TALK BACK with Backstage West

Show Me the Way to ‘SNL’

by Natalie Skelton

“How do I get on Saturday Night Live?”

As School Administrator of the Groundlings Theatre, that’s the question I hear most often from the 2,000 to 3,000 students who come through our doors every year. Some of them inevitably want to know the fastest way of advancing through the classes or the easiest way to get on SNL. My first inclination is to say, “Call NBC”. But I heroically restrain myself and gently explain that it’s a more complicated process than they think.

It’s true that many Groundlings alumni have made big names for themselves on SNL and other shows: Phil Hartman, (Conan O’Brien), Lisa Kudrow, Julia Sweeney and Paul Reubens, to name a few. But these are the absolute wrong questions to ask. In general, the students who do well at the Groundlings School truly understand the process. They take their time, making sure they’ve got the basics down, before moving on to the next level.

It shouldn’t be just about becoming a star or Groundlings Company member. It should be more akin to that old Zen-Master philosophy: Don’t focus on the target, but instead enjoy the journey. Sure it’s great to achieve fame and fortune, but that success is pretty meaningless if you lack a solid foundation, and even if you work hard and bone up on the basics, you are not assured wild success. Show business ain’t that kind of business.

Then why bother with the time-consuming trek at all, since it takes about four years to complete the entire program? Because basic improv drills, or for that matter any type of basic acting exercises, can help you learn the discipline necessary to turn you into a professional, whether or not you end up making tons of money or a big name for yourself. Everything starts at the raw beginning. A concert violinist or opera singer always begins with rudimentary scales and practices several hours a day for several years. They do it not only because they enjoy it but also because they need to do it, and they don’t worry about the final performance – that comes later. That’s why every Groundlings Company member has to complete every level of our school: Basic, Intermediate, Writing Lab, Advanced and Sunday Company.

Studying the craft also helps actors get out of their own “headspace” so they can connect with the audience in a real way and open themselves up to working with fellow actors as a team. Remember when you learned how to share in Kindergarten? It’s still useful. You need to learn to trust yourself, your scene partners, your instructors, and the process of education. As one of my senior instructors puts it, you need to “get out of your own way”. You can only do that if you take the time to learn the trade.

That’s a good way to approach life in general. In my experience, learning something intimidating opens up many possibilities. Even non-actors – doctors, lawyers, therapists and even policemen – have told me that improv classes helped them in their daily lives. It doesn’t have to be improv – or improv at the Groundlings. Trying something new and making the effort to excel at it can change your brain, whether or not it’s rock climbing, a new language, or sailing.

Whatever do you do, help yourself lead an enriched life and embrace the process. Forget what you think you’re entitled to. Don’t focus so much on the end result; watch the road right under your feet. And enjoy!

Natalie Skelton is the School Administrator at the Groundlings Theatre. For more information on its program, call (323) 934-4747 x21 or visit

September 28, 2006


No comments: