At 79 years old, after having served our country in the Air Force, starred in over 80 television shows, including MASH, Dallas and Dynasty as well as several feature films, directed countless stage productions, and owned and operated his own theater company for 12 years in Hollywood, Don is once again in service to others in the form of teaching.
“In the last year and a half, I’ve been approached by the Vonder Haar Center for the Performing Arts, and they wanted me to develop a strong acting program because their curriculum focus was mainly dance and musical theater,” he says during our interview. “So I have begun now to train their young dancers in the technique of acting.” He teaches a class three times a week, his students ranging from eight to sixteen years old, where they work on monologues and small scenes in addition to the dance classes and annual performances that Vonder Haar Center for the Performing Arts is famous for. And having spent six years in the 90’s serving as the theater arts director for the Southern California Musical Theatre Association’s summer program for youth prior, Don is certainly no novice when it comes to empowering leadership.
“Teaching the young people’s theater program for the music center was very similar to what I’m doing now,” he says. “When you’re teaching, you begin to see the individuality in each student- and you look for what I call their ‘blessings,’ and how they respond because they’re all different. So each time, I see new things and I take advantage of that in helping them to develop those strengths.”
A major strength of Don’s teaching style is his ability to illuminate the basic approach to breaking down character and analyzing scripts -giving his students the very basic questions and exercises in order to bring forth an understanding and personal connection to the material. “And they’re young, so they don’t have a lot of life experience,” he notes. “And so much of what makes great actors is their ability to bring in their life experiences. So they’re green, but they’re not damaged; we work slowly and specifically. And I sometimes share what’s in my manual Symbols-Enriching Personalization for the Actor; although, that manual is for a little older level.”
One of his greatest contributions, Symbols-Enriching Personalization for the Actor, which he co-wrote with his former student Jayne Taini, is a result of years of dedication to his craft, dating back to the early 60’s when Don first began teaching and directing at the Melrose Theatre in Hollywood.
Madly In Love
In 1964, Paul Kent, best known for playing Lieutenant Commander Beach in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, founded the Melrose Theatre, with Don as one of the founding members. At that time, Tom Troupe was adapting Nikolai Gogol’s short story Diary of a Madman into a solo play, and he asked Don to direct, marking his debut as a director. “Tom Troupe is my favorite actor of all time,” Don shares. “I admire him so much because he looks for the specifics and personal connection, and his brilliance comes from being a great detective.” Don hit the ground running, directing over 22 productions for the Melrose Theatre, two of which were made into feature films: Diary of a Madman, an Atlanta Film Festival best film winner, and The Three of Him for the CBS Repertory Workshop. But it was his staged version of Diary of a Madman that really proved to be the catalyst for his co-authored book. “Paul Baker, the Artistic Director for the Dallas Theatre Center, had seen Diary of a Madman, and he liked it so much that he called me to direct The Lion in Winter there,” he remembers. “And Tom Troupe & Carole Cook had been invited to guest star because we were all friends, and Carole had worked with Paul Baker before, so there was a connection.”
The Lion in Winter, written in 1966 by James Goldman, follows the personal and political struggles between Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three sons: Richard, Geoffrey and John, and their Christmas Court guests during Christmas in 1183. Don went to Dallas to cast the play, and once assembled, spent a considerable amount of time doing table reads. “I’m an explorer. I like to ask questions and not necessarily find the answers right away, but to keep asking questions,” he admits. “So that was the process I brought in. And Carole and Tom understood, but the rest of the actors were all giving me their audition performances. And I said, ‘Stop acting, you’ve all already got the part.’ And believe it or not, they couldn’t do it.”
In The Lion in Winter, one of the key elements at play is the race between brothers Richard, Geoffrey and John for the throne, so there is a large power struggle that the actors had to strategically maneuver through. And being intuitive to his actor’s strong suits and needs, Don set up the rehearsal process almost like a game of chess. “I set up a floor diagram,” he recalls, “and I told the actors that as they moved towards power or away from power, towards their mother or towards their father, they had to move onto the grid, their scripts in their hands.” He then put the throne in the middle of the stage, which is where they were trying to get to. So as they gained or lost power, every character in the play moved towards or away from the throne. And that was the beginning of the development of his theory on symbols that enrich personalization. His next step was sending them home to find personal objects that related to the strengths and weaknesses of their characters.
