The most plausible Objection to our Administration seem’d to be that we took no Care to breed up young Actors to succeed us, and this was imputed as the greatest Fault, because it was taken for granted that it was a Matter as easy as planting so many Cabbages. Let it be our Excuse then that since there was no Garden where accomplish’d Actors grew, we could only pick them up, as we do Pebbles of Value, by chance.
—An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), by Colley Cibber
Everybody in the world thinks they know two things—what they do and acting. —Floyd King
Poor Colley Cibber. The most popular comedic actor of his time, he’s mostly remembered today as the hapless sod who was overshadowed by the Colossus-like imprint of David Garrick and ridiculed and dismissed by the likes of Johnson, Fielding and Pope for being a hack. But if he was behind even the times he lived in, he did put his finger on two significant truths that continue to resonate today: The world seems to need actors. And good ones aren’t easy to come by.
Laurence Olivier, addressing a commencement class of acting students at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in the 1950s, said, “Above all, the actor must be the great understander—and that puts him in a category with the philosopher, the poet and the priest.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, but how much have attitudes changed toward actors and actor training since the time of Colley Cibber? Anyone familiar with the drama departments of most universities across America will tell you that those beleaguered bastions are routinely less funded than other departments and staffed with fewer tenured professors.
The situation mirrors the way we view actors overall. We deify them (endless awards programs) or we dismiss them (especially when they speak up during an election season), but we haven’t yet seemed to find a niche for them outside the pages of Entertainment Weekly. Fiona Shaw believes that the situation is especially problematic in America. But even Richard Eyre, former artistic director of England’s Royal National Theatre, lets down the cause in his otherwise all-encompassing survey of contemporary theatre history, Changing Stages, in which he and his co-writer Nicholas Wright only tangentially mentions actors at all. In the process he not only marginalizes their role in the social order, he erases them even from theatre history.
It’s in this dispiriting context that the efforts of six actors-who-teach, profiled here, are especially gratifying. They know that the best way to elevate the position of the actor in America is to elevate the quality of work being done. They teach, as often as not, with little or no pay and because they believe that the training of actors is not just important, it’s relevant—both within a proscenium and on the world stage—now more than ever.
Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, Fiona Shaw, Floyd King, Gary Sinise and Marian Seldes, interviewed separately, but united by a vision, tend the “cabbages” that Colley Cibber neglected—root by root, plant by plant, one class at a time. In the process, they cultivate respect for the actor, respect for acting. Uta Hagen, herself a teacher of three of these teachers, would be proud.
DAVID BYRON: How were you first exposed to acting and how did it change you?
MURRAY ABRAHAM: An acting teacher saved my life: Lucia P. Hutchens, El Paso, Tex., right on the border of Mexico. I was scattered and a little crazy, and in some trouble. It was the beginnings of the gangs then, the pachuchos. I was just a fuck-up. I’d been in jail a couple of times and was barely making it through school. I was taking the easiest classes I could. One of them was speech and drama—it sounded like a simple thing, and I always liked to tell jokes and there couldn’t be much homework, I supposed. I got in that class and she saw something. She said, “Read this out to the class.” My first brush with Shakespeare, at 17 years old.
Literature wasn’t a big part of my family’s life. But she praised me and talked about the school play. That was it, as soon as I stepped on stage. It’s as simple as that. But the fact that she took the time, to me that’s a real gift. Amazing. It was great, great good fortune. How else would I have become associated with the theatre? It was not part of my blue-collar family at all. My father was a mechanic. We were steelworkers, coal miners and farmers. I feel that it saved my life.
GARY SINISE: Disney honors a teacher every year with the American Teacher Award, and they asked me to present it. They said, “Do you have a teacher in mind?” And I said, “Oh, yeah. You called the right guy.” Barbara Patterson—she was it. She got me into the theatre at Highland Park High School in Illinois, and once I was in, I was hooked. That’s where I met Jeff Perry, and we became best buddies and eventually started Steppenwolf. Barbara was really a sort of you-gotta-make-theatre-wherever-you-can kind of person. “Don’t wait around,” she said. So we ended up starting our own theatre, and it’s 30 years old now.
