Saturday, July 24, 2010


We are moving through the half way point of our program and we took a break from the studio yesterday to have a visit with Tom Miller, Education Outreach representative from Actors Equity Association.

Beginning the visit with a spectacular view of Times Square from the 15th floor conference room the group then settled into the chairs of the National Boardroom to listen to the history, background and wisdom of the original Actors union.

Students were able to ask questions about the union itself including when the best time to join might be. Issues from aging audiences to the art of negotiation were covered and discussed and the nuts and bolts of the actors life was demystified.

Having been a professional actor for forty years I noted the evolution of the union as Tom patiently explained the pros and cons of union membership. The idea that a union would counsel newbies to avoid the commitment of membership illustrates how the realities have changed. The opportunities to make a living wage at the craft have shrunk considerably and they were not abundant in the past. Our society and its media are changing and the role of the arts and professional artists continues to morph in reflection of the times.

For our part at the Conservatory, we are happy that we have been emphasizing the process of creativity, thinking outside the box, making bold choices, being flexible and responsive to the person sitting across from us. These are the creative skills that may or may not get someone to Broadway... but getting to Broadway is a short sighted goal for the American artist today.

We have a broader responsibility. With the honing of our skills we have a larger job to do than to separate ourselves upon a stage. Instead, we are the fabric of the next generation. The paradigm of vertical growth-- that is, stepping on the one below to get to the next rung of the ladder-- must needs and is changing. Instead, we are beginning to experience a horizontal paradigm where we are being asked to be aware of separation, be aware of our disconnected nature and to begin to truly see how we are of one experience. I believe that in this next cycle of growth it is the artist's job to be more and more aware of themselves as part of a larger consciousness. The more the artist hones the skills of observation, stillness, receptivity and response the more vital the artist becomes to the growth and stability of the larger culture.

This is truly the stellar achievement.



Worth reading.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Yesterday evening, the U.S. House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which sets the initial funding level for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), approved a $2.5 million increase for the NEA in its FY 2011 spending bill. Chairman Jim Moran (D-VA), a longtime champion of arts and culture, presided over his first Interior spending bill as chairman of the subcommittee. It is significant that Chairman Moran has proposed an increase for the agency in light of a spending freeze on federal discretionary funds and a lower budget request by the administration. Please send a message to your members of Congress telling them to support this funding increase that Chairman Moran made in subcommittee!

Currently funded at $167.5 million, this increase would bring the NEA's budget to $170 million. In his statement, Chairman Moran acknowledged that, "the increase recognizes the value we place, as a nation, on our artistic and cultural heritage."

On Arts Advocacy Day 2010, Americans for the Arts presented a panel of witnesses before Chairman Moran's Appropriations Subcommittee calling for a significant increase in funding for the NEA. This diverse group of witnesses included Terri Aldrich, Executive Director, Minot Area Council of the Arts; Brig. Gen. Nolen V. Bivens, U.S. Army (ret.); Jeff Daniels, Golden Globe-nominated film and stage actor; Kyle MacLachlan, Emmy-nominated TV, film, and stage actor; Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; Charles Segars, CEO, Ovation; and Robert L. Lynch, President and CEO, Americans for the Arts. Video from the hearing and further details, including the witnesses' testimony, are available
online here.

Next Steps:
The FY 2011 Interior Appropriations bill will next go to full committee and then to the full House of Representatives for consideration. Both the House and Senate have been slow to proceed on funding measures this year, and it's possible that many of the final appropriations decisions will take place after the elections and conducted in a "lame duck" session in November and December. Nonetheless, we must continue to put pressure on the Senate to match this funding level. Please take two minutes to visit the Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center to send a letter to your members of Congress letting them know that the arts are important to you!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


What a treat. Yesterday afternoon longtime colleague Dom Chianese visited with students at our CenterStage rehearsal space.

Dom became a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre in the late seventies, invited by Curt Dempster to come,join the ensemble and share the work.

I joined the theatre at about the same time and have known Dom ever since... from before the Godfather films and the long and distinguished life of Junior Soprano.

