Backstage asked prominent actors to talk about where and why they trained. As you will read, some attended conservatory programs and universities, some studied with legendary teachers, some trained in far-off lands, some learned from their childhood camp directors—and one learned by watching his parents onstage as he grew up.
All but one agree the training was well worth it. Or so they believe now. Many struggled with a few of their classes. Well, one class. Ballet was almost universally loathed by our actors, particularly the men. Indeed, movement classes in general were questioned. One of our actors couldn't understand how he'd ever be called upon to play an animal after graduation, but Joe Manganiello now plays a werewolf on "True Blood" and looks back on that pretend-you're-an-animal acting exercise with gratitude.
Most studied a variety of techniques, and most say they choose from among those techniques to suit the needs of each role. Some, like Sally Kirkland, have stayed with their mentors' methods to this day.
But each actor appreciates—and has used—every lesson learned.
In case you're wondering how we selected the actors here, we contacted people we thought our readers might want to hear from, then let the actors choose the programs or teachers they wanted to reflect on.
We invite you to tell us where you studied and what you learned. Write to us at email@example.com, with "Where I Studied" in the subject line, and include a headshot. We may run your training tale online.
—Dany Margolies, Executive Editor
The following Backstage staffers contributed to this feature: Jamie Painter Young, David Sheward, Simi Horwitz, Daniel Holloway, Frank Nestor, Suzy Evans, Dany Margolies, Les Spindle, Jenelle Riley, and Jessica Gardner.
Drama Studio London and a Royal Shakespeare Company workshop (with Cicely Berry and Edward Bond)
I was encouraged to read a lot from a very young age. We didn't have a television. I read a lot of books. And we went to the theater a lot; she took me to the RSC when I was about 7. We saw a lot of Shakespeare. And cinema as well, actually. She used to take me to see obscure French movies.
The school I went to, we did a lot of plays, and I loved it. But I thought you had to be the popular person in the middle of everything to be an actor, and I wasn't that person. And then, at [the University of Bristol], I did an English degree and I just fell into doing a lot of shows. And then all the people I liked started applying to drama schools, so I did as well. And I didn't get in.
I applied to all the major drama schools in London and sort of got onto the reserve list in various places. I think I wasn't very good. I didn't really know what I was doing. I wasn't confident. I didn't really know what acting was. I knew I wanted to do it, but I didn't know how to. They were right to turn me down. And then I think I did a bit of fringe theater and [gained] confidence and then got a place from that. I went to the Drama Studio in London for a one-year postgraduate course.
I had a fantastic voice coach there, very inspiring. I think I had a very squeaky, nervous voice. She was just about getting in touch with the body and letting go and relaxing. I remember on the day we left, she came up to me and she said, "I think you're really talented, and I think you could really do this." I wasn't feeling good about myself at that time. I didn't feel I was picked out for anything. I felt uncomfortable.
[Also] incredibly influential to me is Cicely Berry. She was at the RSC when I was there, and she's brilliant. She puts you in touch with something inside yourself you didn't know was there and makes you sing in a way that's just amazing. I remember a really good friend of mine was playing a leading role and was very overwhelmed by the whole thing and feeling kind of quite unconfident, and she said, "What do you really love? What's your real passion?" He was a working-class kid. He said, "Football." She got a football and said, "Okay, kick this football around the room. Now do Richard II," or whatever it was. He said it was the most unbelievably liberating thing. Suddenly he found it.
I did a workshop with her and [playwright-director] Edward Bond. I found him very difficult and baffling, but subsequently it's been one of the most influential things in my professional life. You know that thing about it's not about you, it's about the story? He kind of really went into that in a way that was very revealing. What he felt was wrong with theater was that people have very short rehearsal periods, and so you're immediately picking the answer out of a bag, and finding an interpretation and doing it to save your own skin. And he said what he would do, if he had his way, was spend months just working on the play without having been assigned a part—workshop it and do the exercises to discover what it's about.
And he said every play has a central line that encapsulates the meaning, the DNA of what it's about. And he talked about his play "Jackets." It's about two women whose sons are in the army, and one of them is shot, and the women go down to the morgue—one of them to support the other, whose son's been shot—to identify the body. And when they get there, the men had swapped jackets, and they've identified the wrong son, so it was the other woman's son. It's the most incredibly dramatic moment. We studied it, we messed about with it, and we did all sorts of strange exercises with him. And he said to us that the central line in that piece was a stage direction that says that the wheels of the trolley squeak as it's pushed into the room. You think, if you were in that situation and waiting for that moment to identify your son's body, you would remember that squeak the rest of your days,. The central line of something can be quite obscure or quite not what you'd expect. But once you discover it, then you can work on your part, so that everybody knows what the play is about and serves that central line in their choices.
[We did this workshop] about two or three weeks during the days when we were doing shows at night. I found it baffling and I didn't understand it, and I was really upset. I found it really uncomfortable. And then, later on, it began to sink in, and it's been with me ever since. I always think, at the beginning of a shoot, you should hand out a T-shirt saying "It's not about you" and give it to everybody, every single department. It would solve a lot of problems.
Emily Watson's vast résumé includes "Breaking the Waves," "Hilary and Jackie," "Gosford Park," "Punch-Drunk Love," "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," "Wah-Wah," "Miss Potter," and "Synecdoche, New York." Currently she stars in Jim Loach's "Oranges and Sunshine" as social worker Margaret Humphreys, who uncovered Britain's "child migration" scheme.
Brown University (bachelor's degree) and New York University (master's degree)
I started taking classes in earnest in college. I started at school in Mississippi, but I finished at Brown. That's where I took my first acting class, under Lowry Marshall. Then, after I finished there, I auditioned for NYU and got my master's from there.
At Brown, taking those classes for the very first time, that was the first time that it was serious. It was serious because it was actual coursework. It was a part of my academic experience as opposed to something I did after classes were over. When I was at Brown, they took it very, very seriously. Some of these kids had actually acted professionally. There were a couple guys in my class who were doing big movies. It was bizarre, to say the least, because I'm from Mississippi, and my experience with that life was entirely through television. It was never personal. It was never that immediate. It was strange and life-changing. And to have someone like Ms. Marshall, who is very passionate about what she does—I really sat there and was like, "These people take this thing kind of seriously here." I had to rise to the occasion.
NYU was the best of times and the worst of times, I have to be honest. It was the best of times because my mother lived in New York when she was in her 20s and in part of her 30s, and she would tell me stories about her life there, so I had always romanticized this life in New York City. So when I got there, I felt like, "Finally, I'm home." School was what I did between what I wanted to do, which was discover this crazy city that I had dreamed of living in since I was a kid. So I wasn't very serious. I'm saying this because I want people to know the truth. It wasn't something that I took seriously, because I didn't appreciate it. I was constantly on [academic] probation. I was constantly under threat to be thrown out. I would lose roles because the faculty didn't think that I was committed.
One thing that was incredibly important at NYU, at least when I was there, was that you had to be to class on time. You had to show your dedication to the program. I didn't do that. A lot of stuff in the curriculum felt very abstract to me. I don't know if that was a problem. But in the three years that I was there, I didn't see how the work that I was doing there was relevant until my third year. I got so tired of losing roles. If they felt like you weren't performing—in terms of coming to class on time and doing the work—you could get cast in a role by an outside director and the faculty would take it away from you. That happened to me. After a while of that, I felt very bruised. I was like, "Enough of this. This is not going to change in earnest unless I approach this differently." So I think that adjustment probably came from that.
We would do a lot of things like breathing exercises, a lot of things with our bodies, methods that had to do with balance of the body and that kind of thing. I honestly felt like, "What does this have to do with me getting somebody to believe me?" I couldn't make the connection. It felt like busywork to me. I know that it had to do with vocal projection and being heard at the back of the room, but I felt like a lot of that was done at the price of the other work that was more valuable. Now, trust me, I'm not saying that I still feel that way. It just didn't feel like I was getting the skills that I needed to be an actor, or what I thought I needed to be an actor.
I think with every program, there are things that you take from it that are valuable, and things that you don't take from it because it doesn't do anything for you. It depends on the kind of actor that you want to be. I get into conversations sometimes with people when they talk about rappers and others who get jobs over trained actors. I say all the time, I'm not that interested in training. It has to be the right training. Just being trained does not make you an interesting actor.
Aunjanue Ellis currently stars on "The Mentalist" and has had recurring roles on "True Blood," "The Practice," and "Justice." She starred in "Ray," appeared in "I Love You Phillip Morris," and currently can be seen in "The Help" as Yule Mae Davis. She has appeared on Broadway in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Drowning Crow," and "The Tempest," playing Ariel.
Flo Greenberg, Stuart Rogers, and Ivana Chubbuck
When I was a kid, I was really interested in acting, and I started doing some theater in school plays. I was living 45 minutes outside of Manhattan, and I wanted to segue into doing something on a professional level. When I was 15, I decided to join this workshop, run by Flo Greenberg, in Manhattan. I would commute to the city from Jersey every day.
I went for years. It was like boot camp. I just didn't know what the hell I was doing. I just had all these emotions. I came from an immigrant family. English was my secondary language growing up, and in my household it was always Polish. I always felt like a pretty observant individual, and I had all these ideas of how to mimic things. I just had a general level of emotion, but I didn't really know how to channel it. It was just a matter of having words on a page and applying those feelings. A lot of it came incredibly innately for me, which was fantastic. At the end of the class, we put up a showcase. That showcase attracted talent agents, and I got fortunate that one of the agents signed me.
In all sincerity, my greatest training at an early age was the first job that I got, on "Guiding Light." I was pretty awful, and I developed some technique just by being around actors who had been doing it for 20 years. As I became older, I really wanted to take it to another level. I read all the Stanislavsky books. I read all the Meisner books. I did all this before I chose any kind of acting coach. I started auditing all these classes, and there were all these famous coaches that I didn't connect with.
And then I found a guy named Stuart Rogers in the [San Fernando] Valley, who was sort of under the radar. I found that his work was really non-techniquey and more about spontaneity and being in the moment. It sounds so simple, but it's really not. He's a really solid, practical coach. He doesn't make things heady. I have also used well-known teachers like Ivana Chubbuck for certain things. I believe in an assortment of techniques. I think marrying one specific technique is a flaw. You should always be open to change and willing to accept whatever advice people are willing to give you and be able to filter it.
Everyone has an opinion and everyone has an interpretation of how they would do a scene, and it really doesn't matter. At the end of the day it's all art, and if you're honest in the moment and you make a commitment, stick to it and don't second-guess yourself.
Paul Wesley has starred on "Army Wives," "24," and "Everwood." Currently he stars on "The Vampire Diaries."
Central School of Speech & Drama, London
I trained at the Central School of Speech & Drama, in London. There was a great rivalry between Central and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Olivier went to Central; Gielgud went to RADA. And from Central, there had been this radical breakaway, which had been the formation of Drama Centre London. Now in London there are many, many accredited drama schools, far more extensive, so such particular rivalries don't exist.
There was one particular teacher, who I'm still in touch with, who'd studied there but had come back to teach. He was maybe eight or 10 years older than us. He's called Anthony MacDonald. He was so fresh and so contemporary that it gave one this incredible freedom in the expression of one's ideas and the use of one's language. I always found it very intimidating with a lot of the other teachers, who were quite old. I mean, it seemed to me, at the time, they were in their 50s and 60s. Now, of course, that's youthful. But I found a lot of the ideas and traditions a little inflexible. And to work with this man in his 20s, Anthony MacDonald—in scene studies, in approach to text, in overall sense of theater and the employment of a contemporary imagination—a fantastically liberating privilege.
And he's still somebody I defer to. When we did a workshop of this play ["The Standard Bearer," which Sands directs] earlier in the year, he was in Los Angeles. He came along to the workshop—my old teacher. He had fantastically useful insights.
Julian Sands is a star of stage (playing Tony Blair in David Hare's "Stuff Happens" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles) and screens big ("A Room With a View," "Ocean's Thirteen") and small ("24," "Smallville"). He recently toured the globe with his one-man show "A Celebration of Harold Pinter," directed by John Malkovich.
Southern Methodist University (master's in acting) and the American Place Theatre (with Wynn Handman)
I've always been a big believer in trying to learn from as many people as possible. When it came to college, I thought I really wanted a conservatory program, and I got into NYU. I was 17 years old, and I went from coming from a very studious family to rolling on the floor quacking like a duck. I sort of thought, "This isn't the time for me to do this," and I transferred to Barnard, where I was an English major. I thought college was going to be for my acting training, but I actually thought I would learn more as a person if I got a more liberal arts education.
When I got out of school, in order to make my rent, I spent one horrible year working 70 hours a week. I thought this is not really getting me where I want to go, but grad school seemed so impossible because I didn't want to spend three years anywhere. I just got out of school. But I thought it could take me three years to even get seen by anybody in New York, and so I auditioned for the Leagues, where you audition for, like, 20 grad schools at once. And I really connected with this teacher Cecil O'Neal from Southern Methodist University. I was recruited by a couple of schools, but I really liked this teacher. I also got some amount of scholarship so that I could go. I had gone to undergrad in Manhattan, thinking that would give me an edge, and then I ended up leaving and going to Dallas, Texas. I never planned to stay three years. I thought, I'll just go, get a little more training, and get out of the city and see what I can learn. And then I stayed.
I'm very thankful to what SMU gave me. I had time to make mistakes and do things I'd never otherwise do. It didn't seem like the most logical, linear choice, but you never know where you're going to end up. I would rather have a school that wanted me than a city that was tolerating me. From that program, we did a showcase in New York, where I got an agent.
When I got out of grad school, I studied with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theatre. The last thing I wanted to do after studying for three years was study, but it was a totally different experience because there were more actors who were also professionals. Wynn Handman was a very big influence on me because it was the first time someone told me, "You don't have to be great at every kind of storytelling. Do what you do, and be great at that." That just opened my mind because, in a way, the business tells you what it wants you to do. You tend to get a job you're already qualified for. When I got "Gilmore Girls," I already kind of talked fast and am more intellectually and verbally oriented. So it was a job that spoke to something I was already doing.
Anytime I've felt stuck, I just go take a class. I was still in class when I was doing "Gilmore Girls." You have to go looking for growth and guidance, because the more you work, the less anybody tells you anything. When you get in the professional world, you don't want to seem like you don't know something. And I think it's been helpful to me at times when I've been like, "I don't know what I'm doing; do you?"
If you get self-indulgent about being an actor, you forget it's not about you. I don't think I ever said, "I want to be famous." I never thought that. It was never what I wanted to do. There's so much more to be learned. Anytime I've put any effort into this work, I've gotten it back somewhere. And that's one of the only controllable things you have as an actor. You can work on yourself.
Lauren Graham has starred on such television series as "Gilmore Girls." On film she has appeared in "Evan Almighty" and "It's Kind of a Funny Story." Currently she stars on "Parenthood."
University of Portland and Temple University (MFA in acting)
Temple University is where I got my MFA in acting. I was at Temple from 2003 to 2006. When I graduated from University of Portland, I had a bachelor's in finance. Even though I was a student, in the sense I took every single acting class and hung out with all the theater kids and did all the plays, I didn't feel like when I graduated I was good enough. When I graduated, I decided to become an actor for a living. I said, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life." And when I made that decision, I didn't feel that I was prepared enough to lead a life that would be conducive to making a living as an actor. And that's when I auditioned for graduate schools.
I went to the University/Resident Theatre Association auditions. Deans come and watch you in this theater. You have three minutes, and you have to do two contrasting monologues—at that time, this is 2003—one classical and one contemporary. And that's in the morning. You go in the theater, and it's basically, like, 60 of these great people who run theater programs. And at the end of the day you get an envelope in your hotel room, and that gives you the list of schools that want to talk to you or interview you further, starting right then. So you get an envelope that says, "Starting 4 p.m., you have this many interviews." Now, you might not get any interviews. But luckily I got eight interviews. And those interviews were in the same hotel where you audition, so you just go from room to room to room, interviewing with these schools.
I did a monologue that I had used for the ACTF [American College Theatre Festival] competition that I won. It was literally by this Internet playwright. I only used it because I didn't have to get the rights. I didn't have time to get the rights. But it was perfect. It was very heartfelt. It was about a guy who has been in love with his best friend for four years and then has the courage to tell her. I picked it because I wanted to come across as a nice person, as opposed to doing something like a big rape scene. I just wanted to be truthful. I wanted to be truthful in the moment, because I think that's all that would have mattered. And I think my classical piece was Moth from "Love's Labor's Lost."
The reasons I picked Temple were it was very close to New York (it's a one-hour train ride); I really connected with Donna Snow, who was running the theater school at that time; but the biggest thing was the financial package. Everything was paid for, and you got a stipend for teaching, and I wanted to teach because I thought it was a good way to learn too.
We had specific styles when it came to voice. We did the Fitzmaurice technique, which can be a very emotional experience. But once I allowed myself to be more vulnerable and allowed myself to not look at myself from the outside in but just experience it—listen, Temple University only takes one class every three years, of eight students. So that really helped because we were all very close, and sometimes [the Fitzmaurice technique] can be a very vulnerable experience, yet I didn't feel self-conscious. So that really helped me to be able to get into the Fitzmaurice technique, and I'm really glad I did. I'm certified in Fitzmaurice, although I'm a little rusty.
We took dance and movement for three years. We did everything from Martha Graham's floor study to ballet to contemporary. And then of course we did stage combat, so I got certified in stage combat. And then we took movie acting and Shakespeare acting.
But it all started with the most basic level of Uta Hagen, right at the beginning. I'm like, "Really? I came to grad school; I'm going to do the 'Respect for Acting'?" And I realized the importance of that, because it was really to just get you to get rid of everything. Get rid of everything you've learned and just start from the bottom up.
And a lot of our training was improvisational studies, different types of improvisation. Our acting was trying to instill this idea of letting go of all inhibitions. Our acting coach said, "Every day, we're just going to chip away at everything that you have that blocks your emotion from coming out or stops your instincts." It was just getting rid of all of the armors that you've built up to protect yourself from the audience. I didn't understand that at first, because I'm like, "Teach me! Teach me a method! Teach me some terminology so I can get there!" But he said, "No, first thing that comes to your mind, say it. The first instinct you have, use it." So it was really interesting. It took me a while to really buy into that, and I think my third year I had a breakthrough and really understood the importance of that.
I was never concerned [about being tossed from the program], because there were eight of us, and it wasn't performance-based. It wasn't like, "This guy is not having a breakthrough, so he's not good enough." I was in all the plays; I was still doing really good work. I personally was fighting some of the training, and I think that naturally happens when you get into a situation where people are telling you that you don't know what you're doing and you're not doing it well; your first instinct is to fight it and say, "No, you don't know what you're talking about; I think I'm fine." And that's a very young, stubborn way to go about it, but it took me a while to break down all of my armors that I'd set up.
We did "Romeo and Juliet." I really wanted to play Romeo, but I never got cast as Romeo. I got cast as Benvolio. And that was a lot of fun for me, because it was a really big show and it was really nice to be someone who kept the peace and someone who really believed in peace. And then we did "The Heidi Chronicles," and I played the best friend, Peter. That was probably the best work that I did, because I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty and going to a deep place in my heart and bringing that out. Then I did Tristram in "Taking Steps," and that was phenomenal, because I grew up in India, so physical comedy comes very naturally to me. We grew up with very physical sitcoms. I've always been a big fan of Chaplin and the Three Stooges. When I did "Taking Steps," that was my sort of coming-out party. I really felt I was an actor who really adapted to my physical potential.
When I was onstage [in those productions], I wasn't thinking about my training. I was just thinking about whatever the circumstance was. But when we were training, I allowed myself to make mistakes. So instead of saying this line this way, I'd say it five different ways. And I wouldn't be worried about getting it wrong. Because you're on the move so much—because we were in classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then rehearsals from 6 to 11 p.m., and then you have to wake up, and then you have to grade papers and you're teaching classes—I was so tired all the time; I didn't have time to overthink the situations.
[Two teachers have been the most influential.] One was [at University of Portland], the first teacher ever who taught me acting: Mindi Logan. Right from the beginning, she taught me the importance of the basics: circumstances, objectives, actions, and all that. And I still use that to this day. Sometimes when I'm stuck on something, I'll just go back to the basics, like what's happening, what is my obstacle, what is my objective, how can I make this more interesting. And the other was at Temple University, my senior year: Doug Wager, who ran Arena Stage for 20 years. He was the one who really unlocked my physical potential, and he was always encouraging because he had lived in Los Angeles, where he ran a TV show on AMC called "The Lot." He was instrumental in my understanding of what it takes to be a professional actor and my belief that I could be a professional actor—that I'm good enough to be out there with everyone. All I needed was the belief that I belonged, that I could come out to Los Angeles and have success.
Kunal Nayyar won a 2007 Back Stage Garland Award for his performance in "Huck & Holden" at the Black Dahlia Theatre in Los Angeles. Since 2007, he has played Rajesh Koothrappali on "The Big Bang Theory."
Georgetown Prep (high school) and Carnegie Mellon University
I graduated [from Carnegie Mellon University] in 2009, so I was there from 2005 to 2009, a four-year training program. I really wanted to be an actor, and I knew that in high school. I went to an all-boys Catholic school where athletics was king, and though I was athletic, my classmates pretty much came out of the womb playing their respective sport. So I got into theater there. And that's when I really realized I wanted to be an actor. I told my dad this, and he said, "Okay, great, cool." Mom was hesitant: "I don't think you're not talented; I just don't know what the entertainment industry is like, but everything I've heard about it is that it is very hard, and the life of an actor is brutal. So, do you want to do this?" I'm like, "Yeah, that's the only thing that I want to do and pretty sure it's the only thing that I can do." She responded, "Great, well, you're going to go to college for it. You're going to get a degree in it, so if the thing blows up in your face, you can teach." I auditioned for all these schools, and I got into most of them, luckily, and CMU ended up being the best option, and so I went there and graduated, and my mom is very proud.
They teach a little bit of everything at Carnegie: Method, Meisner, mask work, stage combat. Not even a little bit of mask work—a whole semester of mask work. I took ballet and jazz. There was a focus on the entire body, the entire mind, and a focus on purely the text. I kept a journal throughout the entire process, and I literally came up with a checklist of things—of questions, of thoughts about the script, the character, the environment—that have helped me over the years. We had, I think it was called Text class, where we simply studied objectives, beats, tactics—in other words, the very intellectual side of the script. This helped because I could apply it immediately in real time to what I was doing. I have an audition tomorrow, and I've used some of the stuff that I learned in that class my freshman year.
I think ballet would be the best example of something that seemingly I didn't need, because I don't have a ballerina's body and I'm not sure I would ever play a dancer like that. In that sense it seemed useless. But in reality I had it for a year, and it put me in my body, and in an unconscious way I learned more about how my body works and moves in that class than in almost any other. But [ballet] also teaches you to stick with it. I'd get up every morning going, "I hate going to ballet." And it's not like the teacher was pretentious or unkind—he was fantastic; it was just every single day, I thought, "This is useless." And right when you get to that point of "I'm done. I'm going to drop the class, fail, take summer school," that's when you have to go in and do it again. And that's when it's the most rewarding, ultimately.
There are a few potential side projects in the works right now, and whether or not they pan out is completely out of my control. Something I learned in school, apart from the old cliché of "Hurry up and wait," is "Do your own work," as in do the work that you have control of, and the rest is completely out of your control. Surrender is a good lesson.
Ian Harding currently plays Ezra Fitz on the ABC Family series "Pretty Little Liars." Before that, he was Jamie Hunter on "Hollywood Is Like High School With Money." He has also appeared in "Love & Other Drugs" and "Adventureland."
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (and high school in Milwaukee)
I've had many acting teachers, starting with a high school teacher in Milwaukee, and then all the instructors at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art under Hugh Cruttwell's leadership, to all the wonderful teachers I hired when I was running the Globe. They were all significant when they came along.
I was invited to RADA, and one of the reasons I accepted the invitation, as opposed to going to an American acting program, was that it was shorter and less expensive and I wanted to be a live-theater actor. But also in America, acting teaching was "psychological," with an emphasis on breaking the student down and then building them up again. I didn't feel I needed to be broken down at that age. I needed to play, and at RADA acting students are performing in front of live audiences within six weeks. That wasn't the case in American acting schools that I was aware of in the 1970s.
Hugh's philosophy about acting training also made a lot of sense to me. He felt we should all be exposed to many acting techniques and directors with differing viewpoints. And then it was up to us to choose the technique that worked best for us. He was adamant that we were able to survive and muster ourselves believably onstage, whatever the technique we used to get there.