FIONA SHAW: I was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and it was really the best training in the world—it was revelatory. Not least because of the totality of it. I do think that the immersion in a total acting-training is the key. You have to sort of leave the world and join the world of the harnessing of the multiple skills of your body and your mind. So, really, I found that very, very good. There was a man there called Hugh Cruttwell. He was able to hone in on everybody’s individual skill, everybody’s individual development and everybody’s individual weakness.
OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: My mother was my first acting teacher. She would periodically decide we were going to do little skits and musical revues in the kitchen and we’d jump up and sing songs to each other. She and my father started the Dionysus Club in Lowell, Mass., in the ’20s, and did Oedipus and other classical Greek plays, and the two of them put on musical-revue-type things for the Red Cross and the Greek war relief. The first time I was on stage I was the Spirit of Young Greece. I’ll tell you how sweet it was. I had two doves, and they were supposed to fly out into the audience and they crapped all over me. I should have known then what show business was like.
FLOYD KING: Michael Kahn was a huge, huge influence on me. I wasn’t a formal student of his, but he taught me everything I know, sometimes the hard way. Before I met him I was a performer. After I met him I began to become an actor. Before it was all instinct, but he kept me at the Shakespeare Theatre [in Washington, D.C.] for 20 years and I’ve slowly learned to act. That kind of chance is so rare these days. It’s like England in the old days.
MARIAN SELDES: I had great teachers, and I remember everything. Certainly Sanford Meisner and the Neighborhood Playhouse. And Martha Graham and the marvelous discipline of the dance world thrilled me. Shortly after I graduated from the Playhouse and was on tour with Judith Anderson in Medea, Uta Hagen was teaching in Chicago and playing Blanche DuBois at the same time. She let me audit her classes, and she had an enormous influence on me—I mean as a teacher. One of the first scenes I ever saw in her class was the scene between Ophelia and Hamlet, and the Hamlet had a southern accent and the Ophelia was a larger person than the Hamlet, someone you would think of maybe working on Gertrude, and I saw right away that it was not the result that Uta was interested in, it was the process.
What makes a good acting teacher?
SELDES: I think it’s all a question of giving the young actor confidence and the place in which he or she can develop without humiliation, without terror, without any of those things people warn you about. After I’ve been teaching a class for a certain amount of time, I feel my students become so welcoming of the talent of the others that it really does happen. It’s a utopia.
SINISE: There are probably a lot of teachers who shouldn’t be teaching, you know? It’s all about being a drill sergeant—they want to break you down and get you to the point where, “If you can’t survive in my class, you’ll never survive in this business”—all that kind of stuff. But they’re doing it because they’re bitter and don’t have anything else to do. If you have the wrong teacher, it can really mess up your life.
ABRAHAM: I would prefer a teacher who has considerable experience on the stage. But as with Uta Hagen, the danger is that a good teacher, a great teacher, carries a real charisma, and a charismatic teacher is a dangerous teacher. The longer I was with Uta Hagen, the worse I became, because I was falling under her spell. What I began to do incrementally with every class was to erase what I brought, who I was, in order to do precisely everything that she was recommending. I wanted to please her. By the end she threw me out of her class, and I think she did me a favor by getting rid of me.
How do you teach?
KING: I only teach Shakespeare, classical comedy. I call it “the brain surgery” of acting. Sometimes I get a whiff from the other teachers of, “Thank God it’s not me.” But I don’t think teaching comedy is a special art, it’s a matter of releasing. I think the word “comedy” scares everybody to death. So I never talk about being funny. There are lots of people who aren’t funny people who do comedy brilliantly. That’s another thing I teach them. It encourages them if I can get them to believe it. You don’t have to be funny to do comedy. And visa versa: You can be a funny person and not be funny on stage.
SELDES: The kind of work I do is based on script. That’s what all my work is about: for actors to find themselves in the material and to get them to read plays. When actors say they’re between jobs or something, I say, “What’s the last play you read?” Because you would never think of a doctor not reading what’s new about medicine. I think my strong point is the connection between the actor and the playwright.
KING: One of the assignments I give is to take a piece, from either a Shakespeare tragedy or history, and do a scene from it as if it were a comedy. They can’t pull their pants down, they can’t make fun of the material. It’s not about satire. It’s about playing the objective so strongly that it’s funny. The more tragic it is, the funnier it can be. Romeo and Juliet is hilarious. Look at the balcony scene. Lots of laughs, because it’s not a tragedy yet!
