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Acting Resources

Acting in Chicago: Intro & Training – Schools, Classes and Coaches

Two weeks ago, I got a text from Katie Faris – a wild eyed actress I met at an audition who just relocated from Los Angeles. She asked me (via text) what are the best acting schools, teachers and photographers here in Chicago. To offer a proper answer, I would have had to send back one heck of a text message and might have used up my monthly allotment from AT&T in the process. Rather than fork over all those extra dimes, Katie inspired me to go another route – post something on my blog.

A little while ago, I mentioned I was going to start sharing more acting resources in this space. After all, I often find myself helping other actors and offering some of the same advice and information over and over again. Why not keep it in one centralized, public place. At minimum, it’ll make my life a bit easier and I’ll be able to help more people in the process.

So, here’s how I’m going to do it… I’m going to put up a series of posts that I’ll call “Acting in Chicago.” They’ll be packed with all sorts of useful information and opinions. By no means will the entries give you everything you need to know or share all that I can offer. The intent is to give folks a starting point and (slash) or provide some resources for more seasoned actors out there trying to make it. Here’s how it’s all going to break down:

I. Intro & Training: Schools, Classes and Coaches (Below)
II. Headshots: Finding a Good Photographer
III. Finding Work: Online Resources and Words of Wisdom
IV. Professional Life: Talent and Casting Agents
V. Recommendations: Shows, Books, Things To Do

I’ll be putting up these entries periodically over the next couple weeks. So…Enjoy! If you just can’t wait, the Acting Studio has a fantastic resource you can check out by clicking here. Feel free to reach out to me with questions or post comments with additional information. I’ll do my best to weave in new info every now and then to keep refining this resource for the masses.

So, without further adieu, let’s me start with the first topic:

Where to Train?

To me, the process starts with you. Let’s start by asking some important questions. Is acting a hobby or do you view yourself as a professional? What do you want to do as a performing artist? Theatre? Film? Voiceover Work? How about genre? Comedy or Drama? What type of experience do you already have? Beginner or seasoned pro? What are your goals? Have fun? Earn a living? Get in the pages of US Weekly?  Those are just some thought starters, but being specific about what you want will help define where you want to spend your time. As the saying goes, ask and you shall receive. But, it pays to be specific. Answering those questions will help.

Here’s the obligatory exhaustive list of places to train in the city of Chicago. I’ll follow that rundown with some of my own thoughts and finish with some recommendations for specific classes, instructors and coaches.

Act One Studios
Acting Studio
The Annoyance
Artistic Home
Black Box
Green Room
Green Shirt Studio
iO Chicago
School at the Steppenwolfe
Second City
Victory Gardens

Excluded from this list are specific workshops as well as the University programs: Columbia, DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern, Roosevelt and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In terms of the colleges, based on word of mouth accounts, all have fine programs. If this is a route you’re looking to take, I suggest doing your research, try to audit some classes and talk to as many people as possible. I can connect you with some of the right folks, but am not qualified to make a recommendation on the colleges. The link here, has some thoughts on these institutions as well as some of the other schools above.

Speaking of the ones above, here are some of my thoughts:

Traditional Acting Studios

I’ve spent a good deal of time at Act One. The Acting Studio has a solid reputation too. Both offer a full catalogue of classes and initially place students based on experience. If you’re new to acting or have minimal training under your belt you’ll need to start with their fundamental scene study curriculum. “But, Charles, I don’t need to learn that stuff. I just want to act and take the classes I want.” Trust me. You need to have a strong fundamental base to be successful and it takes time (years) for the “skills” of acting to get in your bones. If you’re starting out, Act One and the Acting Studio are the two places I’d recommend. If you’re more experienced, you should still probably be spending time at both places. I’ll offer more input on specific classes below.

Artistic Home and Black Box have programs based on the Meisner Technique. I’ve heard good things about both, but would recommend Act One for Meisner. Again, more below. Green Shirt is another spot that has a Meisner based program. While I know folks who have enjoyed their experience at Green Shirt, I went to a workshop there and was under-whelmed (granted I had a couple years of Meisner at the time). Just one man’s opinion.

Green Room is highly regarded for on-camera training and has instructors who are current or former Casting Directors at O’Connor Casting. I started there just as I was writing this guide, giving them my recommendation with the promise I’d update this section when the time is right. The time is right. Green Room is fantastic. Acting for the camera can be quite technical, but it’s also supposed to be fun. They teach you how to do it right.

