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Add Acting Teacher to an Eclectic Career

Melvin Van Peebles, a filmmaker, performance artist, stockbroker and writer, is now also a visiting professor at New York's Hofstra University.


HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The two actors are awash in a stark light while everyone outside camera range is in shadows. Even amid the relative darkness, you can make out the young faces of eager students in Studio A in Hofstra University's Dempster Hall.

But among students clad in jeans, sneakers and sweats, one figure casts a decidedly different aesthetic.

He wears an orange turtleneck sweater and green sweatshirt under a tan wool suit--in deference to the chill in the cavernous studio. His brown tweed cap is jauntily cocked to the side. Black, wire-rimmed, round glasses frame his dark, expressive eyes. His relatively smooth brown face, belying his 69 years, is accented by a trim gray beard. He chomps on an ever-present, though unlighted, cigar as he observes the scene unfold on a monitor.

"Cut," booms Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker who wrote, directed, scored and produced "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song" in 1971. Melvin Van Peebles the dramatist ("Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death"), the writer in two languages, the stockbroker, the performance artist (he talk-sings, backed by a jazz-based trio, Roadkill, in a genre he once described to an interviewer as a fusion of rock, R&B, pop and Broadway standards that he simply called "Melvin"). It might just be simpler to call him an original.

"It's so close to being perfect, let's get it perfect," Van Peebles tells the students. "His white shoes were overpowering everything in the scene," Van Peebles says of an actor. He tells student director Meghan Boulger, "You don't want visual distractions to take away from what you've got."

It is a lesson Boulger, 22, a film major who hopes for a career in post-production editing, readily absorbs. "I hadn't even thought about it. I didn't notice. He was able to point out the details."

Van Peebles has taken on a new role as a visiting professor, joining Hofstra professors Nancy Kaplan from the audio/video/film department and Rawleigh Moreland of the drama department to team-teach a special course, "Acting for Film and Television," being held this month between the winter and spring semesters. Van Peebles is with the 18 students two days out of the four days a week the class is held. Each class lasts four hours.

The class is a pilot program focusing on the processes and techniques used in preparing and acting for the camera, the syllabus says.

Van Peebles says it's merely preparing students for "real life" in the industry.

It stems from a suggestion from a Hofstra alumna, actress Susan Sullivan, who co-stars on the hit television show "Dharma and Greg," said George Back, dean of Hofstra's School of Communication.

"Acting is acting, whether on stage or in front of a camera," Sullivan said recently in a telephone interview. But, she said, there are different skills to be employed between, say, doing Shakespeare and "reading Tylenol copy for a commercial."

There is different terminology to learn, affirmed drama professor Moreland, and a different environment to become accustomed to.

Sullivan's suggestion, backed by a financial contribution toward the course as a way of "giving back" to Hofstra, was heartily endorsed by Back, who sought to meld the "component parts" of working in front of and behind the camera.

Back said Hofstra was interested in bringing in "a person who had the experience of doing it." And Van Peebles, who has lectured and performed at the university in recent years, came to mind.

"I've known Melvin for 20 years," Back said. "He's an organic, walking media outlet."

For Van Peebles, Creativity Ahead

Van Peebles' name certainly stirred recognition among the students, though many were more familiar with the work of Van Peebles' actor-director son Mario. But Steve Priest, 20, a sophomore majoring in TV and film, said he relished the opportunity to be face to face with someone of such experience.

Kaplan, who has worked as a stage manager for television shows, said she was excited to be involved because of the interdisciplinary nature of the course. Besides, she added, "We're having a lot of fun with it." And she's taking "copious notes" for the future.

Kaplan hailed Van Peebles' instincts as a teacher, in his first experience as an instructor. Often, "he whispers in my ear," Kaplan said of Van Peebles. "'You see how the light is doing this. Let's leave that because that's a lesson.'"

For Van Peebles, life seems full of creativity ahead. His most recent film, shown at festivals in 2000, is a French-Dutch production called "A Belly Full." He said he's exploring putting together a film distribution company. He's contemplating writing his own "unauthorized autobiography," he said in that sly, mischievous manner that informs much of his work.

He said he enjoys whatever he's involved in. And at this moment, it's teaching at Hofstra. The students "are eager and that's made it easier," he said.

Then he heads toward Studio A for more life lessons to impart.

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