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Methods In The Madness Of Acting

July 20, 1986|JANICE ARKATOV

Strasberg, Meisner, Adler, Hagen: the names of the New York acting-teacher elite. But Los Angeles has its teaching luminaries as well: Jeff Corey, Nina Foch, Salome Jens, Robert Lewis, among others.

There's a creative energy here, along with a sensibility, style and discipline. Call it "The L.A. Method."

At the root of everyone's method, it seems, is the continuing influence of one man: Russian-born actor/teacher Konstantin Sergeivich Stanislavsky (1865-1938).

"Now, Stanislavsky didn't invent anything," said actor/coach Guy Stockwell. "But he studied actors--and when he saw one doing something especially powerful and effective, he'd ask, 'How'd you do that?' And the actor would explain the best he could.

"Then Stanislavsky would go to another actor. And he found that they were all doing the same thing: using different words, a lot of craft, superstition sometimes--but essentially the same thing.

"In effect, what Stanislavsky was doing was modeling excellent behavior. And once he had a clear enough model, shaking all the nonsense out of it, he taught other people the same model--and lo and behold, they became excellent actors."

Yet beyond Stanislavsky (the desire to create--and encapsulize--a creative, correct performance), a survey of the more high-profile Los Angeles acting schools found huge variations in teaching approaches, price range (from $20 per class up to $200 per hour for private consultation--and more than $3,600 for an academic-year's tuition) and opinions--including the usefulness of classical training for the contemporary actor.

"Training in the classics is still important," maintains Bryn Morgan, director of Pasadena's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. "Even though there isn't much exposure to that kind of material in this town, there is a tremendous amount of classical work being done today in regional theater. So it will always be part of the training we give our actors."

Estelle Harman, who introduces classics at her intermediate level, feels "the goal is not to develop Shakespearian masters, but his work is a great exercise for voice. And after they've studied Shakespeare, the students always find the contemporaries so easy."

Jeff Corey encourages classical fare, with numerous play anthologies and source books in his recommended reading list. And Nina Foch, who admitted to "sneaking in a little education," offers "two reasons to make people do Shakespeare: so it's not scary, and so they see how they can use it. Because the principles--for whatever material--are really all the same."

The goals may be similar, but what's also obvious is that acting teachers bring their own personalities to whatever techniques they embrace--and that personality sets the tone for the entire class. Accordingly, some instructors are more friendly with students, some more scholarly oriented, some take a colleague-type attitude, some are very much the authority figure, some are punctual, some are quite tardy.

And in the larger institutions--with several teachers on the payroll--it can be a melding of many personal styles.

At the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (originally founded in New York in 1884), a staff of 16 presides over a two-year program including work in voice and speech, singing, musical theater, movement, dance and study of literature, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to modern.

"Of course, everyone works differently," said alumnus/staffer Scott Ramp. "But that's the nice thing here: Each teacher has a method that works for him. And we request that in class each student tries that person's method, so that at the end of their two years here (an A.A. is possible upon graduation), they will have had a sampling of different styles--and then they can choose their own."

In other cases, the party line is more pronounced. At the Estelle Harman Actor's Workshop (where a certificate of achievement is available after three years' study), Harman acknowledged: "I certainly don't want my teachers to be second-rate Estelles--although, of course, most of them have studied with me. So everyone here has the same basic philosophy."

Ditto Tracy Roberts (who has taught the majority of people working for her) and the Lee Strasberg Institute, where the founder's widow, Anna, insists that all instructors "have been taught by Lee firsthand."

And what exactly are they all teaching?

Actress/coach Salome Jens (currently performing her one-woman " . . . About Anne" at Stages) is one of the champions of Strasberg. Having also studied with Herbert Berghof, Alvina Krause, Uta Hagen and Stella Adler, Jens proclaimed: "Lee was the only one who gave me any craft."

Subsequently, her twice-weekly classes in Silver Lake--alternating scene study (including the classics "when they're ready") and sensory/technical work--rely heavily on the Strasberg tradition, mixed in with Jens' own interpretations and adjustments.

"The process is about going through barriers," she said, "finding the truth and re-creating. Always re-creating."

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