What's it really like?
John Marengo is one of the most highly recognised acting coaches working in South East Asia today. His last placement as a coach on set was working on The Hangover 2, which was shot on location in Bangkok.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
A love of the arts, and specifically, a love of film. Acting was not a passion that existed in my family. Actually, my family tried to talk me out of it! I felt like I was going against the grain; they told me to go get a real job! I was working as an actor in New York from the age of 18, and I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I started as an actor, then built my own theatre company in Boston. I then decided to start teaching others. I’ve been doing this for all of my adult life, in one form or another.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise'?
No. Nothing is standard. In fact, most days, there is no exercise, because there is no work.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Both teaching and coaching are different. An acting coach is private, so you work on a one-to-one basis with an actor, or when they have a role they need to develop. Sometimes you work with an actor for call-ups, and the other main form of work for a coach is actually on set, working on a movie. Teachers are classroom based, by distinction. On set, you mainly work with people who have never acted, or with experienced actors to make them work. Sometimes they have ability but lack the craft, so you cannot use the tool of vocabulary. I do voice coaching too. This is harder because they often don’t know what I’m talking about! You encourage them to use and develop new muscles. And work miracles!
What do you like most about the job?
Using creativity and being able to see someone develop, by giving them the tools and technique.
What do you like least about the job?
The business side: finding work, getting paid. And getting results, because there is no guarantee. It’s a very ad hoc life.
What are the key responsibilities?
Being able to explain things in a way that allows the actor to develop, whether they have experience or not. Some have experience but do not have the ability to learn, and vice versa.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Get a day job. Truly, having the experience is crucial. Working in Asia is harder because guys take three classes and think they are qualified to be coaches themselves. Get out there and learn, no matter what side you decide to go in to. You need to be able to understand actors, and for that to happen, usually you need to be an actor yourself. This is why there are so many great directors who cannot direct character acting or dialogue.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Having precise training and a great insight into people and their behaviour; wanting to push, having patience, and not accepting things that are just okay. People pay well because they want a top notch service, as that facilitates a top notch performance, whether it is for an audition or a shot at an academy award.
An acting coach is responsible for working with actors, either on set or in one-to-one tuition sessions, to improve their acting performance.
An acting coach is a media industry specialist who works with actors to enable them to develop their skills, either in a career development role, or for a specific shooting/dramatic project. The work of an acting teacher is often grouped into this profession, but the roles are distinct; an acting teacher will teach a general range of acting skills to a group of actors, whereas a coach will usually work on a one-to-one basis, and often on a movie set, with the objective of improving the actor’s performance for a given role or circumstance.
The coach will use a range of techniques in order to lift the performance of an actor or actress, but where the acting teacher will have a “curriculum” of proven techniques which suit the majority, the coach must tailor their approach to the individual under tuition. It may be that they are called onto set to give pointers on how a dramatic actor may overcome issues with comedy timing in a role they are unfamiliar with, or it may be simply that the actor is required to do a voice-over and they have had no previous training in this field.
The film industry, in all its encompassing “dreams and nightmares” incarnations, can span unpaid work with a local dramatic group, all the way up to the dizzying heights of multi-million-pound contracts. Coaches are not employed by studios or individuals usually; they are freelancers who work on an ‘ad hoc’ basis. Remuneration differs wildly, depending on project, region and experience.
Very few people in this business work solely as an acting coach. It is believed that just 5% of the coaches in Hollywood have the reputation (and ongoing work) to be able to do this. Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis are the most famous acting coaches on the Hollywood circuit. They have collectively worked with the most renowned actors in the world, and count among the few acting coaches who can just focus on coaching without having to supplement with other industry work. So income from coaching must normally be supplemented by the coach doing acting work themselves, drama workshops, voiceover work, voiceover coaching, and so forth. There is a daily rate for being on-set, although it depends on whether the candidate is contracted to the TV company, to the actor or to the studio. In Asia, which is the current “happening hub” of the developing New Movie industry, the minimum is around £200 per day. In the more established US market, it is easily over £800 per day. If the candidate works with a supporting actor, rather than an established lead, the fee is typically less.
- Understand the objectives for the project, the studio and the individual being coached
- Understand the “ins and outs” of the film set and movie production process in general
- Develop a coaching style which puts the actor at ease
- Develop and administer a coaching programme specific to the project or individual
Technically, there are no formal demands for academic qualification, although nearly all acting coaches have been in front of the camera themselves prior to embarking on this as a career. Because there are so few actors who are simultaneously both naturally-gifted and inexperienced, most choose to embark on a programme of some sort of dramatic schooling; this is normally essential to make any progress. It is during or after this academic period that the actor may then choose to become an acting coach.
Those in the industry typically state that training is more important than formal schooling, meaning attending acting “conservatories” (interactive dramatic schools) for at least two years. This gives practical experience which is of considerably higher practical value than studying for a diploma or a degree.
- Be sympathetic to the actor, director and production team and to their time and personality constraints
- Develop a thorough understanding of the film (or dramatic) production process
- Be an effective man-manager on a one-to-one basis
- Be able to interpret the project/contract demands in terms of the overall context of the specific production
- Be flexible, and be able to work with a broad mix of personalities
- Know how to adapt a teaching programme to achieve development objectives
Much of this work takes place on a one-to-one basis, away from the flared tempers and hot lights of the movie set. This is usually a practical and relatively peaceful arena for deploying a teaching programme. It is a low-risk activity in terms of health and safety, and the place of teaching could be an empty hall or soundstage, or even an actor’s own home.
On set, things become considerably more pressured, in terms of the need for the acting coach to work at a very fast pace, and also in terms of managing stress and working around other members of the production team. It requires a cool head and sympathetic ear on the part of the coach. Candidates who ultimately work on film sets should pay due attention to potential health and safety threats whilst on set; these can be significant (electrical hazards, falling/trip hazards, and working from high platforms).
Good actors tend to be people with a wealth of life experience, and so it follows that decent acting coaches should have this too. The ability for an actor to convey emotion effectively is the result of various life situations with which they have been presented, and so acting coaches should make it a personal priority to travel and to come into contact with as many different lifestyles as possible.
Some coaches will focus their career efforts in a particular area, such as in coaching comedy or stage actors, whereas others tend to be open to all avenues in media; often, the need for ongoing work prevents specialisation. Some become very successful, particularly those coaches working in Hollywood on the major motion picture circuit, although it is an incredibly competitive industry.
As virtually all acting coaches are self-employed, there are no big-name employers in the industry.