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16 January 2024

Legendary Teachers on Acting and Actor Training

Jane McPherson

Managing Director of National Alliance of Acting Teachers

Legendary teacher talking

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Learning to act is a mercurial process – and usually, it's highly dependent upon the skills and insights of your teacher. But how and why do those acting instructors do what they do?
The remarkable people who run the National Alliance of Acting Teachers (NAAT) have been supporting and nurturing leaders in the field of actor training for many years. 
Below, Jane McPherson, the NAAT's Managing Director, explains how they came to record in-depth interviews with a small sample of those inspirational leaders, showing other teachers the way and providing students of acting with invaluable context for their own studies. 

What if you could ask legendary teachers of acting how they approach what they do? 

What are the core fundamentals actors should know? 

Do you wonder: how to help an actor find their footing in the profession? 

How to keep a room full of students active and engaged? 

These questions and more are answered in the series: Legendary Teachers on Acting and Actor Training, excerpts from The Legacy Project interviews conducted by the National Alliance of Acting Teachers. Each segment includes conversations with visionaries Stephen McKinley Henderson, Joanna Merlin and Ron Van Lieu and are grouped into 3 themes; 

Insights Into Acting, Teaching Actors: The Process and The Actor's Profession

The contents of these segments help teachers of acting clarify their approach, refine their pedagogy, and learn how to establish a rapport with students. For the student of acting, it helps them dive deeper into their own methodology, discover tools for making the transition from study to profession, and gives them detailed ideas to sharpen their craft.

The Legacy Project has been on the radar of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers for quite a few years. We truly started to dial into the importance of the series during COVID. As so many of our membership struggled to find a way to teach acting online…“Teach acting online?!?! Impossible!” But that is exactly what we figured out a way to do, and in so doing, opened up a world of possibility. As we all scrambled to find online resources (Digital Theatre+ leading the charge here), we sought out recordings of famed acting teachers in the classroom, or filmed ‘how-to’ workshops on certain acting techniques, and these helped clear the way forward. 

During this time, we also wished we could sit in a room with some of the legendary acting teachers and ‘pick their brains’ a bit. How did they structure their classes? How did they build trust in the classroom? What were the foundations of actor training that they built upon? How to deal with an actor’s resistance? All questions we hadn’t seen asked and answered in other resources. We wanted to set down a catalog of the practices, philosophy and theory for some of the great teachers of our time that would be instantly accessible to acting teachers and students.

But where to start? There are many influential and magical teachers in the field of actor training, who to tap first? We ran down a list of criteria and still had a healthy number (one we plan to keep moving through.) We decided to start with those that were in the New York area and who had strong ties to our organization. Stephen, Joanna and Ron have been core resources and teachers for the Alliance, drawing on their own experiences with earlier generations of actor teachers such as Lloyd Richards and Michael Chekhov. They have all taught classes in our Teacher Development Program for many years between them, as well as serving as guest speakers at our annual membership conferences and panels.

Once we had our distinguished teachers, we moved on to who would interview these renowned figures, which we left up to the interviewees. We needed people with whom the teachers felt comfortable, someone who knew their work, possibly someone who had studied or worked with them, and finally a friend.

  • Stephen McKinley Henderson was  interviewed by Bob Ari
  • Joanna Merlin was interviewed by Hugh O’Gorman
  • Ron Van Lieu was  interviewed by Peter Jay Fernandez

The day of shooting was a mix of reunion and shared memories among colleagues with a long history. Each took a turn ‘in the hot seat’ as the interviewers peppered questions and dialed in to specifics of each teacher’s style, what they thought was important for actors to know, and how they drew out the actor in the room. Their voices share the wisdom of a career in teaching, coaching, performing and casting. Our interviewees have taught hundreds of students and laid the groundwork for some of the most talented actors of several generations. 

The excerpts from these interviews were mined from a rich material source. Alliance Board Member, David Bridel, made the first pass at identifying themes, similarities and areas of cross-over. Although we hated to omit any of the wisdom in these interviews, these 3 segments might be considered the “greatest hits” of the original interviews and the full versions are available by contacting me, the Managing Director of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers at

As you watch these segments we would love to know what resonates with you. 

Where are your “Ah-ha!” moments as you listen to these venerable teachers speak to their craft? 

Who are the teachers that had an impact on your career/acting method/teaching style?

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