The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca

Big City Training, Small Town Attention

Ithaca Journal - Dec 16, '04: Actor's Workshop students showcase talents

Actor's Workshop students showcase talents

by Jim Catalano

Jamie Park (left) and Carolyn Lee run down a scene during a recent Actor's Workshop class. (photograph provided by Jessica Evett Miller)

Performing in a theater production, television show or film gives actors a chance to practice their craft. Getting to that point, though, usually requires a lot of work, and it's a process that usually takes place out of sight of the public.

Tonight, though, Ithacans will have a chance to see local acting student display the fruits of their training, when the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca hosts a 7:30 p.m. showcase at 136 The Commons.

Founded four years ago by Eliza VanCort, the Actor's Workshop provides students a chance to study the Meisner Technique, an approach to acting invented by the late Sanford Meisner of the New York City's Actor's Playhouse. Over the course of five semesters, students go through a variety of exercises based on Meisner's belief that "acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances."

Tonight's showcase will be different from last year's Actor's Workshop open house. "The open house was an opportunity to see the technique demonstrated and see a couple of scenes," says VanCort. "This showcase is basically going to comprise all of the work that people have worked on for the last third of the semester, and you'll actually see the fruits of everyone's labor. You'll see the most novice scenes from the beginning level, and the most advanced scenes, which will show the progression of the work."

A rewarding process

Those who have taken all five semesters admit that it's been a rewarding but sometimes tough process.

"I'm so glad that I've done it, even though it was much more difficult than I ever imagined," says Chris Frank, a senior at Ithaca High School and member of rock band IY. "The level of emotional honesty that the Meisner technique requires can be staggering. By the end of my first semester, I wasn't sure that I could take another.

"But I stayed, and I found that indeed I could take another; I could take four others. You make it through because everyone else in the class is experiencing your difficulties, too--you learn to depend on one another everyone supports everyone else. The friends I have made in this class are different from any I've ever made elsewhere. After five semesters, we're a very bizarre, diverse, and beautiful family."

Jessica Weir, who's finishing up an optional sixth semester of monologue work, also has enjoy the class.

"I am so happy to have done this program," she says. "I have learned so much about myself and about acting. It was a lot of hard work, but we were all in it together and Eliza has always been supportive and constructive in her criticism. I've come away from this class feeling like I can act. I have the tools. That doesn't mean I'd win an Academy Award tomorrow if I had the chance. I've still got a lot to learn and mistakes to make, but I feel like I can go ahead and make those mistakes and take risks and actually learn from them. It's all a process of improving one's technique and I am actually really excited to start that pursuit and continue the work that I started here in Ithaca."

Not all students are new to acting-- some are returning after taking a break. David Romm hadn't acted in 30 years before enrolling in VanCort's class. "The class got me started again," he says. "I'm very glad I took the class, for many reasons. It's a few hours every week of living in the moment, in a privileged space where what matters is the truth of your immediate reactions, not the orderly and constrained judgments and actions that normal life requires.

"And that practice you get of being in touch with those reactions is very useful, not only in acting, but in normal life as well. It's harder to fool yourself about what your feeling after you take the class. You become more sensitive to your own truths and more attentive to others. Those are useful skills. You get a little more centered, and you tend to be a better partner not only for other actors... but also for those close to you in your life."

Stepping out

VanCort's students are starting to use their newly acquired skills to land roles in local productions.

Says Romm: "I've worked with Stephen Ponton and the Red Bull Players in Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra' and 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'; with Black Umbrella in George Sapio's production of 'Macbeth.' I've worked with Cathy Crane on her wonderful film about Simone Weil, 'The Unoccupied Zone.' And parts with Natalie de Combray and Third Floor Productions. Right now I'm working with Maura Stephens and Gary Weisbrot on 'Death and the Maiden' under the direction of Pete Rush. We'll be opening in the Risley Theater on February 17."

While Frank has mostly focused on his band, he says that VanCort's class has kept him engaged in theater. "I've acted in a number of productions, ranging from school performances to the Hangar's mainstage," he says. "I played 'Rolf"' in the Hangar's 'The Sound of Music' a few summers ago, which was an absolutely amazing experience, although having taken Meisner, I wish I could do it over again. I'd show myself up."

Weir has acted in some films shot by Ithaca College students, and she's looking for more roles. "I'm auditioning for anything I can right now--I just want the chance to work," she says.

A wide variety

VanCort's classes comprise a wide range of students, from high schoolers and college to professionals and retirees. "One of our new students is a veteran of the Iraq war, and we also have a professor in class," she says. "But perhaps of the technique, and I hope because of me a bit, they're incredibly cohesive and they're like a family." She's always looking to increase the diversity of her class.

VanCort is amazed by the growth of her school, one that has been facilitated by the emergence of Katie Spallone as a fellow Meisner instructor. "We've gone from classes twice a week to four days a week," she says. "I feel so privileged to have taught Katie and have her be my co-teacher and now teaching her own class. What were the chances that I was going to find someone this talented in Ithaca? She's half the Workshop. I didn't expect to find someone of that caliber in Ithaca."

Interest students can register at tonight's showcase. Those who register tonight will receive a discount off the $390 semester fee: 8 percent with a deposit of $100, or 12 percent with full payment.

"This is a rare opportunity to get into the class because we have so many graduates that we have more openings than usual," says VanCort. "So people who would normally be wait-listed will have a chance to get into the class."

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