I've always responded to teachers who've created a playful place where our imagination could be used. In high school, we were encouraged to admire the "worked out performance" and the actor "who is in charge every moment onstage." Over the years, I've discovered that I'm far more interested in those moments that are not controlled by the actor. I'm constantly searching for something that's spontaneous and alive.
Tessa Marwick, a movement teacher I had at RADA, was an early influence. She was very interested in the open expression of the body with imagination. Later, when I was 27 and working with the director Michael Alfreds, I was able to explore those techniques even more fully. During a 16-week rehearsal period, we did a lot of animal work and improvisation. He taught that the most perfect performances were alive and present and different each night. He talked about actions and objectives and playing actively. The idea of just playing suited me and turned things around for me. Acting evolved into something playful. I have to say that the Rudolf Steiner voice technique was the best I ever learnt, with Barbara Bridgmont, and Stewart Pearce is an inspiring, mystical voice teacher. Voice teaching is very mystical for me.
Before I go onstage for any performance, I thank my teachers. I feel blessed for having had these teachers—who are not my family but took such an interest in me and were so encouraging. It's remarkable to be a good acting teacher. I'm asked to teach, but it makes me self-conscious. I've done some teaching, but I've stepped away from it for a while. I'm gradually formulating ideas I can teach and share. But teaching is a particular skill, and I'm not trained in it.
Mark Rylance won the 2011 Tony Award for best actor in a leading role in a play for "Jerusalem." He has won an Olivier Award (for "Much Ado About Nothing"), another Tony (for "Boeing-Boeing"), and a BAFTA TV Award, among other prizes. His film roles include Ferdinand in "Prospero's Books," Jay in "Intimacy," and Jakob von Gunten in "Institute Benjamenta." He was the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in London, from 1995 to 2005.
Practical Aesthetics Workshop (which became the Atlantic Acting School), a part of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts
I decided I was going to be an actor when I was about 10. But I became very practical about it (no pun intended) and started taking classes, and I have been studying ever since.
My fellow students at NYU had been raving about a summer program they took with David Mamet and how inspiring he was as a teacher. I went to a lecture of his and found it so empowering and indeed inspiring that I started studying with him. David really changed my life. From that class grew the Atlantic Theater Company, The Practical Aesthetics Workshop, and my career.
Mamet developed practical aesthetics from the later teachings of Stanislavsky, Sandy Meisner, the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus, and William James. It gave me a structure from which to work: analyzing the script, breaking it down to actions that are simple and become habitual. That structure then becomes the base from which the actor can jump into improvisatory work. The true currency of the actor is in the moment-to-moment work. That's where the truth of the moment lies.
I use the technique almost daily in my work: having an objective, gently putting my attention on the other person, and telling the truth. At least that is what I aspire to do. Sometimes I can and sometimes I can't.
David always made me and all his students feel we were sufficient. We didn't have to try to bring our "smarter, more talented, more interesting selves" to a scene. We were enough. It's okay to not know, it's okay to be wrong, it's okay to learn. Beginners mind.
Through a dedication to the technique, a love of theater, and also the fire that ignites actors, we have persevered, and now the Atlantic Theater Company not only has a thriving school but it's a thriving theater company as well.
Felicity Huffman currently plays Lynette Scavo on "Desperate Housewives," for which she has won an Emmy Award. She previously played executive producer Dana Whitaker on "Sports Night," for which she earned a Golden Globe Award nomination. Her performance as a transgender person in the indie film "Transamerica" earned her a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination.
(From left to right, Julian Sands and Neil Dickinson)
Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London
When I arrived at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, we were very much under the impression that the competition was so stiff to get in that we were the "chosen young ones." The biggest shock for me with this three-year course was, within the first year, they wanted to completely break you down, so that you didn't have that cocky confidence. People were the star of their school plays or the star of the local amateur dramatic society. And then they got into Guildhall, thinking they were the next Olivier. Anything one attempted, they tended to break down and dismiss and put you down, so you started all again on a level playing field, which was good.
The big thing I hadn't fully realized when I arrived at drama school was how important the movement of the actor was in contributing to the performance, particularly in period pieces. We had extensive dance classes; we were sent off to work in the Alexander technique. The studio for the Alexander technique was right behind the Albert Hall, so it was really fabulous; everybody loved those classes.
There is one teacher who can turn something around for you, in any field. We had a movement teacher who was a guru to many of the drama schools, a bit of a movement genius, Mr. Arlan Wendland. He'd come over to England, I think with Jerome Robbins' "Guys and Dolls," and he took dance and drama and movement into the schools. He was a visionary, an extraordinary man, from San Francisco. And eventually he retired back to San Francisco. But I would definitely say his connection with movement and bringing that to actors, who thought it was just a cerebral thing—he made a lot of us realize that it's not just about learning the lines; you need to know how gracefully to bump into the furniture.
Neil Dickson starred in the cult film "Biggles: Adventures in Time" and has appeared in such other films as "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" and David Lynch's "Inland Empire." His television credits include "She-Wolf of London" and recurring guest roles on "Mad Men" and "Sliders."
When I was in college as an undergraduate, I had been talked into writing and co-directing a musical revue, and I knew, "Oh, this is it; I want to be a director!" But there wasn't money, so I got a scholarship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to study physical therapy. The scholarship paid for my last two years of college, and then I did two years of polio epidemics.
I saved my money and went back to Boston University. David Pressman, who is a wonderful teacher-director, and Peter Kass—they would come from New York for two or three days a week and teach. I spent most of my graduate work with Peter, as a director and as an actress. It was the first time I ever acted. I did Lorca's "The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife," Arkadina in "The Seagull." That's where I learned to love Chekhov. Peter helped us to really understand and move into Chekhov. It was an extraordinary time. And of course you make wonderful friends during that period of time. I also studied Shakespeare with Philip Burton, for two years, because the school I went to didn't have any Shakespeare, and I knew that I needed to do that. It was the beginning of the program at Boston University. I think that's probably why they accepted me, because they weren't having too many candidates. And it was in the '50s, when those graduate programs were just beginning to emerge. And now it's the state of the art at these graduate programs.
It never stops, the studying. I'm always studying something: voice, singing, different disciplines with the body, clowns, masks. There's always something going on; it never ends.
Winner of an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and a Golden Globe, Olympia Dukakis is appearing at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, opposite Marco Barricelli, in "Vigil" through Dec. 18.
Marymount Manhattan College (BFA), Michael Howard Studios (master classes with Gene Saks), and L.A. On-Camera Training Center
I knew from a young age that I wanted to perform. I went to an arts camp called Brookdale Arts Camp, in New Jersey, from the time I was 6, and then I was a counselor there through high school. So my first theater teacher was George Liebenberg at Brookdale, and he introduced me to comedy and gave me my first comedic bits to do, and I absolutely fell in love with it there. I remember being, like, 7 or 8 and being onstage and him giving me something funny to do and getting a laugh and thinking, "This is the best feeling ever." I also loved standup comedy, so at that camp I would perform standup comedy in their talent shows every summer. I would do impersonations of all my favorite TV characters. And George would cheer me on in the back and tell me that I was exactly on the right path.
I was a theater dork in high school and did all the plays. My theater teacher in high school, Janet Spahr, was absolutely incredible and mentored me throughout school. She taught me a lot about relying on my instincts.
I knew I wanted to go to school in New York City, and I knew I wanted to start doing standup comedy for real when I graduated high school. So New York was also the place to do that. I chose Marymount Manhattan College, and I graduated in 2002 from the four-year program with a BFA in acting. There was scene study, script analysis, theater history, Shakespeare, Restoration comedy, voice and speech, movement. So it was conservatory training in a liberal arts college. It gave me a toolbox to draw from whenever I need it. I'm very big on putting in that study time, working hard, and then forgetting about the work and just having fun with it. I feel like Marymount gave me the basis for that.
What I loved about Marymount was the fact that I was allowed to audition while I was going to school, which a lot of the conservatory programs don't allow. While you're studying, getting on-the-job training is invaluable, even if you're working for free.
I loved how diverse the program was. Each year was a different arena, so one year you're doing Shakespeare and the next year you're doing Restoration comedy, then you're doing more-contemporary work. And the city is your campus, and of course New York is filled with an unbelievable theater energy, so that was a real benefit of going to the school. And they also had a musical theater minor, so I was able to do that as well.
