When most people think about cults, they often assume that they are too intelligent or self-aware to get sucked in.
However, many actors in L.A. have been misled into taking acting classes that exhibit cult-like practices… And they never even realize it.
When I watched the documentaries The Vow and Seduced, both about the cult NXIVM, I couldn’t help but flash back to several different acting classes I had taken in my 15+ years of being an actor in L.A. The coercion and fear tactics that NXIVM utilized were strikingly similar to the tactics used in these cult-like acting classes. The teachers are treated like gods and worshipped; the students are abused and berated, consistently screamed at and torn down; people are told what to do and how to live their lives, because the teacher is right and you are taught that everybody else in your life is trying to do you harm; and most actors end up going broke paying for these overpriced classes.
Acting classes exploit these cult practices much more than the students realize.
I was especially reminded of one acting school in particular.
Luckily, I had an upper hand in this situation because I was previously warned of the cult-like tendencies of the classes at this acting school. I went in armed with knowledge, only agreeing to start taking classes because I heard it was a good education. Even with this prior knowledge, there were still times when it was difficult for me not to fall prey to the cult mentality.
***Disclaimer: the following has been vetted by two separate psychologists who specialize in cults and people leaving cults, and they have confirmed that these are, indeed, practices that cults utilize***
It was my first day. The class started at 7pm. I happily walked in at about 6:55, excited to start. One of the girls in the class who I later learned to be the stage manager walked up to me and accusingly demanded,
“Where have you been?”
“Oh… I was just talking to someone outside.”
She gave me an incredibly disapproving look.
“Well, you’re late, and I’m gonna have to mark that down.”
“But… I thought class started at seven.”
She looked at me like an exasperated parent looks at their disobedient child.
“You have to be here ten minutes early.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Ok. Just go sit down.”
I sat down, and barely a few minutes later the student in the sound booth started blasting music so loudly that I felt my chair vibrating. Everyone sprang to their feet. The stage manager proudly announced the teacher. He sauntered into the room like some big-shot celebrity with all of the students cheering, clapping, and stomping their feet. He stood at his chair and drank in the applause, the food for his ego, for a few more moments before nonchalantly waving his hand, signaling for the music to stop and the students to sit down.
And that was how every class started. It intrinsically gave all of the teachers this deep-seated power. The students worshipped the teachers.
Every day they called roll so that they could keep tabs on us. Teachers reprimanded students who were late or make it to class, as if we weren’t all adults capable of making our own decisions. The only acceptable excuses for being late or not coming to class were extreme illness, a death in the family, or industry work. People often would show up to class sick because they weren’t sick enough for the excuse to be valid. The teachers enforced this because they wanted to impress upon us the importance of showing up to an acting job under any condition. They said that if it wasn’t serious enough to decline a job, then it wasn’t serious enough to miss class. This led to unhealthy behaviors, both mentally and physically. People experienced extreme guilt and pushed themselves so hard that many of them suffered breakdowns.
The teachers would dig so deeply into their students’ minds by procuring valuable information on their personal lives.
Acting is a tricky thing because it is inherently very personal, so it’s difficult to be in a class without revealing certain intimate information. It is often helpful for a teacher to help understand your psyche and approach to the characters; it can even sometimes be cathartic for the actor. However, these teachers would collect this information to use against their students. The teachers would mention certain friends or family members and encourage the students to cut ties. “They’re invalidating to you and your career. Stop speaking to them. Refrain from calling them. Don’t go to their house for the holidays. They’re not on your side. They don’t want what’s best for you.” I saw many people in my two years at this school estrange themselves from parents, siblings, childhood friends…. It was sad.
The teachers would use the students’ insecurities to manipulate them into doing unhealthy things like needlessly losing weight.
The teachers would mention to the actors that they probably didn’t have the stamina to be on set, or that they weren’t getting jobs or auditions because of their size, or that they’d be attractive if they just got thinner. They would convince perfectly healthy people to start a diet and add further insecurities to many already-vulnerable actors. It was abusive.
The abuse didn’t stop there.