With ease, grace, candor and warmth, Dom engaged the students with the stories of his life as an artist. From his time studying with Walt Witcover, to Philip Burton to the set of Godfather 2 with Francis Ford Coppola, Dom shared the the steps in deepening and simplifying his work.. so that acting truly became behavior... and observation became part of his dictionary and daily tools.

His warmth and understanding of the students journey was remarkable and the afternoon gave us all a real understanding, respect and love for the life of an artist and this terrific generous man, as well.

We continue our work on student plays in Rep Class and are beginning to integrate the lessons of working from inside and outside at the same time, resting on the writers words to find the simple truth of word.

Dramaturg and playwright Jeff Sweet is able to offer his perspective on the work in a way that opens the writers to new ways of imagining their text. Rod Menzies is skillfully moderating the sessions, drawing out the writers strengths, navigating the waters of personality and talent, supporting actor and audience as well. Actors are beginning to understand the ways in which they contribute to the vision of the playwright. Strangers have become friends have become collaborators.

We are mid way through our program this week. Very hard to believe! The days are flying by. We are cutting back a bit on our public outings to allow time for work, rest and process.

Our work remains exciting and new every day.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We have been so busy....


.. that there has been little time to write.

Friday night was our first open class at the Drama Book Shop where students presented the readings of the plays they have been working on in our first two weeks.
Ensemble Studio Theatre playwrights Jeffrey Sweet, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Betsy Robinson, Tom Rowan and Gina Barnett all attended rehearsals with STC students as the students read thru scenes of the plays that the playwrights wanted to revisit.

Here's an excerpt from Marcia Jean Kurtz's letter to Billy Carden, the Artistic Director of EST:
"I worked this week with the NYARTS Summer Conservatory Students. I led a working session with Susan Merson , Rod Menzies and Jeff Sweet about my play BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. It was wonderful! Jeff gave a fascinating background talk about the history of the Jewish Theatre and showed clips from the 1937 Polish/Yiddish film of THE DYBBUK....They are a terrific group of young theatre students. They are a diversified group. They are talented, intelligent, personable, eager to learn, and a pleasure to direct and interact with. They seemed to soak up the ideas that we gave them. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience working with them. This is a very special program, Billy..."

Students focused on the skills of cold reading and learning to connect with each other. Each reader had to master the skill of scanning their script and trusting that the "hottest" word and idea would meet them so that they could lift the life from the page and place it in the arena with their acting partners. This is a tricky business on its own, but when you add the requirement of making clear, bold and immediate choices.. the task can be daunting for young performers.

I am happy to say, that the result was terrific. Through the week we could see the performers establish themselves, find their stability in the scenes and with each other and move the attention away from their own anxieties to the script and character and story they were telling.

We had a few friends come to our Friday evening presentation which gave the "open class" just a bit more shine and the performers moved one more notch in their confidence and service to the writer and the reading.

Students showed up early to browse the selections of the Drama Book Shop where they could purchase books and scripts from the theatre world, including those by several of their instructors.

Audition clinic continued today and there was another reading at PS 122 to attend. The solo piece POLANSKI POLANSKI offered a picture of the accused film director in his Swiss prison cell ruminating on the deeds that got him there. The reading was packed ... and the relevance of the piece enhanced by Polanski's recent release from jail.

Tomorrow we are invited to a solo performance at 59 E 59th street. Mary Hamill, a former student of Rod Menzies, is welcoming us to her play WILLIAM AND MARY.

Next week, we begin work on plays submitted by student playwrights. These pieces are finished and the writers are asking to take another look at them and see if there is more work to be done. It signals a change in our focus to more student centered work and several of these may move into fuller mini productions. But this is ahead of us.
For now, we are taking a short breather and heading back in Monday with even more energy.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Making It Work....

Work continues as we head into our second week.


Students are formulating stories into plays. From the assigned newspaper stories, they have found the essential parts of character that they have put into play. In Mary Robinson's workshop students have created characters that are now speaking with each other, finding relationship, space and time. Groups have assigned "Third Eyes" who can help to shape the work. Actors are going more deeply into the people they are creating, writers are giving over words and allowing instinct to drive and the directors are pulling back with that combination of object and subjectivity that allows them to help create the spin that brings all elements together.