I also went to Michael Howard Studios and took master classes with Gene Saks. It was a scene study class. He picked scenes for you and partnered you up. He treated each scene like he was directing a portion of a play. He would find the hook in each scene and the through line and make sure that that was being nailed and that everyone was taking the time to take the time, basically. I think so much of comedy is found in silence and those pauses, and he made sure those were found. And just also getting to watch him work on other people's scenes, which I've always found really helpful in acting class—just observing of other people. I love a classroom environment so much, so I've always felt that that part of scene study is really important. I remember him saying to other people in the class, "Just never ask for the laugh," which I think is a fantastic piece of advice. He could just take a moment that you wouldn't necessarily think was primed for a laugh, and he would construct it so that it was. He was very encouraging, especially to someone who had just been out of college and kind of looking for their first job. It was really nice to kind of have him give me that confidence boost right out of school.
Once I got out to L.A., I went to L.A. On-Camera Training Center. I had heard about these classes through friends, and I gave it a try. I took classes just to get my feet wet at being in front of the camera. The teachers there are wonderful. They're all working actors. They have audition sides there from various shows that have already been cast, so you're working on actual audition scenes. Painful as it is to watch yourself, you can learn so much by these classes, where you do a scene and they tape you and you watch it and discuss what you did. And I thought the teachers were really smart and offered really great advice.
There's a lot of on-camera classes. I had taken a couple in New York also, which were helpful, but the classes at L.A. On-Camera Training Center were a little more intimate, and if you need, the teachers will do private coaching with you for auditions, and they really want you to succeed and will help you and guide you through learning acting for the camera.
Melissa Rauch can be seen weekly as Bernadette Rostenkowski on "The Big Bang Theory." She has had recurring roles on various other series—Summer on "True Blood," Tina on "Kath & Kim," and Bethany on "12 Miles of Bad Road." She is the writer, producer, and co-director of "The Condom Killer."
Vanderbilt University, the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute (NYU), the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Deena Levy, and Sharon Chatten
I went to college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. It was only my senior year that I started going to theater classes. I did my first play there. From there I went to a summer program through NYU for the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, and then I did the two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Once that happened, I was a full-fledged waitress in New York City.
I was basically waiting tables and being young in the city. Some of my friends and I were putting on our own plays and scene nights. There came a time when I thought, "I've got to start my career. If this is really what I want to do, I've got to take it seriously." I'd heard about Deena Levy's acting class, and I put myself in it. It was when I got into that class that I felt as if everything I'd learned before sort of came together for me. It was a significant moment in my life. It became organic and I began to understand it. I think about it a lot, and I'm forever grateful for it.
I studied with Deena for about a year. I stayed in touch, and we did some private work. I moved to Los Angeles, where I've worked with a private coach, Sharon Chatten, for the past 13 years. She is an amazing teacher, and for me she provided a natural progression from my earlier work with Deena.
But my last work in a class environment was with Deena, who is a wonderful teacher. She's passionate, she's soulful, she's artful and incredibly experienced and talented, and she's fun. She's a warm person, and she created this really safe place to explore. But she also had a wonderful technique and a process. You would work on a scene for six weeks. For the first three weeks, you don't memorize it. You do a lot of process work with the text before memorizing it.
In addition, she does this practice called "What Works." You'll do a monologue or an improv in front of the class, and Deena will say, "What works?" and people will yell out what works about you. It could be the sound of your voice, the way your mouth moves, the way you walk. Oftentimes the things that will resonate with an audience were the things you wanted to shut down in yourself, the things that you thought didn't serve you as an actor—whether it's the way my hair looked that day or the fact that I was in a bad mood that day. This allowed me to accept those things about myself and incorporate it into the work, not judging it, but keeping all those channels open. This way you're a fully formed instrument. Chances are this will humanize the characters you play. If you want to resonate with an audience, you have to allow the characters to have flawed parts.
It was that acceptance that made me think, "Oh, okay, I'm part of this. Everything I'm walking in the door with is okay to be part of this character. I can explore this; I can come to terms with this." Lots of times we push away things. It's better to know that this is there and decide if it's usable instead of fighting it—because if you're fighting something, you're shutting down a part of you and your vulnerability. That helped me just because I could walk into an audition room, which was foreign and scary to me, and I didn't have to feel I had to be this "great actress." Now I could walk in the room having waited tables till 2 in the morning or had a fight with a friend, or maybe I was happy when the character was supposed to be sad, yet I could allow all that to come in with me, and I could use it or not.
Kim Dickens currently stars as Janette Desautel on HBO's "Treme" and appears in the new "Footloose." She has appeared on such shows as "Deadwood," "Friday Night Lights," and "Lost." Her indie film credits include "Palookaville," "Voice From the Grave," "Truth or Consequences, N.M.," "Heart Full of Rain," and "Great Expectations." She starred opposite Bruce Willis in "Mercury Rising" and alongside Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman in "Zero Effect." She was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for "Things Behind the Sun." Other films include "House of Sand and Fog," "Red," and "The Blind Side."
Gary Veney, Stephen Book, and Denise Dowse
During my career, I've had three significant acting teachers or coaches. I use those terms—teachers and coaches—interchangeably. I first studied with Gary Veney when I was a kid doing community theater while living in Los Angeles. After "The Cosby Show," I then studied with Stephen Book, and about 14 years ago I started with Denise Dowse. They were all equally important to me. I needed them for different reasons at different points. But I always felt I needed training, but perhaps especially after spending eight years on a sitcom.
Working on a sitcom is not the best place to learn acting. It's interesting because only as an adult have I gained a respect for sitcom acting. Given the genre and the schedule, you don't have time to develop character. The limited rehearsal time on a film and especially a sitcom is the problem. It's a backward process to acting. In a sitcom you figure out where the laughs are, hit the laughs, and then if there's time, make it organic. The theater, of course, is the best place to develop character from the inside out, because there's the luxury of an extended rehearsal process. But if you're not in a play—or even if you are in one—I strongly recommend working with an acting teacher or coach. I know it has helped me. For the most part, and certainly in recent years, I've been working one-on-one with my teachers.
The challenge for me has always been to get the lines into my body. That's particularly hard when you have a limited rehearsal time. When the words come from the body, that's when the acting really begins to happen and the character makes sense on a deeper level. That's one of the main reasons I wanted to work with Denise. She has helped me do that. What makes her so wonderful, among other things, is the way she listens. I do most of the talking, describing what I think is happening with the character, and she remains silent. But she is listening. Then she starts asking me questions, and I begin to figure things out about the character on the basis of those questions. But what I especially like about her teaching technique is that she never tells you what to do. She lets you figure it out on your own. One of the important things I've learned from her is to get my lines down first. Once I've done that, I can work on character and get those words into my body.
I still audition for roles, and before any audition I work with Denise. I know it's yet another expense, but if at all possible I strongly recommend that every actor get a coach to prepare for an audition. It's really been worth the expense for me. There is nothing like walking into an audition with the confidence that comes from being properly prepared and knowing you have done the work. That's when auditions actually become fun.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner came to prominence on "The Cosby Show" as the Huxtables' son, Theo. He co-starred for four years on "Malcolm & Eddie," was on the sitcom "Listen Up!," and was the host of the literacy-promoting children's show "CBS Storybreak." Onstage he has starred in the plays "Three Ways Home," "Cryin' Shame" (for which he received an NAACP Theater Award for best supporting actor), "Freefall" (at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago), and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (at La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif.). Recently his one-man production of "Love and Other Social Issues" made its West Coast debut.
Uta Hagen, Lee Strasberg, Harvey Lembeck, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts
When I was 18, I studied with Uta Hagen and I learned a lot about scene work and working with an object, improv, and working with intention. She said to me, "They will probably tell you that you're a dramatic actress and a tragedian, but I think you're a comedian." That always stuck with me because it gave me the option of doing both. She had me work on Sally Bowles from "I Am a Camera"—for a whole year, using all of her different exercises and techniques with this character. This was essentially a dramedy, offering room for a lot of comedy.
Then while I was still 18, I tried to get into Lee Strasberg's personal classes. They were being held at Carnegie Hall, and I was always told they were filled up, but there was a waiting list. Somehow I got to Strasberg's secretary, and I wrote a long letter. I said I was pretty sure I would have a nervous breakdown if he didn't take me in his class. I got his number, and I called him so many times a day that he finally agreed to see me. He basically tried to talk me out of acting. He said, "You come from a really good family. Why would you want a life of rejection and all the uncertainties that go with an acting career? Why don't you marry well?" I was so discouraged that he was giving me this speech that I backtracked to Uta.
