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Dramatic Changes

Character actor and teacher Ken Lerner gently helps his students to improve their craft.

June 12, 1997|PATRICIA BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aspiring gondoliers go to Venice.

Aspiring actors come here.

On a recent Sunday evening, more than a dozen student actors sit attentively in a too warm room on the second floor of a Studio City office complex.

Two by two, the students get up and gamely practice their nascent craft, under the kind but critical eye of Ken Lerner, a working actor who runs one of a dozen acting programs currently flourishing in the Valley.

Lerner is one of those people who works often enough to look familiar but who is not so famous that you remember where you saw him last.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 19, 1997 Valley Edition Calendar Part F Page 50 Zones Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Acting school--In a story on acting school in the June 12 Calendar Weekend, a screenplay called "The 4" was characterized inaccurately. As writer-director David Portlock clarified, the film is "a religious metaphorical fable" involving "four L.A. hipsters sent by Satan" to collect on a debt owed by God. A shorter version was well received at Sundance. In captions for the same story, the names of students Mychal Wilson and Geno Taylor were transposed.

Since he came to Hollywood 21 years ago, he has been in dozens of movies and even more episodic TV. Routinely cast as a Jewish professional, he played the lawyer friend who sticks by Kurt Russell in "Unlawful Entry." He is the deceitful executive who claims he never got the package in an oft-seen commercial for Federal Express. He has a recurring role as the head of an HMO on the medical drama "Chicago Hope."

He is also an experienced teacher, who, as a substitute, used to go into tough schools in his native Brooklyn and "try to be a stand-up comedian to keep them in their seats."

Lerner knows firsthand that a great teacher can change an actor's life. He studied with the legendary Stella Adler and later with giant Roy London. London, who died in 1993 of complications of AIDS, was "a fabulous teacher and mentor," Lerner says.

Many other actors would agree, including Forest Whitaker, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brad Pitt and Geena Davis, who thanked London when she won her Oscar for "The Accidental Tourist."

In the last few years, the way acting is taught has changed dramatically in the capital of acting. Once taught by well-known studios or seasoned actors who had established their bona fides, classes are now increasingly offered by casting directors and others who have little or no formal training in theater. They may have valid tips on how to ace a cold reading and catch a casting director's eye, but some wonder if charging actors to audition doesn't constitute conflict of interest.

At the same time, more traditional schools of acting remain strong in the Valley, in public school magnet programs, college programs and such local institutions as the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts in North Hollywood and Playhouse West in NoHo, where "Lost World" star Jeff Goldblum teaches a popular weekly course in improvisation.

As a teacher, Lerner works in an eclectic, post-Method tradition that emphasizes acting as a craft in which doing the work can lead to performances marked by ease, depth, texture and sometimes magic.

As he is quick to tell you, he isn't one of the "beautiful people and football stars" who often find work in Hollywood. "I'm a character actor and I have to earn my parts."

The format for Lerner's Sunday night class is to have six pairs of students perform a scene, chosen by Lerner. (Pairs work better than singles because "people spark each other," he says.) He then gives them "notes," specific suggestions on how each scene can be improved. The course costs $180 a month, and students get to polish at least two scenes during that period.

Sunday night, Rachel Anderson and Mark Jacobs are first up, doing material from the 1993 film "Mad Dog and Glory."

In the Uma Thurman role, Anderson has just been given by her gangster lover to Jacob's character as thanks for a favor (Robert De Niro preceded Jacobs in the movie version).

In the traditional parlance of acting classes, this is Second Work. Anderson and Jacobs have already performed the scene in an earlier class. That First Work was critiqued, and the student actors have incorporated Lerner's suggestions and their own new insights into this revised version.

Lerner expects his students to grow in the course of the class, and so he addresses their weaknesses as well as their strengths. "A woman who is having trouble with love scenes will get love scenes," he explains.

For this scene, Lerner has paired the handsome but relatively inexperienced Jacobs with Anderson, a confident performer who has done everything from Shakespeare in Griffith Park to "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Jacobs says he is happy to work with someone who makes him stretch.

For the 10 minutes of their scene, the actors are in a world that first existed in a writer's imagination, but that will come to life only if they can animate it with the emotional truths of the real world.

As Glory, Anderson tries to talk Jacobs' unassuming cop out of throwing her out of his apartment, thus incurring the wrath of the thuggish Frank. Jacobs has the daunting task of both remembering his lines and convincing the audience, mostly nonverbally, that he is a quiet man who is both attracted to Anderson and appalled by the circumstances that have put her on his sofa.

Lerner's notes follow.

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