Victory Gardens is a prominent theatre that offers training (others exist too), but I don’t have any personal experience there and haven’t heard much about them from friends or colleagues.

School at the Steppenwolfe is a professional-level program. It’s offered during the Summer, Monday-Friday from 9:00-5:00 and requires an audition (along with a sizeable tuition) for admission. They generally accept 15-20 people every year and, as you might imagine (given Steppenwolfe’s reputation), it is highly competitive. I do know a few folks who have trained there. If you have the chops to make the cut, it’s worth it.

The Improv Trifecta

Chicago is known for its improv. There are no shortage of places to learn, train and perform. In LA, the Groundlings and UCB are highly regarded. Here, it’s Second City, iO and the Annoyance.

If you’re trying to determine where to go, here’s one take from veteran improviser and instructor Rachael Mason. “Second City is the heart, iO is the head and the Annoyance is the X-Factor.” Thinking about yourself as a performer where is your strength? Where do you need work? That might help you make an informed decision.

If you’re just starting out, iO is great, because they have a strong community (you’ll make friends), you get to go to lots of free shows and the instructors are amazing (Craig Uhlir and Jason Shotts are two that I’d highly recommend). If you want to see their upcoming class schedule, click here.

At Second City, they have no shortage of options when it comes to classes. For improv you have a couple different options. They have their Intro and Conservatory programs. The later you need to have previous improv or acting experience and are required to audition once to get in and a second time to continue. Yes, to continue paying for classes… If you don’t make it on the first try, don’t worry. Tiny Fey “failed” three times before getting in.

If you are musically inclined, Second City also has their Music Improv Conservatory. I’m a graduate and I’d say that was one of my more enjoyable (and challenging) classroom experiences. I had little to no music or vocal training when I successfully auditioned.

As a whole, Second City has a much different feel compared to iO. It’s still some the same instructors and students, but, from my point of view, it’s not as tight knit. Right or wrong, it has the feel of being more professional and I think that impacts the culture there.

As for the Annoyance, many improvisers will train there after Second City and iO – I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right way to go. People rave about the Annoyance. Their philosophy is to take care of yourself as a performer. The school was founded by Mick Napier – a renowned Director and the closest thing to Del Close that currently exists. His book “Improvise” is required reading for any improviser. It’s fantastic.

All of the programs mentioned have classes that run eight weeks and (to complete your training) requires a year to a year and a half commitment. iO and the Annoyance allow you to take classes as you please. Second City is about building ensemble. While you can take a break, it’s not recommended.

There are other places you can train and you can always work with coaches, but if you’re looking to get into comedy or sharpen your acting skills, those are the places to be. Even if you have no interest in improv, this training is valuable as it’ll help you stay in the moment and think on your feet. Besides, if you are a professional actor, or plan on being one, Casting Directors want to see that training – especially if you’re from Chicago.

Now for some recommendations on specific classes:

Act One’s Meisner Program

Hand down, this is the most valuable training I’ve had as an actor. The folks who run the program – Eileen Vorbach, Laura Strum and Ted Hoerl – have changed, not just my acting, but my life. You’ve heard me drop Meisner a few times so far. If you’ve been wondering what the heck the Meisner Technique is all about, watch this video. To me acting is about living in imaginary circumstances. It takes courage and requires risk. As actors we need to crave being rattled, out of control and vulnerable. These are all things that are counter-intuitive to our everyday lives. Meisner training is intense (be warned) and it will force you to be more truthful and expressive as a performer. Granted, there is no blueprint or one size fits all solution for acting. We learn, we borrow, we do what works for us. This has worked for me. Act One offers a free Meisner Demo Night every term. If you’re interested, I suggest you check it out.

On Camera Training

If you’re looking to be a film actor or be in commercials, you’ll need training. There’s an art and a technique to it. I’ll start again with Act One. The classes I’ve had there I’d recommend. Joanne Sylvestrak’s Commercial Technique class is incredible. Joanne has had a successful career as a Commercial Actress. She’ll show you what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. Dan Flannery teaches Intro to TV and Film at Act One. It’s a ton of work in front of the camera and gives you a solid foundation. Over at the Acting Studio, Rachel Patterson’s On Camera III earns high marks, however you’ll want to make sure you “Rock the Film/TV Callback with Matt Miller.”  Matt is a Director and Teacher and has a great reputation. You can learn more about his work by watching this wonderfully informative video. Casting Director Jane Alderman also offers a Film Audition class that is well regarded. Finally, another spot that was mentioned earlier is the Green Room and their On-Camera Training Program. Solid reputation amongst actors, casting and talent agencies. You may notice a number of these classes are taught by current of former Casting Directors. Well, who better to learn from than the folks who are gatekeepers to working in the biz?

