Kornman's long, diverse journey as an acting student may not be typical of most actors in New York or Los Angeles, but it will seem familiar to many. Actors often feel the need for regular, ongoing study, or to return to the studio periodically for renewal and refreshment.
"I think my relationship with acting has always been exploratory," says Alex Courtney, who currently studies at the William Esper Studio in New York. "It's a vehicle for me to express myself as much as it is a craft and a profession." Courtney sees the classroom as a place to practice his art—and to find personal growth. For him, an acting class is akin to a painter's hours in the garret experimenting with color or a composer's time in the studio working with new musical forms.
Courtney, a native New Yorker, began studying acting around age 24. One of his first teachers was Tamara Daykarhanova, who had known Constantin Stanislavsky and was an early member of the Actors Studio. Courtney also studied with Meisner, Lee Strasberg, and Peggy Feury. Later he worked for a time with Milton Katselas in L.A. Meanwhile, his career blossomed: He toured in The Lion in Winter, appeared in numerous movies of the week, and was a regular on the 1978–79 NBC series Sword of Justice.
"There are two relationships you have in this business," Courtney notes. "There's the relationship with the industry, which you need to cultivate in order to be successful and to find employment. And then you have the relationship with the work itself."
A decade or so ago, Courtney returned to New York and put his acting career on hold to pursue writing. Recently, though, he decided to study acting again—with Esper, whom he'd known from his days with Meisner. Now in his 60s, Courtney is in a scene study class with students who are the age he was when he was learning the basics from Daykarhanova.
L.A.-based actor Carmen Argenziano has studied with many of Kornman's and Courtney's teachers, including Meisner, Handman, Feury, and Katselas. Currently he's working with Allan Miller (perhaps most famous as an early teacher of Barbra Streisand) at the Actors Studio West.
"You have to keep an edge in this town," says Argenziano, who has attended "thousands" of classroom sessions over the years while racking up scores of credits on TV and in films, including The Accused and Stand and Deliver. "If you don't keep stretching and working at it, it just dissipates and the edge goes, and you don't get the work."
Stephanie Faracy's training history is somewhat different from those of Kornman, Courtney, and Argenziano. The L.A.-based actor has had long stretches in which she didn't take formal classes, yet she feels she's always studying in one way or another. For instance, she and actor Jeff Marcus often give each other informal coaching and feedback.
Faracy began her training in high school with Alvina Krause of Northwestern University (as part of an apprenticeship program for "cherubs," Faracy says), then worked with Harold Guskin at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and Robert Lewis at the Yale School of Drama. She left Yale when Lewis became ill and had to discontinue teaching there. Relocating to California, she launched her film and television career, working largely in sitcoms but also feature films (When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?; Sideways).
In 2003 she went back to class—but not to an acting studio. Faracy earned a master's degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica. Her new credentials, however, prompted her return to acting study, to an introductory course taught by Ron Burris, who works in the tradition of Stella Adler.
"In a way, I had updated my psychology—I had closed the 'programs' that no longer worked," Faracy explains. "I wondered what it would be like to [hear] some of those early lessons about acting. I think we learn according to where we are at a certain time, and what issues are going on inside us, and how we're holding ourselves.... So I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginner's mind."
Acting training programs have proliferated in academia in recent decades, with undergraduate and graduate departments sprouting nationwide. Young actors embark on an intensive—and expensive—course of study, and after graduation they tend to put the lessons and books behind them, needing jobs in order to establish themselves and pay off those annoying student loans. Consequently, they may not be flocking to private ongoing classes with the same enthusiasm as earlier generations. "I think they're studied out," Kornman says. "They've had it for a while, and who can blame them?"
Trey Gibbons is a New York actor in his early 30s who went the academic route for his initial training. He attended Alabama's Huntingdon College on an acting scholarship, then earned a master's degree in acting at Brooklyn College. He now sees the latter program as his "ticket to New York," but he was not entirely satisfied with his time there: "In hindsight, I guess I didn't get the support I felt I needed to give me the confidence to go out in the real world and apply my talent and the skills I'd developed over the course of the two-year program there."
Gibbons says he was used to being "a big fish in a small pond" in Alabama and in grad school. He was frequently cast in sizable roles, but once he began pursuing work in New York, he was suddenly a minnow in a vast lake. He found the rejection dispiriting and began drifting into other jobs: bartending and temp work.
Late in 2004, he began seeing a therapist—a man who had himself once pursued a New York acting career. Gibbons needed to figure out why he was stagnating, why he'd lost the fire he once had for his chosen profession. About a month into their sessions, the therapist told him, "I know you probably don't want to hear me say this, but maybe you should investigate studio programs in the city—as a way of easing back into the acting community."
