The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca

Big City Training, Small Town Attention

Ithaca Times - Dec 13, '06: Acting Up

Acting Up

by Natasha Li Pickowicz


David Kossack and Suzanne VanDeMark

The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca is Eliza VanCort's brainchild, and it shows. Over the past five years, she has lovingly created a one-of-a-kind opportunity for budding thespians and creativity-starved Ithacans. A lithe, half-Italian, half-Jewish actress, teacher and Ithaca native, VanCort commands any room she enters with her enthusiasm and spunk - except, of course, when her students take the stage. Then, all eyes are on them.

Those who join the Workshop are fanatical about Van Cort and her colleague, Katie Spallone - and the feeling is mutual. Their students are a wild, outgoing and friendly bunch, and VanCort and Spallone - who was in VanCort's very first class back in 2001 - would have it no other way. They collaboratively work together - talking on the phone, swapping stories, trading scene ideas - while each teaches their own group of students. "Katie and I have very big personalities, and we're both quite opinionated," says VanCort. "Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we work together very well."

"The lady knows what she's talking about!" says Spallone of her former teacher. "There's definitely a sense of sharing rather than competition. We're in this together ... It's all about whatever is the best thing for our students."

Only one acting method is taught here - the Meisner Technique, developed by Sanford Meisner. It's a technique that's popular with many notable figures, including Robert Duvall and Arthur Miller, and it's prepared many of the Workshop's students for the silver screen, stage and elsewhere. Meisner believed the success to acting was to stop "acting" - that is, to live from moment to moment, connecting and reacting honestly to the other people around them.

VanCort echoes his motto over and over again, stressing the importance of honesty and truth: "Learning how to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances," she repeats over our many meetings. Spallone cites self-consciousness as a big problem for actors; well, the Meisner technique can overcome this dramatic hurdle. "It really grounds you, it keeps your right there, in that moment with your partner," says Spallone. "The worst actors are ones that are always 'watching' themselves, and Meisner teaches you to really focus on your partner... . There's no anticipation in Meisner actors, which keeps the action fresh and spontaneous."

Because of the intensity of the technique, the Workshop is limited to those sixteen or older. "This technique takes a certain amount of maturity to do right, and we feel that most fifteen year-olds just aren't ready to tackle this particular work," says VanCort. "Although I feel passionately that the technique is wonderful for adults in so many ways, it's simply not right for kids in its pure form." (This perhaps might be the right time to mention that Spallone's showcase, which will be the "late" show at 8pm, is for mature audiences only.)

Originally, VanCort had her ambitions set on law school - hard to imagine now, given her self-proclaimed "crazy person" descriptor. Although she had taken acting classes before, it was not until she was living in NYC in the early 90s, a student at NYU, that she was exposed to the Meisner technique through Phil Gushee, who had worked with Meisner for twenty years at the Neighborhood Playhouse. "I had taken acting classes before but always felt I was faking my way onstage," recalls VanCort. "After training under Phil, I felt a real element of truth, which had been sorely lacking before, had been injected into my acting."

Spallone had a similar breakthrough when first exposed to the Meisner technique, despite a long history of acting. "I loved the 'moment by moment' approach that Meisner technique takes and I found that I was watching myself a lot less onstage," says Spallone. "It wasn't until I started at the Workshop did I truly feel as if I was actually learning how to be a real actor."

Spallone then had to make the tricky transition from student to instructor. "I think it took me a bit of time to get my sea legs, but I was up and running pretty soon," says Spallone. "You get to know exactly what you like and dislike; my own style of teaching evolved from my own experiences."

For students, experience isn't a prerequisite for joining her class, VanCort insists, but dedication is a must. "There is no such thing as an 'ideal' student," VanCort says. "Indeed, the more diverse my classes are, the better. Anyone can tap into the creative side of themselves ... . If a student walks into my class with a willingness to learn, then they are, by definition, the ideal student."

Spallone agrees. "The most satisfying part of teaching is the sheer diversity of the class," she says. "I love the fact that there is no 'cookie cutter' approach in this class. It's really challenging figuring out the different personalities of the different students and then tailoring your teaching style to fit each student personality."