Training For The Stage

Steve Scott’s Masters Class at Act One is a great choice. It’s not one I’ve had, but it’s on my list. He’s the Associate Producer for the Goodman. You need to be an experienced actor to be considered and the more training you have the more it will benefit you. Also at Act One, I enjoyed my Advanced Scene Study Class with owner Steve Merle. There is no shortage of options when it comes to scene study work. If you’re more of a beginning actor, start there. I’d recommend auditing a class to see if it’s a fit for you and make sure you have the time (It always requires a hefty commitment). Also, there’s no training like actually doing it. If you can land a play or some type stage work, do it.

If Shakespeare is your thing, check out Jeffrey Carlson and Susan Hart. I know friends who have studied with them and I’ve seen their process in person. It’s intense and some of the best training you’ll find. If you searched for info on their classes online you might come up empty. You have to be in the know. By reading this post, congratulations, you’re in the know. You can e-mail ’em by clicking here.

If you’re looking for an acting coach, my recommendation starts and ends with Eileen Vorbach, Laura Strum and Ted Hoerl. Of course, the best advice would be to find someone who is right for you.

When it comes to improv, I think I covered most of the basics above. If you get to a point where you are working with coaches and are looking for workshops some names to check out include: Jet Eveleth, Lyndsay Hailey, Greg Hess, TJ Jagodowski, Rachael Mason, Susan Messing, Jonathan Pitts, Mick Napier, Jason Shotts, Blaine Swen and Craig Uhlir. It’s a bit off topic, but I wanted to share a link to TJ’s Seven Tips to Starting a Scene (click and scroll to the bottom) as well as an article about him from the Chicago Reader. TJ is arguably the finest improviser in the city.

Voice-Over

One of the most common questions I get is where can I find voiceover training? Once again, Act One and the Acting Studio are solid places to go. I’ve completed Act One’s Advanced Voice-Over For Actors. It’s done offsite at Cerny American Creative recording studio. Jobe Cerny (the studio’s owner) was the voice of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the guy from those Cheer commercials years ago. My experience there with Norm Boucher was top notch. It provided time in the studio and on the mic every week and gave me all the tools I needed to start making it in the competitive world of Voice-Over.

The Voice

I believe the voice is a critical skill most actors don’t develop enough. It’s like an out-of-shape basketball player simply not living up to his or her potential. Sadly, the voice is not prioritized in the US (especially in the Midwest). There are options in Chicago, but I’m still searching for something or someone of quality. For now, my recommendations include a couple books: Kristin Linklater’s “Freeing the Natural Voice” and Patsy Rodenburg’s “The Actor Speaks.” The Voice Guy is another find that I highly, highly recommend.

Movement

Ever seen a stiff actor? Are you that actor? It’s important to be free in your body and have a congruency of emotions, speech and behavior. If you want to free up your body here are my recos: Grant Stokes: Viewpoints, Laura Strum: Williamson, Yoga (find something that works for you), Lou Conte Dance Studio, Qi Gong and anything with Nana Shineflug.

I could go on and make even more recommendations, but I’m calling it. This post is complete. Obviously it’s not (it’ll probably be updated and updated some more over time), but this should be a good overview for anyone looking to work on their actoring skills.

Outside of everything mentioned so far, make sure to read, watch TV, go to the movies, spend a day at the museum and most importantly live some life. Observe. Listen. Imagine. These are all critical pieces of being an artist. Alternative rocker Beck once sung, “You can write it, if you can’t relate.” It’s somewhat of an odd reference, but I think it’s fitting to the point I’m trying to make. Act One’s Ted Hoerl often says we are all capable of all human emotions and behavior. True. If we’ve experienced it, lived it, seen it, felt it, etcetera, etcetera, we can express it and make the imaginary circumstances that actors play in truthful and believable. So soak up some life. The classes will help refine your skills. Life will help you develop your talent.

Man, I’m deep… Stay tuned for the next topic: II. Headshots: Finding a Good Photographer.

Discussion

2 Responses to “Acting in Chicago: Intro & Training – Schools, Classes and Coaches”

  1. you are awesome…very helpful thanks!!! 🙂

    Posted by Yess | September 27, 2011, 5:02 pm

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