Those Who Can

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Photo Source: Dina Ann Comoli
Anybody who has taken an acting class has likely looked at the instructor and wondered, "What if the tables were turned? How would I be as the one devising the improvisations and coaching students through scenes?"

Such thoughts get self-censored for various reasons. Even actors with extensive experience and knowledge sometimes feel unworthy to teach a class. Others may feel that if they were to pursue teaching, it would interfere with their performing career—perhaps even signaling defeat. After all, the maxim "Those who can't do, teach" has been repeated so many times that people tend to believe it. But teaching acting doesn't necessarily mean giving up on acting.

Back Stage spoke with five actors who have incorporated teaching or coaching into their working lives. They shared how they came to be teachers, how they've grown in the classroom or studio, and how they balance the twin parts of their work.

The Reluctant Maestra

Stephanie Feury was puzzled. She had enrolled in Ivan Markota's Van Mar Academy in Los Angeles because she'd been told she would benefit from exposure to a more business-oriented approach to acting than she'd experienced in New York at NYU, the Actors Conservatory, and elsewhere. But Markota had begun asking her to critique other students' work. Yes, he knew that her parents, William Traylor and Peggy Feury, had been celebrated acting teachers. But she had no intention of following in their footsteps. If she were ever to take up teaching, it would be when she was well into her 60s or 70s, she thought.

After their third or fourth class together, Markota offered Feury the chance to teach a class of her own at Van Mar. She resisted. Her serious-minded approach to acting—rooted in the traditions of the Actors Studio—seemed to be at odds with Markota's pragmatic, commerce-oriented view.

But he persisted, and soon Feury was meeting with her own group of students. They were a diverse lot: fresh arrivals to Los Angeles, gang members, grandparents who harbored a desire to do a little acting. But because most had no previous training, they weren't steeped in any particular technique. Feury used exercises she had learned from her own teachers, experimenting to see what worked and what didn't. She began to view it as her mission to convey that acting isn't "just something you sign up to do and make big money at," but rather a lifelong commitment to art.

That was some 15 years ago. Now Feury operates her own school, the Stephanie Feury Studio—complete with a small theater—on the corner of Larchmont and Melrose in Los Angeles. She continues to act herself, and to direct plays (she recently directed students in "Dolores" and "North of Providence," one-acts by Edward Allan Baker).

In the beginning, Feury was so focused on having students grasp the day's lesson that she would extend the class in order to hammer the point into their heads. That has changed. "Now I put it out there and see if they bite," she says. "And if they don't, I go back with myself and see what I need to shift or change to get them to understand…. That's very freeing—to know that it will come when it comes."

Feury sums up her advice to prospective acting teachers in a few simple points:

1. Always be of service, sharing with students what you know.

2. Listen.

3. Guide.

4. Let go, so students can sort things out on their own terms.

Into the Breach

Like Feury, Matthew Arkin comes from a family that takes acting seriously. The son of actors Alan Arkin and Barbara Dana, he grew up not far from HB Studio in New York's Greenwich Village. He would eventually study there, learning from such actor-teachers as Austin Pendleton. Now Arkin teaches at HB, and Pendleton is a colleague.

Arkin had often been told he was a natural as a teacher. "I'd be working with people and they'd be struggling with something, and I would help them out," he says. "I'd be told over and over again, 'You should teach. You have a real facility for explaining this to people.' " His first foray came several years ago, when he was in L.A. doing voiceover work. He noticed that most voiceover classes in California were taught by agents and producers: "I said, 'Those are people who know what they want, but they're not people who know how to do it.' " He and a friend taught voiceover together for about two years, until Arkin returned to New York to appear in Broadway's 1997 revival of "The Sunshine Boys."

The HB opportunity came in 2008 when he met a friend at the school and was approached by Peter Bloch, then the studio's operations manager. Arkin soon began auditing classes in order to ready himself. His first course assignment came suddenly and was not an enviable one: He took over the class of an instructor who had died.

"He had a persona and a way that he worked," Arkin recalls, "and he also had a relationship with all of these students." The experience was daunting, he says, but he was ready. In addition to his voiceover teaching, he had been a guest instructor between 30 and 40 times over the years.

Early on, Arkin would suppress the impulse to tell anecdotes in class, feeling he was being needlessly tangential. "I finally realized that I am telling these stories because they are a practical application of the things I'm trying to explain," he says. "I've come to trust more and more that…it's coming from something I just saw."

Because so many of HB's instructors are working actors, the students there come to expect substitutes now and then. If Arkin must miss a class due to an acting job, he has a regular replacement—someone his students know and trust. In turn, Arkin will fill in for other absent instructors. (This summer, he'll have an extended break from classes when he appears in Annie Weisman's "The Surf Report" at La Jolla Playhouse.)

Arkin cautions that actors who are motivated by ego instead of "a spirit of excitement" about students' development should steer clear of teaching. He advises those who do proceed to draw good boundaries. "You're a teacher and mentor and friend," he says, "but not a therapist or a guru."

The Triumph of Technique

In the early 1980s, Marion McCorry understudied for Susan Sarandon in the New York production of William Mastrosimone's play "Extremities." The first time she went on, McCorry had yet to walk through the second act and was uncertain of the blocking. Yet she pulled it off. She credits her training, mostly with Uta Hagen at HB Studio, with getting her through the ordeal unscathed. It was then that McCorry knew she wanted to teach—to spread the good word that the technique she had learned really did work.

