A question that keeps coming up in my acting classes is, “What technique is best?”
Stanislavsky, Strasberg, The Actor’s Studio, Meisner, Chekhov, scene memory, improvisation, Hagen, Adler, Shakespeare, Drama School, stage combat, classical training, diction, voice, dialects, movement, The Alexander Technique…the list goes on and on.
The safe answer is to explore and use what works for you. But the average novice doesn’t have a clue what might work and what might not. The expense of classes, private or group, and the staggering amount of classes, teachers, coaches available just in the San Fernando Valley could give anyone pause to reconsider this profession. What about natural talent? What about learning craft? Where does a certain technique fit into all of this? I don’t know.
In my case, as I mentioned before, I came into the business untrained and was offered a job on a feature film with no credits or experience. Untrained is a true statement. I had never received instruction or an introduction to any technique at the time. The issue of no credits was also true. This was my first professional, paid, SAG job. But when it comes to experience, I would have to say that my childhood gave me the opportunity to be an actor almost every time I stepped out of the door. I went to seven different primary schools growing up. And at every new school, I would reinvent myself over and over, playing different characters borrowed from films and television. I would even argue that my first acting teachers were, Quinn, Ball, Peck, Brando, Olivier, Guinness, Dunn, Hepburn, Colbert, Davis, Stewart and Grant. Each one of these influences attached themselves to my psyche and soul.
My first acting teacher happened to also be a tennis student. His name was David Lampson.
I went back to work as a tennis pro at an indoor club in Danbury, Connecticut. By this time it was a well-known fact by the patrons that I’d been plucked from obscurity and given a role in a feature film. However, I was also back hitting tennis balls to screaming kids who had no love for the game. I was still going to New York on my days off and auditioning for everything and anything. I was also hitting the local theatres for auditions for plays. I had never even seen a play, let alone been in one. How hard could it be? You learn the lines, a director tells you where you stand and you speak. I was in big trouble. David took pity on me and told me that I needed to have some training. Fortunately for me, we traded tennis lessons for acting lessons.
His method was simple and something similar to what I was already doing, if you can call that a technique.
He handed me a play and told me to read the entire thing. He assigned me a character from that play and he wanted me to figure everything out about the character. I didn’t have to memorize the lines because I wasn’t going to rehearse scenes from the play with him. He did, however, insist that I know the meaning and reasons for my character’s lines. Once I did that, he invited me to his house to receive an assignment.
I arrived at his house to discover that he was hosting a dinner party. He greeted me at the door and whispered in my ear that he would be introducing me to his friends as the character in the play and I was to act, think, and speak as the character the whole evening and, that by the time the party was over, the guests would be convinced I was the character I was playing. It was brilliant and insane. David was all about imagination and the need to commit myself to a character and immerse myself in the character. I was an actor who would totally become the character. David was a great first teacher and he encouraged me to be true to myself and to play like a child when I was acting.
In part two, I will talk about the late and great George Shdanoff, who greatly influenced my approach to playing characters and always reminded me to hold on to the truth.