emotional, psychologically or worse yet physically.
3. Your teacher cares for your emotional health and doesn’t resort to emotional manipulation.
This is a big one. Acting workshops can be therapeutic but they are not therapy sessions. Likewise, a teacher should never have to resort to running a workshop like a therapy session. While you should feel safe enough to express and ‘feel’ in workshop, your teacher shouldn’t be encouraging the act of emotional self-mutilation/masochism/mastication or emotional self-pleasuring at the expense of your work. Likewise, what you use to get a desired emotional result is none of your teacher’s business and it should never be your teacher’s business. Can your teacher work with just the context of the situations to help you get to where you need to be or are they digging and prodding and in the content of your emotional life without permission or worse yet through sneaky subterfuge?
The biggest crime would be if you enjoy that process of crying and emoting for the sake of doing so from the stimulation of your teacher mostly. Are you being applauded simply because you cried a lot or you “had a lot of emotion” in your work? If you can be objective about it, was your work devoid of any substance beyond baseless emotion. If so, what you need is a psychiatrist or a psychologist, not an acting workshop. Be aware, no acting technique ever created was meant to emotionally manipulate without reason or within safe means or seeks to only do this. One-noted emotional technique leads to one-noted acting. This is the fault of awful instruction from the teacher or appalling execution from the actor.
4. The teacher invites the workshop to critique another actor’s work directly to that actor.
Depending on the ‘safety’ of the environment set up by the teacher, fellow students/peers/colleagues are sometimes or often allowed to provide feedback for the work they have seen. The teacher has made it clear the work is part of a process, it is not result-oriented. Allowing concise, constructive feedback helps everyone involved to develop a critical eye for what works and what doesn’t work. For the actor onstage, it is important that the work is more important than how they feel about it. It is imperative that working actor(s) remember that feedback is not an attack on the work or the ego.
A feedback session led by the teacher is not about directing the work. It is about objectively observing, acknowledging strengths, identifying weaknesses and then coming up with solutions that lead to the growth of the working actor. By soliciting feedback from other participants in the workshop, it also challenges the teacher to avoid the “teacher as guru” personality. The teacher is also careful to ensure that the feedback doesn’t devolve into a conversation between two actors (which can quickly devolve into “here’s how I would have done it”) and for the instructor to helpfully reframe the comment as something the working actor can then take forward in their method of working (or not).
5. The teacher knows everyone’s name.
Is the teacher approaching you with the ‘guru-on-the-mountain’ mentality and they won’t learn your name until you prove yourself or your work reaches a level that they feel compelled to learn your name? If so, run away as fast as you can. Bear in mind, you are the one paying for the workshops so you have certain rights and basic expectations. Never feel intimidated to let something as important as your name be ignored, forgotten or used as a reward mechanism. After all, you are paying for that teacher’s bills.
6. The workshop is of a reasonable student-teacher ratio.
Are you comfortable with the teacher-student ratio? Is the workshop packed to the room’s capacity making you feel almost anonymous or ‘just-another-paying-customer’? Are you spending an equivalent amount of time working as you are watching or do you spend most weeks watching because it’s too crowded to book a spot to work? A packed workshop does not mean the teacher is popular and can help you evolve in your work. It almost always means the teacher is not bright enough or is too cheap to open up another workshop. This is not to be confused with teachers who take the time to work with students and may take longer with others than with you.
Instead of getting aggrieved that your time is wasted, think about how what is being taught to the person working can apply to you. Listen to what the teacher is saying, perhaps there are unexpected gems of advice that you may apply to your work. Bear in mind that no two actors are the same and what may come easy to you may not come easy to others and vice versa.
7. Your teacher is qualified to teach you but makes the workshop about you not about them.
What exactly are you paying for? How exactly is your time being spent? Is your teacher well-versed in what they are teaching? What experience do they have teaching the subject matter? Is the teacher registered with an accredited local or foreign body e.g. Singapore Drama Educators Association? Are there actual skills and techniques you are learning or is this a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ workshop without any substance or system? Are they certifying you or assuming they can teaching you specific skill sets in illogical periods of time? Is the workshop looking to make a quick buck from you? Are you attending the workshop because of what is available to be learnt? Or are you attending the workshop simply because it is being taught by someone ‘famous’ (just because the instructor is actor with some credits does not mean they can teach and vice versa), it is part of a ‘famous’ company, the company selling the workshop has famous associations (e.g. they have ‘links’ to specific TV stations, production houses, agencies) are they promising you things they cannot logically or legally deliver? (e.g. I will make you famous.”, “I will cast you in my next project.”).
Is the workshop or is the teacher all about enforcing their doctrine way of working and ONLY their way of working or does the workshop consider you and your prior work/training background? Remember, the teacher is only teaching you ‘a method’ of working as an actor, not ‘THE method’. It is always up to you to create the method that works best for you. That said, are you allowed to create your own technique without compromising what is being taught and what you have learnt in the past elsewhere? This translates into finding an acting teacher who approaches the work from a place of curiosity about your stories, what you’ve overcome, and your challenges. A teacher who loves being with his or her students. This ultimately informs the student on how to love being with him- or herself. Which is what acting is essentially all about—you.
8. The workshop is a safe place and space to experiment and fail.
Within the workshop, are you guided by someone who is passionate about what they teach? Are they giving you the space to explore your inner/outer self? Are you being taught superficially with no lasting impact? Or, are you taught to confront yourself and how to listen in such a deep way that it completely transforms your life and your work? Is your teacher making you aware of the things you are ‘running away from’ or ‘the tricks you resort to’? If your goal is to be a working actor, do you work to please the teacher or do you feel like you are learning enough to do it on your own in a professional setting without the umbilical cord of your teacher? Find a place where you can do work that challenges you and helps you grow. If you are doing work that is only within your comfort zone and ability, and you are great at it, you may get the adulation of your peers and teacher but what is that doing for you other than feeding your ego?
10. The teacher is open to letting you audit a class or ask questions.
When you audit a class, you get a sense of the teacher, the workshop environment and the approach to what is being taught. Whether you are an auditor or an actual workshop participant, ask yourself if your teacher makes time to answer your questions with a view to helping you grow. Be mindful that not every question you ask needs or deserves an answer and your teacher may withhold their answer for good reason.
Ultimately, there are many other factors to consider when choosing an acting workshop including common sense ones like cost, length of class, location etc. Regardless of where you are in your acting career and your business/creative agenda as an actor, make proactive and conscious steps to pick an acting workshop that is right for you. If your aim is to be a working actor then take the appropriate steps to “Free Your Talent.”