Working actors on how they use their training January 17, 2007
When you decide to embark on a course of actor training, your questions quickly multiply: Should you study in a liberal arts program, at a conservatory, or with a private teacher? Do you hope to gain the tools that will allow you to make a splash immediately, perhaps in film or series television? Or do you prefer to study long and hard in order to acquire the skills you'll need to tackle difficult classical roles? Are you, perhaps, a lifelong learner-someone who'll feel the need for ongoing scene study long after you've established yourself in the business? Or does the thought of being in school when you could be out working induce claustrophobia?
Back Stage recently spoke with five working actors about their training paths: Keith Nobbs, who portrays Joey Ice Cream on the NBC drama The Black Donnellys, studied at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, and then moved directly into the working world; Michael Stuhlbarg, now appearing as Edward Voysey in David Mamet's adaptation of Harley Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance at the Atlantic Theater Company (for which he was recently awarded Equity's Joe A. Callaway Award), attended the Juilliard School for four years, and made his Broadway debut in 1993 in the National Actors Theatre production of Saint Joan; Rutina Wesley, who plays Terri Scholes on Broadway in David Hare's The Vertical Hour, also attended Juillard, and spent four years in a Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Evansville in Indiana; Matt Cavenaugh, who plays two roles in Broadway's Grey Gardens and also has a recurring part on the daytime drama As the World Turns, studied at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and earned a BFA in musical theatre performance; and Phoebe Strole, who created the role of Anna in the musical Spring Awakening (first for the Atlantic, then on Broadway), attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and studied at the Collaborative Arts Project (CAP) 21 studio to concentrate in musical theatre performance.
We asked these artists how they decided on their training paths, what transpired while they were studying, and how they're applying what they learned to their current roles. Finally, we asked them to provide Back Stage readers with tips about selecting a teacher or school.
Finding the Path
Nobbs grew up in a small, "homogenous" Texas town called Kingwood, a suburb of Houston. He performed in some musicals as a young boy, but until his family relocated to Queens, N.Y., in 1994, he harbored no great desire to be an actor. He was set to enroll as a sophomore at a private Catholic high school, something he desperately hoped to avoid. On an impulse, he auditioned for the LaGuardia program and learned the following day that he'd been accepted.
He suspected he would be entering foreign territory, so before auditioning, Nobbs watched the 1980 movie Fame, which celebrates life at the performing-arts high school. "It freaked me out," he says-but he means that in a good way. "The great thing about the school is that it's this inner-city environment with all these people excited about what they're doing and what they're pursuing. Which is kind of what separates it from any other high school."
Like Nobbs, the California-born Stuhlbarg had done some community-theatre musicals as a kid, but for him the move to New York came a little later in life. He first enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, in part because his sister had gone to a U.C. school. He really wasn't sure what he wanted to do in terms of a career, and he was not required to declare a major until his junior year. But he found himself taking mostly theatre arts courses and performing in plays in his spare time.
When Stuhlbarg was a sophomore, his roommate was preparing for an audition at Juilliard, and Stuhlbarg decided he'd try out as well. The two flew to San Francisco for the audition, and Stuhlbarg was accepted. "I was still terribly excited about the idea of being in New York," he says. "Because all I wanted to focus on was performance at that time, Juilliard seemed like the best place for me"-meaning a conservatory rather than a liberal arts program.
Wesley's path also proceeded eastward, but she was more certain of her direction early on. While studying theatre and dance at a performing-arts high school in Las Vegas, she missed the auditions for several important college training programs but was accepted at Evansville, her school of "last resort." She prepared herself for a culture shock that was essentially the reverse of the one Nobbs found in Manhattan. "Indiana doesn't have a lot of minorities, so I was kind of nervous about going there," says the African-American performer. "But the thing about that was that all I could do was focus on my craft. I had no outside distractions."