“The character of John is the youngest of the children and not the brightest,” Don shares. “And he’s the least likely to make it to the throne; although, in reality, he did make it to the throne and became King John. So the actor brought in this cap from when he was a boy, saying that it made him feel like a child. So whenever he felt like he was being attacked, he’d put that cap on. Eventually, I had them all put their props away, and the actor playing John developed a haircut that was appropriate for the time. And when he felt that he was being attacked or a loss of strength, he would automatically brush his hair. So it sounds bizarre, but that so personally connected the actor to that particular part of his character. And that’s how Symbols-Enriching Personalization for the Actor came to be.”
The Lion in Winter went on to be a huge success, and Don took his newfound technique with him upon his departure back to the Melrose Theatre, where his then student Jayne Taini became a huge advocate of the practice. “So we decided we’d write this book about symbols,” he says. “But most importantly, we talk a lot about the basic approach to the technique of acting.”
On and Onward
Yes, Don had made quite a name for himself, performing and directing countless productions at the Melrose Theatre for the better part of a decade, but in 1974, he began to get antsy. “I came to a point where I felt that the actors coming to town were not fully equipped,” he admits. “They were playing their personalities because that’s what they saw on television. So I felt that the Melrose was doing great work and actors were learning technique, but they weren’t complete. There was no voice, no diction, there wasn’t a focus on the classic or the Alexander Technique or any of the things you need to become a complete instrument.” So Don left the Melrose Theatre and went off on his own. It took him a good year, but he eventually converted the Hollywood Mortuary into his very own American Theatre Arts (ATA) Conservatory Theatre, complete with two stages, 7 classrooms and a generous amount of office space. He then brought in 14 of the best teachers. And together, they produced over 50 plays, including Abe Polsky’s Devour the Snow as well as the premiere of Donald L Coburn’s The Gin Game, directed by Kip Niven. The Gin Game went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 after its debut on Broadway, starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and directed by Mike Nichols.
“And we did that for almost 12 years,” he says. “And it was a wonderfully golden time, and it was made successful because of all the ensemble work, which is what I was really striving for and wanted to experience for myself as well as for everyone else.” And it’s this concern for his peers that has kept Don in the conversation for all these years, consistently waking up every day and doing what he loves, a disposition that’s consistently shown up since his days as a Del Rey Player back at Loyola Marymount University.
A San Marino, California native, Don discovered his love and talent for acting while studying economics at Loyola Marymount. “I never thought of myself as an actor, I did it because it was fun,” he shares. “Loyola Marymount University had an extracurricular organization call the Del Rey Players, and we worked in a tiny little 50-seat theater- and all through my four years, I kept on doing plays. And I saw a lot of quality work in that club, and I had a great time doing it, and I eventually became president of the club.”
It was during Don’s junior year of college that he performed in a play that an agent named Howard Montgomery witnessed, and promptly signed Don as a result. Shortly after, Montgomery sent Don out on an audition for a pilot. “I went to the interview, and when I walked in, there were hundreds of actors, and I got really nervous,” he says. “And I read with an actor named Tom Pittman. Tom had a very promising career, but he was killed in a car accident. He and I read together, and I was so nervous, I thought I was going to leave fingerprints all over my script from my hands sweating so much. But I got a call back for that next Saturday.”
It was during that call back that Don’s life changed after he landed the role of Don Townsend in the 1956 TV series West Point. “We shot the pilot, I got into the Screen Actors Guild, which cost me $165, and I was on my way.”
Today, after more than 30 years as a professional actor, Don is finally getting back into yet another daily practice that he cherishes: sketching. “I’ve become a sketch artist for portraits, which I’ve done for years as a hobby, and in recent years, I’ve gone back to class and studied with a great teacher,” he says. “And now I do portraits, which keeps me focused.” And theater-goers needn’t worry because when the opportunity strikes, Don is more than prepared to direct for the stage, having recently directed A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill for the Antaeus Theatre, and Mariette Hartley’s award winning one-woman show If You Get to Bethlehem You’ve Gone Too Far.
Yes, Don Eitner is the personification of immovable. And with a career spanning a lifetime, and a tireless hunger to keep learning and doing what he loves on a daily basis, without fail, he’s sure to keep us entertained and engrossed for many more years to come.
“I truly believe that God has given me gifts. I don’t always recognize them, but he points me to where he wants me to go. And I truly believe that I have been directed to do this work with the blessings that I’ve been given. Beyond that point, I’ve had wonderful teachers, and I truly try to give as much as I can because they’re all blessings and I have a blessed life.”
For more information on Don’s acting course at the Vonder Haar Center for the Performing Arts, please visit: http://www.vonderhaarcenter.com/ .