September 22, 2006

It seems there are as many acting techniques as there are actors.

Hamlet tells his players, "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action." In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky wrote, "All action in the theatre must have an inner justification, be logical, coherent, and real." David Mamet, in his controversial book True and False, questioned the very idea of formalized instruction when he wrote, "Invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school."

Four teachers sat down with Back Stage recently to discuss all of this, as well as their own philosophies of the craft.

Deloss Brown has taught Shakespearean acting at Juilliard and teaches the course Shakespeare for Writers at New York University. Karen Kohlhaas is a founding member (with Mamet, William H. Macy, and others) of the Atlantic Theater Company and a senior teacher at its school.

Terry Schreiber founded T. Schreiber Studio in 1969 and has been teaching ever since. Larry Moss has taught for more than 30 years and founded the Larry Moss Studio in Los Angeles in 1990. Besides teaching, each works as a writer, actor, director, or some combination of the three.

The interview was conducted by Andrew Salomon, news editor of Back Stage East.

BACK STAGE: Defining and committing to an objective is the fundamental task of the actor. What is the acting teacher's objective?

DELOSS BROWN: I feel like it's like the doctor's: not to screw up. They come to you, they pay you money, right? Very frequently they're not half bad. I tell them, "I want you to remember what you just did, because what I say may be of less use to you than what you came in with. Just be able to do what you came in with when you come out of here."

BACK STAGE: First do no harm, in other words.

BROWN: First do no harm. Yes.

TERRY SCHREIBER: What we really advertise is: There's nothing richer you can act than yourself. We help the actor to open themselves up, to take risks, to take chances, to trust themselves. It's not about being somebody else.

BACK STAGE: To strip away the artifice?

SCHREIBER: Stop acting. Be available to yourself. That's where the best acting and moments come from, that move you, when you're sitting there in the theatre.

KAREN KOHLHAAS: We try to empower the actor to really trust themselves. You need a period where they're giving over, where they're really open to what you have to say. It is difficult to teach someone if they're constantly questioning the technique that they're learning. I would encourage them to research what they're going to learn and then come in, once they've decided to study, with an open mind and take in what's being given out. But the end result of that is they feel empowered to make their own choices and that they have a technique that they trust.

LARRY MOSS: I started with Sandy Meisner. What Sandy taught me is what all of us have been saying: Start from yourself, drop your masks and say, "Who I am is my richest reservoir to draw from." I think that a lot of actors come in with shame — it's in their bodies, in their voices — and that you have to work diligently with the actor to get them to reveal the core of their emotional self without inner judgment. That which is antisocial is the very thing you're looking for in the actor, and you have to allow them to be what they consider to be antisocial — to be able to express with no filter. If you start with that clay, then you can start to talk to them about Strindberg and Ibsen and Shaw and Williams and Miller. But until that happens, it's like trying to play the piano with the lid down.

BROWN: Teach them to be selfish, too. They look at a big speech and they say, "Oh, I better rush through this, I'm taking up too much time." No, no, no, no, no. You're the play at this point. You're the play. Take your time, do it right.

KOHLHAAS: I would say that the balance is really putting the emphasis on storytelling, that they're there to tell a story; that the end result is not that you see an actor, but that you see the story unfolding in front of you. They need to bring all of their self-awareness so they can more fully tell the story to people. I think sometimes acting training tends to get stuck on the individual, and that needs to be in service of what they're trying to do for the audience. Because, in the end, it's for the audience.

MOSS: A performance I saw of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an actress came in and said, "Brick, Brick, one of those no-neck monsters hit me with a hot-buttered biscuit, I have to change." And she balled up her dress and threw it in the corner. I said, "Play's over." [Claps his hands shut] Play's over. Because one of the things Maggie says to Brick is, "I had two dresses when I married you, Brick, and they were hand-me-downs." So when she walks in and says, "My lovely lace dress," she ain't about to throw it in the corner, and I almost stood up — as I'm becoming more antisocial as I age — and said, "Can we stop right here and talk about this, this first minute of this performance?"

BACK STAGE: What do you look at in an actor when you first start working with them?

SCHREIBER: I ask them to do an audition piece in a monologue. I want to see the choices that they're making, the actions that they're playing, and I also want to get an idea of the vocal work and the body work. Many times I have to say to an actor, "I can't work with you any further until you do some body work, until you do some vocal work." I had a student once who is now a successful playwright and director for television. I was doing Slow Dance on the Killing Ground in Pittsburgh. This role was ideal for her. And I had been on her and on her and on her to work on her voice. I brought her in and the producer said to me, "I'm not going to fight you if you want her. But if I had to listen to that voice for two minutes, I would put a gun to my head." She lost the job, and I said, "Are you satisfied?" In an audition, you better be able to present that body and that voice.

