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Regional Theatre Leaders Take a Big Bite From the Big Apple

A panel discussion on approaches to actor training with five of the top acting teachers in New York. A visit to the Actors Studio and a discussion by its members. A talk with cast members of a current Broadway play on changes in the acting profession.

It's an actor's dream day. But the privilege went, not to actors on this day, but to members of the National Theatre Conference as part of its weekend-long annual meeting in New York (Dec. 1-3) at The Players club.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary year, NTC's members are artistic directors and other industry professionals from across the country, as well as university theatre department chairpersons and faculty, many of whom work actively in the field. The purpose of NTC's annual confab is simply for the interchange of ideas and goals, and to discuss common problems and interests. And there was plenty of time for that among and between a diverse program of panels, guest speakers, award presentations, and business meetings. All in all, it enabled members to bring back to their schools and theatres a fresh perspective on the New York and the professional theatre scene. It also allowed me an enlightened perspective on what's going on in theatres and universities nationwide.

Panel members who were part of Friday morning's discussion on various approaches to actor training included Robert Bella, a founding member of the Atlantic Theatre Company and an executive director of its acting school, which offers a technique—"Practical Aesthetics"—developed by David Mamet and William H. Macy; William Esper, graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he trained with Sanford Meisner, head of his own studio in New York for over 30 years, and currently the chair of Rutgers University's professional actor training program; Joanna Merlin, actor, former casting director, and teacher of Michael Chekhov's principles of acting; Terry Schreiber, director of the T. Schreiber studio in New York, now in its 30th year; Richard Mawe, who studied acting under Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen and is on the faculty of H.B. Studios.

Each teacher clearly articulated what was unique about his or her particular approach. Bella accentuated the importance of studying human nature to observe how people interact with each other. Esper spoke about the importance of working on one's instrument, learning how to listen, and learning how to emotionally prepare. Mawe noted that Berghof's emphasis was not on sensory work, but on knowing what the character wants and playing with that idea. Merlin noted the connection between the body and the imagination with the intellect, the emphasis on the visceral over the intellect, and the importance of creating an atmosphere of trust in the classroom. Schreiber, whose approach is similar to both Lee Strasberg and Meisner, referred to his teachings as a "very valuable American style of acting," noting, "Every actor needs to develop his own method."

(Since there was so much said about each particular approach, as well as in the panelists' responses to questions asked by moderator Jere Lee Hodgin, artistic director of Mill Mountain Playhouse in Roanoke, Va., and by the NTC audience, I will save it and share it with you in an upcoming column.)

Our visit to the Actors Studio turned out to be even more than any of us ever hoped for. Estelle Parsons, the Studio's artistic director, had promised us a few Studio members for a panel discussion, but I didn't realize what a stellar cast she had prepared. During the first half-hour, we listened to Ms. Parsons, along with David Garfield, author of "A Player's Place," a book about the Studio; director-actor Arthur Storch; and actress Barbara Poitier. Then in walked Horton Foote with Hallie Foote, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, and Roberta Wallach. Among NTC members in the audience were other Studio members, including actor Ralph Waite.

Mentions were made of certain plays, originally developed at the Actors Studio, which moved on to the commercial world, such as "The Rose Tattoo," "Night of the Iguana," "A Hatful of Rain," and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Touched upon, too, was the audition process (which takes place every month); the Actors Studio on the West Coast ("not the same level of vitality as here in New York"); Ms. Parsons' efforts toward keeping an open dialogue with foreign companies; the Playwright's Unit; and Lee Strasberg's philosophy and approach to acting.

I will be discussing the Actors Studio at a greater length in an upcoming issue.

Following a reception that Ms. Parsons and the Studio hosted for us, Michael Learned, along with fellow cast members Jonathan Hadary and Mark Blum of "Gore Vidal's The Best Man," spoke to our group on "Changes on the Acting Profession."

Backed by formal training in England, Learned expressed the fact that theatres are now "much more natural and intimate." Blum feels that, when he first started, most actors entered the profession because they always wanted to act on stage. "Now," he adds, "Actors enter the profession because they want to act on TV and on film." He noted that those who do film and TV have a much more intimate style, which works in small theatres, "but working in a Broadway theatre is a somewhat different task, and only some know what's required to act on stage."

Hadary insisted that young actors want to do film "in order to be a star," and added, "A lot of people want to get the job, but they don't want to have the job."

Saturday morning's session featured Young Playwrights Inc., a group—founded by Stephen Sondheim and other members of the Dramatists Guild in 1981—that reaches out to playwrights, 18 years of age or younger. Part of their mission is to insure that "Young theatre artists are heard and acknowledged by theatregoers and by the profession," and in order to achieve this, YPI sponsors a National Playwriting Competition where up to 1,600 scripts are read and evaluated by theatre professionals each year.

Speaking on behalf of YPI was Brett W. Reynolds, YPI's managing director; and playwright Alfred Uhry, president of YPI's board of directors.

Since 1967, the National Theatre Conference has elected a Person of the Year, and this year the honor went to costume designer William Ivey Long. This past year alone, Mr. Long has had—perhaps a record-breaker for designers—eight productions on Broadway. The designer talked about his North Carolina roots: both parents were involved in the arts, and Mr. Long has been associated with North Carolina's outdoor drama by Paul Green, "The Lost Colony," since he was eight years old. This will be his 31st season as the show's production designer. He also spoke about his days at Yale Drama School and his tutelage under master designer Ming Cho Lee. (His best friends at Yale were Paul Rudnick and Wendy Wasserstein.) The designer's first job in N.Y. was with playwright Richard Nelson. Long went on to work with Jerry Zaks, Mike Ockrent, and, now, Susan Stroman. He also talked about upcoming projects, including "The Producers," "The Royal Family," a revival of "South Pacific," and "Thou Shalt Not," a new musical based on Zola's "Therèse Raquin." He touched upon how the craftspeople in his industry—drapers, cutters, and stitchers—are now "an endangered species," and considers this one of the biggest problems facing theatre today.

The Person of the Year gets to select the recipient of NTC's Paul Green Foundation Award (a check for $1,000), and Mr. Long chose actress Kate Levering, currently Zaneeta, the Mayor's daughter, in "The Music Man," and soon to be Therèse Raquin.

NTC presented its award for Outstanding Achievement for a Theatre Company to the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis and to its artistic director Peter Brosius. Brosius, in turn, was able to choose NTC's scholarship recipient (a $1,000 check), which will go to a member of the Children's Theatre Company, Andy Madsen.

Thomas Gibbons was given the $1,000 Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwright Award. This award, now in its 11th year, recognizes the importance of playwrights and serves to encourage their work. Mr. Gibbons, who is associated with the InterAct Company in Philadelphia, was recognized for his play, "Bee-Luther-Hatchee," and there was a reading from scenes of the play following the awards luncheon on Saturday afternoon.

As Eli Wallach noted at the Actors Studio the previous day, "Stage is the only medium where playwrights have power…That's why the Fabulous Invalid will never die."

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