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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2017

The Actor’s Craft: Continuing Education for Bay Area Professionals

Tuesday, June 6, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Mark Rafael

In order to become a lawyer, prospective candidates must pass the bar. In order to become a doctor, aspirants must pass the medical boards. But no such line of demarcation exists for actors. Simply by declaring oneself an actor, one is. What separates dedicated actors from pretenders is the training they receive and since the emergence of the great Method acting triumvirate—Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner—the master teacher has been a signature of American acting.  

At the American Conservatory Theatre’s recent 50th anniversary gala, Harry Hamlin, one of the celebrated alumni of the MFA program, stated that he still attends his LA acting class weekly. There is a tradition in both Los Angeles and New York of constant study and returning to the challenge of the classroom.

But is that the case in San Francisco? In the Bay Area, this notion of returning to the crucible of the classroom is not as common. There are many reasons for this and it is certainly not for want of gifted and devoted teachers. But the challenges are unique.

 Director and actor Joy Carlin.

The experience of Joy Carlin, a pillar of the Bay Area theatrical community, is illuminating. She left the Yale School of Drama to move to New York and study. It didn’t start well. In a class with the esteemed teacher Paul Mann, she says “the first thing we had to do is everyone had to take off their clothes.” That ended her first studio experience. Soon after she was accepted into Lee Strasberg’s private class. She studied with him for six years.

“That was my training”, she says. The classes offered a mix of technique and scene work and featured a host of working professionals, including Mike Nichols, Gene Hackman, and even Marilyn Monroe. “What was good was watching other people. That’s why class is a good thing: you learn a lot from watching other people’s experience.”

When her husband got a job in Berkeley in the late sixties, she found herself in the midst of one of the most fruitful eras the Bay Area has known. It saw the birth of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Magic Theatre, and A.C.T. She became a company member at A.C.T., whose founder Bill Ball, placed an emphasis on continuing study and developing craft. “Ever teaching, ever learning” was a motto, and company members shared a diversity of approaches.

“It wasn’t just one discipline. We tried everything.” Carlin says. “There were special classes for us.”

A.C.T. company members were encouraged to participate in Conservatory classes. At both Berkeley Rep and California Shakespeare Theatre, company members would participate in master classes with established directors. The Magic established a “gym” where actors in the community would share techniques and exercises with each other.

But the current environment is particularly challenging. “We’re losing actors all the time”, Joy states, “because it is so expensive to live here. People with families, they just can’t live here. That’s cutting down on the work. The rehearsal periods are shorter, the runs are shorter. This idea of the few theaters we have combining efforts and using fewer actors. A negative review in the Chronicle means not extending a week”.  

Joy’s thoughts are borne out by the facts. According to real estate site, Zillow, rental prices in the San Francisco metropolitan area grew at 14.9 percent between 2014 and 2015, a rate faster than anywhere in the country and those trends continue. Economic trends have led to an overall decline in work weeks in the Western Region reported by Actors Equity. Those trends have become even tougher in the Bay Area as the larger LORT theaters have moved to shared productions with other regional theaters and smaller casts as means of controlling costs and smaller theatres limit runs and contracts offered. So for many Bay Area actors, it is harder to live and harder to work. It is not surprising then that in this environment, the piece that gets cut out is the actor’s ongoing dedication to developing their craft through classes.

Much is lost when that happens. Classes with a dedicated teacher and devoted students allow actors to return to the source and the wonder that first inspired them to choose this career. The absence of such opportunities lead to a decline in the community itself.

The good news is there are ample resources available for continued study in the Bay Area. These include private studios such as Shelton Studios and organizations such as BATS Improv as well as workshops such as FoolsFury for Viewpoints, Dell’Arte for physical theatre, and Shakespeare & Company for voice and text. The two largest theatres, A.C.T. and Berkeley Rep both have associated schools that offer a range of classes to actors at different levels of their career development.

Studio A.C.T. students in class. Photo by Ryan Montgomery.

Nick Gabriel, the head of Studio A.C.T., emphasizes the benefit of teaching artists who are also practicing professionals. “We offer the chance to study with someone who is a working professional, that is not necessarily true in other markets.”

A.C.T.’s many programs, including the Summer Training Congress, the San Francisco Semester, and the MFA program, allow a cross pollination of teaching at the height of the profession. While the Studio offers a program for acting students to structure their own Conservatory type training, it also focuses on the needs of professional actors, especially in its December Intersession Intensives and Monday night courses. These offerings can include classes in Grotowski technique, Michael Chekhov technique, stage combat, text analysis, and audition technique taught by local professional casting directors.

MaryBeth Cavanaugh of the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre estimates that roughly 30 percent of her enrollment is comprised of working actors. “We always have at least five to seven advanced/professional level [classes] offered each quarter.”  

She sees the Bay Area acting community as incredibly dynamic and resilient and seeks to tailor offerings to meet the needs of these actors. These can include improvisation, physical and clown work, Linklater voice, directing, auditioning, and dialects. These classes along with advanced scene work are taught by professionals with a considerable amount of experience in the field and are designed for working actors. The onus is on the actors themselves to self-assess and seek out the classes that extend and enhance their own skill sets. One area not offered at the School of Theatre is Meisner work.

Students training at Waterfront Conservatory.

Rachael Adler has taught Meisner technique at Waterfront Production House and Conservatory in Berkeley for the past 25 years. I spoke with Rachael, Tom Bentley-Fisher, and Leah Herman who are undertaking a new collaboration at the Waterfront. Coincidentally, all three of them started their careers at the Neighborhood Playhouse, the legendary home of the Meisner technique, Adler and Bentley having studied with Sanford Meisner himself.

They describe those studies as a mixture of terrifying and exhilarating. Those early experiences laid the foundation for future exploration. Rachael moved to the Bay Area and started training actors in the Meisner approach. Tom became an artistic director of theatres in his native Canada as well as in London and Barcelona. His own search led him to Yat Malmgrem, a legendary teacher who applied the work of his colleague Rudolf Laban to an approach that leads actors to a deep level of character development and transformation. Malmgrem’s work seems the polar opposite to the moment to moment, impulse-driven work of Meisner Technique. But Adler, Bentley-Fisher, and Herman are developing a collaboration that promises to expand and deepen the work of both approaches. This new collaboration is meant to challenge those very professionals with a history in the industry. In assessing the current state of the community, they believe there is an underlying hunger in both audiences and actors in the Bay Area for something more. Rachael describes it as “teaching people there’s a need they didn’t know existed”.

The bottom line is that one of the keys to building a vibrant theatrical community is this notion of continued study. It both revitalizes the actor and reinforces the shared purpose of a community. It may be a challenge to the professional actor in the current economic environment, but as William S. Burroughs said, “When you stop growing, you start dying.”

Studio A.C.T begins its next summer session on June 12, 2017.

Berkeley Rep School of Theatre begins new sessions of its adult classes in June and July, 2017.

Waterfront Conservatory offers conservatory programs for early, mid-career, and professional theatre artists.

Shelton Studios begins summer classes on June 27, 2017.

BATS Improv offers classes year round including an array of intensive summer workshops.

FoolsFURY Theater offers workshops in Viewpoints and Suzuki in July 2017.

Mark Rafael is an actor and teaches at University of San Francisco, Academy of Art University, and Studio ACT. He is author of the book Telling Stories A Grand Universal Theory of Acting Techniques.