Actor Teaching vs. Actor Coaching

ACTING TEACHER VS ACTING COACH:

Someone please tell me the difference!

Josie Adams and Josey Montana McCoy in Neil Simon's FOOLS

As an acting teacher, I will often get asked by industry whether I coach or I teach.   It is an important question to ask because they are two completely different things, and a lot of practitioners confuse the terms and roles: in turn, these people don’t give students or clients what they are paying for. It can also be quite confusing for actors or clients who are trying to land a decent acting class.  They could very well enter one studio or classroom not knowing what to really expect and then spend countless days, weeks, or years (not to mention a lot of money) learning absolutely nothing other than how to completely rely on someone else to give you answers for your artistry.  Ignorance in this case traps actors, and until they enter a “real” class they will never know what they’ve actually been missing.

Some Important Definitions:

Before we jump down the two paths, let’s dig up the definitions for both teacher and coach.

A teacher according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “one whose occupation is to instruct.”  Instruct is a verb meaning “to give knowledge to.”

A coach similarly is “one who instructs or trains.”

The similarity in definition is where things get muddled in the acting world.  Even though they have basically the same definition, they are in fact not the same thing.  In order to understand the real definition of coach (or at least how it is perceived) in the entertainment industry, we must think of a coach more in context to competitive sports.

A basketball coach, in the professional sense, usually does not have the task of teaching their players “how” to play basketball.  That “how” is assumed, otherwise that player would have never made it to the professional-level in the first place.  Their actual job is to do several other things:

  1. Condition the players for competition.
  2. To design and orchestrate plays for competition.
  3. To make key decisions for the team during competition.

Notice how everything has to do with the competition. Similarly, in acting, when you hire a “coach” you are usually hiring someone to work with you in the same function.

  1. They are getting the actor ready for an audition or performance (target train skill sets that may need to be strengthened: dialects/accents, other vocal skills and/or physical sills, etc).
  2. They help the actor understand the script and character for the performance/audition.
  3. And they help the actor solidify choices for the performance/audition.

What they don’t do is teach you the “how.”    The reason for this is because (just like in sports) it can take years (or a lifetime) to master the necessary skills to be decent, good, or great.  Coaches are hired to get you ready for a specific audition/performance, that’s it, and their objectives (listed above) support this need.

Teachers are the ones who teach you the “how” for acting in general.  They are the ones you meet with daily, weekly, or monthly, to build foundation, stretch skills, and diagnose weak spots.  They are the ones who actually transfer the knowledge of the craft to you, rather than feed you the answers.

I remember throwing a fit during high-school calculus when I couldn’t figure out how to solve a problem.  I was mad at my teacher for not telling me how to just solve the damn thing; but that’s what made them a good teacher.  A coach, would have just given me the answer, because they need the outcome, that’s it.  A teacher (or at least a good one) makes you struggle and chew on the content until it is fully digested and ultimately integrated.

Teaching and Coaching Philosophy

Teachers in acting have many different philosophies, most stemmed out of the ideas of Stanislavski.  You have the greats (the Adlers, Strasbergs, Meisners, Hagens) whose teachings have been passed down for generations; and you also have the newer teachers who are crafting their own pathways (a great example is Anne Bogart and her Viewpoints work).  The point is, that these people are all committed to getting the actor to actually learn what it means to be an actor (process), rather than them working for a specific product. Some lesson plans of good teachers might be:

  • Listening
  • Concentration
  • Imagination
  • Pursuing need against obstacle
  • Emotional memory
  • Creating worlds and life

In each case the teacher will lead the student through exercises to transfer the skill to the student, ultimately allowing the student to work independently.

Coaches may teach in an abbreviated sense (if it is to further their objective of getting the actor ready for the part).  They are much more inclined however, (usually due to time constraints) to use direction, rather than teaching.  Back to Merriam-Webster!  The definition of directing is to “point out, prescribe, or determine a course or procedure.”

Example: Patrick is playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie and he is working on his bull-dog “wicked witch” monologue. A teacher would lead Patrick through a series of questions: What do you think Tom needs in this moment? What is in his way? What will happen if he doesn’t get what he wants?  What behavior might help him achieve this need? These series of questions would help Patrick to understand what he himself needs to be asking to come up with his own conclusions.  It is going through a distinct process. A coach would simply say to the actor “You need to destroy your mother with this monologue so she gets off your back.  She is destroying your happiness and is making your home-life hostile.”  The actor would then integrate this into the performance and deliver.

Coaches are usually for people who already have a developed skill-set, although, that is not always the case.  Oftentimes, young or less-experienced actors get large auditions early on in their careers.  In this case it is incredibly important that you seek out the best of teachers: one who is willing to spend necessary time with that individual to function as both the coach and teacher.

