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INDUSTRY INSIDER

"My needs for acting have changed," declares Robert LuPone, who as an actor, director of New York's New School for Drama, and artistic director of Off-Broadway's MCC Theater perhaps juggles more hats than a thriving haberdashery. He's eager to demonstrate why, after more than 40 years in the business, he's aiming to emphasize a practical—not just academic—approach to graduate-level theatre training. "When you're young and impressionable, you don't have as much technique; it's more important to be appreciated," he says. "As you learn skills, you transcend the psychological need to be, say, an actor. Shakespeare's beauty is greater than my insatiable desire to act it, you know?"

Raised on Long Island—he has a twin brother named William, and Tony-winning actor Patti LuPone is his sister—LuPone trained at Juilliard in the 1960s, studying dance with José Limón, Antony Tudor, and Martha Graham and acting with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, among others. By the early 1970s, he was at work on Broadway and beyond, earning a 1973 Joseph Jefferson Award in Chicago for originating the role of Crow in Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime, a 1976 Tony nomination for creating the role of Zach in A Chorus Line on Broadway, and a 1985 Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in a daytime drama for playing another Zach—extortionist Zach Grayson—on All My Children.

Yet rarely does LuPone dwell on his résumé; if anything, he views his career as illustrative of what he hopes New School actors derive from their studies. For example, he discusses how playing Zach in A Chorus Line—the character who puts all the auditioning dancers through their paces—challenged what he calls his "values" as an actor. "Zach was a device to facilitate a protagonist's viewpoint," he says. "How do you play a device, right?" He notes how Zach's romantic link to Cassie—the lead Broadway dancer reduced to trying out for the chorus—has often been criticized as a mere melodramatic subplot. LuPone says he knew the audience "didn't particularly want or care about their story, but look, I'm still the guy who had to realize their relationship on stage. And an actor's job is done well if they're empathetic." At the New School, he says, the focus is on teaching actors to know their jobs.

Since LuPone took over the New School program in 2005, its impact has grown markedly. (Asked why he took the job, he exclaims, "I can do that!") Total applications have doubled; directing applications are up by some 300 percent; Xanthe Elbrick, class of 2006, made her Broadway debut in Coram Boy just eight months after graduation. Among the program's central attractions, LuPone suggests, is a faculty that also works in the biz: Tony winner Ron Leibman leads the acting department, Christopher Shinn and Michael Weller are among the playwriting teachers, and Broadway director Elinor Renfield's leadership of the directing program is complemented by the likes of Austin Pendleton and Dorothy Lyman.

The program's reigning philosophy is not, however, a name-drop parade. "We're asking, 'Are we creating American Idol or are we creating great actors?' " LuPone says. "It's about what we demand of the kids we want to be on stage with—whether it's playwrights, directors, or actors. We're concerned with, Can you work with Kevin Spacey on stage? Can you get by Bernie Telsey as a casting director? Can you get by Jack O'Brien as a director? Can you be with John Patrick Shanley and Doug Hughes and have an intelligent conversation and not be saying, 'Duh, I just feel it'? Another is, Can I hear you? Can I understand you? Is a dialect true—does the actor know what that means? Do we have expressive bodies—goddamn it, you're young; now is the time you should put it out there. My demands are to make them confident in their training, competitive with what they know, and able to survive by having the biggest and best toolbox possible."

In 1984, LuPone and casting director Bernard Telsey founded Off-Broadway's Manhattan Class Company, today called MCC Theater. Like LuPone himself, the company boasts a solid history, from premieres of six Neil LaBute plays (In a Dark Dark House, Some Girl(s), Fat Pig, The Distance From Here, The Mercy Seat, and the upcoming Reasons to Be Pretty) to Bryony Lavery's Frozen (which moved to Broadway and won actor Brían F. O'Byrne a Tony) to Margaret Edson's Wit, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in drama. LuPone cautions, though, that the company's birth wasn't about a drive toward literary riches, despite his eye for good scripts. For all of LuPone's experience—let's toss in Broadway revivals of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge in 1997 and Shepard's True West in 2000, plus episodes of Law & Order and The Sopranos—it was something far more personal.

"I'm a terrible auditioner," he says. "I don't like it. It's a keyhole too small for me to get a job. I resent it. I'm arrogant about it. I blow it off. I don't pay attention to it. Negative, negative, negative. So I don't come in prepared and don't know my lines, or I come in too prepared. It's my tap dance each time I audition." He says young actors can't survive in an era when casting directors are always asking, "What does an actor bring in the room when they're 21, 31, or 41?" It's his hope that New School actors can answer the question.

"When I first got to the New School, actors did scenettes, not plays," LuPone recalls. "Now we give them script analysis and they're doing plays. And there's no tolerance for unprofessional. You've got to be heard, show up at half-hour, show up at 5 p.m. for the van because it's leaving, too bad if you're late. What's real-world, what's professional—that's what I'm arming my kids with.

"The other thing I've done that I think makes us unique," he continues, "is co-labs—writers, actors, and directors all in the same room. They have a class a week for three or four hours where it's about learning how to work together. Year-one projects produce 10-minute plays; year two is one-acts; year three is full-lengths—and they have to work it all out. When I graduated Juilliard, I thought I knew how to act. I did, but I didn't know how to work with anybody. It took me 10 years to learn how to talk to a playwright or director. I want actors to say, 'Who am I?' Meaning, are you a forward, a guard, or a center? Are you able to say, 'You're the coach—I get it. You're the referee—I get it.' Because I, frankly, didn't get it for so long."

Looking ahead, LuPone aims to redevelop the New School's directing program most fundamentally. "I've worked for English, Russian, and American directors. Russian directors can't put plays together in four weeks; they want to rehearse for a year, and that's not going to work. English directors—they can tell a story. This is an audition for English actors: You read a script; I read a script. It's you and him in that room. They also take their own notes—they don't have assistants. I don't think the world needs a directing program that allows you to indulge in your head. It needs a program for the practical world."

What type of student, then, does LuPone want? "When I'm recruiting—I'm talking actors—I know them, I know their fears, I know their insecurities, I relate to everything they go through. If you come in and you're in dialogue with me, I can help you. Dialogue could be 'I don't know but I'm searching' or 'I want to know and I know I don't know' or 'This is as much as I understand, but I'm willing to open up to possibilities.' Above all, actors have to face their own desires and strengths and weaknesses. And you'd be surprised how all that gets corrupted."

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