She enrolled in an MFA program at Brooklyn College. She did some teaching while there, which gave her an edge when she began looking for work after graduation. She has taught at a number of institutions in the Northeast. Her longest assignments have been at HB Studio and at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.

Academic programs, like the one at Cedar Crest, differ somewhat from studio programs, McCorry says. The students are young and may not be theater majors. And they are graded based on their classroom performance. "It's not about that at all for me," she says. "But their fear—their mental fear—is always" about that.

When she was a student herself, McCorry trained with some teachers who were highly critical and pushy, and she claims that such methods "gave me nothing." She takes an admittedly "protective" attitude toward her own students, and she attempts to follow the example of Hagen, who, she notes, always tried to give straightforward information about "what was working and what wasn't."

McCorry finds that the longer she teaches, the more opportunities she seems to have to act. Recently she played the mother of Kirsten Dunst's character in the upcoming film "All Good Things."

Keeping a hand in acting has improved her teaching, in part because it has reinforced her humility, McCorry says. "If you're just teaching, you…can get pretty critical. You begin to judge and think, 'How can they not get that?'… But all you need is one audition and you're flung right back into what it takes to get up there every time."

Settled In

One of the things Benard Cummings finds useful about his acting-teaching career combo is that it keeps him attuned to basics. "In order to teach someone the process of Stanislavsky," he says, "it's almost like self-analysis. You go back to your own acting process." In preparing a role, Cummings explains, he has sometimes taken shortcuts that he probably should have resisted. But with new students, "you have to teach them A, B, C, D, E, F, G—the whole thing." Teaching reminds him not to cut corners in his own role preparation.

Cummings came to teaching in part because he'd had a long stint acting with regional theaters and felt ready to make New York City more of a home base. A graduate of Southern Methodist University and Yale, he first taught a script analysis course at New York's Purchase College. These days, he teaches at the Stella Adler Studio in Manhattan. He also coaches privately—once even assisting a lawyer looking to improve her courtroom presentation skills.

In working with beginners, Cummings strives to establish a spirit of play—to coax students to become like children at recess. He does use textbooks—principally Hagen's "Respect for Acting" and Charles Waxburg's "The Actor's Script." But he gives students only short excerpts from Stanislavsky's own writings, reasoning that they will have a lifetime to explore the more theoretical side of the craft.

Classes take a good deal of planning, and Cummings puts in a lot of prep work. For instance, he personally selects the scenes that students will work on. But he has not put the brakes on his own acting career. Last year he appeared Off-Broadway in Tim Blake Nelson's "Eye of God." And now that he's no longer such an itinerant actor, he has been able to establish ties with the Lark Play Development Center and the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival.

Accent on Youth

Most of the actors-turned-teachers we spoke with find it refreshing to teach newcomers to acting. That's particularly true for Dina Comolli. For the past 11 years, Comolli, a graduate of American Repertory Theater's actor training program at Harvard, has worked almost exclusively with teenagers and younger children.

Currently she spends three days per week in the Bronx as a teaching artist, as part of the Attendance Improvement Dropout Prevention program, supported by a United Way grant. She also teaches with New York's City Lights Youth Theatre and coaches privately. In addition, she co-owns a company in Queens called Athena's Playground, which conducts an anti-bullying program in schools. Students place ancient myths and legends in contemporary settings in order to explore problem-solving strategies.

Comolli made the move to teaching because she was "really tired of waiting tables," she says, and wanted her side jobs to have some connection to her acting work. She transitioned with the help of the Actors Work Program, a service of the Actors Fund. She creates lesson plans, much like a regular classroom teacher, and has a five-page list of theater games and exercises that can be adapted for students of various ages.

Few of her pupils will pursue acting as a vocation, although Comolli has coached kids who were applying for performing-arts high schools or drama camps. But, she adds, "there are so many skills you can learn for life, for any job—public speaking, interviewing—through the theater."

Commuting—from job to audition to job—can be a challenge, Comolli says. She may not always arrive at casting calls looking perfectly fresh. She customarily gets a break from teaching during the summer, when she appears in regional productions or New York showcases.

Although funding has dwindled for teaching-artist programs, opportunities do remain. Comolli continues to be a cheerleader for other actors wishing to make the move into teaching-artist positions. "You won't get rich," she says, "but you're going to feel really good that you've done a good thing for the day."

Actors who have never led a class before may be more qualified than they imagine, she adds. "So many of us have done talkbacks and workshops. We think, 'Oh, I really don't have any experience.' But we do."

Going Holistic

Although she loves teaching, Comolli considers herself, first and foremost, an actor. Others have similar feelings. For years, Feury felt she was splitting her focus, but eventually she realized that performing was her top priority, with her teaching, coaching, directing, and producing endeavors all extensions of her acting self.

McCorry questions whether sorting creativity into categories even matters. "The mind always thinks in terms of either/or," she says. " 'Either I'll be this or I'll be that.' Well, maybe you'll be all of it. Be brilliant at everything, and then let the universe decide for you which field wants to claim you as its own."