Evansville turned out to be "truly a blessing" for Wesley, but it wasn't enough for her. As graduation approached, she prepared to apply for grad school. Her grandmother had suggested she take a course in nursing as the dreaded "something to fall back on," but Wesley balked at the idea. "I wanted to be as prepared as possible," she says. "I wanted to [say] to my grandmother, 'I'm going to take as much as I can, so that I can do you proud.'"
This time Wesley didn't miss the auditions and was accepted by five of the top programs in the country, including Juilliard. It was her dream school, plus it offered her the best financial aid package and didn't pressure her (as some other schools did) to make up her mind overnight. She hesitated only because at Juilliard she would not earn a master's degree, but she was assured that if she ever wanted to teach, her Juilliard certificate would put her in good stead.
The minute Wesley walked into the Juilliard building, she felt at home. She entered the program in late summer of 2001, two weeks before Sept. 11.
Arkansas native Cavenaugh consulted with his high school theatre teacher about schools where he could best develop his musical theatre skills. He applied to and auditioned for six different colleges, all of which he visited in person. Some he rejected outright because he felt their campuses were "horrid."
Cavenaugh's teacher had been a colleague of Arno Selco, an instructor at Ithaca College. He told his student that if Selco was any indication of Ithaca's quality, it would be a good choice. When Cavenaugh learned that Ithaca's post-graduation showcase in New York was highly rated, he was sold.
Strole-like Nobbs, a small-town Texan-was a self-described "math nerd" as a kid, but in high school she discovered musicals. She filled out only one college application: to the musical theatre program at NYU. Her first visit ever to New York City was for the CAP21 audition. She threw herself passionately into preparing a monologue and two songs, but decided to skip the optional dance audition: "I figured if they wanted me, they wanted me. My dancing would surely not sway them." Fortunately, her eggs-in-one-basket approach paid off and she was accepted.
The Thick of Things
Any apprehensions Nobbs had about acting training at the high-school level dissipated when he arrived at LaGuardia. He notes that high school students are concerned more with discovering who they are than with establishing themselves as professionals: "There's not this sense of ego connected to the work that they're doing…. Their values haven't been shifted yet. The great thing about high school is that everyone's just a…teenaged mess. So there's kind of this raw, messy authenticity about the people there that kind of frees everyone up to do what they do."
About half of the school hours at LaGuardia were devoted to performance-related courses (including scene study, character development, speech, dance, and theatre history) and the rest to general studies. The drama department was located in the school's basement-it was the drama students' "own little cave," he says, to which they would descend to become theatrical comrades. "You had to change into black sweatpants and a black shirt every day, so it was this great ritual for all of us," he remembers.
In his senior year Nobbs auditioned for and was rejected by six conservatory programs. He underwent a "crisis of faith" about his acting, which vanished when he appeared in a production of The Rose Tattoo, directed by his "guru," teacher Harry Shifman. "He basically gives you the courage to do the things you want to do that you're afraid of," Nobbs says. "The warmth of that environment made me feel safe enough to think I could actually pursue this."
For Stuhlbarg, Juilliard proved to be "everything I imagined and more." In his first year, he was instructed in a variety of acting disciplines by the late John Stix. But he never felt these approaches were in conflict. Stuhlbarg had once toyed with the idea of being a cartoonist, and he'd always drawn pictures of his characters as he developed them. So at Juilliard, unsurprisingly, he found himself gravitating toward mask class: "It gave me a physical form to work with in the mirror. You'd put a mask on, and then from that picture a character would evolve."
He was also drawn to the study of Shakespearean scansion, as outlined in John Barton's book Playing Shakespeare: "I loved the idea that Shakespeare had put everything down on the page-that all the deviations from the forms that he was writing in were clues for the actors."
Both Stuhlbarg and Wesley felt close with their Juilliard classmates. For Wesley the bonds were especially tight, as students relied on one another for support during the days following Sept. 11. Some of them had begun the program as grad students and others came directly from high school, but Wesley felt that the older and younger students complemented each other. She found it troublesome, though, when the program cut a number of students after the second year.
As for her instructors, Wesley particularly admired the teaching of Stix: "We had 20 students, and he was able to speak 20 different languages. He gave specific, individualized instruction."