SHAW: What I don’t deal with particularly is character. Situations are character, rather than character “not being you.” I don’t know how one could “not be you.” I think the literal transformation that American acting has been so brilliant at is often a way of…I don’t know, there is something about the desire by Americans to use theatre or acting as an escape from life rather than an investigation of life. People often feel very released when they become bag ladies or kings, but I think what’s interesting is not the bag lady or the king or even the transformation, but what is the situation the bag lady or the king finds her or himself in?
Why teach if you don’t need to?
KING: I don’t think it’s altruistic; it helps me as much as it helps them. I like the energy of the youngsters and seeing all that raw talent, but also what it does for me. It constantly is a refresher course in process. Sometimes, in your own work, you have a tendency, maybe, to skip over things. And when you’re teaching them you’re seeing your own particular problems as an actor.
ABRAHAM: I think that people who are successful in this business, those who have lots of experience, should give themselves to teaching, a bit anyway. For one thing, it clarifies your own ideas. It insists that you codify your knowledge. I wanted to start finding out what I didn’t know. I began teaching because my dear departed friend, Geraldine Page—a terrific, gifted teacher—called me in one day and asked me to take over her class because she was busy. So I had to examine what I knew to be able to verbalize it. And you begin to understand that perhaps you have been coasting in this area. And if you have really good students, they won’t let you get away with that.
SHAW: I teach because I live in the middle of this stuff all the time. It’s like saying your prayers; you get a chance to revisit scenes from plays that you do or don’t know. I mean, I’m often doing something from King Lear in class. I didn’t know King Lear at all, but I know lots of bits of it now. It’s a great way of doing the unknown. Once you discover the center of the play, then you’re not trapped by the historical moment of it, because the play could be written now or anytime. You’re just interested in the scene and what the scene reveals. So the exercise is a mantra and entirely new each time. Maybe the story has been held tight for 2,000 years. It’s been reworked and reworked and re-found, so it’s polished to a kind of nugget—it’s there for the releasing. I would say that acting is the creativity of one generation over another, the re-explosion of the same thing again and again.
DUKAKIS: It’s a great adventure. You know the thing Tennessee Williams says: “Make voyages, there’s nothing else.”
Is the actor a proactive, creative force, not only on the stage but in society as a whole?
SELDES: I don’t see the actor as a person who can influence and make a change. We are absolutely the servants of the writer. That’s a tremendous conviction I have.
KING: It’s the playwright who’s the proactive one. We’re the interpreters; It’s not our words, it’s not our thoughts, it’s not our principles that we put up there on stage. It’s the playwright’s. If we’re doing our job right, that’s what we’re serving. If anyone’s going to change the world, it’s going to be a playwright.
SINISE: In the scheme of things, you know, there are more important things than acting.
ABRAHAM: It’s the most important thing in the world!
SHAW: Apart from everything else, the actor’s a brilliant unifying force for seeing that all of us live just now, and we all will die. The life of the actor is that you actually have the opportunity to labor over what it might be like to stand in a different corner of the world—and that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it? I think it’s a marvelous thing. Reading a novel is a marvelous thing, but acting is almost better, because if you read a novel you sit and you experience it in your mind; but if you act something, you actually take responsibility for it.
SINISE: Do I look for things I can make my political statement in? No, I never have. You know, I played Harry Truman, and I played George Wallace, too. If you’re going to take them on, you’ve got to play them both with conviction and commitment and with no holds barred. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with your political point of view.
ABRAHAM: I think acting is definitely subversive. There’s an anarchic quality to acting that people envy and lash out at. Actors represent a danger to society. It’s that discovery of a thing in each of us that we’d rather not examine, we’d rather not touch on. And the better the actor, the closer they are to that truth, and that makes them dangerous, because it wakes ourselves up to who and what we are.
Take Medea for example. To do a really satisfying Medea, truly, you have to find in yourself that part of you that would kill your own children. If you have a child who has colic, who screams for six months (because that’s how long colic lasts), you will think about killing that child if you allow yourself to. Now what actress is willing to examine that? A great actress. But once she does, she communicates that to the house. She discovers what that awakens, on stage, in front of you, live, there. When she does, you do. And that is scary.
SHAW: I don’t think that good acting is polemical, but I do think that the choices the actor makes are, of course, political. The explosive poetical concentration of your revelation of a character in a situation results in a moral universe: You’re being offered to an audience, who then have to make their choice.