"So I actually took it to heart," Gibbons confides. "I said, 'Maybe you do have a point.' "
He consulted Back Stage and found himself overwhelmed by the number of ads for acting schools and teachers. He eventually checked out an information seminar at the T. Schreiber Studio and decided to give the school a try.
Gibbons' work with Terry Schreiber reinstilled him with confidence. It also led to some public performances with Schreiber's company, including a role in 2006's How I Learned to Drive that netted him a New York Innovative Theatre Award. That in turn led to his getting a manager and additional work.
"It's not like they blow smoke up your butt," Gibbons says of the Schreiber program. "It's not like, 'Oh, you're so good, you're so great!' It's not about that. It's just a place where you can feel comfortable in taking it to the limit, really exploring yourself and your work."
Like Gibbons, Kornman has found the classroom a good place for professional networking, noting that the longest acting job she's ever had came about through a tip from a classmate. But most of the benefits that actors reap from studio time are less tangible, if just as valuable.
Actors find class work beneficial because it allows them to make mistakes with impunity—to be, as Kornman puts it, "as bad as you want to be." Argenziano concurs, saying that in the classroom, "you shouldn't be afraid to get off balance or a little lost."
Formal study also allows actors to work on projects that stretch their range—roles they'd be unlikely to play or even audition for in the real world. Courtney recently prepared a scene for Esper from Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh: "I certainly hadn't lived that kind of life before, of being in some hellhole bar all my life and being boozed every single day and being a nihilist. But it amazed me how just being able to explore this opened up parts of me."
Similarly, Kornman worked with Pendleton recently on the character Agnes in a scene from Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. "Austin said that was a good role for me. But she was modeled on Albee's mother, who was a giant," says the slight-of-stature Kornman. "And everybody...who's ever played that part is 10 feet tall. Also, it's not a part—psychologically—that I'd ever see myself playing. But it was a wonderful thing to work on."
Sometimes doing classroom work opens windows that actors don't recognize except in hindsight. Faracy plans on returning to live theatre this spring, something she hasn't done in a few years. Though she doesn't attribute this decision directly to her work in Burris' class, she believes there may be a tangential connection. "I think creativity is that way," she says. "It gets on a flow, on a roll. And if you handle certain issues, the next ones come up."
Obviously, your goal as a student is to be able to apply what you've learned in the classroom to your public performances. Faracy says her classroom study has helped her focus better in her film and TV work. "Left unattended, the mind will just go, 'I hope this scene goes well' or 'How is this? Is this bad? Is this good?' With better and better technique, one can guide one's focus. You can't demand it, but you can gently whisper to it and say, 'Why don't you look over here?' "
If you're contemplating returning to the classroom after a time away, how do you decide which class is right for you? A class that's affordable and convenient is important, of course. But also essential is finding a discipline and a teacher that suit your style. You can ask around and get feedback from peers. But the actors Back Stage spoke with for this article also recommend that you audit a session, if possible, to gauge the classroom atmosphere.
Faracy recommends that actors returning to the classroom not "throw themselves on a sword and say, 'I don't know anything.' " Inevitably, you enter the classroom with the depth of understanding you've amassed over the years, even if the reason you're there is to look at old lessons with a fresh eye.
If you've previously trained with Strasberg-influenced teachers, will it be damaging or confusing to study with someone working in the Meisner or Adler or Uta Hagen tradition? Or will branching out simply give you an expanded set of tools? Acting teachers may have their own views on this question, but your answer will probably depend largely on your personal style. Argenziano—mainly a Meisner man—is looking forward to investigating classes at the Actors Studio that emphasize sense-memory techniques he has never previously explored. Courtney, on the other hand, sought out Esper specifically because he knew the teacher from his days with Meisner. He wanted an experience that didn't seem too foreign or disorienting.
Although the great theorists on acting might blanch at the idea, Kornman suggests that a particular discipline or philosophy is not the most important consideration when choosing a place to study; it is, rather, the teacher. "I don't think it's what they teach; I think it's how they are with their students."
She adds, "I'm not capable of hanging on to a specific technique. What rubs off rubs off." She notes that while working on the role of Snake Lady in Adam Rapp's play Stone Cold Dead Serious (for a production by Small Pond Entertainment), she consciously utilized a tool she took from Wynn Handman, asking herself, What would the character want on her tombstone? The exercise helped her momentarily, but much of the technique Kornman has developed in classrooms over the years is more deeply ingrained—something she summons unconsciously.
Kornman maintains that acting study should not turn into a "lifestyle" and cautions that you can become so accustomed to the safety of the classroom that working in the real world seems much harder: "You think, Oh, if only it were just like class."
That's why Faracy suggests alternating periods of study with periods away from it. While time in the classroom is valuable, she says, those stretches when you work on your own can help you better integrate the lessons learned: "Even if you don't know all the way what you're doing, it's important to claim it, wherever you are, so you can own it—and then begin to explore again."