Cavanaugh found the first two years at Ithaca especially strenuous. The school's musical theatre program has been described as a "conservatory within a liberal arts program," and during his four years there, Cavanaugh took only four courses not related to theatre. Students in the musical theatre track attended most of the same classes as their counterparts in the acting program, but they were also required to take courses in singing and dance. Students presented their work to the entire faculty at the end of each semester, and if they didn't measure up, they were put on probation or cut from the program.
Students were also required to audition for college productions after their first semester. They were allowed (if not encouraged) to perform in shows outside the school, something Cavenaugh did more than once. After his first year, he was cast in a national touring company of Grease and consulted with his professors about whether he should take it. "Some of them would just sort of weigh pros and cons, but ultimately I got their blessing," he recalls. "They said, 'If you want to do this, do this. Just, please come back.' "Cavenaugh has no regrets about taking a year off to do the tour-and none about returning after it was finished.
For Strole, finding an especially sympathetic teacher at Tisch proved important. She latched on to freshman acting instructor Larry Arancio. "He couldn't have been a more perfect teacher for a little country mouse from Texas," she says, "someone who very firmly but gently opened us up, as humans and actors."
In her first year at CAP21, Strole was grateful for the mountains of work she had. Contrary to what Cavenaugh found at Ithaca, Strole learned that Tisch students were asked not to audition for outside shows during their first year of study. "It's very frustrating, but you can understand why," she says, explaining that the first year of the program was largely spent stripping away students' bad habits and replacing them with good ones. When Strole went back to her home town after her freshman year to audition for summer stock, she felt stymied-almost as if she were incapable of performing.
But she regained her confidence during the ensuing semesters. In the second year of the program, students concentrated more on musical theatre history and scene study. In the final year, they took classes that prepared them for entering the working world.
Applying the Lessons Learned After graduating from LaGuardia, Nobbs worked onstage in New York in such plays as Fuddy Meers and Dog Sees God before landing the role of Joey Ice Cream on The Black Donnellys. He feels his stage training and background have served him well for the character, who functions partly as the show's narrator. The program features long sequences of Joey's narration, which means Nobbs must navigate his way through big chunks of text.
Joey has a natural sense of theatricality, Nobbs says. He's also a highly unreliable narrator: "He's Humbert Humbert in Lolita, where he tells you from the beginning that he's not really dependable. So there's this great tension between the reality that's playing out and the way he's telling it."
Reflecting on his years at LaGuardia helps remind Nobbs why he ventured into acting in the first place: "I think back on that time a lot, just to keep my relationship with the work pure." In particular, he often recalls a single word spoken by Harry Shifman, his Rose Tattoo director: "When I feel myself get frozen in a moment, or I feel myself lock up or get stiff, I hear his voice. And he's a hypnotist, too, so he's got this very deep, sonorous voice. I hear him say, 'Breathe.' And it's true. When you keep breathing, you keep moving and you're alive and you're thinking. I definitely hear that."
When Stuhlbarg began preparing for The Voysey Inheritance, he used his text-analysis training to determine what he would need to do in the role. In Granville-Barker's original text, he found two principal stylistic elements: the "muscularity" of a turn-of-the-20th-century playwright who wrote in the mode of George Bernard Shaw and "the intimacy and subtext that one would find in a Chekhov play." Added to this was "the directness and vocabulary that Mr. Mamet brings."
Stuhlbarg knew he would need to draw not only on Granville-Barker and Mamet but also on his own imagination to patch together a workable backstory for the character of Edward Voysey, a young man who inherits his father's corrupted business. The actor also relied on his speech training to "combine thoughts…to keep the audience on the wavelength the character is on" during some of Edward's lengthier and more complex speeches.
Wesley, likewise, knew that David Hare was very much a language-based playwright. She used her training in the vocal techniques of Kristin Linklater and Edith Skinner for The Vertical Hour. In Hare's play, Wesley appears only once: as Terri, a political-science student in a conference with Julianne Moore's professor in the play's final scene. Wesley has about 10 minutes to present a fully fleshed-out characterization. She carefully analyzed Terri's motivations, and though she hasn't developed an elaborate backstory for the character, she has gone so far as to envision the beautiful, popular student that Terri's boyfriend leaves her for.
