An athlete with aspirations for a medal is like an actor seeking the Golden Grail of work. Both would be fools if they entered a competition without a coach. Every actor who is hungry for work is strongly advised to pack up the ego, hone skills and listen, listen, and listen some more. For novice and veteran actors, a coach is an essential part of a professional team, as important as an agent. A coach will prep you for the big event - the audition. He or she will be spiritually hovering in your corner as you all too briefly do your best for casting directors.
The most skilled of coaches, the person you have selected to impart special knowledge and share experience, will give you the confidence you need to make your best first impression in an audition. The acting business is no different from other professions - no one can guarantee success but the odds are significantly skewed in favor of those who have been coached by skilled professionals.
Actors are rarely flush with cash so exercising due diligence in finding someone you want by your side as coach is a must. Ask around and study the credentials of the many acting teachers who offer their services. I had the opportunity to speak with author and acting coach Shaan Sharma. His most recent acting credits include network TV shows like The Mentalist, Criminal Minds, and Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, short dramatic films like Shocking and commercials, among them ones for FedEx, Capital One, and VW.
For years Shaan has been a session director for auditions for commercial work. He has worked for most of the top L.A. commercial casting directors. He has generously shared his in depth knowledge in a unique book that should be in every actor's electronic library. Sharma's easy to read and obviously informed Commercial Acting in L.A. A Session Director's Guide is a tool offering clear pointed advice. It is packed with details necessary to make an actor's life easier. Shaan Sharma is generous to a fault with his insights on succeeding in a city with about a quarter of a million actors. If you are among those chosen to audition for a role by a casting director you can prepare by reading his 12 Steps to Consistently Brilliant Performances in Backstage.
As a seasoned session director, Shaan has incredibly detailed knowledge of everything to do with on-camera auditioning for commercial work. It’s all in his book, from what to wear to an audition to the set-up of the studio where you will demonstrate your appearance and your craft. He gives advice to actors on how to behave in the auditioning process including the importance of being civil and warm toward lobby assistants and the appropriate way to exit the studio. After downloading and reading his book you will want to refer to it again and again as he provides specifics on such mundane yet essential matters as where to park your car at each casting facility without getting towed and the location of the washrooms.
The book is not the only way Shaan Sharma helps actors. He also offers coaching sessions. If you want a teacher who berates and demeans students, he’s not your man. When you chat with him as I did you’ll find him to be compassionate and upbeat. These attributes are very important assets in an acting coach. “I am dedicated,” he says, “to furthering the growth and education of my students.”
A good teacher is a natural nurturer of talent and Shaan is certainly that. He told me that protecting people, “is in my DNA” and he makes every effort to help people avoid making the same costly mistakes that he has made in the past. Shaan has retained the lessons he learned from his initial three year stint in Los Angeles without booking any work.
For anyone contemplating excelling in the craft of on-camera acting, avoiding mistakes goes a long way toward making the regular work of auditioning potentially profitable. Shaan’s goal is to train his students so that they are happy with their auditions. He says, “learning and mastering a skill makes you competent, which makes you confident.” “Anybody,” he says, “can be a working actor. The best acting is when we can’t tell that you are, in fact, acting. More than any other factor, it takes good training, skill, consistent practice, and a strong work ethic.”
Among the many well-considered processes Shaan has developed for his coaching sessions is a chance for new students to talk with him on the telephone prior to committing themselves to a free audit for their first lesson. He will ask you about your interest in acting and training and what you hope to achieve in class. This chat allows both you and your potential coach to get to know each other so there will be no surprises. “I want students to really value the way I teach,” Shaan told me, “and I want them to value the way our class works.” He continued, “I make my living from acting and casting work, and only teach because I absolutely love it and am passionate about helping my students succeed.”
Sharma doesn’t believe in denigrating the efforts of sincere individuals trying to improve their credentials. You are on the right track with Shaan if you are looking for an experienced instructor who will encourage you by providing, as he says, “the right skill, the right information and the right strategy.” But you must be willing to work hard and appreciate your fellow students’ work. His goal is to “create brilliant working actors in as short a time as possible.” He observes that an intimate relationship between student and mentor or guide is formed in his classes. His coaching is student centered so he ensures that “flexibility allows students to take control of their education whenever they want to prioritize development of a certain skill.” At the end of every class, he asks each student what they want to work on next.
Shaan Sharma believes strongly that the right attitude is the key to success in on-camera acting. He also holds that “the best artists, skilled actors who are expert in their craft, will enjoy the journey.” Part of the journey to success in the profession involves having the right attitude to auditioning. In a sense he sees an audition as an end in itself. No actor should think of an audition as a competition - everyone is in the same boat. You can’t expect, even if you think you’ve nailed it during your brief on-camera performance, that you will book work. In commercials work, who you are as a person is of paramount importance to a casting director, the ad agency and in turn the corporate clients. What you want to do is have confidence in yourself and confidence in your acting skills. This you can get by working with a coach.
I asked Shaan about horrific situations that I imagined were common in auditions in Los Angeles. He replied without hesitation that, “he couldn’t recall a situation where anyone has been mistreated.” Correcting my misapprehension of the facts was old hat to Shaan. He explained that a lot of time in his first class is spent dispelling student’s inaccurate and jumbled conception of the on-camera acting profession. These they had absorbed through gossip and networking. Correcting inaccuracies by providing solid information is a vital part of coaching. Shaan summed up his work as a coach by saying that teachers must have generosity of spirit, and that this includes “having a philosophy that embodies what you teach.”
Alan McNairn, a writer on acting and film, is a regular contributor to Casting Quarterly.