Kids Learn Confidence At The Actor's Garage

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Acting classes aren't just for professional actors, according to Ann Gray Graf � they can teach valuable life skills such as self-confidence and public speaking, especially to stillforming young minds.

Ms. Graf, who is a professional actress herself, decided one day she could use her skills to help young children develop as people, and The Actor's Garage was born. The first class began in Manhasset, N.Y., one year ago and it quickly exploded into several more locations. Last year she began a class in Greenwich, her second location, and since then, six more have popped up with a total of 300 children involved.

Most of her new classes are the result of satisfied parents volunteering to take on the responsibility of new classes for other children. At the classes, children learn to avoid criticizing themselves and have a say in how the class is run. Most often, the class begins with a warm-up of charades, where the children take turns acting out personalities, such as mermaids or miming actions, such as playing in the ocean.

"I took everything I knew from acting school and everything I knew from being a working actress,'" she said.

At the end of each eight-week session, there is potential for real world success, when an agent specializing in children's talent comes from New York City to watch the children perform in front of a video in a commercial. The children practice the week before, reading their lines about how much they love Doritos off large poster boards.

Though not all the children are perfect readers, the most important thing is to convey feeling to the audience, Ms. Graf explained to the kids.

She added later that she doesn't like to emphasize career-oriented success to the children. The class is more for personal growth, she said. And in order to achieve that personal growth she needs great teachers, which Ms. Graf said was the most challenging part of forming her business. The most challenging part for Ms. Graf was finding the appropriate teachers for her children. All of the teachers are working actresses. Ms. Graf appreciates this because she believes the real life experience her teachers gain will benefit the children.

"Whatever they're doing they're bringing back to the pot," she said.

She also says her teachers have the "it" factor, the certain magic she sees when they interact with the children.

"I know it when I see them with the kids," she said.

The classes are kept small, no more than 12 for the 10 and older classes and no more than 10 for the under eight classes. With more individualized attention, the teachers are able to help the children learn skills they will later use in job interview settings � standing tall, listening, making entrances and having a presence. Another acting exercise involves a customer and a salesperson. The customer asks to return an object without knowing what it is, and must guess what it is through clues the salesperson gives in normal conversation. The children observing always decide what the mystery object is, and if their suggestions need a little guidance, the teacher steers them. The teachers make a point of making the children feel that what they have to say is important, and if the kids are not interested in one particular acting exercise she will let them choose another, if it is equally educational.

"It's about knowing you have something to say," Ms. Graf said.

Another key aspect is using positive language. No one is allowed to put down anyone else, and the children learn to say constructive things. There is also no memorization involved. The message she sends to children is that they shouldn't be afraid of failure, and instead be inspired by the journey.

"What we do is character building," said Ms. Graf. "It's OK to get knocked down. You can't take it personally." Some kids come back for the sessions again and again. In fact, 91 percent of her actors are repeat customers. There is also a summer camp that covers the same lessons into two weeks. Catching the children before they reach their awkward teen years is important to Ms. Graf, so that they are prepared for their adolescence. There comes a time when Ms. Graf will encourage the kids to use the skills they've learned and find other acting outlets, such as school plays. "I tell them to experience life," she said.

For more information about The Actor's Garage, call 866-627-7221 or visit www.theactorsgarage. com. Greenwich classes take place at the Round Hill Community Center.

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