BROWN: I could not agree more.

MOSS: Yeah, me too.

KOHLHAAS: I completely agree that a solid physical and vocal foundation is absolutely essential. As a director, you don't know if you're going to have time to work on something in rehearsal. Auditions are good for that reason. You're saying, "Hi, here I am. This is what I'm like under pressure." And if [an actor] can put you at ease when they walk in, then you feel like the audience is not going to have to worry about them.

BACK STAGE: What are some of the common problems you're seeing among students?

KOHLHAAS: I have seen a major decline in the amount of reading that people do, that actors do.

[Brown, Moss, and Schreiber nod vigorously in assent.]

KOHLHAAS: I'm actually working on a list for my website for overdone monologues. I wrote down every monologue that I couldn't stand to see again, or that I've been seeing a lot of. I used to not care at all. I'd say, "If you love it, do it." But then over the years they started to pile up.

BACK STAGE: What are the top ones?

KOHLHAAS: The top female is the female tuna fish monologue from Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang, and the top male is the male tuna fish monologue from Laughing Wild. The ones that are overdone the most have been overdone for at least 10 years. A lot of them are from my generation, from what we were doing 20 years ago. There've been tons of plays written since then, tons of great plays written since then. The ones that are overdone stay pretty much the same. So they need to read more. A lot of the young people will say, "Hey, I found this wonderful monologue from Blue Window," and they think they're the first ones to discover that.

SCHREIBER: It's a gorgeous monologue.

KOHLHAAS: But we could all perform it, couldn't we?

SCHREIBER: I heard it twice last week.

KOHLHAAS: They're coming to the table without that much knowledge. They say they're overwhelmed, they don't know where to start. I say, "Go to the bookstore, go to the library." Are the people who are getting their MBAs right now, do they not know what the top companies are? Of course they do. So much of who an actor is has to be based on the plays they want to do, the writing that means the most to them. It tells you a lot about somebody's taste, what plays they bring into the [audition] room.

BACK STAGE: How necessary a tool is the monologue in terms of auditions? Aren't most people reading sides these days?

MOSS: I'm a believer in monologues simply because they're good when you're by yourself, as a workout, daily. I say you must have four monologues ready to go at all times: two contemporary, two classical. And that you work on them every day physically, vocally, emotionally. Try different actions with them. Start to see those four monologues as rehearsal process for your instrument on a daily basis. They're almost like your DNA. And I also say you should change those four monologues every three months. Because what it does, it forces people to read plays. I don't subscribe to the idea of "actor as victim." I think it's always the actor's fault. Always. [Laughter] It's laziness, it's entitlement, it's "I didn't get the breaks," blah blah blah, "the business is so hard." It's all bullshit.

BACK STAGE: I'd like to shift away from the practical for a moment and toward the philosophical. Almost 10 years ago, David Mamet wrote a provocative book on acting, True and False. In it he declared, "The audience will teach you how to act.... The classroom will teach you how to obey."

MOSS: Asshole.

BACK STAGE: We'll get to that in a minute. Right now I'd like to get your opinions on that particular statement.

SCHREIBER: I don't know with him sometimes. I think he says stuff to be controversial. I can't believe he really agrees with half of what he's saying. If he walked into the room and 98 people were saying no, he'd say yes. That's just my feeling. But I bought that book and, I mean, "Just do my words and you can act it"? I mean, just, please.

MOSS: It's the most absurd book about acting.

SCHREIBER: I think it's a hoot.

MOSS: That isn't to say there aren't some good things in it, about intention. But it is gobbledygook, and, you know, David Mamet was a terrible actor. I mean, he couldn't act.

BACK STAGE: That doesn't mean he doesn't have anything valid to say about acting.

MOSS: He has a very valid thing, but he has a very simple thing to say about it, which is stand still, have an intention, and say words. Well, you should stand there, you should have an active verb, and you should allow things to happen to you. But saying that you should never study, and that the teachers that teach Stanislavsky are charlatans and want your money, and that you can't get acting in a class, that classes will never help you, and that you should just go out and do The Seagull and do The Master Builder and go out and do Golden Boy, and it'll just happen to you because you're on the stage — to say all of that...I find it disgusting, negative, and literally dangerous. And when the young actors go after that book and say, "Well, David Mamet says this and David Mamet says that," and I say, "Fuck you, man." And I'd say it right to his face. [Laughter] He pisses me off, and I went after him in my book because I said to myself, "You know what? No. You want to go after us? I'm going after you, man, because you're not on the side of the actor, you're on the side of your own ego."

