Receiving an Acting Fellowship from KC/ACTF to participate in the Teacher Development Program at the Actors Center could not have come at a better time in my life and career. I am entering my eighth year with Wagner College and I have been considering my methodology and career direction. What a gift it was to be grouped with 15 teachers and actors from across the country who have similar issues and challenges. It appeared we came together in order to create, learn, aspire, grow and nurture one another through this intensive, two week program.
What an inspired idea it was to create such a Center! A Center where actors, teachers and master teachers can come together and exchange ideas, wrestle with approaches and ultimately explore the human condition in all its multitudinous variety. The life experience of the group itself spanned nearly two hundred years.
Prior to the start of the program, participants received a letter outlining the assignments and the approach that we would be taken. From the start it was no non-sense, grueling and intense. The schedule was ten in the morning until ten at night Monday through Saturday with only Sunday off. Our days were filled with rehearsals and structured breaks for meals and rests (Yikes!) I was back in school again experiencing the rigorous approach I have with my own students. (Karma indeed) In fact, just prior to the semester's end, I read to my audition class exactly what I had to prepare in two weeks for the workshop and we all had a hearty laugh. This included Shakespeare, Shaw, contemporary material and two scenes from novels for Robert Cohen; as well as; familiarizing myself with Chekhov's major works for Slava Dolgatchev. Who are these people and what are they expecting from me? I wondered. So I went to the Center's website. To my surprise, I discovered I have been using some of Robert's exercises in class but Slava, and the Moscow Art Theatre? Well, I certainly heard of the Moscow Art Theatre, I always wanted to travel there and to Eastern Europe. Could this be my way of making that journey by traveling from my apartment on 45th Street without ever having to board a plane?
From the moment I entered the portals of the Actors Center, I felt I
found a new home. J. Michael Miller greeted each one of us by name and
offered individual sessions with him to discuss anything that was on our
minds regarding the approach to the work and/or our career paths. Next
we met Robert Cohen and his lovely wife Lorna (they were making a holiday
of it) and immediately we went to work on a group exercise. The exercise
incorporated all the principles of acting outlined in his many texts.
The man is a walking theatre directory and encyclopedia. He reminded me
of the character Tarelton from Shaw's Misalliance who can not stop quoting
authors for everyone to read. What amazed me most about Robert is how
he integrated his intellectual side with his visceral side when coaching
our monologues and scenes. There was not one time that his side coaching
did not enhance an actors work immeasurably. I was surprised that on both
occasions when I worked my monologues, he asked me to use him as my partner.
Talk about truly sharing the stage with some one. He generously partnered
with me in order to elicit very specific choices he wanted me to discover.
Then, as teachers, we were able to discuss how to approach our own evaluations
with students, how to challenge, not criticize; how to open the actor
up to their "greatest" potential. I've never used the word "great"
in my work. I always thought to be a good actor was difficult enough.
But as I learned from Robert, in our industry, "good" is not
good enough, not if you want to make a living as an actor. You have to
strive to be great. Awesome theory, definitely worth exploring.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons we met and worked with Guest Artists including master voice teacher, Catherine Fitzmaurice, improvisational expert, Frank Deal and actress and casting director, Joanna Merlin whose book, Auditioning-An Actor-Friendly Guide, we all received with compliments from J. Michael Miller. I am planning to use it in my audition class next spring; it's a "find".
I have been saving our evenings for last because having the opportunity to work with Slava Dolgatchev and being a Chekhov aficionado myself, only enhanced an already great experience. He personifies a European sensibility. Here was an accomplished director and master teacher, who won the Stanislavski award (the equivalent of our Tony Award) for direction in Moscow, being completely unassuming and humble. His warmth, kindness, earthy humor and overwhelming passion infected us all. His gentle prodding, patience, adherence to detail, perceptions of life and people were of the highest order. After having taught all day in the grad program at Columbia University, he would teach us from 6 to 10 in the evening. It still astonishes me to think of how the work just seemed to fill him and fill him and fill him.
The first week of exercises emphasized strenuous physicality, partnering and energy fields that bonded our group and opened us up to one another on a deeply personal level. We immediately began working as an ensemble, egoless yet highly individual, risking and striving for ourselves, not the teacher, going back to our roots as actors and human beings. The second week when we began analyzing Uncle Vanya, I remember referring to the script as the "play". Slava said it's not a "play" it's life, and we are always trying to analyze our lives. Well, of course when you are working on Chekhov or any other master playwright that's easy, but to constantly think about the text as "life" not "script" opened up an entire way of approaching my work as an actor and director. I know this sounds terribly simplistic but it was refreshing to be reminded of such a basic fundamental.
His stories of the Soviet Union and his experiences as a director were mesmerizing and thought provoking. Like Robert, Slava tied his personal experiences to the work. He gave an analogous experience he himself had to Vanya that clarified the world of the character and the play. We spent four hours "investigating"each act; the experience was like no other. It was as if I became a law student or scientist. His system was so exacting; in order to prove his hypothesis, you had to think in ways that I have never been taught to think when analyzing the text. It was no longer how "I" would interpret the play but, in essence, what, exactly, Chekhov had in mind. No longer would it be guess work, no longer this or maybe that. It was channeling Chekhov through scrupulous investigation.
Thank you KC/ACTF for this wonderful honor and unforgettable experience. It has changed my life and work in ways that only the coming months will begin to reveal to me. I am still in the process of reflecting and digesting this experience of whirlwind creativity and passion, integrity, discipline, ideals, theory and insight. I am more fired up than ever to bring this renewed spirit and vitality for the art, to my students.