I had also spent some time at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, when I was 17, right out of high school. But the only thing I really took away from there was mime. Uta had asked me where I learned Method acting, and I told her I don't know what that is. She said, "You act with your eyes," and I said, "Oh, that's because of the mime that I've learned from Paul Curtis of the American Mime Theatre," who was teaching at the Academy. When Lee finally took me in his private classes, he did tell me I was very good with my eyes, supporting what Uta had told me, but that I talk too much with my hands, which was nervous energy. He actually said, "You should sit on your hands so that all of the emotion can come out of the eyes and the voice." This stuck with me. He said that he had told Geraldine Page the same thing. So I felt like I was in good company.
Lee had us do a lot of sensory work. You always hear about drinking orange juice or coffee and how much does a coffee cup weigh, what does coffee feel like, and what does it smell like. It all seemed so boring to me. But since we were going to do it for 40 minutes or something, I got into it, and I would go home every day and work with my personal objects. For me, it was coffee.
Lee said the three most important words are "relaxation," "concentration," and "imagination." We would do this Strasberg relaxation exercise in a chair. He would come around and pick up our arms and our legs and roll our heads around. If we were tense in the least bit, he would find out and talk about it. And we would work with sounds, like abrupt guttural sounds that would bring our attention to our lower lungs. If you just make sounds from your throat, you eventually get laryngitis. On Broadway you wouldn't last but a few weeks. When I came to using my lower lungs, it certainly opened up my heart. Tears and all this emotion would come when I made the sound correctly. We would work with the sound and the relaxation, and we would go into the coffee cup, and then the coffee cup would eventually turn into a shower or sunshine or alcohol—all the various sensory things you can do. And then we would simultaneously be working on scenes.
There was a guy in class I thought was interesting-looking. I went up to him and asked if he would do a scene with me, and he said, "Only if you don't have me do Stanley Kowalski." That person was Dustin Hoffman. I think that was 1964. We did a scene from a play written by his roommate. Dustin was teaching me in his own way to not do material that the world had done—to pick something that they haven't seen. This was a comedy, and Lee never worked on comedy. So I was a little nervous as to how we were going to do this. Dustin would say to me, "You can't laugh; keep a straight face." So that was my first lesson in comedy. From that point to this day, I keep a straight face very well in any comedy. I, of course, play it dramatically, and it comes out that much funnier. Lee was laughing and laughing, and he said, "Well, normally I don't teach comedy, but Dustin and Sally are playing the dramatic reality." To hear them all laughing was a huge breakthrough for me. In later years, my godmother, Shelley Winters, would tell me, "Make them laugh when they think they're going to cry, and make them cry when they think they're going to laugh." So that was her explanation of dramedy, which I have all these years been teaching my students.
Lee would also talk all the time about truth—that the whole basis of acting was truth, and if you weren't coming from your heart and your soul, it would look like acting. He used to tell me I cried too much. So every time I was going to cry, I would have to hide it. And sure enough the audience would cry. That was another huge signpost along the road.
I was very shy at the time, and because Marilyn Monroe was such a big deal in Lee's life, I always thought I would be the next Marilyn Monroe. We did these things called private moments, things that you would never do in public. So I began taking my clothes off right then and there, like someone would do in private, and Lee really loved that. So that led to Terrence McNally's play "Sweet Eros," in 1968, where I became the first nude actress in American theater. Four years of taking my clothes off in Lee's class had led up to this.
I also remember bringing Robert De Niro to the Actors Studio. He and I would work practically every week on scenes, and they were highly emotional—lots of fight scenes. What was great about working with Lee was you didn't have to be working commercially all the time, because the Actors Studio was where it was happening. Working there, you'd see Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Joanne Woodward, and all these amazing people. Lee would put the well-known actors in with the beginners. And they would support us in our young training. We, of course, would idolize them.
I remember doing parts of "Richard III" with Rip Torn. When it comes to the part where Lady Anne spits at Richard, I couldn't wait to do that. Rip was so upset that he'd pick me up by the shoulders and dangle me in the air. I believe Arthur Penn was moderating that day and said it was the best "Richard III" he's ever seen; it was just very visceral. It wasn't very mental; it was all dealing with emotional recall and personalization, as if this man just killed my husband. Who is Richard III to me? Is it Rip Torn, or am I overlaying Rip Torn with the person in my life who I had that emotional range with? And then Lee would have us do emotional recall, where one person would sit in the chair. He would say, "Close your eyes and go back to a moment in your life when you had a very, very emotional moment. Tell me what you're wearing, what you're feeling, what you're tasting, what you're hearing, what you're saying," and he'd go through all the sensory work. He was a strong believer in working with things from our past. If we pick something the day before, it could so easily change. And if you were in a Broadway run and your life kept changing, that memory wouldn't change. He would urge us to go way back in years to childhood stuff, to teenage stuff.
Of course, in that case, I was still a teenager, but I was the daughter of an alcoholic, so I had a lot to draw on from the emotional scenarios in my upbringing. And if you combined what you learned about scene work with what you did with the internal work that you got from Lee, you would have a pretty strong package. And I was the youngest member of the Actors Studio at that time. I got to work with amazing people, and the Playwrights/Directors Unit was going on simultaneously with the Acting Unit. Actors could sit in, and you would have Harold Clurman, for example, leading the Playwrights Unit and Elia Kazan leading the Directors Unit. And then they would sit in our classes, so you would be observed by the top people from the Group Theatre. For a young person, it was just extraordinary training.
Once you audition for the Actors Studio, you are never free for the rest of your life. I still go to the Actors Studio here in L.A. on Fridays. Mark Rydell and Martin Landau have taken over the reins. Lee used to teach both in New York and out here, and some time in the middle '70s he made both myself and four other people the teachers to whom he taught his last work. I taught at the Lee Strasberg Theatre for years and years, doing Lee's work and adding things that I had found worked for me.
As an actor, I also studied in the late '70s with Harvey Lembeck. He taught comedy, and I was in class with the then-unknown actors John Ritter and Robin Williams. And they were so brilliant at improvisation that it was terrifying to be thrown on stage with either of them. But it was such a training ground for me. I was sad when Harvey died. I've never quite seen anyone like him for teaching comedy. And so when I came back to teaching at the Lee Strasberg Institute, Lee gave me a commission to do a little of a take on Harvey's teachings. I would teach the Method acting and would throw in some of the improv.
I've basically learned from the teachers I have that if you're a really good actor, you can do it all. It's always great when you get a part when you're challenged. I was lucky when I did "Anna." That was a part that was obviously very dramatic but also very funny. You have to stay very human, from moment to moment. You can't in any way let the audience know what's going to happen next.
Sally Kirkland is a veteran actor with hundreds of credits. She made her film mark in "The Sting" and was Oscar-nominated for "Anna." She has played recurring roles on television, and she currently has several films in postproduction.
Boston Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and Williamstown Theatre Festival
The first time I saw "West Side Story" when I was a kid, it seemed like the most magical, and real, thing to me. And I just wanted to be an actor. But I grew up singing as well, so I joined bands and I did shows. And then I really got into musical theater and straight acting. As I got older and did more professional work and worked in New York City, I realized I did want to focus my talents and audition for a professional program. There I could train with peers that were really talented and be challenged by them and sort of move away from the New York thing and come back a stronger performer. I had known some kids that went to Boston Conservatory, mainly Drew Sarich. I was like, that's who I want to be like: great actor, presence, but an awesome singer and versatile singer. So I looked into Boston.
At Boston Conservatory, I had teachers that were into the Method, Meisner, and all of the great techniques and teachers. But there wasn't a pure, single method or technique taught there. It depended on the teacher. For me, like anything, it's really what you take from it and how you make it work for yourself—taking a bit of everything and absorbing it and making it work for yourself in the scene and onstage and certainly at auditions.