Many acting teachers in L.A. are known for screaming at their students, and the teachers at this school were no exception. This often created an effect similar to Stockholm syndrome. A student would be berated into a breakdown, and then start clinging to the teacher for praise. They became completely dependent on the teacher for any ounce of self-worth. Students would beat themselves up for performances the teacher didn’t like, and sob out of relief for performances the teacher praised.
Then, the actors would leave class into lives of disarray.
They’d be barely scraping by financially, with paying for class being their primary motivator, even more than rent or food. Brainwashed, they were taught to think that if they couldn’t afford to pay for class, then they weren’t dedicated enough or worthy of professional success. They’d come to class on the verge of more breakdowns having serious mental and physical health issues. Though it was obvious that their misery stemmed from the abuse they suffered in class, they would cling to class as their comfort and salvation.
One of the scare tactics they utilized was something they liked to call “terrorist theatre”.
This was where they took a student who either hadn’t worked professionally in a long time or hadn’t ever worked professionally and gave them a time limit in which they had to find work. Even if the actor was auditioning, they were held responsible if they didn’t book the job. If they were unable to find work after being put on “terrorist theatre”, they were kicked out of the school. As anyone in L.A. knows, it’s incredibly difficult to get an audition, let alone a job. The time I was put on terrorist theatre I found a role in a small, unpaid short film that went absolutely nowhere. All I experienced from this assignment was fear, humiliation, and an unbelievable amount of stress. I saw people quit because of this tactic. The teachers all claimed that these students left because they weren’t dedicated or were unable to handle success.
These techniques all implanted the mentality that to be successful, you had to give up everything in your life for your career.
People would miss family members’ weddings, birthdays, work obligations, vacations; they lost friends, squandered money, missed opportunities…. Even I, who had come into class with defenses, still, to this day, battle with the ingrained guilt associated with what they called “excuses” – even if I’m doing something to take care of myself.
And then there was the sexual harassment.
Every woman would be assigned a sexual scene at some point – which can be ok, if done in a safe environment. This was not the case. My very first scene they assigned me required me to take my pants off. I was only 19 at the time. I sort of got around it by justifying that the character would wear granny panties, so it didn’t get too risque. But every woman appeared onstage at some point in lingerie, if not completely naked.
But, it didn’t stop there. I saw many makeout sessions, simulated hand jobs, simulated blow jobs, simulated masturbation, and simulated sex. People were highly praised for making it convincing, and shamed for uncomfortable performances. Those women who were uncomfortable with sexual situations were assigned by some teachers to do a “stripping exercise” – performing a strip tease while receiving orders from the teachers. Does it surprise you that every teacher except for one was a man?
Doing these sexual scenes was a gateway into more severe sexual harassment.
Personally, I had several people try to sleep with me during rehearsals, even though not only did these men know I had a boyfriend, but knew him personally. I also heard stories from many other girls about all of the times they were harassed during rehearsal. When these concerns were brought up to the teachers, they were either waved off or a short announcement was made at the beginning of the next class about how sexual harassment is not the point of sex scenes. There were never any repercussions for the offenders.
Teachers were also known for sexually harassing the students. The founder of the school had a reputation for picking out the “hot” girls in class and inviting them to his house for private sessions. There were women in my classes who were obviously sexually harassed by our teachers. The owner of the school has a serious rape allegation against him. And nobody in charge cared; in fact, they often gaslit the students who had been harassed, telling them that they were the ones who had feelings for the teachers and were projecting.
Paradoxically, the teachers were very interested in our dating lives, specifically if we started dating someone within the school. My boyfriend and I both were at the school, but in completely separate classes. Still, we had to keep it secret for as long as possible. Once the teachers found out, they did their best to try and break us up, citing the sophisticated adage, “don’t shit where you eat.” We continued dating, however, empowered with the knowledge that they wouldn’t kick us out because our money was way too important to them. They’d tell us that the fact that we were dating affected the entire school. I said I was there to learn about acting, not to get dating advice.
You may be wondering how much this wild education cost.
The prices that we had to pay there were high (if memory serves me, about $350 a month) – and that’s not counting all of the additional fees. It was a requirement that each scene have at least 15 hours of rehearsal time, and a few hours of that had to be on the stage. We needed to rend the theatre in order to book the stage, which was an additional hourly cost. On top of that, the owner of the school would do a few performances a year; some plays he directed, plays he wrote, music recitals, etc. He would price tickets around $30 and make us pay to come see the performances. This was also about 7 years ago, so who knows how much it costs now?