Different Types of Teachers

Teachers are used by artists at all levels in their career.  What differentiates them are the courses or classes they teach.  Some teach fundamental classes where the basics are targeted: need, obstacle, tactics, characterization, imagination, listening, concentration, etc.  Some teach more advanced-level classes where the focus is less on technique and more on accessing an individual’s most truthful self.  Some teach stylistically: musical theatre, Shakespeare, Shaw/Wilde, Acting for the Camera, etc. What also is different with teachers is how they teach their courses.  In acting, there are several vehicles.  Here are just a few:

  • Scene Study
  • On-Camera Auditioning
  • Monologue work
  • Devising (New Work Creation)
  • Physical and Vocal Exploration

All of this is dependent on the teaching philosophy of that practitioner.  This is something that you must research in order to find out what is best for you.  Just like in regular education, one way of learning will not be what’s best for everyone.  Some benefit more from private instruction, some benefit more from group instruction, etc.

Some Cautions!

The Coach Who Thinks They are Teaching

Be careful not to find a teacher who only coaches, and there are a lot of them out there.  Teachers who only coach in their classrooms create dependency on students because they are not allowing the students to come up with their own conclusions.  Instead the student relies on the teacher’s process (not their own) when making decisions.  This is when you get an actor who refuses to audition for a part unless they speak with their acting coach.  There is no sense of independence, and therefore they are not an actor or artist.  They are a parrot.  What’s troubling is that a lot of students like teachers who only coach because they feel as though the scene got better during class (and it may have).  This is a red-herring.  Just because the scene got better, does not mean the student learned anything.  They only learned something if they can pick up a brand new scene and look at it in a new and improved way.  Coaching usually doesn’t allow this.  Teaching (good teaching that is) will give the student days where they feel like a failure, because they did fail.  And failure is amazing because it allows us to learn.  You can’t learn how to ride a bike unless you fall off a hundred or so times, can you?  So, a student who fails maybe because they pursued too much emotion over need, is a good thing, because now they can ask themselves during future work “am I pursuing emotion over need in this moment?”

The “My Way or the Highway”

Another thing you want to look out for is a teacher who diminishes what you’ve learned in the past.  Teachers, as I mentioned before, have many different philosophies, and with this comes some ego.  Never should that ego decimate past lessons learned.  I had a teacher once ask me: “why is what you did here better than your fancy acting school education?”  That is not teaching (especially because he didn’t even know where I went, or what I learned, as it was only my first class with him ever.)  Good teachers are present with the work being done in their class, they do not care about being better than past instructors.  Do they sometimes have to eradicate bad habits (created by other teachers)? Sure thing. But that again is concentrated on making the artist more efficient, not making instructor’s own ego more efficient.

The “Do it Like This!”

The final culprit I want discuss, this time with both coaches and teachers, is the line-reading.  A line-reading is essentially when a teacher or coach tells their student or client “how to say the line.”  This technique is also called “modeling.” This is a tool used by teachers/directors/coaches who usually don’t know how to articulate their thoughts or what they want.  The reason these are dangerous is because the actor will never develop an organic connection to another person’s “line-reading.”  When they come to a line they will be thinking “so and so told me to say it like this” and then they do.  They are not connecting to the subtext or other reactionary element that spurred the character to speak or behave in the moment, and that is completely counter-productive, and it isn’t acting.  Usually actors respond much better to coaches feeding them intention or sub-text, or teachers asking them questions, rather than demonstration.

Conclusions

Not all teachers make great coaches.  Some individuals are fantastic at leading artists down paths of discovery through exercises and discussion.   They may be fantastic about getting the actor to consider process over product. They may be however, terrible at identifying and creating elements such as tension and behavior that are pivotal to telling the story written on the page. Not all coaches make good teachers.  Some people are amazing at directing scenes, but they can’t get actors to do it on their own.  If you can find someone who can do both however, and know exactly when to switch from one into the other, you’ve struck some real gold.  Keep them close, because they’ll prove to be quite useful.


When industry asks me whether or not I coach or teach- I answer both.  In classroom settings, I am fully committed to teaching.  My students are frustrated with me (in a productive way) some days and love me others: but in the grand arc of the learning process, they are better in the sense that they can work more independently and thoughtfully.  When someone comes to me asking for coaching, I put on my black directing baseball cap: yes that exists, and you can buy one here.

Ultimately it’s important that you do your research. Do you need a Coach or a Teacher?  Do some test rides, audit some classes, find out whose philosophy and process works for you.  Who speaks to your artistic self, and really cares about making you better?  A good teacher/coach is a selfless one.