Great acting teachers talk about teaching acting

February 8, 2011

Seven of the greatest acting teachers in America conducted a two-hour tutorial last Friday (Feb. 4) for the benefit of the American Theatre Critics Association, holding its annual winter meeting in New York City. Between them, the seven have 250 years of teaching experience and are the heirs to legends such as Harold Clurman, Lee Strassberg, Stella Adler and even--by only one or two degrees of separation--Konstantin Stanislavski himself. They didn’t teach me to act, but I learned a helluva lot about how they work and the principles they value. 

The panelists included Sanford Meisner disciple William Esper; Lee Strassberg disciple (and one-time daughter-in-law) Sabra Jones McAteer; Harold Clurman disciple Ronald Rand; Michael Chekhov disciple Joanna Merlin; also Terry Schreiber, founder of the T. Schreiber Studio, and independent teacher and author Sande Shurin.

The final panelist was Mary McCann, Executive Director of the Atlantic Acting School, perhaps the youngest of the seven. I remember when she was tending bar in Chicago and when Paul Zimet was a local bank teller. Or was it Clark Gregg? The three are among the co-founders of the Atlantic Theatre Company and the Atlantic Acting School, one of the most successful non-profit theatre organizations in New York in the last 25 years, which is how long the company has been around. All the young founders were acting students of David Mamet and William H. Macy who, basically, told them to form a company and go to Chicago (as Mamet and Macy had done) to hone their chops. About eight or 10 of them dutifully did so, spending 1985-1986 in Chicago, working day gigs while staging four or five shows, and collectively writing a book that codified the Mamet/Macy acting technique now known as Practical Aesthetics.

The first surprise was that the panelists not only knew one another, but were genuinely respectful and cordial. I expected subtle back-biting. Instead, there was general agreement that actors should use whatever combination of techniques they wish, as long as it’s effective in producing a believable performance that can be sustained over the run of a production, and does no physical harm to the actor. Indeed, the major differences expressed seemed to be more a question of vocabulary or labels than fundamental approach.

Yes, OK, at first a distinction was made between those who begin with the text of the play itself, and those who begin with some more internal or ethereal element, but the two approaches quickly merge. The Atlantic School’s Practical Aesthetics, being derived from the teachings of playwright (Mamet), naturally begins with the text. Mamet is not alone in saying, in effect, “Follow my words, and pay attention to the punctuation, and the role will act itself.” Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett would agree, all sticklers about their words, punctuation and pauses.

But actual preparation for a role is well down the road. A would-be actor needs to master some basic chops first, and everyone agreed that all the various exercises really are aimed at two things: freeing the imagination and freeing the physical body. Said Terry Schreiber, “Tension blocks feelings, but it takes time to figure out where the physical tension is centered.” Joanna Merlin said that Michael Chekhov always sought to unlock “the artistic imagination” in each acting student, which she defined as a combination of “the body and the imagination.” All agreed they’d rather have beginning-level students with no experience rather than someone trained into bad habits, whether in high school, college or elsewhere.

As each teacher has codified his/her exercises and explanations, several have created a name or label for his/her approach. For the Atlantic Acting School it’s Practical Aesthetics, while Sande Shurin calls her approach Transformational Acting. For students of Sanford Meisner such as William Esper, it’s The Meisner Technique which is derived in turn from “The Method,” that ill-defined and much-abused label traced back through Strassberg and Adler and Clurman to Stanislavski himself. And, of course, when properly taught and learned “The Method” has absolutely nothing to do with mumbling on stage or becoming so lost in an emotional moment you don’t know where you are. If such things occur in a performance, they betray a lack of discipline by the actor. But the bottom line is that this high-powered line-up of teachers all wants the same thing: they want their students to learn to act truthfully under artificial circumstances.

In the question-and-answer period, I raised a point. “I’m from Chicago,” I said. “If Chicago actors are known for anything, it’s the ensemble aesthetic. What do you teach or tell your students about generosity? About valuing the effectiveness of the whole over themselves?” Most of the seven answered vaguely that “we talk about ensemble all the time” and “emphasize sharing at every opportunity,” but not one came forward with an exercise he/she conducts with a class to create an ensemble feeling. The focus almost always seems to be one-on-one. I almost felt one of them should say, “I don’t know much about teaching ensemble but I know it when I see it.”

Acting teachers and acting classes sometimes have been the targets of satire. In his final completed play, “Finishing the Picture” (world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in 2004), Arthur Miller took savage comic revenge on Lee Strassberg for his coaching of Marilyn Monroe when Miller and Monroe were married. And what fan of “Will and Grace” cannot recall Jack’s (Sean Hayes) acting class from hell, with its cigarette-puffing teacher and Jack himself teaching his own non-existent technique (“I don’t call it acting, I call it Jackting.”)?

A great theater critic once described his job as tattooing soap bubbles, in reference to the ephemeral nature of a live performance in which the individual moments come and go in a flash and cannot be precisely recreated again. That’s what makes it so difficult for a critic to describe a performance, and it’s also what makes it so difficult to understand exactly what it is that acting teachers do, even when the finest teachers are explaining it to you. That, at least, is something about which acting teachers, actors and critics can agree.

P.S. To all casting directors: I’m at liberty and available for work.