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UCI Professor Has Own Lines on Acting : Performing arts: Robert Cohen's books are used in drama programs at many universities.

June 04, 1994|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — "Can acting be taught?" asks UC Irvine drama professor Robert E. Cohen, posing a question he has answered with distinction.

It is a question Cohen asks on the first page of his 216-page book, "Acting One," and answers with lessons on diction, body language, stage fright, approach, memorization methods, cues, techniques and liberation.

It is a question, asked and answered, in his three other books on acting and in 25 years at UC Irvine, where he is the founder and former chairman of the widely respected theater department and where he continues to teach.

Last fall Cohen was awarded the UCI Medal, the university's highest honor. This summer his influence in academia will be highlighted again by a study to be presented at a national educators' conference showing that "Acting One" is used on more campuses to teach undergraduate performers than any other text.

Surprisingly, the book is even more popular as a teaching tool than the celebrated "An Actor Prepares" by legendary Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavsky, who has long been one of the most pervasive influences in 20th-Century theater.

"Cohen's book replaced everything we had here," David Knight, chairman of the theater department and the head of acting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said by telephone. "He has made quite an impact. Acting books come and go. There are a lot of them. But his has lasted because people find it useful."

According to Joyce Aldridge, who conducted a nationwide survey for a 1992 doctoral dissertation at the University of Colorado, "Acting One," which was written in 1984, tops the list of all instructional acting books. It is required reading in 113 university drama programs.

By her count, which she says still holds, Cohen's other books also are used extensively. "Acting Power," his theoretical manifesto, is required in 54 programs, mostly at the graduate level; "Acting Professionally," a journalistic analysis of the industry, is used in 61 programs, and "Acting in Shakespeare" in five.

Stanislavsky's ideas, which gave rise to so-called method acting, gained their greatest fame in this country through such adherents as Marlon Brando and James Dean. But if the Russian master is "the intellectual ancestor" of all modern American acting, to quote Cohen, it is the 55-year-old professor's own post-Stanislavsky teachings that have invited comparison with Stanislavsky's and created a new, very different mantle of authority. This, despite the fact that Cohen is not himself a performer, world-renowned or otherwise, and has no famous students crediting him for their success.

"Cohen has codified a system that engages the student very quickly in action with partners," Aldridge said from Castleton State College in Vermont, where she is an assistant professor of theater.

"He involves the student in what he calls 'interactive dynamics.' Stanislavsky asks the actor to think about his past and what has led him to the moment being presented on stage. Cohen asks him to think about the future."

During a recent interview at his UCI office, a cozy den lined with books and filled with theatrical memorabilia, Cohen said he is not "anti-Stanislavsky" but nonetheless reeled off a litany of differences between their views.

"Stanislavsky is all about the actor getting in touch with his feelings. He thinks the source of a character resides in the actor's personality. I think it resides much more in the situation."

"I'm more optimistic. He's more pessimistic. I'm more future-oriented. He's more past-oriented. I'm more cybernetic. He's more deterministic. I deal with tactics. He didn't deal very much with tactics, and he never dealt with the audience. It was an embarrassment to him."

Cohen, who came to UCI in 1965 by way of Dartmouth and Yale, speaks in such speedy rhythms that he sounds streetwise rather than Ivy League. He also does not look even remotely tweedy. Dressed in a habitual outfit of drab work shirt and jeans, he gives the casual appearance of someone who has wandered onto the campus perhaps by mistake.

But there is no mistaking the chord he has struck.

Ashley Carr, head of acting at Cal State Long Beach, says Cohen "distills Stanislavsky down to essentials as a starting point," then shows young actors how to avoid "the sort of self-conscious, self-obsessed performances" commonly associated with method acting.

For his part, Cohen believes his ideas are popular because he emphasizes "non-gloomy, totally goal-oriented acting." That means "capturing and embodying the character's hope for victory," he said.

Instead of having the actor plumb his own history to identify with the character by applying "emotional memory"--one of the chief legacies of Stanislavsky's early teachings--Cohen asks the actor to apply "positive energy and optimism" toward the character's goals.

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