As writers, students have had their first assignment. They have created monologues with characters taking action, characters with strong wants and needs. They have been asked now to take these direct address to the audience pieces and marble them with response... to find the give and take involved in the need to make oneself heard. From this active impulse they are bringing together callers and responders and finding out who needs to speak to whom and how. This is gutsy work, especially for actors who have never ventured into writing but, the impulse of actors and writers is the same. Find what the charater wants and take action to get it, then find the obstacle and move as deeply and passionately as you can toward your goal.
In our introductory exercises we worked with activating the senses-- sight, smell,taste, sound, touch-- and to keep them engaged so that the monologues had a visceral sense of the present. Now, the scenes are translating with those elements we hope! It's exciting to see what company members are coming up with.

Yesterday Playwright Gina Barnett brought her play SCREAM to the Rep Workshop. For many, it was the first time they have been asked to cold read an entire script, making eye contact with those around them and trying to find the spark to the scene instinctively by allowing their attention to move off of their own process and into engagement with their fellow actors.

Scenes from George Bernard Shaw have been assigned. Pygmalion in acting class. For many, this is the first exposure to the story---um, hard to believe that cultural reference moves so quickly.. but... actors will speak the words of a master and recognize how the words inform their contemporary work. Here's a link to Virginia Woolf talking about words and their power. It is pretty extraordinary.

And, this afternoon Billy Hopkins, casting director of such films as WALL STREET and FATAL ATTRACTION and more recently, PRECIOUS, came and spoke to our company about his work as a director, father and professional. His generosity of spirit translated to the company members who received a realistic and practical look at the work of professional actors, producers, directors and casting folk.

Members are settling themselves into the work and allowing the work to settle into them. So far so good...
so far some bells are going off..
and we have just begun.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What a Weekend....

It's late Sunday night and I am happy to report a full and productive weekend of activities.

Friday evening we attended a performance of the Upright Citizens Brigade where students of Program Producer/Rep Director Rod Menizes performed. Three of our company members joined in the shenanigans in PRISON FREAKS, the second show on the bill, and proved most charming,handsome and terrific. Oh, that's Chris Sponseller, Aki Sato and Melissa David.. all of whom received slightly off color sketches from their PRISON FREAK host for their efforts.

Saturday afternoon we attended a reading at PS.122 of Ian Rowlands solo play MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE. Welsh writer Rowlands uses full blown prose to tell the story of his family conflict on the day of Charles and Diana's wedding when he attends a Republican gathering celebrating his Welsh heritage and his drunken step father choses the British celebrations. This question of loyalties mirrors the young protagonist's fiere allegiance to the memory of his dead father and his own emerging self. Post play discussion was terrifically engaging about the international language of theatre and how culture opens and limits communication of the central message of a piece.

Saturday night we were invited to a full preview performance at the York Theatre Company of a new musical FALLING FOR EVE. And today, Sunday students gathered here on 54th Street at the home of Program Director Susan Merson to have a casual DINNER WITH FRIENDS with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies. Merson. Marguies and Resident Dramaturg, Jeffrey Sweet talked about the original NY Writers Bloc, started by Sweet in the late 80's and from which much of their shared history and language emerged. Donald generously spoke candidly with the students about their own voices and putting their work into the world. He personally spoke with each of the students, signed copies of his plays and we all enjoyed a hearty dinner of sandwiches... and the most fabulous cupcakes.... that had absolutely no redeeming value except their forbidden nature..


stay tuned

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Today we did this exercise:

"When I start writing, I ask myself, "What matters? Right now, this minute, what matters?"

When I ask myself that question, the answer often comes as a concrete image. If it surprises me, seems inconsequential, good. It's best if I don't know what the meaning of the image is. If you try this, begin writing whatever comes to you in response to your question, no matter how small or meaningless it might first appear to be. Describe how light plays on the rim of a glass of water, how the frayed edge of a man's jacket touches his chair. Your mind has given you this image as something that matters, as you write you may discover why."
         From WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS by Pat Schneider, Oxford University Press, 2003"

Here is an example:

is that I am here,
and he is not.
And his small brown back is turned 
huddled, away, scurrying
away at dawn, trudging toward freedom.

What matters is...."

