Yesterday I finished B4 at the Black Box Acting Studio in Chicago. It’s the fourth and final level in what is a terrific program. It’s only been around for a few years, but the curriculum is solid and the teachers are passionate and smart. I feel like I’ve learned some new tools and sharpened some old ones, but most importantly I’ve now got a process for auditions and rehearsals. I also feel like I have a new home base, so that when I do get cast in a show and I’m running into roadblocks, I have a community of people I can call on to help.
What is the program?
Like a lot of programs in Chicago and elsewhere, they start with exercises used in Meisner classes. You learn to observe your partners behavior. You do repetition. Repetition is something that I’ve done for years. I thought this part of the curriculum would be old hat for me. But I certainly did learn new things.
My favorite lesson was how important it was to fight to see your partner. In my previous acting classes, there were often moments of vivid emotional life in the exercises. Sometimes people would be overwhelmed with feelings sparked by the exercises. I certainly had experiences like that. What was new for me at Black Box was how important it was to fight when you start to feel overwhelmed. That is the moment to push yourself to see your partner, and to know how they are behaving. In the past, I would just allow myself to get lost in my own emotional experience. I’ve certainly seen others do the same. I’m betting at some point, someone else gave me a similar note, but Black Box is where I first really heard and understood it.
By the second level, you are doing improvisations. These aren’t improv scenes where you create dialog, these are scenarios which you choose beforehand and spend time imagining the circumstances. The words you use are limited to repetition. They are similar to the independent activity exercises that Meisner pioneered. This is a particularly interesting class which forces you to really stretch your imagination. It’s a tough class. I remember agonizing for days over whether or not my activity would work, but it definitely gets easier with practice.
The third class really switches gears. This is when things start getting very physical. Here you get an introduction to viewpoints and a few other tools, and it’s where you begin to work with text. It felt a little crazy at first, all the things they were throwing at me. But as I used these tools with text in different combinations, as realized how powerful things like gesture, body shape and tempo were for grounding me into the circumstances of the text.
The fourth class is where things come together. You do a variety exercises, mostly with text. I worked on three different scenes and a monolog. We did mock auditions and rehearsals and used different tools from the previous classes to prepare. It really brought things together and gave me a sense that I was ready to tackle a show in ways that I never have before.
Why study at Black Box?
The program is fairly new. Laura Hooper and Audrey Francis, the owners, started the studio about two and half years ago. Most of the other teachers have been added in the last six months. I’ve met and worked with most of them too. I don’t think there is a bad one in the bunch. I’m been impressed with them all.
There are a couple things they do which I love and I hope they continue. One is team teaching. Every class I’ve taken has had at least two teachers. They don’t switch off. They both show up, they take turns running exercises and giving notes. In this last class, there were four teachers (three in training I believe). It was an incredible luxury to have that many eyeballs watching you work and thinking about how to improve your performance.
The other thing is that their teachers take classes there too. They are encouraged to be students and take the classes again periodically. In the class with four teachers, there were also two more teachers taking the class with us. So on most days teachers outnumbered students. That probably won’t happen again soon, but it’s an added perk when the person with whom you are doing a scene is a teacher.
Lastly, they listen. From the first class, I had the direct email addresses of my teachers and whenever I had a problem or question, I could contact them. They were very generous with their feedback. They were also very responsive to feedback about them. At the end of the second level, I was loving the program, but I had a couple issues which I wanted to discuss with them. I sent a long email with my thoughts. In the third level, Audrey approached me and thanked me for the feedback, saying that they had made some adjustments based on my feedback and they were working well.
Is it a perfect program? No. I wish it were longer and more intense. I’m sure some of my classmates think it was intense enough, but I wish I could train like that everyday. I’d like to learn more about viewpoints. What they taught me was very useful, but it’s obvious there is much more to learn about it.
I am very happy I went through it. I got two key things from it. First, I have a set of tools from which I’m putting together my process. I didn’t have this before. I feel like I could use these tools every day for the next few years and continue to learn. Second, I am ready to get out there and audition for shows here in Chicago. Last fall, when I returned to the theater, I didn’t quite know where to begin. Now, I feel ready to get back in there.