Luckily for VanCort and Spallone, the Workshop contingent is an almost improbable mix of Ithacans - there are undergrad students, a photographer, an apple farmer, coffee baristas, Cornell PhD candidates, retirees, and business men - and they are all brought together in the Workshop's extremely close quarters (the rehearsal space is modeled after Meisner's own stage layout, right down to the placement of a bookshelf and a bed, and is attached to the backend of Eliza's enormous home in the outskirts of Collegetown). This diversity makes it interesting not just for the teachers, but for the students as well. "In my particular class there was a great deal of age diversity, which was interesting," says Esosa Edosomwan, a recent alumnus of the Workshop. "It felt intimidating at first, but in the end I think it was one of the things that made the class so beneficial ... . Being in the class with all the quirky personalities was character training in itself."

Some are professional actors, and some are not, and this is exactly the dynamic that the Workshop pushes for. "I think non-actors take this class for many, many reasons," says VanCort. "Some want to get over stage fright, others want to overcome being painfully shy ... . I try not to ask people why they want to take the class. My job is to teach people the craft of acting."

Students can complete the full Workshop program in five "semesters," each hierarchically designed to focus on one specific aspect of the Meisner technique: First semester covers only Meisner's repetition exercise; Second semester focuses on emotional preparation; the Fifth semester finishes the program with script analysis and monologues, which are especially useful for those who have their eyes set on NYC and L.A. auditions, where "cold" readings are standard.

Edosomwan, who divides her time between film, theatre and modeling, attests to the usefulness of this technique. "Eliza's class was so integral to my training as a whole - it is safe to say that I have not had any other course that has so thoroughly prepared me for auditioning."

Clearly, much of the success in the class lies in the teaching abilities of VanCort and Spallone. "As an acting teacher, Eliza really stands out as one of the great few that is truly dedicated to teaching out of love," says Edosomwan. "The learning environment is nurturing and supportive - and that is part of what makes the experience priceless ... Eliza brings so much enthusiasm to the class and believes in her students so much that it is infectious; she is confident in you, and so you learn to be confident in yourself." The two are so close, in fact, that Edosomwan calls VanCort her "Acting Mother," and despite living in NYC, speaks with her frequently for advice about casting and jobs (and it doesn't hurt that VanCort's previous acting experience has landed her many valuable contacts).

Indeed, the Workshop seems to stay with a student long after the classes end (a stark white door in VanCort's house is covered with black sharpie scribblings of gratitude from every single alumnus). Each semester is geared to equip students with skills for their acting "toolbox," which will prepare them as a musician, actor, comedian, model (incidentally, Edosomwan is many of these things). Students are not obligated to take all five semesters - some use the first as "testing water" - but many become addicted and finish the entire program anyway.

The Workshop's fall and spring semesters focus on preparing students for their annual winter showcase, which is a mix of monologues, slapstick comedy, film scenes - including an unnerving dramatic scene titled "The Shape of Things," by playwright Neil Lebute. There is a judicious balance of drama and comedy, and VanCort has carefully sequenced the night to transition smoothly from First semester students to the advanced Fifth semesters (although most casual theatre-goers will not be able to tell the difference).

In an early rehearsal, one of the Workshop's classes already appeared to be in fine, lively form - for VanCort, the show has been a success if the audience cannot shake the feeling that they are being a voyeur, perhaps spying or eavesdropping: at times, the show can be uncomfortable in its proximity; there is an unflappable in-your-face intensity.

Each scene is carefully handpicked by VanCort and Spallone, and they try not to repeat themselves from year to year. "[We ask] can it stand on its own in a showcase, as if it were a one act play. The second thing we look for is a scene that works for our student and explores the work they are doing that semester," explains VanCort. Although relatively unknown to most Ithacans, VanCort and Spallone struggle to keep up with applicants and interest, and look to expand in the coming years (VanCort is currently training an assistant, Amina Omari, who is a Fifth Semester student and is featured prominently in the upcoming showcase). "Classes are in such demand right now, much more so than I ever could have dreamed of," says VanCort.

Given the popularity of VanCort's classes, it's amazing to note that there is nothing else even remotely offering what the Workshop provides. "As far as I know, we are the only acting studio in Ithaca. I'm not sure why this is. I would love for another studio to come to town and teach some of the other really interesting techniques out there ... They'd just better not try to teach Meisner!" VanCort laughs heartily.

The Workshop's Winter Showcase is Saturday, Dec. 16 at La Tourelle, 1150 Danby Rd. VanCort's students will perform at 6pm; Spallone's students at 8pm (it is the raunchier performance). It is advisable to get there by 5:30pm as the show tends to sell out quickly. For more info, 607-399-9999.

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