Try it. It will focus you and move you to the very core of what is happening right now in this very moment. The specificity  and relevance of desire is what gives us universal images.
This is the work we began today in our Playwriting Seminar.

This morning, company members further illuminated hte lives of the characters that are creating from the found material assigned to them last session in their DEVISED WORK/DIRECTING sections. Improvs and costumes further expanded the work and today, directors were assigned specific stories for which they will serve as third eyes, helping apply the long view to the collaboration process.

The work is seeded and we are beginning the tender task of making the garden rich and ready for what will come.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Day 2- Groundwork continues

Day 2.
We tell each other stories to survive.
We listen to the rhythms of people speaking. Loudly. Soft.
We sink into language that expresses things about ourselves that we could never think up.
We experience compassion.
We experience unity. A coming together.
We experience illumination.
We breathe together. Inspire. Together.
We trust silence, and listen more deeply.
We know something with no need to show something.
We can be in the moment, complete, still and active.
We say words that actually express how we feel.
We experience a framework within which to be ourselves more completely than in any other place or time.

These are just a few of the reasons why the theatre has claimed our company members. They spoke about  these personal things and others this morning as they began the assembling of their acting toolboxes with instructor Janet Zarish. The morning session began with a discussion of why we are who we are, as artists. As people who are moved together to express ourselves and express ourselves through this medium. And continued with the work of getting to know each other and the way we work. Everyone left energized and inspired.

Then a trek through the punishing heat--- it'll be cool tomorrow-- really. Maybe just 89 degrees.
Then a trek to our afternoon space where we had our first Repertory session with Company Producer and Rep Director Rod Menzies. This will be the touchstone of our work together, Three afternoons a week we will gather to work on new text, For our first week or so, we are working with Ensemble Studio Theatre playwrights who have work in progress that they are bringing in for our students to act, analyze and respond to, Dramaturg Jeffrey Sweet led discussions of Tom Rowan's play BURNING LEAVES. Le Shawn Holcomb, Melissa David and Stephen Wagner did cold readings from the play and then worked and reworked scenes as we all discussed the structure, content and forward movement of the story. Next up in Rep will be Betsy Robinson's play, GLADYS MAZURSKY.

Weekend plans are shaping up. Uprigth Citizens Brigade, a reading at PS 122, a new musical at York Theatre company and Dinner With Friends on Sunday with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

102 degrees and counting.....

Lo, these many years ago, when I first started my acting training it was the custom of programs and professors to take a student and crumble and crush them under the rigor of new beginnings.
The equivalent of 102 degrees of scrutiny was leveled at every one of us timorous enough to want to claim the artist's life.

This is no longer the accepted role of pedagogy but go tell that to the NYC summer. Today, we hit 102 degrees here in NYC for our first full day of classes and thank goodness for air conditioners and the strong electrical grid of the Northeast corridor. Famous last words.

That being said, we have braved this opening heat wave to meet each other last night at an evening barbecue in the backyard of the brownstone and today we headed to Simple Studios for the first session of our Devised Theatre/Directing Seminar. Director Mary Robinson opened class with a discussion of impressions of New York for our mostly non native New York company and students then were given a character assignment and let loose on the streets to observe and record the city they experienced.

Sweaty and solid, company members returned and began the soft and steady process of building character from physicality. The shape of these new souls being channeled woke up on the studio floor and began to come real. Easy, slow, softly they will be coaxed into their own reality and become the shapeshifting gown of the work that we do. Hopefully, characters will grow into people with wants and needs, in a real situation , and the tug and tumble of earning their rewards will be the stuff of the plays that emerge.

The afternoon took us to Centerstage Studios , where the air conditioner was tired, and hand fans shoved musty air back and forth. No matter. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, David Auburn, came and talked with the company this afternoon. Company members threw questions and possibilities at David non stop for over and hour, imagining themselves in his shoes, or their shoes as he is in his... or... Such is the interchange of inspiration and example. We are so grateful that David was able to join us before he heads off to the Berkshires for a directing assignment at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. When asked how he moved from one step to the other in his work, he encouraged company members to produce their own work, place their work in the world and let the energy of the collective expand their own vision.

A great afternoon.