Boston Conservatory is such an intimate place. It's a small program; it's very exclusive and a great facility. But it also gives a lot of opportunity to perform. So I was always in shows, because there's always a bit of a shortage of leading men in a professional training program like that, with incredible dancer-actor-singer types. I could try to grow from each experience—from mainstage works to studio works to student-directed pieces to professional shows that were going on in Boston. I got to do Shakespeare in Boston. While I was in school full-time, I was rehearsing a show at night and putting it up for a few weeks at a time. I played Malcolm in "Macbeth" with Boston Theatre Works. That was my first opportunity, really, to wrap my lips around those words. It was the most rewarding experience. I got some great reviews, and it really helped me on so many levels, and I really hope to do more of that.
There were definitely classes I fought against, but in thinking back, that was ignorant of me. You're tired. You're working. You're also trying to be a college kid, because even though we're in a professional setting, that's our college. Those are the years for us to have those experiences. And as an actor, it's important to have relationships and be social and interact with other people. But we had it very differently as well, because we were always working.
I'm a songwriter, I'm a musician, but I'm not a very good one, to be honest. And I struggled in some of the music theory classes. But I excelled in repertoire class, and in script and score, and in interpreting lyrics. I loved talking about plays and Shakespeare and things I was super passionate about—if I was prepared! Sometimes you weren't as prepared to be in class. I'm just being real here. They afford you an amazing opportunity—great faculty, great staff—but you could probably skate by. I never skated by, because I was very passionate about most of the things I did there. But some things were just not as important to me. Thinking back, I wish I had worked a bit harder in ballet. Not because I want to be a ballerina, but because I feel like I'd be stronger and more flexible by now. I'm in good shape, but I feel like maybe I'd be even more in touch with my body or my breathing, my technique, and maybe I'd pick up steps, even as a leading man, a little bit better if I'd worked harder there. [But] being a straight man in ballet class—you know, all the pretty girls—sometimes it's hard to concentrate.
I had a teacher tell me that I was a better actor when I first got there than when I left. Sometimes you get your head filled with so much stuff. That's the thing about a training program. You have to absorb everything and then sort of forget it all as well. You can't just be up there trying to apply all of these techniques and tools all the time. It has to be a natural, conversational, real moment for yourself and for the people you're working with. By the end, there was so much information that I think I started getting in my head a lot. But it was the best thing he ever said to me, because everything started to make sense after that, and it just became simple and it just became natural for me, which was cool.
I'm very proud to be a graduate of the Boston Conservatory. I think it's the number one musical theater program by far in the whole country. I achieved my dream by learning from the best. And then, in a short time, getting to create a role on Broadway that I was nominated for a Tony for, for best actor, and I think the school is a huge part of that. I think my focus and being immersed in all of the performing arts—everything around you was about the work and nothing but the work. That was huge for me. Diversifying myself, doing things outside of the program, was also huge. Doing things at Berklee College of Music was huge for me. Filling every summer up with great professional summer theater things. I also worked at the Seacoast Rep one summer, where I starred as Hedwig in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." I did the Gloucester Stage Company one summer, the Israel Horovitz summer theater. I got to play Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath" my senior year. So it wasn't just about Broadway shows. I got to do "The Kentucky Cycle" I got to do some great plays.
I did Williamstown the summer after I graduated; I was an acting apprentice there. Williamstown was huge for me. It made everything at school make sense. I was really able to compete at Williamstown with the best kids in the country as apprentices and work with hugely famous directors and actors and writers. Basically, the apprentice program there is second to none, and it just was like the perfect summer after school. I got to work all the time, which was great.
So I feel like I owe a lot to the school. But again, it's what you make it. They can only prepare you for the world, and you have to take it from there.
Constantine Maroulis received a Tony Award nomination for best performance by a leading actor in a musical for his role in "Rock of Ages." He was the sixth-place finalist on the fourth season of "American Idol."
Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama (BFA)
Carnegie Mellon was really tough. It was a four-year conservatory-style BFA program. Our first year, they cut seven people, and the second year we lost another seven as well, and that was from an already small class. So it was very tough to get in and then really tough to stick around.
We studied everything, from acting from the ancient periods on. We started with ancient Greece and went all the way up through commedia to Shakespeare and the Victorian era to the turn-of-the-20th-century realism movement with Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw. And that took us all the way into the modern playwrights: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and contemporary playwrights. So we learned about a really wide range of styles. And then we had very extensive dialect training. As it turns out, the head of the dialect department at Carnegie Mellon before I was there was Liz Himelstein, who is the dialect coach for "True Blood." So when you talk about things that I learned at Carnegie Mellon that helped me out in my professional career, sitting down with a woman to learn the Jackson, Miss., dialect and realizing that she taught the exact system that I was taught at CMU was amazing. It was incredibly easy for me to pick up.
Another thing teachers made us do freshman year—that I thought was one of the stupidest things ever—was they picked out animals for us and made us go to the zoo and we had to study our animal. Then for the next seven-week chapter, we had to spend up to three and a half hours a day as our animal in class. They picked a penguin for me. So I spent up to three and a half hours a day acting like a penguin, eating like a penguin, making noises like a penguin, and interacting with other animals like a penguin, which meant that I was basically getting torn to shreds by all of the bobcats or lions or whatever the other students were. I thought, "What the hell does this have to do with anything, and how is this going to serve me down the line?" I come to find out that 10 years into my career, I'm cast as a man who's part wolf. So all of that technique came back around.
I learned a lot. Some things only sporadically got used in the first 10 years of my career, to be honest with you, because a lot of times you're called at 7 p.m. by your agent about an audition, and you have to show up at 11 a.m. the next morning and be a cop or a bartender. You don't have a lot of time to prepare or really get into the character and dig the way that we were taught in school. Also a lot of times, scripts are constantly being rewritten as you're working on them in television—in film as well. A lot of the films that I've been on expect the actors to improvise, and that's certainly something that I was not taught at Carnegie Mellon. You were not allowed to improvise. You were not allowed to change one word, which is very similar to a sitcom script, where there's really no leeway in terms of improvisation. All that stuff has been metered out and timed out very well.
The only other thing that I would say is that the dialogue on "True Blood" is very deconstructive in its nature, and it reminds me of all of that turn-of-the-20th-century Chekhovian stuff, in the way that you take a really high-concept show with really high-concept characters—be it vampires and werewolves—and we show them in the kitchen. We show them at the grocery store. We show their day-to-day life, where I think other projects up to this point involving supernatural creatures have lost themselves in the grandiosity of the supernatural. I think what's so amazing about "True Blood," where I think the talent of the writers really comes in, is that you get to ask all of those questions and you get to really look at these supernatural characters as human beings, or as beings struggling to be human. In that way, it's very much like Chekhov. I just don't think you could do "True Blood" unless you've either been doing this for a long time or went to classical training school or both.
Joe Manganiello graduated with a BFA in acting from the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in 2000. He played Flash Thompson in the "Spider-Man" film series and had recurring roles on "ER," "How I Met Your Mother," and "One Tree Hill" before breaking out as werewolf Alcide on the HBO series "True Blood," on which he is a series regular.
Margie Haber (on-camera master intensive workshop)
In summer 2003, I was a junior at USC. I had gone to USC for the BFA theater program. You're 18 years old, and you get into a program, and all anybody tells you is, "They only accept 14 people a year. This is so prestigious. You've got to work so hard." The department was going through a transition; there wasn't a practicing dean at the time. Everything about it felt a bit confusing. And for me, something rather unfortunate started to happen: I started looking at acting as a chore. It was this pressure I had to live up to. I wouldn't feel like I was learning so much as I was falling short of something. It just wasn't making me happy. Being an actor is the greatest love in my life. I value it so much. And I think it really sort of took a toll on me not feeling at home in that arena at the time. I transferred out of the theater department and focused on Annenberg and became a journalism major.
Someone suggested that I take [an acting] class outside of school. I had some people say, "You should just take a class for fun, where it's not homework, where you're not being told you have to complete an assignment but you don't know what the assignment is. Go back and take a class that is more like doing a play again"—which is the arena in which I fell in love with acting; I was doing theater.
And Margie Haber was recommended to me. I took her three-day weekend intensive. And in the middle of the first day, I started laughing, because I finally keyed back into what I loved about acting. I was telling a story. I was going into the life of a character. I felt like I had stretched out and luxuriated in somebody else's skin again. There was no more pressure and there was no more confusion. It was just an instinctual experience, and it really reminded me of why I wanted to be an actor, and it really helped me plug back into what it is that I do well. It was a really reinforcing moment in my life.
