The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca

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Ithaca Journal - Dec 15, '05: Showcase Meisner Technique

Actor's Workshop to showcase Meisner Technique

by Jim Catalano

Ever wonder how actors develop their skills? A visit to the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca showcase, which takes place Friday night at the First Unitarian Church, will offer a first-hand look at the Meisner Technique, an approach to acting invented by Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) of the Actor's Playhouse in New York City.

To Meisner, "acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances," so he developed a set of exercises to help students react in the moment. At the core of the technique is the repetition exercise, in which students repeats phrases and organically reach to their partner.

To fully study the Meisner technique, students progress through five semesters of classes, and also can take an optional sixth semester in monologue work.

Ithaca native Eliza VanCort studied the Meisner Technique in New York City, taught it in Boston, and decided to set up her own school when she returned to her hometown in 2000. At first, she held classes in Tiamat, but was eventually able to construct her own studio, an exact replica of Meisner's New York space, behind her house in Collegetown.

A time of growth

Since founding the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca, VanCort has seen her classes explode in popularity. To meet the increasing demand from interested students, VanCort trained Katie Spallone, who was one of the first local graduates of the Meisner program, as an instructor. Spallone now leads her own mixed-level Meisner class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the studio.

"Eliza was a great teacher - when I was in her class I was always looking for ways to improve, I think I drove her a bit crazy because I asked so many questions," says Spallone. "I never would have been able to teach if I hadn't been her assistant for three semesters; I really saw the class and the technique through different eyes. I really feel that I learned the technique all over again as an objective observer and not a participant."

Spallone says that she finds teaching the class rewarding. "I love the energy of my students, the pure joy that they get onstage. I also love the fact that I'm teaching a widely diverse group; high school and college students, professors, bankers, psychologists, caterers, you name it. It's wonderful because there is no specific age group, I'll have a 17-year-old doing scenes or exercises with someone in their 40's or 50's. It's a great life lesson not only for me, but for the participating students. Where else do you get to emotionally interact with such different demographics?"

VanCort's current assistant is Carolyn Lee, another former student.

A Diverse pool of students

The Actor's Workshop current students come from all walks of life, with a wide range of ages (from 16 up), occupations and ethnic backgrounds. VanCort's studio has mixed-level classes, so students from all five Meisner semesters interact with each other.

"The great thing about it is that the first-semester students get to see where the technique is going, so they get a longitudinal view of what's coming up, which helps them figure out what they're doing," says VanCort. "And the advanced students get to go back to the basics over and over again, which makes them stronger by reminding them of the bedrock of the technique."

Some hear about the studio by word of mouth. "I first wanted to take the Actors Workshop classes after several of my friends - Chris Frank, Sierra Carrere, Helen Highfield, Sophie Ostlund - took it and raved about it," says Nikki Page, an Ithaca High School student who will be attending Brown University next fall. "After last year's IHS musical, 'My Favorite Year,' Eliza called me after seeing me in the show and asked if I was interested in the class. I was really excited and started with the summer session before my senior year. My forte up until that point was singing and musical theatre without much emphasis on acting and I really wanted to develop it."

Amanda Setton encountered VanCort's class at a Park School of Communications workshop last year. "During the entire workshop I listened and watched in amazement as the actors performed," she says. "The technique is unprecedented and is so real that you can't watch it being done without being automatically touched and drawn in.

"As a college student taking theatre classes for my major, this was unlike any class I have taken or will take at Ithaca College," Setton continues. "It is working with a specific technique rather than little pieces from all of them. This has really allowed me to learn and be more aware of my faults and flaws as an actress and has set me up with the specific tools and knowledge, to correct them, or at least try to."

Cathy Crane, a film professor at Ithaca College, is in her first semester at the Actor's Workshop. "I am devoted to guiding student film directors in their complex interactions with actors. To do this more effectively, I decided I should spend some time studying acting," she says. "I have always included writing from Sanford Meisner and textual descriptions of his technique in my course readers and have been aware for some time of the unique opportunity we have here in Ithaca to learn this technique from Eliza VanCort at the Actor's Workshop."

