HB Studio One of New York’s original acting schools, HB Studio can imbue you with that New York authenticity. What sets this nonprofit organization apart is its atmosphere: HB Studio is not a college or conservatory, but a workplace for the teaching and practice of art. Students are expected to take charge of their own development and come forth with respect for the craft, highlighting areas where some deepening is necessary in their personal practice. HB training has roots in the European classical tradition and focuses on practicality. Stockard Channing, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker are among its alumni.
Great actors make themselves out of the stuff they are born with and all that they experience as their lives unfold. They challenge themselves to make the most of those assets and transcend those limitations — to make sense of all they have been given.
It is not enough to have talent, but talent is important. Talent can mean many things. Each extraordinary artist possesses a unique combination of gifts and must work to bring them to fruition and to compensate for the ones he or she lacks. Authenticity, sensitivity, imagination, empathy; a good ear, clever tongue; a resonant voice; physical coordination, flexibility, strength; courage, vulnerability — all these are key. Perhaps you are born with them; perhaps you must cultivate them. Probably it will be some combination of the two.
As Herbert Berghof was fond of saying, “Never mind your talent; do you have the determination?” You must be truthful with yourself and not rest at what comes easily. Each effort to communicate something meaningful and human presents new obstacles and demands. Each performance depends on a unique fusion of the intentions, efforts, and talents of the artists involved. You work as hard as you can to build a lightning rod, then hope and allow that lightning may strike.
If you are expecting to be great, you will likely miss the mark. If you are diligent, honest, and passionate about your work, you will do well. The reward: Sometimes, sometimes — through the temerity of your efforts and some accident of grace — something extraordinary will be revealed.
In December of 1961, I was able to get—through the kind offices of my friend Nancy Donahue, who introduced me to her agent Deborah Coleman—an audition for Arthur Kopit’s play “Oh Dad, Poor Dad…” (the title is actually longer than that), to be directed by Jerome Robbins. Jerry liked my audition, but he’d never heard of me, so he kept calling me back, and at every callback I got worse. Finally, on my sixth audition, I arrived and was asked to read opposite a young woman named Barbara Harris. It will always be one of the magical moments of my life. She began to speak, and the role I was auditioning for roared to life in me again. We both were cast that day.
And then I began, in rehearsal, to learn her process. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a process like it. I’ll just say I learned what it was like to be in the presence of genuine immediacy on the stage. Immediacy, by the way, combined with patience and kindness, not to mention an inexhaustible inventiveness. It was acting as the highest class of jazz. Much of what I know about acting, or what to strive for in acting, I learned in that year with Barbara, who of course went on to do much breathtaking work. I also learned much of what I know about collegiality.
When Back Stage asked me to write something about the craft of acting, my first response was to gracefully decline. In the first place, most “methods” seem reductive to me. They do not reflect my own experience of the complex, windy road that I, and most actors, travel in their work. One eminent actor was recently quoted to me as having described his method as “I am like a lonely dog searching in a darkened bedroom for a slipper to chew on.” In the second place, the request reminded me of a time I answered a similar question in a way that now makes me somewhat less than proud.
I had recently been cast in my first important New York play, “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” by director Austin Pendleton, despite the fact that I had shown up at the audition without an agent, having not been given access to the play, and emanating a distinct aroma of tile grout, as I had arrived at Playwrights Horizons directly from my job renovating a SoHo bathroom. I was shocked and excited to get my foot on the first rung of the New York acting world. The last thought in my mind was of being a teacher.
But during the run of the play Austin inexplicably asked me to join him in a teaching venture at a day camp on Long Island for high school actors. This despite the fact that I had no particular credentials, not to mention a lack of discernible wisdom on the topic of acting, at least as far as I could tell. But there was a fee, so I gamely tried. When at the end of the summer several of my students asked where they could continue studying with me, the only school I could find that showed interest was run by a now-long-disgraced guru whose specialty was humiliating teenage models, making them cry, and then convincing them that they were, as a result, actors.
Although appalled by the guru, I accepted. Shortly after that I received a request from the office: Could I please provide a paragraph in which I described my method, to be included in an upcoming brochure?
I was flummoxed. I had no method, at least not one I could explain. I was also young and petulant and recently cast in another play at Playwrights Horizons, which it seems only further emboldened me to express my scorn at the school’s small-mindedness. What I provided was a brief description of what I called the “Lafleur Method,” one entirely fabricated by me. I asserted that it was based on the historic work of the eminent scholar and actor Gillaume Lafleur, who, I wrote, had perfected a little-known form of script analysis in which the actor draws pictures of the faces he intends to make in the margins of his script and then perfects them in his mirror at home. I hoped, I suppose, that my dripping sarcasm would so deeply shame the office staff that the school would simply list my class as “Acting” and leave it at that.
Well, the one thing the guru hadn’t anticipated was that his models, newly in touch with their feelings, would contact their rage at him. Under the threat of numerous lawsuits he wisely fled, the school shut down, and the Lafleur Method, thankfully, never went to print. I went on to teach intermittently for some years until, again at the urging of my now longtime friend and hero Austin Pendleton, I joined the faculty at HB Studio, where Austin and I now teach (at Brooklyn College, Fordham, and several other schools).
Everywhere I go someone asks me to describe my method or the aspects of craft upon which my teachings will focus. I am older, of course, and marginally less stupid, I hope, and I have abandoned my attempts to shame anyone with the “Lafleur Method.” So each school receives from me a dutifully prepared summary of something that sounds like a reasonable, organized method. But, I confess, in spite of my good intentions my efforts are somewhat halfhearted, and at least half of what I write is true enough but somewhat simplistic and certainly reductive. My teaching method, though I understand it more fully than I did in my Lafleur period, is, like my acting method, still individual and shot through with mystery.
I do not advise young actors to attend auditions unprepared and smelling of grout. It was blind luck that delivered me that day to Austin. My journey followed its own peculiar path, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to emulate it. And neither do I tell my students to use the method I use, as my method, such as it is, is a conglomeration of tools acquired to specifically help me and my talent. It cannot be applied like a coat of paint on all actors.
Yes, we all learn a common vocabulary, and we gather helpful tools, like “intentions” and “obstacles” and “destinations” and “sense memory.” Maybe, as we go on, we encounter new colleagues and add new terms, such as “actioning” or “psychological gesture,” if they serve us.
But in the end I have come to understand how profoundly mysterious is the talent of each individual actor, and how it is incumbent on me as a teacher to approach all my students with the curiosity that hopefully allows me to give them the tools and the freedom to find their own method and their own way down the windy road of acting.
There’s no shortage of places to study acting in our city of dreams, but the most renowned of the lot are worth seeking out for their integrity and the quality of their teachers. At homey HB Studio (120 Bank St between Greenwich and Washington Sts; 212-675-2370, hbstudio.org), founded by Viennese-American actor-director Herbert Berghof in 1945 and known for rigorous training methods, classes abound for every level of student. Technique I with Michael Beckett (Wed 8–10:30pm or Sat 12:30–3pm; 15 classes $375; Sept 4–Dec 21), an actor-director who studied with William Hickey and Berghof himself, is ideal for continuing-ed students passionate about learning as much as they can about the craft of acting as opposed to casually trying it on for size. Utilizing exercises designed to “rid the beginning actor of self-consciousness and the paralyzing fear of being on stage,” the class is meant to give students a sufficient foundation in technique to delve into acting professionally.