Acting Coach, Karen Vaccaro's Teaching Philosophy

Karen's Thoughts on Coaching Actors

As an acting teacher, it is my intention that my students develop into artists as well as actors who work in theater and film, classical and contemporary, verse and prose. It is my personal mission that they acquire a way of working that not only prepares them for the whole of their careers, but will nurture their responsibility as artists toward breaking new ground and the evolution of the art. I set out to empower my students to live in the moment and to constantly question and go on to become leaders in their own right.

In the following I will address my philosophy of teaching the art of acting. I will address the duty and responsibility of the actor, acting approaches, my approach to teaching Shakespeare, characterization and interpretation, how I measure growth in a student, and how I create and maintain a functional space.

The actor is responsible for making sure the audience "gets the play/film". Acting, when done successfully, is transcendent, affecting the audience and all involved, on a visceral, human level. When this occurs the audience ceases observing and begins experiencing the play. This is accomplished by being truthful, honest, and above all, active. By active, I mean playing wants and needs that are driven by high stakes.

I employ an eclectic approach to my teaching. Using Stanislavsky as a base, I use the tools and approaches of many teachers including but not limited to Sandford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Eric Morris, Michael Shurtleff, Michael Chekhov and Robert Cohen, along with ones I have developed myself. For example, I incorporate Meisner's repetition exercise to facilitate creating relationship or I'll use Strasberg sensory exercises help to deepen and expand the instrument and connect with the world of the play. I find that most approaches share a similar goal and are saying the same thing, they just language it differently. I try to communicate to my students using as much diversity in language as possible. Sometimes I ask the same question 3 different ways. For example when working on intentions I may ask: "What do you want? What do you need? What are you fighting for?" I've found that this can be very powerful for a young actor who is trying to grasp a particular concept or tool.

I handle the teaching of Shakespeare much differently. I first focus on the language, poetry and text before applying any acting tools. I liken the process to that of learning a piece of music. The words and language, the music, must be honored, trusted, learned and "given its due". And like singing, the voice is an important component and must also be worked and kept in shape. That being said, Shakespeare's plays are filled with high stakes and life and death situations so acting is also a crucial piece to this task. It is a delicate balance but not impossible. Trusting the process and doing the work are key.

My coaching is very holistic by nature when it comes to character and interpretation. I make it very clear to my students the character is not separate from the actor. Interpretation is discovered and character is found through relationship. True interpretation lies in pure, honest, unadulterated reaction. The gut and whole of an actor's humanness creates a unique and powerful interpretation. It is not unusual for a young actor to be reluctant to be exposed and vulnerable when in class. When that occurs I tell them that the very thing about themselves that they want to hide is probably the most powerful thing they have to offer. It is where their true uniqueness lies.

I pride myself in creating a disciplined and nurturing space where I work tirelessly and rigorously with each actor. I expect my students to be on time, ready to work and above all prepared. I make it clear that I expect them to participate even when they are not being coached, responding to and supporting their fellow actors work. I am very "hands on" and active with each of my students, constantly challenging them to move forward. Very often, I do not stop working with a student until some kind of breakthrough or opening has occurred. I am very non-judgmental and often share my own experiences. I have found this, peppered with a sense of humor and fun, works well.

I measure a student's growth by their willingness to boldly take risks, use the tools of the actor, and embrace the process. Talent, for me, lies in commitment. In the words of Stanislavsky, all you can do is pray to God you have it. Ultimately, talent is worthless without the appropriate work. That work includes but is not limited to being on time, coming to class prepared, doing assigned homework, willingness to be authentic and take risks, openness to coaching, and their participation in class when not being coached.

My classes have served my students well. Many of my students have gone on to work professionally in theater in New York, Chicago and regionally, in Shakespeare festivals throughout the country, and in television, film and commercials in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles markets. My teaching is a work in progress. I continue to expand my approach as a teacher, an actress and above all an artist.