The irony of all of this was that they advertised the school as if it was full of celebrities and working actors – but almost nobody taking classes there was working, including the teachers. Through the “terrorist theatre” tactics and screaming and yelling, most people in the classes were struggling just like 99% of actors out there. They had a habit of “claiming” famous actors who were at all associated with the school or founder. For instance, they “claimed” Kate Hudson, who only took two classes before booking Almost, Famous and then leaving. Many other famous actors they “claimed” spent less time at the school than I did. But I knew only a handful of actors taking classes at the time who worked with any amount of consistency.
I finally decided to leave because of a critique on a scene I received from the owner of the school.
I’ll never forget it. It was a great scene. It was fun, truthful, the class was rolling around in their seats in laughter, we got a standing ovation from the class, and I felt awesome about it. All the teacher had to say about it was, “that was so wrong. No. That was so wrong. That was SO wrong. Ugh. That was so WRONG. That was SO WRONG. The only thing right about it was that you looked absolutely stunning.”
At that moment, I knew I was never coming back, so I packed up my bag and left.
At this point, I was wondering how I would avoid the inevitable harassment that other actors suffered after leaving the school. After a few months went by, I thought that I was maybe off the hook. And then my phone rang. On the other end was one of my teachers manipulating me with a guilt trip, saying that I owed him a meeting. I obliged, mostly because I didn’t want to burn any bridges. The meeting ended up being an hour-long lecture about how I’ll never make it in the industry without the school, that I’m nothing without them, and I had no chance in this business if I left. That sealed the deal for me, and I never took another class there again. And, once I left, none of my friends from that school ever talked to me again unless they also ended up leaving.
Unfortunately, this is not the only acting class in LA that utilizes these cult-like practices.
I’ve been in and out of so many acting classes that I’ve lost count. It has made me very wary and distrustful.
Yes, actors are more susceptible to falling for these practices. Artists are fundamentally very vulnerable and sensitive. When actors move here from elsewhere or are searching for the support and care of a new class, their vulnerability is amplified, making them the perfect candidates to get hoodwinked. They are in need of a community and latch onto the first one they find that accepts them. They are then unknowingly dragged down into unhealthy atmospheres and it’s too late before they realize anything amiss.
I urge all actors, young and old, new and seasoned, to be wary of cult-like acting classes. Acting is not a lucrative business for the vast majority of us, so don’t waste your hard-earned money in something that is not going to benefit you. Look for these red flags:
They don’t allow you to audit the class.
This means that they are trying to hide under the guise of exclusivity. Don’t pay for and join a class when you don’t know the quality firsthand.
They make you pay to audit and/or charge exorbitant prices for classes.
A cult just want your money, and so do these acting classes. Claims that higher price equals higher quality are frequent. They probably also brag about how many students they have who are working, which is usually rooted in falsehood. In my experience, the lower-priced classes are best because the teachers are older, more experienced, and are doing it because they enjoy it – not for the money.
There is hero-worshipping of the teacher.
That just means egos and competitions for the teacher’s approval instead of being about the craft. Remember why you’re there.
They control their students.
It’s like the stage manager of the class I was in demanding to know why I wasn’t there 10 minutes early. You’re an adult and don’t need to be micromanaged.
The teacher is abusive.
Any kind of abuse from the teacher is not ok – and that includes screaming, sexual harassment, guilt tripping, scare tactics, or any other kind of manipulation.
Or if anything just feels off.
Remember, if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right.
It’s not just unintelligent people who get swindled. These cult-like acting classes, schools, and teachers prey on well-meaning and intelligent people who care with the promise that they have all the answers. Take care of yourself. This industry is difficult enough without having to deal with unethical acting classes. Through referrals and experience, you will learn how to find the right class.
For anyone who is looking for a safe and ethical class, check out this website that I built with fellow actor/acting teacher Michael Laskin.
We have created a code of ethics for acting teachers and have a list of ethical classes. Additionally, you can check out our guidelines for finding a class to decide for yourself if your class is safe and ethical, and fill out our form to report either great or cult-like acting classes.
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am in actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.