Tomorrow Janet Zarish begins her acting seminars with the company in the morning and our first Repertory session in the afternoon will take a look at BURNING LEAVES, a new play by Tom Rowan. This piece has been invited out to the Southhamptom Writers Conference after our work on the play and it will be great to see how our sessions with Tom and his play will change it.

Check back for some company pictures of todays festivities.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I have just returned from an all night walking tour of Lower Manhattan in celebration of Independence Day.

An artists field day-- so many things to observe and question:

Who are those regular lumpy people that spend the early hours of Independence Day trooping around the Revolutionary War sites of the city? Where do they come from? Why?
What do they want and what do they need?

There are the history buffs who travel in from outlying states to do the tour every year. There are single lonely women looking for a partner. There are smart and walled off men who sleep alone- and not much anyway- who come every year to spare themselves the humiliation of no barbecue invites. And the guide, pudgy, once the head of his class, now hopelessly in love with the story that he tells us and his chance to be Alex Trebeck for a night...poof, I'm Cinderella. And the same man who has abandoned his body to such a degree that twice he attempts to hop onto a bench and almost topples himself and the three folk who come forward to hold him.

There is the City at night.
This place. Is it in conflict or in support of its stories?
The heat through dawn. The cops cruising and the doormen leaning. Deli owners counting change and drunken kids. There are three Hasidic Jews peddling on bikes, circling circling the crowd.Reconnaissance after Shabat. Landing, buzzing, snickering, riding. Drunks on the bench snoring next to the erudite. Who is listening more attentively to the guide?

Smell. Heat of the new day, smells of the old. After shave, coffee breath

Sounds, wind against taxis, distant drunken laughter. The mobile microphone is never quite right. Every stop and narrative spurt prefaced by, "Can you hear me now?"

Actions.. aching knees, stretching backs, rubbing against gates and fences to find the itch. A stray dog trotting, peeing, trotting along, flirting, fawning, yawning--take a closer look.

And more...
and then, the basic question of :

What is the artist's role in a society so clearly based on capital and economics? A country inspired by Tom Paine and the antics of a rabble militia. What do we observe? What do we write about and reflect? What is of most value to ourselves and others?

Did you know that Nathan Hale was a lush and though he regretted having only one life to give for his country, it was a short and fairly stupid one?

And that Benjamin Franklin gave a job and refuge to Thaddeus Kozciusko, a Polish engineer banished from his native land for attempting to elope with the wrong girl, and this same disappointed lover managed to engineer the fierce frontal attack and defenses of our struggling disorganized army?

It was a rich night for an artist.
Keep your eyes and ears open.
Here's to the freedom to observe.

Friday, July 2, 2010

and to begin..

Students are arriving at the dorm. Interns and administrators are busy with last minute preparations. Our Program Producer has arrived from California and we are all poised to begin our adventure together.

To gather to create art ...
high minded as that sounds...
but to gather to make art--
either a first reading of a new play, or arriving at location of a film, or showing up for your skinny dorm room at a writers conference... all these experiences share the same characteristics.

There is fear , of course, of being exposed, of being judged , of discovering nothing or discovering too much. But there is also hope, with and without feathers. Always, this sneaky longing that there is more of us to know and share and that we are actually capable of such expansion. Who shall we be in our wonderfully freeing anonymity?

The dynamic of a gathering such as ours is often the same. We gather as individuals, one by one and are soon swept into the energy of a tight knit group sharing intimacies and hope, creating new selves and trying out new ways of being who we are-- and then, as quickly as we are thrown together in the wind of our willing creation we feel the power of centrifigual force which will take us back into our own lives.

So, here's to the process and that we shall trust its wings.

As we approach our work, we will focus on the elements of creative collaboration. There are three broad elements that we will be looking at in each discipline-- acting, writing, directing, designing, mentoring and producing.

What are our responsibilities as producing artists,
interpretative artists and
generative artists?

What do we make--what product needs to appear and parameters respected?
What do we integrate, filter, honor and reflect? How do we use ourselves as instruments in someone elses symphony?
And what do we bring to the table in our work together?

A balancing act coming from our ability to be as present and "in the moment " as we can be.
To move aside personal agendas--as much as we can-- and repond honestly, simply and clearly to each other.

Wow. Cool.