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New York Acting Teachers on Their Influences and Mentors

New York Acting Teachers on Their Influences and Mentors
Here we are in the second decade of the new millennium—one or two generations removed from the seminal American acting teachers of the previous century.

Those icons, mostly Group Theatre alumni, carried the teachings of Stanislavsky into the modern era: Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Bobby Lewis, Harold Clurman, and the like—a handful of dynamic personalities who shaped acting techniques and approaches to teaching that are still in use.

Some of the most important acting teachers in New York today were trained by that first generation; others learned from their protégés. Back Stage spoke with seven of these acting gurus about the 21st-century challenges of actor training in an ever-changing field. They represent a sample of the many prominent teachers in the area—about 250 acting teachers, studios, and coaches in all. We decided to focus mainly on individual teachers with studios rather than on larger acting schools.

See Our Comprehensive List of New York Acting Schools and Coaches

William Esper: Simplicity and Imagination

"It's a different world," says William Esper, who is, among those interviewed, the closest link to that first generation. For the earlier teachers, "the pressures and sensibilities were different."

Esper began his acting training with Meisner in 1962 and continued to work closely with him, as director and teacher, for the next 15 years. He established the William Esper Studio in 1965 while continuing to teach at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, then went on to found the MFA and BFA actor training programs at Rutgers University in 1977, leading that department until 2004. He currently teaches both beginning and advanced students at his studio, which has seven other acting faculty members, including his wife. Esper is also the co-author of "The Actor's Art and Craft" with Damon DiMarco.

"The actor today has to be able to come up with wonderful results in a brief space of time," Esper says, referring to today's truncated rehearsal periods for the stage, and virtually no rehearsal at all for film and TV. "One of the reasons I've stayed with Meisner's work," he adds, "is the improvisation," a necessary skill for contemporary actors. His own son and daughter act in theater, film, and TV.

For Esper, the essence of Meisner's teaching is simplicity. Meisner taught him that for something to be truly profound, it must be very simple—"so look for the simple, direct way of achieving something." And ultimately, he says, it's all about the imagination, and the teacher must have imagination and a poetic sensibility in order to instill those essential qualities in the student.

Esper often asks prospective students why they want to act. "If they come up with some intelligent answer," he says, "I know they're not actors. If they choke up and can't speak and can't say why, I know this is an actor."

Maggie Flanigan: Always Starting Over

One of Esper's protégés, Maggie Flanigan worked with her mentor for almost 20 years, training as an actor and teacher and serving on the faculty of Rutgers' professional actor training program for 18 years.

Eventually she left to establish a smaller studio of her own. At the Maggie Flanigan Studio, students enroll in a two-year Meisner-based conservatory program: exercises the first year, character work the second. Flanigan herself teaches the more experienced actors. Classes include movement, voice and speech, audition technique, and acting for the camera.

Now with 30 years of teaching under her belt, Flanigan says Esper taught her how to "take in" as a teacher—to absorb what's going on with each student and address each one's specific needs. She worked as an actor for a while but loves teaching. "I felt I'd have something to say as a teacher bringing this work to the next generation," she says. "I wanted to carry over what was given to me, and the way it was given to me…. I've always been passionate about acting, about truth in the art, about script interpretation and finding the character in the text—really serving the text—using one's imagination to bring yourself to the part.

"As you work on something and solve it," she continues, "then another problem presents itself. You solve that and another presents itself. You live your life like that—solving problems. That's what it means to be creative. You're always starting over."

Terry Schreiber: Your Own Instrument

Four years after Esper founded his studio, Terry Schreiber opened the T. Schreiber Studio, which now offers a variety of classes and a three-play season. He studied acting with Michael Howard (who still teaches today, although minimally, about a block away from Schreiber's studio in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood) and Hagen, and he learned about directing in Clurman's classes.

Schreiber, who also directs, says Howard—a tough teacher who combined the methods of Strasberg and Meisner—opened up the whole world for him. Although Schreiber had been acting in summer stock, he took Howard's advice and studied with him steadily for two years before getting an Actors' Equity card.

