The idea of theatrical acting inspires a sense of dread in most adults.
A fear of being put on the spot, or of being embarrassed in front of peers, is reason enough for someone to run in the other direction at the mere mention of emoting so publicly. You might be experiencing trepidation just reading about the idea of an acting class right now.
But what if you could rewind life a bit? Imagine having taken a class like this before you developed an ego. Students can gain real life skills through acting classes, skills that apply in school and that last well beyond graduation.
1. Public Speaking
How often do you really think about the way in which something comes out of your mouth?
In the classroom, teachers often stress content above context, body language, and delivery, and students have few opportunities to practice public speaking and presentation. While what you say is important, how you say things is often just as crucial, if not more so. People often lack confidence, polish, and consistency, making public speaking a daunting task with unpredictable results.
Like any other skill you wishes to develop over time, this can be likened to going to the gym. If someone were to suggest that you could work out once and immediately have the physique of a bodybuilder, you would think she were crazy. The same goes for public speaking; it requires a set of muscles that need to be worked and regularly maintained. Many adults live in fear of being asked to speak before a group, but the importance of this skill in nearly any career suggests students should spend time developing a certain level of comfort with it. If not, they run the risk of cultivating a serious aversion to something that could serve them well throughout their whole lives.
It probably goes without saying, but acting classes heavily emphasize this skill set.
Theater allows students to practice their emotional range while experimenting with pitch, projection, cadence, and dramatics. On top of the value of experimentation in general, there is little immediate risk in the context of a class: this isn’t a presentation that’s getting graded after one go. Actors rehearse and rehearse, and this is true in class, too. Rehearsal allows students to get closely connected with a text, which in turn helps them to speak with sincerity and conviction. The best actors speak with this sense of honesty — and they truly believe their words — much like the best public speakers.
You can always be a better listener. Droning college professors taught me that I would rather be thinking about what I was doing later in a given evening than the history of, well, anything. But in order to properly learn, engage with, and connect to others — in order to communicate effectively — active listening is integral.
Hearing is very different than listening. We hear ambient noise, voices, and music, but listening requires us to process and respond (rather than react). Our reactions are often driven by an agenda; what we say back to someone, regardless of what she has said or asked, may not depend very closely upon her words. Often, we’re more interested in planning what we’re going to say and in saying it than in responding earnestly in the moment to someone else.
Acting class requires that students learn how to listen. All theater requires attention to cues, lines, and dialogue. In order to deliver your line, you have to listen for the one that precedes yours. Actors also need to be prepared to respond to changes in dialogue or delivery. If a castmate fumbles her line or alters her intensity or energy, you’ve got to be ready to follow up in a way that makes sense in a given context. Plus, there’s the fact that listening on stage has to appear genuine to the audience.
On top of serving the production on a superficial level, students need to be able to listen effectively and carefully in order to grasp instructions and concepts within short periods of time. Theatrical productions exist on a level of heightened reality — everything moves faster — and sharp communication skills are essential for success.
Students who engage in brainstorming sessions often get stuck or fixated on a single idea. This problem continues into adulthood, and the most common solution is the hackneyed and unhelpful prompt, “Just think outside the box.” We ask people to do this all the time — but how is this skill taught in a concrete way?
Every good acting class will will include practice with improvisation. Improv in its purest sense is good conversation: effective and fast-paced listening and responding. Essentially, students are working with what they have at any given moment without being focused on a particular plot or outcome. While I covered some of this above in regard to listening, it’s worth connecting this to the idea of flexible thinking.
In the context of improvisation, rarely can you predict what other people are about to say. In order to be successful, you have to practice active listening. But sometimes, someone says or does something completely surprising. What happens next? Often, people freeze or get stuck, and that horrific crippling silence (which seems to last forever) ensues.
To a certain extent, acting classes can teach flexibility. As we’ve established, improv entails utter uncertainty as to what others will say. It exists in a reality with high stakes and a rapid pace. This training will help to cultivate and prime the nimbleness required to listen, process, and respond effectively. These skills connect directly to the ability to improvise in life, and think outside the box both in creative assignments and problem-solving exercises. And again, acting classes provide the opportunity for students to hone these abilities in a low-risk environment.
4. Kinesthetic Learning
Not everyone learns all subjects in the same way. Gone are the days of assuming every student can listen to a lecture, whether interesting or droning, and pick up the necessary information. Kinesthetic learning provides a way for some students to absorb information in an alternative format. Whether it’s learning how sentences work by manipulating notecards or learning how addition works by doing hopscotch, sitting at desks just doesn’t work for certain kids in certain contexts.
The possibilities of combining theater with kinesthetic learning are incredibly vast — acting out moments from history, dramatizing stories, and editing essays through improvisation, just to name a few. Movement and voice can be applied to any subject.
The ability to “put something on its feet” — in other words, getting something up and moving in an active way — can illustrate a student’s particular learning needs, her connection to the material, and her conceptual understanding. Plus, movement-based learning gets students out of their seats and out of their heads. Even if applied for a short period of time, it can bring energy and focus into nearly any classroom.
Sometimes in life, it’s necessary to fake it until you make it. Theater is difficult and scary, but it comes with the knowledge that if you can perform in a public setting, you can do just about anything.
Don’t believe me? I’ve been a tap-dancing spider in front of hundreds of people. Talking about myself to a group of adults on an admission board when interviewing at a college? It’s easy when I don’t have to worry about tripping over any of my eight legs.
Theater training changes the threshold for nervousness in everyday life. Once you’ve taken the leap into acting and you’re used to doing completely ridiculous things (on purpose) in front of strangers, you’d be surprised how relaxed you feel before important meetings and interviews. Activities that may have once seemed stressful become comfortable and manageable.
Group work tends either to elicit cheers or groans from students, and not a lot in between. Working in a group, no matter how large or small, is a definite challenge. It’s easy to get worked up about how to divide tasks and responsibilities, how to represent ideas equitably, and whether to focus on connecting as a group or excelling as individuals. But aside from engaging in group projects, how do you learn teamwork in an educational context?
Acting is always a team sport. Even the success of a solo show depends upon a team of people working to make a larger production happen. Students collaborate to rehearse, build sets, create costumes, understand dialogue, and put together a polished product.
Everyone has different skills, and when a group of students are working together to put on a show, people not only apply the skills they have, but also learn new ones throughout the process. Theater usually involves hard deadlines, so time management within a team — memorizing lines, getting sets and costumes completed — all needs to happen in a timely way. If students aren’t working together, the show is not going to be ready.
While this is related to teamwork, it’s worth mentioning separately: Theater breeds friendship. Take a group of people, any people, and put them together in a situation in which they’re vulnerable and working together toward a common goal. They will form strong bonds. Students will, in a very short period of time, connect with one another — no matter what their surface-level differences are.
These friendships might not happen within a traditional educational environment. The setting of a theater class gives students the opportunity to bond in a space that feels less formal than a typical classroom. They won’t be sitting in rows and they won’t be discouraged from talking, so inhibitions will be much lower.
These benefits of taking an acting class connect to life after school, too. Teaching skills that transcend K–12 education is an overarching goal for every acting instructor, and their classes provide students with the opportunity to step outside their comfort zones and learn how to be confident and creative.