DUKAKIS: We don’t have political theatre anymore, the way we did in the ’60s and the early ’70s—at least not here in America. Europeans have it much more. People here try to stay away from politics and religion because they’re controversial, and controversy makes it very hard, especially, say, in the regional theatres, to raise money.
SHAW: America is obsessed with money; the value of a person is connected to their power, which equals their money. It is the only value, the only standard, whereas in Europe, in Spain and Italy, still, the intellectual power or the imaginative power somebody has gives them a certain status in the community. Long may it last, I say, but America is unique in that. This is a very anti-intellectual moment in American life.
ABRAHAM: The people that we call leaders these days, at least in America, seem to have almost no leadership stature. One of the reasons I love Oedipus is the fact that this political leader, a king, Oedipus Rex, says, “There’s a cancer on society. We must find out what the cause is and then we must, whomever, whatever, wherever falls the blame, get him out.” And then we find out that it’s him, though in fact he really is innocent. He did not know, but that’s not the point, is it? As the leader, it’s his responsibility, and he does this thing he does. It’s not enough to say, just, “I’m leaving.” He punishes himself, and in that way he purges his guilt, he purifies the country that he says he loves.
Now, in contradiction to that noble example of leadership, we have so many leaders who refuse to take responsibility. Kenneth Lay: “I didn’t know.” Nixon: Practically everybody in his cabinet went to jail. Bush today: He’s propagating this mantle of irresponsibility, of non-responsibility. It’s the sign of our times. What’s going to happen to our country? Now is the time to do Oedipus Rex!
SHAW: I think it’s fascinating that 10 years ago in drama classes we used to be reaching for ways of conjuring up extreme situations, and now they’re all too immediate.
You have to believe that human nature remains the same. If anything, the terror today brings up the same questions it always has, which are: Who are the baddies? Are we them? These are good questions for young people to have to answer because they always assume they’re in the moral right. It’s absolutely marvelous if you’re not—and much more interesting, if you ask me.
Will acting and the teaching of acting continue to be relevant in years to come?
KING: Acting certainly will, because people want to hear stories and see them acted out. And the teaching of acting is really the teaching of process and helping someone to find and bring out what’s inside them. There’ll always be a need for that.
SELDES: Aristotle said that theatre is a healing art. It’s a medicine. It teaches us that we are more alike than different. It brings us together. It’s being there at the moment it happens. Television and films and the Internet can never replace that immediacy.
SHAW: I think studying acting is a beautiful way of investigating the unacceptable, and it produces compassion, it produces understanding. It celebrates human nature even at its worst, and I think that that’s of brilliant value—that humans don’t have to die in the darkness of ignorance. That’s not going to change.
DUKAKIS: I think it has a lot to do with the way we dream. These dreams are revelatory and informing and empowering, and I think that’s what the arts do: Whether you’re looking at a single image, like a painting, or watching a dance or listening to music, it’s all about being involved in a collaborative way in the storytelling. That really does it. That’s where you really get off.
KING: Not all these students are going to be actors, but they’re going to be audiences—and they’re going to be educated audiences. They’ll see the magic, but they’ll also be able to see the craft.
ABRAHAM: But these kids, you’re really giving them something that is so hard for them to find outside of our little protected enclave, because their parents and grandparents and friends think they are damn fools. This is not so much an encouragement as an affirmation: “It’s okay, you can have your dream for as long as it lasts, as long as you understand that if you leave the business or the process of studying, when you leave—and this is very important—it’s not been wasted time. None of it is wasted.”
SHAW: I’m concerned that there are so many institutions teaching acting, and you wonder: Do we need to be producing these hundreds of actors every year, when we only need 10 new ones who are good? But I do actually think that for them, to study acting and then to go and become lawyers or housewives—I think it affects those other roles. I think it makes them better housewives and better lawyers. I think it’s a wonderful thing to have studied, and the really great thing is that if they learn anything in their classes, they can use it in their kitchens.
David Byron has taught theatre history at Yale and at the British American Drama Academy (BADA) in London and Oxford.
F. Murray Abraham has taught at Brooklyn College and continues to teach around the country, wherever he is working.
Fiona Shaw teaches at BADA and around the United States.
Gary Sinise has taught through the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and as a guest artist at BADA.
Marian Seldes taught acting at Juilliard for many years.