SCHREIBER: I believe in words, but you've got to hang those words. You can't just do the words.

MOSS: And I don't think that Mr. Chekhov or Mr. Miller or Mr. Williams...I would just love to see somebody play Blanche standing still, having an intention. That would really be an interesting Blanche. [Pause] How dare he.

BROWN: I have a different perspective. I directed Ving Rhames at Juilliard. He was offered at the end of his third year an audition for Streamers, the movie. He said, "No, I'm going to stick it out for my fourth year." And you can see the training didn't do him any harm. I've directed Kevin Spacey. He played Serebryakov for me in a production of Uncle Vanya. He left Juilliard at the end of his second year. He thought it was, you know, a waste of his time. He hasn't done badly. So, having dropped those two names, I have to say it depends to a certain extent on the individual. When I would see people lining up to go to Juilliard and spend four of the most productive years of their lives in a monastery, I sometimes question whether it was worthwhile or not. So my answer is: no opinion.


KOHLHAAS: First of all, my favorite quote about the book is the quote on the back of the book from Alec Baldwin, when he said, "I agree with almost nothing in this book and I think every actor should read it." I definitely agree he's making kind of extreme statements to get attention and wake people up. He taught us [at the Atlantic], so obviously he felt that people should be in school and he decided to teach acting. And, please, I never want it said that I'm speaking for him. Just from things that he's said, and from what I've observed, he's reacting against people's tendencies to go to class for years. And it was therapy for people to go to class, go to class, go to class, go to class. You've got to build your foundation and get out there, because no class is going to teach you what auditioning and performing will teach you. I don't think anybody would disagree with that. I get people who occasionally want to take my class for process, and it's not about that. It's "Here are some skills, get the fuck out there."

BACK STAGE: Karen, when you teach, do you use emotional work, sense memory work?

KOHLHAAS: We don't use sense memory work. I'd just like to give you the nutshell of the thought about emotion, about dealing with it. It's inherent. It's there. If you invest it and you've analyzed the scene and really thought about it, the emotion is inherently there. You want to have a technique that you can do whether you feel [the emotion] or not. You can still tell the story. I would say what stood out for me in all that training and thinking [at the Atlantic] was that actors are problem solvers. I think you can look at any actor acting and you can say they're either playing the problem or they're playing the solution. It's literally the difference between listening to somebody complain or listening to them talk about what they're going to do, even though they're terrified or enraged or whatever. The statement that stood out to me the most is that playwrights create the chaos, the actors create the order. They tell how they're trying to solve the characters' problems. We're trying to fight for a solution, rather than get mucked down in the problem. The audience is going to the theatre to get some ideas, or a sense of communion about "What are we going to do?"

MOSS: I think that there is no question that emotion is the cheapest commodity in show business. Having water come out of your eyes doesn't mean anything, and some nights you're not going to have it, so what happens to the play? So the intention and the actions become everything on any given performance. But imagery and emotional recall and sensory work are helpful to it.

BACK STAGE: Mamet also writes, "There is no character. There are only lines upon a page." Does character exist — or are there only a series of given circumstances and objectives that an actor must relay to help tell the story?

SCHREIBER: Oh, God. I just came from working on Tennessee Williams. Of course character exists. What do you call Blanche? What do you call Stanley? Yes, character exists.

MOSS: To my mind, when Maggie in Cat says, "You can be young without money, Brick, but you can't be old without it, because to be old without it is just too awful," you don't know what that "too awful" is. That's character. You cannot tell me that isn't true, that character doesn't exist, because she's a person with a background, and that isn't whoever plays the part — that's Maggie.

SCHREIBER: And you get Mamet himself: You look at the character of Teach, going all the way back to American Buffalo. I mean, that's a character unique to himself. I've seen a lot of Mamet and I like Mamet. Look at Glengarry, look at the people in that.

KOHLHAAS: Actors have to find that character within themselves. We all have an emotional reaction. We think of Blanche, we think of Teach, we feel them in ourselves. When actors do monologues and they say they're visualizing the other character, I say, "Well, who's playing that? Who are you imagining?" Because you never see Brick standing across from you. You see the other actor. You know it's the other actor, that the two of you are telling a story. You believe in them with your whole heart. But you don't ever actually believe that that's not [the actor playing Brick]. It does come from you. It comes from the text plus you. It can't come from anywhere else but those two places.

BROWN: Character is very difficult to define, but my act being Hamlet and plays like that, obviously Polonius is different from Claudius is different from Hamlet is different from Sebastian is different from Viola. I would be very hard put to say exactly what it is [Shakespeare] did to make them all different, but he did.