A week later, I was back on a set, doing an arc on "Nip/Tuck." Three weeks after that, I booked "One Tree Hill," and I've been out of Los Angeles [working on the series] ever since.
Margie has this way about her. It was a small class, maybe 10 or 12 of us. And I'll never forget watching two of my classmates doing a scene. The guy in the scene was sitting on a chair, and he wasn't connecting. He had to go to this really emotional place, and whether it was nerves because he'd never been in a class like that, or some sort of machismo and he didn't want to get emotional with this other actor, I don't know. Margie got in his face. Not in a violent or aggressive way. She got right up to his face and kept getting closer and closer, telling him to talk to her and telling him to keep running the scene. She was running it with him, and she got to the point where they were nose-to-nose. She made this remark about not being allowed to have personal space as an actor—about having to let the other person in, about having to let someone get close to you. That's the whole point of what we do, whether it's actually the person physically in the scene with you or the audience on the other end. We are creating a closeness, and we are offering a window into personal experience.
It really stuck with me, and I realized that that's my job, and it really makes me feel honored to be an actor, because when you think about human history, the oldest and most constant pieces that exist of people are storytelling. Whether we're talking about cave drawings or tribesmen telling stories through song and dance, whatever it may be, this is what we've always done: We've told stories and honored our ancestors. We've tried to inspire and pay homage to where we've come from and where we're going. And as actors, we get to do that in this very 21st-century media. We're in this digital space now, where we're beaming stories out across televisions and across movie screens, and at times across the Internet. We are partaking in the oldest human tradition, and in all the years I've been working on the show, I've come to value it so much. And the beginning of the awareness of that, for me, was in that class. And I didn't realize it until sometime later. But the thing I clicked into, that I plugged back into, was my realization that I tell stories for a reason, and that they matter, and that being honest in that storytelling matters.
Sophia Bush has been playing Brooke Davis on "One Tree Hill" since 2003. She made her screen debut in "Van Wilder" and enjoyed a recurring role on "Nip/Tuck," among other credits.
Royal Shakespeare Company, HB Studio (with Uta Hagen), and Victor Garber
I realized I wanted to be an actor when I went to London for my junior year of college. I took this theater studies program and studied with various teachers from the Royal Shakespeare Company. I just thought it would be a really interesting life. I thought it wouldn't be boring for a minute, and in fact it hasn't been. It just unfolded from there. That year in London, I saw a million plays. I saw Anthony Hopkins on stage and Tony Sher and Roger Rees and Helen Mirren, and I just thought this was the place to be.
After college I moved to Chicago. I didn't feel quite ready for New York. I thought I would just sink there; I didn't want to go there straight from college. So I moved to Chicago with a group of friends. In Chicago at that time, à la Steppenwolf, you could start a theater company in any sort of black box, any storefront space—anywhere, really—and people would come. I stayed in Chicago for four years total and did a bunch of theater there, at the Goodman and with various theater companies, and when I felt like I had a little bit of wind behind me, I came to New York. There I was lucky enough to study with Uta Hagen for a couple of years at HB Studio before she became really unwell. Then I studied with Victor Garber, who got me one of my first theater jobs in New York. But Uta Hagen was my teacher, and she was great.
Hope Davis has appeared in "Charlie Bartlett," opposite Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," and opposite Nicolas Cage in "The Weather Man." On television she has starred on "Six Degrees" and "In Treatment." She was in the original Broadway and touring casts of "God of Carnage."
Demián Bichir in "A Better LIfe"
It was really beautiful, the way my brothers and I learned the craft. We grew up in the theater. My parents met each other studying theater in their hometown, Torreón. They rescued each other from their families, because no one knew what acting was all about. Then they got married and moved to Mexico City without knowing anybody. My brothers and I were born there.
So we grew up going with my parents, in this theater company that they belonged to, into every single square in Mexico City, performing, in open spaces, anywhere. I was 3 years old when I first stepped onto a stage: El Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
My parents knew all about Stanislavsky and Grotowski, and all the literature that we needed to know was right there at home, in my parents' library. All the mystique about it, and all the love for it, and all the respect for the craft and the work of an actor in theater, we got that from our parents.
Demián Bichir enjoyed a long run on "Weeds," opposite Mary-Louise Parker. Major film credits include Steven Soderbergh's "Che," in which Bichir plays Fidel Castro. He is widely known in his home nation of Mexico, where he performed with the National Theatre of Mexico, and throughout Latin America. Stage credits include "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Ghost Sonata," "Equus," and "Extras." He currently stars in "A Better Life." His films have been seen by more than 12 million people in Mexico alone.
National School of Dramatic Art, Málaga, Spain
There were no opportunities for me in Málaga; there was no industry, not even a theater company—just independent companies. So the only possibility to take this a little more serious was by going to the school. I studied at the National School of Dramatic Art in Málaga, my hometown. It was a national school with a national title that says you can actually teach theater.
We were Stanislavsky; we had classes in corporal expression, literature of theater, history of theater—a number of classes. And we used to do plays, two or three a year, so we were already on the stage.
There was a professor of corporal expression named Luis Jaime Cortez who had a tremendous impact on all of us at the time. He was a very free guy—and we're talking about a time in which nothing was free in Spain. I remember he used to tell us, "Whatever you bring with you, your persona, when you get in this class, you take it like a jacket and you just leave it outside. I don't want prejudgments here; I don't want any of your background; I want people free and clean and to start creating from there." At the time, I don't think I really understood that, because I didn't know how to separate myself that way. But over the years, I began to understand.
Antonio Banderas began his film career as a muse of Pedro Almodóvar. He has appeared in "Philadelphia," "Evita," "Frida," "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," and as the voice of Puss in the "Shrek" franchise. Currently he stars in "The Skin I Live In."
Juilliard Drama Division and Marjorie Ballentine
I did not always want to be an actor. I originally wanted to be a lawyer or police officer. In high school, the girl I was dating at the time was auditioning for the school play, and she wanted me to audition with her, so that she could be comfortable. Even though she wasn't cast, I was. The play ended up being a good experience. Later in life, I harkened back to those days, and I thought, "The thing I probably know how to do best is act, and that's what I should do." I mentioned to a girl that I wanted to be an actor, and she said, "If you want to act, then you should probably go to Juilliard." And I did. I didn't question her. I didn't know Juilliard was Juilliard when I auditioned. I just auditioned thinking I was going to get in, and I did. Once I got in I realized, "Oh, this is a good school."
Even though I was confident and I didn't know about Juilliard's reputation, I worked hard to get admitted. I had to audition, which required, among other things, a Shakespearean monologue. But Shakespeare had never lived in my mouth before. I really practiced the monologue I performed from "Julius Caesar." I actually didn't even read the entire play, but it worked out.
The biggest lesson Juilliard taught me was the importance of script analysis, which includes reading a work, analyzing it, breaking it down, knowing all the details and motivations of all the characters. In other words, I learned to do my research, which is my bread and butter now when I work. Whenever you work with a Juilliard actor, you know exactly who you're going to get: You know you will have somebody who will be prepared, know exactly what's going on before and after the scene, and what everybody's character is supposed to do. Every Juilliard actor knows the project's world inside and out.
Before I went to Juilliard, I would just read something and memorize the lines, but Juilliard taught me this process of research and gave me a technique by which I know how to work. If I'm in a play, and we're doing seven shows a week, I have to sustain a character every day, and the only way I do that is with process and technique. I have to have a process in order to make the person all the way in the back hear me. The research process allows me to be completely comfortable in the project's world, and technique allows me to express myself in a way so everybody can understand me.
I have friends that are always taking acting classes; they're like class junkies. That works for them, but I feel that Juilliard was class enough for me. I still think it's important to study though. About three years ago, I felt like my acting was getting stale, and I was getting bored with myself. A Juilliard classmate recommended that I work with acting coach Marjorie Ballentine. Her technique is similar to that of Juilliard, and I love working with her. She lights a fire under my tail. She challenges me and is very honest. She tells me I can be better and explains how to do so. She always brings me back to the who, what, where, when, and why of the work, which is essential. Always go back to the work. I love studying with her because it gives me another perspective, another set of eyes, to consider. That's important to keep pushing yourself as an actor.
Nelsan Ellis is a playwright and an actor who has been featured in films ("The Help") and series ("Without a Trace"). He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's "True Blood." While studying at Juilliard, Ellis received Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal Award for his semiautobiographical play "Ugly."
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