The key job of the theater teacher is to help his or her students to achieve the highest level of development that they are capable of, with the emphasis on the student's needs and aspirations. Generally it is thought that one of the best ways to teach theater is for the teacher to allow their students to use many varied techniques, tools and methods. This will enable each student to find the approach which bests fits in with their intellectual and emotional state.
Teaching theater is not an easy task due to the broad range of subject matters it includes. For example, when theater education first appeared in the United States it included just a small part of all relevant subjects. Theater education in the country developed as a serious full-curriculum discipline sometime after World War II, when all American education expanded rapidly. As a result of that development, the scope of subjects surpassed the ambitions of the pioneers of theater education.
One of the crucial steps while teaching theater is to make the process clear for all students. Students are often attracted to theater education by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of theater. Many actors, directors and playwrights who have not undergone any formal training have described the theater as an "amorphous and unknowable field." They see it as something that is controlled entirely by the mysteries of talent, which "creates" theater. The job of the theater teacher is to make students understand that there are many tools and techniques to learn when acting and that talent is not ever the most crucial element of a specific scene, a play or a character.
When teaching theater, it is important to get to know the individual set of intellectual and emotional features that define each person in the class. For the success of the educational process, the teacher must let each student encounter alone some techniques and approaches. After that the teacher's role is to help each student reach new levels of clarity through individualized critiques and exercises. There is no recipe for being a successful theater teacher. The best teachers are usually too busy teaching and preparing performances to discuss their methods and formulate abstract ideas about their work. However, there are broad principles that are part of the work of experienced people in the theatre field.
In his book Master Teachers of Theatre: Observations on Teaching Theatre by Nine American Masters (1988), Burnet M Hobgood lists several theories for the process of theater education. According to the first idea, theater is an important and complex art of intrinsic cultural interest that deserves thorough study. This method is one of the arguments for the recognition of theater as an important field of study.
The second theory states that the theater experience is rather rich, diverse and ephemeral, but still teaching methods for understanding the art and mastering the crafts of the stage need to be devised for the future of theater. In the past that postulate has actually been opposed by people who worked in the professional theater and who have had to struggle for their place on the stage without much formal teaching.
Hobgood's third idea is that: "The theatre requires more than clever minds and willing hands; it demands a full commitment in the use of self (body, mind, and spirit) and an alert awareness of contemporary life (social, ideological, cultural)." The actual aim of that premise is to inspire students. The commitment and awareness discussed are not easy goals to achieve as many students fail to understand their significance. As a result their potential in the theater profession depends heavily on pure luck.
In his fourth theory, Hobgood discusses talent. He argues that the art of theater stems from a distinctive kind of talent and one of the crucial functions of the theater teacher is to recognize, nurture and develop that talent. Hobgood defined that idea as the most elusive to deal with due to the subjective nature of talent.
There are a number of acting techniques used in teaching theater. These include the Meisner Technique, named after famous acting coach Sanford Meisner. The key element to this technique is the use of repetition, whereby comments are repeated back and forth between actors. Method acting refers to a technique developed by Lee Strasberg and is widely used in teaching and acting. Other techniques include the Stanislavski system, the Michael Chekhov method and those based on the work of Stella Adler and Viola Spolin.