BACK STAGE: Once your students leave your class, and they've been given all of these wonderful techniques and tools for finding the verb, finding the action, what are they supposed to do in the face of such inspired direction as "It needs more color"?

SCHREIBER: You're trying to get the actor to translate what the director's saying. I think a lot of directors direct just in results. It's the actor's job to process the result and not depend on the director to do it.

KOHLHAAS: Tommy Tune said, "Don't make your work my problem." Everybody has a different way of working, and everyone's thrown together and expected to make something happen in three or four weeks.

SCHREIBER: I saw a wonderful example a number of years ago. I was doing a walk-on role in a play Michael Langham was directing. He was just in from Canada. He had Method actors, he had people in between, he had Canadian actors, he had Lou Antonio from the Actors Studio. It was the second week of rehearsal, and Lou was playing this Jew-hating sergeant. Michael said, "Lou, this guy is filled with anger. He hates Jews. I mean, he hates 'em." Lou said, "Okay," and he chewed up the scenery. I happened to be standing backstage later on, and Lou came over to him and said, "Michael, I'll give you that anytime you want it. But I don't feel that way about Jews, and I'm going to have to find what I have that kind of anger about." Then he used rehearsal to find that. I thought, "Geez, what a wonderful way of handling that," without putting Michael down, without antagonizing him. I use that example in class so many times. Just call the director aside; don't take them on in front of the cast.

KOHLHAAS: Can I tell you my favorite Method story? I was directing a production of Street Scene at NYU mainstage, and I had a cast of 35 or something. It so happened [the actors playing] the Morans all happened to be from Adler, Sam and his family were from Atlantic, and the Swedish janitor and his wife were from Strasberg. I wasn't directing any Atlantic technique or anything. It was like traffic direction, because there are so many people in it. So I was like, "Do your own thing." At the end of the play, the janitor is tacking up a funeral shroud over a doorway. [During a performance] I see that the nail, which is supposed to be rigged, isn't coming out. I'm thinking the scene's going to be ruined because the shroud is just going to hang from one nail. And without missing a beat, the actor took a nail out of his pocket, nailed it in, and hung the shroud, and it went off without a hitch. Afterwards I said, "Oh, my God, that's amazing that you did that, that you had a nail." And the actor said, "I'm a janitor." Thank you, Lee Strasberg.

SCHREIBER: What I get upset at is paraphrasing.

BACK STAGE: Actors who paraphrase the text...

SCHREIBER: John Shanley was just up at the studio last week. We had a conversation with him about it, and I said to him, "What do you do with that?" He said, "I let them do it their way, and then I say, 'Fine, I don't want that. This is what I wrote.' " God, actors who paraphrase, they change the rhythm. They're not into the music. That's the biggest thing I drill in class. I want it [pounds table] word for word for word for word.

MOSS: And the better the writer, the more exact they are. John Patrick Shanley, in The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, when she walks into her lover's apartment, she says, "I'm hearing shit, I'm seeing shit, I'm smelling the smoke, don't tell me there's no fire, you are sleeping with my sister." That music, if you miss one word or you take a pause before that last line, what you wrote is gone.

SCHREIBER: I tell my students, I would not blame a writer for attacking you. I mean, getting up out of that chair and attacking you. [Jabs finger into the table] Say the goddamned line.

KOHLHAAS: That's a Mamet quote. Directly.

BACK STAGE: We've talked about not getting too safe in school. Do you ever stick your boot in the back of your students and send them on their way?

MOSS: Hopefully, as a teacher, if you see someone who's hiding, you call them out. "You're very talented. You've got your technique. Go." I do something with my students: I pick 20 scenes and I give the actors two weeks to prepare, and they come in after those two weeks with full costumes, full everything, and they do a 15-minute scene, 10 scenes a day. What it does, it forces them to shit or get off the pot. And it's a thrill because, "Can you script analyze? Do you know how to block a scene, how to wear a costume, learn rhythm and tempo?" They say, "God, I didn't know I could do this." And I say, "Well, nobody ever asked you to." So, yeah, you've got to get them off their safety. If I've learned anything, being comfortable isn't what living's about. Nor is it what theatre's about.

BROWN: No, you may not sit down for the audition.

BACK STAGE: I think that's the perfect button for the interview. Thank you all for your time.

Deloss Brown wrote Why Hamlet Delays: A Compendium of the Shakespearean Acting Techniques. Karen Kohlhaas wrote The Monologue Audition: A Practical Guide for Actors. Larry Moss wrote The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential as an Actor. And Terry Schreiber wrote Acting: Advanced Techniques for the Actor, Director, and Teacher.