Other students are intrigued by the showcases, and decide to take the plunge themselves. "I attended every showcase of Eliza's since she began her school in Ithaca in 2000 and I was overwhelmed by the quality of the actors and the talent progression," says Amy Rogers, who coaches girls' tennis at Ithaca High School. "I could barely sleep after attending a performance because it was so real and riveting. Finally I mustered the courage to sign up because I could tell Eliza and her program were magical."

Jimmy Liao, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neurology and behavior at Cornell, says he was looking for "a personal challenge" when he signed up for the class. "I just arrived to Ithaca after finishing my Ph.D. at Harvard, recently broken up with someone I was seeing, and was ready for something completely different," he says. "I've always thought that acting would be one of the scariest things for me to do. I went to last year's winter showcase and was mortified but intrigued by what I saw—all these uncomfortable and raw emotions."

Liao has since learned his initial mortification was misplaced. "I'm a scientist by training so didn't have any expectations," says Liao. "I guess I expected it to be impossible at first, but it was surprisingly easy."

Indeed, most students say that the classes are very supportive. "The Meisner studio is a very safe environment, where the actors can truly explore any sudden stimulation, as is required by the technique, without criticism or fear," notes Page. "What happens onstage stays onstage because while we may be a close family in audience, when we get on stage we are reacting to our partner as if we've never seen him or her before with real human emotions."

Ready to Act

Of course, many Actor's Workshop want to become professional actors. VanCort has seen many of her former students find success in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Her current students are hoping for the same, and feel they're more ready to succeed.

"I have pursued acting roles since taking this class and it has definitely improved my audition and cold reading skills," Setton says. "Eliza includes in the program a cold reading section, which has taught me many tricks in auditioning and how to go into certain auditions and how to attack a cold reading. The auditions have gone quite well because of this."

"The interesting thing about my career goal is that I actually aim at pursuing a career in voice acting, where one's face and bodily appearance are not a factor in what you're cast as," says Lucien Dodge. "Nevertheless, acting is acting, and this class has certainly improved my craft by ten-fold since I started.

"As Corey Burton, an established voice actor in the business and good friend once told me, the ear is at least as critical — if not more so—than the eye, so just as much truth and ‘magic' must be done in creating a fully believable cartoon character as it does to play a role on stage. My aspirations will eventually lead me to L.A. to pursue this craft, and any success I have there I must hail to my training at this workshop."

"This class has made me much more confident as an actor and has solidified my love for performance," adds Page. "The intensity and nuances of the class are exactly what I have needed and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a truthful stage experience."

Lasting effects

Most students who study the Meisner Technique notice that it has also a positive effect on their personal lives.

"The experience has been so profound and has changed me and my life in such a positive way," says Rogers. "Through this program I have learned how to live in the moment, take chances, and I have a greater understanding of myself. Eliza's program not only taught me how to act, but has enhanced every aspect of my life."

She notes that she's better able to relate to the girls on her tennis team as individuals rather than "teenagers," and is more spontaneous and willing to take chances.

"I also feel like the program has given me a depth beyond being a mother and a wife," Rogers says. "And my family is thoroughly entertained when I practice my character work at home, except when it is so good that my 6-year-old son gets afraid mommy isn't coming back—my test of a true success)."

Setton says the Meisner technique has not only molded my acting but has helped me be more open in life. "As crazy as that may sound, it's true," she says. "It has helped me to not run away from my feelings and lay them on the line. It also has allowed me to be much more aware and in touch with my feelings. I mean, it's not therapy, but it's a close second!"

"I am not the same person that I was six semesters ago - that is a cold, solid fact," says Dodge. "Meisner has, without being mushy about it, changed my life. In the class, you're taught to discover your true 'point of view.' Well, lemme tell ya, that call to one's senses, when one really discovers what they're feeling, and how they feel about the world around them in sharp, brutal detail does not just apply in the class; it applies to everything that you experience afterward. It really is sort of an awakening, and I really can't describe it any better than that. You just have to see it for yourself."

Friday's event will comprise two showcases: 6:30 p.m. for VanCort's class and 8:30 p.m. for Spallone's. "The audience will be treated to students doing everything from basic improvisational repetition exercises as well as some character driven improvs, dramatic and comedic monologues and actual scripted scenes," Spallone says. "We have approximately 28 students between the two classes in all levels of study, so there will be quite a selection."

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