"When I first became an actor, it was to escape me and be someone else," he recalls. "I found in working with Michael, if you want to be a really good actor, you have to go deeper into yourself than you've ever gone. You are your own instrument—you've got to dig deep into yourself to find these characters."

For Schreiber, relaxation is paramount. "Tension blocks feelings," he says. His classes (he himself teaches only advanced students) include relaxation exercises. But he differentiates between nervousness and tension. "If you're not nervous, you don't have the passion for acting," he declares, adding that "relaxation is the only way into in-depth imagination."

Over the years, Schreiber has brought in teachers for speech and movement. "I've become more speech- and vocal production–conscious, movement- and body-conscious," he explains. "It's not about being all emotional anymore. The emotional response is the result…and I'm more word-conscious. I frequently say, 'What? What point are you making? What are you saying?' " The be-all and end-all, though, is objectives, Schreiber says. Without them, the scene is general.

He says the teachers on his staff—unlike some teachers he has previously worked with—do not attack students. Nor do they sugarcoat. "We're not looking for a performance or a definitive interpretation of a scene, but how to break down a script," he explains. "Judgment stays outside the door. No screaming or yelling."

Ron Van Lieu: A Variety of Influences

When Esper was establishing his studio in 1965, Ron Van Lieu was a high school English teacher studying acting at NYU under Olympia Dukakis (who still teaches off and on amidst acting gigs) and others. Dukakis asked him to substitute-teach one of her classes one day, and Van Lieu stayed at NYU for 29 years, founding and heading a developmental workshop for graduates of the school's graduate acting program. Now he is chair of the acting department at the Yale School of Drama and also teaches at the Actors Center in New York.

The late Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama for 12 years, was also one of Van Lieu's primary influences, along with '60s experimentalist Joseph Chaikin. "I draw freely upon the very strong teachers I had," Van Lieu says, "each of whom had strength in particular elements of the work."

Sometimes when teaching he can feel himself channeling his mentors. "With Olympia, it's when I'm trying to get somebody to be honest and revelatory—that's what she was about," he says. "With Lloyd, it was all about analysis of character, what questions you're asking yourself. Peter Kass"—Dukakis' mentor and a Group Theatre alumnus—"was a madman, and I mean that as a compliment. He was obsessed and driven about the concept of pursuit of an objective. From those three, I understand what personalization is, what actions and objectives are, what character creation is. I sort of put those three together and I have a pretty sound way of helping actors in those areas.

"Acting," Van Lieu continues, "is primarily about the body of the actor. When I was a student, that was the most difficult area for me to yield to…. Trying to help an actor to free the body and imagination simultaneously became a very personal kind of quest for me." To help actors develop a clear mind-body relationship, to teach them to think of the body as an expressive instrument and to bring playfulness and spontaneity to the work—those are his lifelong goals.

In class, Van Lieu is likely to be heard saying, "Breathe and believe," "I don't believe you want anything!" and "Think like a person, not an actor!" The actor's responsibility is to illuminate the human condition, he explains, so you have to think like a human being.

Bob Krakower: Talk Like a Person

Like Van Lieu, Bob Krakower tends to say to students, "Don't talk to me like an actor; talk to me like a person." He shies away from acting jargon, even terms such as "objective" and "action." He recently asked an actor what he was doing in a scene. The actor said he was "yearning." "I said to him, 'Do you really talk like that?' 'No.' 'Okay, let's try it again.' 'I come into her apartment and I ask for a beer and I hope she's going to give it to me.' "Okay!' "

When Krakower went to William Ball's American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco at age 22, he knew even then that he wanted to teach, and now, more than a quarter-century later, he says he's never had a bad day at it: "I figured out pretty early that everybody's different and no one system works for everybody."

