The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca
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Fingerlakes Community Newspapers - Jul 14, '10: Learning to Be Real

Learning to Be Real

By Glynis Hart

David Romm gives the credit for his creativity to his wife, who teaches bassoon at Ithaca College. "She is my model for the creative life.""I was looking for a semi-creative outlet," says David Romm. "It's important to be creative if you get the chance, and there's nothing like learning scripts to keep your mind fresh." After a thirty year hiatus, Romm, who teaches in the Business and Management division of Keuka College, got back into acting through the Actor's Workshop. Now becoming widely known for the quality of its graduates and its program, the Actor's Workshop in Ithaca is run by Eliza VanCort.

"I was in a bar with a French friend of mine, trying to meet women, and I ran into Katie Spallone. I don't know how we got talking about acting, but she said she was taking this great course with Eliza."

The course, which runs five terms, uses Sanford Meisner's techniques for acting. Unlike the widely known Method acting (James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe were Method students), Meisner teaches students to react authentically to imaginary situations by getting in touch with how they feel, rather than how they think they should feel. "It really gives you practice at being in the moment," says Romm. "It puts you in touch with your unmediated reaction; it's practice in reacting to people outside the normal conventions and rules of society."

In the first classes, two students will sit facing each other, verbally mirroring what is going on; they stay intently focused on one another. "You're smiling," says one, observing the other; "I'm smiling," is the response. They'll repeat this until something in the immediate aspect of the other changes: "You're fixing your hair-" "I'm fixing my hair." "You're moving your chair-" I'm moving my chair." With constant drilling they learn to become focused on what exactly they are feeling and doing.

It's difficult, says Romm, because in ordinary life we mediate our feelings. We say what is acceptable, what is safe, what is socially expected. Meisner teaches the acting student to first find out what she or he really feels, and then that authentic feeling is called upon to bring the play to life. "The key to the craft of acting is the reality of doing," as Meisner put it.

"It's very Zen," says Romm. "Not that I know much about Zen."

John Murray, another one of the Actor's Workshop students, came into acting after 23 years in the Army as a helicopter pilot. He currently tests helicopter simulations for Rockwell Collins. "This is definitely outside my box," says Murray.

"I always enjoyed the theater. Live theater, I think it's more interesting to watch," says Murray, who did one year of acting in high school. After he retired from the Army he started getting into acting. "I thought, Why not?" He auditioned for a role in Othello for a company in Binghamton. "It turned out to be rather fun. They were very encouraging, although I didn't get a part." He started coming to Ithaca to study at the Actor's Workshop. "Eliza was very, very encouraging. I guess you could say I'm addicted to it now. She's a fantastic mentor and coach. She's special. She really seriously takes an interest in her students."

Murray is currently playing the Earl of Kent in a production of King Lear in Endicott - he lives in Binghamton- and he gives the credit to Eliza for her encouragement and mentoring. For her part, VanCort feels that Murray has his own gifts: "He has this rawness and truthfulness that's incredible. He looks like a military guy, which he is, which is a unique look and people are loving him."

The workshop strives for diversity, which means that the classes have a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. "It brings together people who would never ordinarily intersect," says VanCort.

"It was great to meet kids outside the world of teachers, family connections, and to be real with them," says Romm. "Where they saw me not as an authority figure, not as someone they had to lie to or fear. It's so rare that we get to do that."

In Ithaca the actors have several advantages, one being the many students films being made. VanCort explains that actors can build up a reel of their acting clips by doing a lot of student films. "We have this opportunity to get lots and lots of roles for older actors," whereas in New York City they would be competing against "people who have been in the business forever and have a bazillion acting credits."

The workshop itself is unique, as well. "I say I'm going to the Actor's Workshop and their ears perk up," explains Murray.

"Some times people who have a lot of experience find it harder," says VanCort. She encourages newcomers, and keeps her fees low to make sure the classes are available to anyone who seriously wants to take a class. While some are aiming for acting, others take it to improve their public speaking or communication skills. "People often feel very nervous when they start an acting class, but Meisner teaches for mastery. We all start at a very basic level, and then you slowly build up a toolbox of techniques."

While getting in touch with your true feelings may not always be comfortable, many people say the workshops have helped them not just in acting, but in living. "I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," says Murray.