This is a list of classes I've taught at various schools, as well as workshops to diverse groups, from visiting Australian high school students to professional actors and casting directors in Santiago, Chile.
Any class I teach will emphasize the three essential elements of great acting: connection to personal joy, investment in given circumstances, and clear, strong actions. As a teacher, my goal is to engage every single students and to help every one expand and grow regardless of level of expertise.
1. Scene Study
I have taught both general Scene Study classes and classes focusing on the following specific grouping:
Contemporary Texts (Labute, Deveare Smith, Marguiles, Guirguis, Abaire, Herzog, etc.)
Classical texts (Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, etc., or ancient Greek theatre)
American naturalism (Inge, Miller, etc.)
The semester begins with a few essential games designed to develop the ability to play strong actions and invest in given circumstances, based on the work of NYU professors Jim Calder, David Costabile, and Mark Wing-Davey.
The rest of the semester consists of scene work in pairs, with each pair performing a scene two or three times before moving on. With the help of the teacher's critique, insight of fellow students and the use of games, breathing and Alexander work, students overcome the challenges of a particular text and develop skills that can be transferred to any text. Group and personal exercises are utilized to increase the actor's self-expression, fine-tune the physical instrument, expand emotional range and improve concentration. I’m a big fan of physicalizing actions; I love asking actors to keep their partners from leaving the room, sing their lines, dance their lines, come up with ice cream flavors for key words…whatever I can think of to get them out of their heads and into their bodies.
Teaching Directing is a little bit like being a marriage counselor: it’s all about helping people communicate and listen more effectively. I’m currently teaching this class at the Rhode Island School of Design to Film majors, using Judith Weston’s fantastic text book, “Directing Actors.” Young directors have little understanding of the delicate way that actors work, and invariably believe that directing is simply a matter of telling an actor what feeling to have in each moment of a scene. Our work in class is all about collaboration: allowing the actor to bring her own rich human experience to the work and then guiding her to a place where the proposals of the scene are carried out to their fullest potential. Students learn to study scripts carefully so they can be as precise as possible about the emotional events of the scene, and they learn to communicate the depth of those events to actors in a way that doesn’t restrict the actor’s own inner life. This course includes discussion of actions, objectives and given circumstances, and uses scene study with outside actors from the community to give students an opportunity to solve problems and develop communication skills.
3. Shakespearean Text Analysis
I had the pleasure of teaching this class to college and graduate students participating in the summer program at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. It was an 8-week class that could easily have gone on for another month or longer.
This course demystifies the study of classical text so that students are able to find the images and shape the thoughts so the ideas are understood, both to the actor and audience. We begin by talking about Elizabethan rhetoric and its close relationship with Latin, which Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have studied up to 6 hours a day. Latin is a robust, vigorous language that relegates non-image words like pronouns and articles to prefixes and suffixes (amo, amas, amat—I love, you love, he loves) or drops them altogether. We then move on to an in-depth study of scansion, always remembering that scansion is there to help us reveal the psychology of the character, and not an end in itself. We then spend time learning to “image” the text. Students learn the guidelines for finding operative words: how to treat pronouns, negatives, contrasts, antithesis, etc. They also learn some tools for shaping thoughts: what to do with lists, parentheticals, etc.
Students begin their imaging work on simple texts like the lyrics from classic musical theatre, including “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” (Annie Get Your Gun) and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” (South Pacific). Each student performs one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and this is where the material really starts to sink in. Together we find ways of lifting the operative words, shaping the thoughts, and above all, finding a personal, visceral connection to the language that goes beyond mere comprehension. Each sonnet is an actable, active monologue delivered by a speaker who wants something and is attempting to get it.
Finally, students break into pairs and memorize and rehearse a scene from Shakespeare’s plays. The work of imaging and personalizing the relationship to the language deepens. Students leave with an understanding that Shakespeare’s language is honest, real, active, immediate, and reveals everything they need to know about the psychology of the character.
4. Voice and Speech
This class combines breathing work, speech, vocal training and text work to help the student expand the capability of the vocal instrument, and is heavily based on the work of NYU’s Deb Hecht, Bev Wideman and Shane-Ann Younts. The class ends with the performance of a poem, chosen by the student, and the application of techniques learned during class. Students are encouraged to find their own voice, inseparable from action and emotion, and full of the richness of their own human experience, rather than develop a cookie-cutter “trained actor” voice.
5. Monologue Technique
Monologues are one of the most basic tools of the beginning actor, as well as an invaluable learning tool for students. We begin by incorporating Michael Chekhov's Psychological Gestures and Jim Calder's animal and element work (for example, developing a gesture and using it throughout a monologue, or playing with embodying a horse or shark or an element like fire or earth). The rest of the semester focuses on four prepared monologues, two classical and two contemporary, and if time allows, ends with exploring songs as musical monologues. The class might culminate in a public performance of each student’s best solo piece.
6. Audition Technique
I think of auditioning as a bit like the SAT's: it's a completely different skill than performing and yet it's the thing on which the actor's hopes depend. This class begins with some action work, including Mark Wing-Davey's Action games and Chekhov's Psychological Gestures, and follows with cold readings, prepared scenes, cold TV/Film work, and prepared TV/Film scenes. Scenes are filmed and watched in class so students can develop their understanding of what reads well on-camera and what doesn't. On-screen work draws largely on the teachings of Gary Perez and Bob Krakower.
This class begins with the surprisingly difficult “under 5's” and follows with cold reads from TV and film. We move on to prepared scenes from both comedy and drama. During the second half of the semester, students shoot their own scenes together and we critique them in class. The final class features an in-class presentation of each pair's best filmed scene, possibly with a visiting industry professional in attendance.
8. Text In Action/Text Analysis
This class approaches scene work purely from a textual standpoint. Students learn to break down a text from the first read to final presentation, using actions and beats and exploring techniques such as stressing operatives and playing with pitch and pace. Text In Action is the nuts and bolts class that every young acting student needs as a foundation beneath the messy aliveness of inspired acting.
We begin with a poem, chosen by the student, with the sole parameter that the student must love the poem chosen. We work on each poem as a monologue delivered by a speaker who wants to communicate something through language. This enables students to appreciate the personal relationship the actor creates with a text. We then move on to dramatic texts, breaking them down for sense and working through them using Shane-Ann Younts’ speech and text work, which addresses all the technical aspects of speaking a text—for example, parentheticals, sustaining a thought through a long piece of text, etc. However, we never lose sight of the fact that technique is only there to help the actor communicate a real, human, personal need.
Other class options:
Survey of Dramatic Literature
My BA is in English Literature, and it’s my belief that an immersion in literature is essential for any student with an interest in acting, which is, at its most essential, the act of interpreting text. The study of dramatic literature is the study of what mattered to people in any given time or place throughout history; it is the study of the artist’s complex relationship with form; of how a individual can rebel against what has come before and create something brand-new.
This course includes the accepted canon but gives plenty of emphasis to those who were perhaps unwelcome or under-appreciated during their own time: those who had a different perspective, due to gender, race, sexual identity, etc. So our modern canon includes not only George Bernard Shaw, John Gay and Harold Pinter, but also Aphra Behn, Anna Deveare Smith and Amiri Baraka.
Michael Chekhov’s Psychological Gestures (3 – 6 hours)
Film/TV Audition Technique (6 – 8 hours)
Animal work; based on NYU's Jim Calder (6 hours)