Since his ACT days, when the late Allen Fletcher was his mentor, Krakower taught at the Actors Theatre of Louisville under Jon Jory and established film classes there. He has also taught in New York at the Atlantic Acting School, NYU, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, the Actors Center (as a founding faculty member), and elsewhere, and has written plays, worked as a casting director, and coached on films and TV shows.

"Trying to help people actually work as opposed to simply act well became interesting to me," Krakower says. At his studio, he teaches scene study geared mostly toward film and TV. Stage acting and on-camera acting share a lot of elements, he points out, but they require two very different skill sets.

Over the years, his approach to teaching has become more focused on the script. Even in situations that call for improvisation, if you don't understand the script, you'll be lost when improvising, Krakower warns. He finds the built-in paradox of acting to be eternally intriguing and mystifying: "You have to express the importance of life, and on the other hand you're just goofing around." He tells his students, "Learn to live with the paradox that storytellers are vital to society—but it's only a play!"

Caymichael Patten: Whatever Works

Just as in directing, men dominate the field of actor training, but Caymichael Patten has been doing both in New York, as well as adapting plays, for 25 years. She was also a founding member of the theater company the Women's Project. She studied with legendary teacher Wynn Handman, artistic director of the American Place Theatre, before opening the Caymichael Patten Studio in 1988.

"Wynn bridged the Meisner work with some real work on text that shaped a lot of my thinking," Patten says. "I concentrate on the use of the self—almost finding a biological set of principles to guide you in your work. It's pretty individually worked out…. I'm a 'whatever works' person. I think I've stolen from all the good teachers!"

In addition to Handman, Patten studied a little with Clurman and Meisner, and she sat in on some of Adler's classes, all of which gave her an appreciation of how different teachers work. She was especially inspired by the stories Clurman told—in a class that began at 11:30 p.m.—of his life in the theater.

Patten's background in casting helps her, but most important, she understands that today's actors, faced with minimal rehearsal, have to learn to work on their own and know how to use themselves and their time effectively. And as more of her students are doing film work in front of a green screen, classroom sensory work has taken on a new significance.

Patten teaches the advanced students. "I take them further along" in the craft, she says. "That's where I'm most comfortable and have the most to offer."

Larry Moss: The Scene Is The Thing

"One of the things I find lacking in a lot of actors today is physical choices, specific expressions of their body in relationship to how [their characters] live day to day," says Larry Moss, who now teaches four-day, 10-to-12-hour-a-day workshops in New York (and elsewhere) twice yearly. Previously he taught full time for 30 years, at the Juilliard School and Circle in the Square, among other places, as well as acting and directing. He continues to coach for films and direct. His 2004 book "The Intent to Live," which he says took three years of agony to write, still garners grateful emails from actors worldwide.

Moss learned about being in the moment from Meisner, his first teacher, and about understanding the background of the play and the character from Adler. "I don't like personality acting," he says. "We don't think about the specificity"—race, nationality, educational level, socioeconomic class, era—"because we are taught everything is us. If you saw Tartuffe discuss religion with Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King talk to Lorraine Hansberry about race, you'd understand what character is."

In his workshops, students come in fully prepared for scene work. "I don't believe in just acting exercises," Moss says. "Sensory work, animal exercises, private moments—all are wonderful and essential, but without seeing the work added to them, it brings actors down to a common level because they're not working on great literature."

He examines his students' headshots and résumés and picks material for them from among the best plays past and present. Works by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, and Noël Coward never die, he says. Al Pacino needs to do "The Merchant of Venice," Moss feels; Philip Seymour Hoffman needs to do "Death of a Salesman."

"Having success in my field doesn't make me special," Moss says. "I'm just lucky to be in that world. I've given my life to it. It's about the writer and the actors who have enough discipline and desire to give something"—to teach us, he says, who we are, and the price of being the worst of what we are.

"I'll probably die teaching," he continues. "It's the happiest and most fulfilling and joyful thing that I do." Of himself, Schreiber, Esper, and a few others, Moss adds, "We're the guys that have lasted and handed down what we learned from Strasberg and Meisner and Adler. We were lucky enough to be asked to pass it on."  

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