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A few years back, there was a huge uproar over the Connecticut casting of The Motherf*er in the Hat. The director, a relatively recent graduate of an NYU directing program, cast two actors who were part of this graduate thesis project. The problem was — they were white.

A dramaturg who graduated from Columbia Univ. with whom I’m familiar posted “that’s not the point of colorblind casting: to give more jobs to white actors.”  I simply replied — “I’m glad someone is hiring the actors who worked for them, for free, when the director was getting his/her degree.”  But I was being disingenuous — I never expected working for student productions to lead to anything further.

The truth is there are countless opportunities in NYC for actors to work, to learn the craft, to stay sharp and to keep themselves focused.  Both NYU and Columbia have graduate directing programs in Theatre and Film.  These programs have carte blanche from the acting unions to use professional actors — dues-paying union actors — without pay (it gets a little bit dicy when you’re working with a student who will drop thousands of buck on their film production, but considers it okay not to pay the actor even transportation).  Additionally, there are film programs at NY Film Academy, Brooklyn College, SVA, Digital Film Academy, et al.  All require actors.

I had something of a conflict with my then acting teacher in 1996.  I had left my steady job and was working free-lance, so funds were a bit tight as well.  Instead of searching out and paying for a new acting class, I decided I would spend a year learning how different directors work.  I sent in my picture and resume for the Columbia Graduate Directors program and auditioned.

The space was a large black box in the basement of a dorm building.  I chose to do a Shakespearean monologue as they’d asked for “classical.”  In the dimly lit space, there were seven directors huddled together in the middle of two hard white plastic fold-out tables.  I was working with the Richard of Gloucester monologue from the end of Henry VI, seconds after he’s laid poor old Harry to rest at the end of a sword.  As I spoke the words, I envisioned poor Henry lying on the floor at my feet, in a pool of blood, cursing me.  None of the directors seemed to be noticing him, so I continued speaking — “Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste and seek their ruin who usurp’d our right?” — as I walked behind them.  Yep, I walked out into their space and stood behind them, encouraging them to behold the spectacle lying on the floor.  After all — I was talking to them now — Harry was dead.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of week, but then a Korean woman in her late 20s called.  We worked on an abstraction of Death of a Salesmen — she had me in a trench coat and my underwear.  Payback is a b__ch, as they say.  She told me that the other directors said, “you’re going to work with him?  He’s so scary!” Within weeks, however, I was called by one after the other.  During that semester, each director put up 21 projects between Anne Bogart’s  first year Death of a Salesmen class and Robert Woodruff’s Euripedes class.  I appeared in 17 projects.  During the Spring, I was working on Moliere at the McCarter Playhouse (Princeton), so I did not work with the directors again until the end of the term.

I’m am often asked two sets of questions about working for such programs:  “Does anyone see you.”  And “Is it worth it?”

Over the course of 10 years, I did countless projects at Columbia’s graduate directors program.  I did projects with the film program as well — readings, scene study, even some really bad films.  During the very first session with the Korean director, I had to make a decision:  do I only work this way (my way) or am I flexible enough to try other things?  I’d been trained in Uta Hagen’s technique — a technique that grounds itself in the objects of reality.  At its best, the Hagen technique is a life-rope that supports the actor in their made-up world while giving them some leeway to be alive and respond.  At its worst it is a cage for actors who only trust the objects, often picking up needless item after needless item simply to give them the reference for saying a particular line.  Now, I was being asked to do something that felt more like dance — move here, count to three, make this gesture.

Since we were doing an abstraction of the Miller, I simply did what I was asked.  I did not channel Willy Loman or even consider what I was doing a part of Death of a Salesman.  I was simply working like an extra — going where the director told me to go, doing what I was told to do.  Next, the same director asked me to perform in Medea.  The director had a very clear vision of what she wanted to see.  She wanted to cast a black actress who had put on white face.  The denouement of the encounter with Jason would have the actress then taking the white face off.  Problem: none of the actresses agreed.  They had ideas of what they needed to do to be seen as valid actors. I was given directions such as “Sit at the table.  Count to three. Pick up the knife.  Count to two.”  It is very difficult to be in the moment, to have any inner life at all, when you are counting.  That scene was about as close as I came to rebellion — yet I saw the actresses raging and what happened was we were wasting every rehearsal with hours of discussions on why the actress could not perform in the director’s requested manner. I decided to simply do my best.

It turned out that this problem did not just pertain to this particular scene.  Almost every director with whom I worked had a process that was particular to their background — whether they were from Korea, Maine or the Lower East Side — and they encountered actors who were generally trained in one method.  I decided pretty quickly that my job was to be there for the director — they were the ones paying for the course, they were the ones getting graded — if they wanted me to count to five and hold a knife in the air, that’s what I would do.  I get the counter argument: you are performing in front of Anne Bogart or Robert Woodruff, later Brian Kulick or Karin Coonrood, you don’t want to do something that makes you look lame.  But I made that decision — do what you are asked; find a way to make it work for you.

I learned as much in the years I worked at Columbia as the years I took class (frequently I was doing both at the same time — I did go back to class after I came back from my time at the McCarter).  I continued to work with Columbia students after my son was born simply to keep myself in practice — several of the directors were willing to rehearse on my schedule (having kids gives you only x windows of space for your art), so I was grateful to keep working.  In this time I worked on Moliere’s Don Juan, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Inge’s Bus Stop, Goethe’s Faust — works I probably would not have tackled otherwise.  And other than Faust, I did them in their entirety.

Additionally, over the past 15 years, Columbia’s film program has grown from NYU’s starving younger sister to a perennial Oscar producer.  I can do very little with the footage of those films I made in the late 90s — I was asked to cry without a reason, to be “evil” instead of psychologically complex and there are camera shots that are so bad that they look as if a six year old got ahold of the camera and was bobbing it up and down (although none of them are as bad as Norman Mailer’s direction of Tough Guys Don’t Dance)Now, I’m more than willing to do student films from both NYU and Columbia — as is Len Cariou and some other “name” character actors.

Have I met anyone?  Yes.  Anne Bogart and I know each other, she’s familiar with my work.  Robert Woodruff knows who I am too.  I stay in touch, at least on Facebook with many of the directors I’ve worked with there.  Are any names?  Not at the moment.  But if you ask me, that’s not the reason to do the work.  If you go to Columbia or NYU so that your work will be seen by Anne Bogart and you might be hired by her company, you’ll most likely be disappointed.

The main reason to go do work at Columbia or NYU (or any of the other institutes that require actors) is that you get better by working.  You cannot become a better actor by reading about it.  You cannot get skilled doing monologues in your living room — there’s no reception.  It’s like being angry when no one is there — if no one receives the anger, it goes back in — it doesn’t get processed.  You don’t grow.

I know an actress — one of the best I’ve ever seen — who refused to do any more student films when she was only one or two years removed from being in school herself.  She refused to do a lot of things — get new head shots when a potential agent asked.  She spent a lot of time in class — paying to develop.  And she kept up her skill.  But she wasn’t in front of the camera.  She was rarely on stage.  These things take their toll. She also never had an acting career — despite being enormously talented.  As I said, probably the best actress I’d ever seen in person.

So my advice to anyone who moves to NYC to become an actor?  Get familiar with the schools.  Start to work — yes, it demands your time.  And it doesn’t pay.  And the people may be demanding.  But you pay for class, don’t you?  What if you could get a class for free?  One that teaches you everything you need to know about being on stage, being on film? And dealing with people.  Wouldn’t you take it?  The only caveat is that it demands for you to be flexible, with your time, your attitude and your technique.

I’m pretty certain the schools in L.A. offer the same deal.

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