The rehearsal period for The Vertical Hour was shorter than those for Juilliard productions. But Wesley and fellow cast member Dan Bittner, who plays another student of Moore's professor, were invited by director Sam Mendes to attend rehearsals and contribute ideas for scenes in which they do not appear. They also sat in on political science courses at Yale to absorb the ambience of that world.
Research was likewise important to Cavenaugh, who for Grey Gardens was called on to create two characters based on actual people: the young Joe Kennedy and the caretaker Jerry (aka "the Marble Faun"). The actor read extensively about the Kennedy dynasty and studied the Grey Gardens documentary (upon which the musical is based) to get a sense of Jerry. The real-life Jerry now lives in New York, and Cavenaugh also had the opportunity to speak at length with him.
At Ithaca, Cavenaugh took courses taught by Norm Johnson that introduced the methods of Anne Bogart (Viewpoints) and Jacques Lecoq. He cites that training as helpful to him in finding the bodies and movement of Joe and Jerry. As for his characters' very distinct dialects, he credits Ithaca's "speech guru," Greg Bostwick, who helped him develop a standard American accent.
"I grew up in Arkansas, and I sounded like a hick-and you get a couple beers in me and I will again," Cavenaugh says. "But I certainly learned in college to have a more standard accent so that I could put on different dialects as the role requires."
In approaching Spring Awakening, her first real professional job since leaving the CAP21 program, Strole knew that her supporting character, Anna, needed to contribute to the overall effect of the show but not stand out obtrusively: "The play is not about my character in any way. She doesn't have a real story, like the main characters, or a real journey. So my challenge was in creating that journey for myself without wasting the director's time and asking all these ridiculous questions. For me, it was about taking the tools I had and really using them to make someone who was very real, as opposed to someone who was a fragment of this world."
Strole created an imaginary history for Anna. But her training also aided her in knowing when to leave the script work behind in order to keep herself alive and engaged onstage. While careful dissection of the text is important, she says, "it can really keep you in your head, which can make you run into a brick wall after a while."
The vocal training she received at Tisch was also extremely helpful to Strole in maneuvering through Spring Awakening's strenuous rock songs, which can be murder on the vocal cords.
Advice From the Alums
Because they've been so busy working on the stage and screen, the five actors we spoke with for this article have not had much opportunity lately to go back to the studio or classroom to refine their craft. Nobbs took a class in 2001 at the Actors' Center, in part just to see what it would be like to be in a classroom atmosphere again. "To be honest, it was an odd experience," he says, "because after working on stage and becoming so in touch with the process of telling a story to an audience…it felt kind of like people were working inside a petri dish."
Since leaving Ithaca, Cavenaugh has taken some additional courses, including a class in acting for the camera taught by Bob Krakower. But he notes that he can't be as consistent with his studies as he was in his college years, and he advises students to soak up all they can when they're in school. Wesley concurs: "College is really expensive, and I feel it's such a waste to go there and not go to class or not do homework."
As for selecting a school, the actors recommend that you do as much as you can to scope out a variety of programs, visiting campuses or studios and sitting in on classes if possible. Nobbs suggests you keep your mind open to programs that may not be trendy or widely heralded.
But what if you find yourself in a training situation that seems absolutely untenable? Strole contends that you can learn something even from a less-than-perfect class or teacher: "It's not like taking a bad math class where you're learning the wrong formulas. You get what you give in an acting class, I feel."
Stuhlbarg describes the challenge of handling a course of study that seems antithetical to your typical way of doing things: "I felt at the time I had the opportunity to go to Juilliard that that was the kind of place I wanted to be, and when I got there and learned what was required of me, I was excited by the prospects. Sometimes that doesn't happen. You'll find yourself in a situation where you don't get on with people, or you don't believe in what you're being asked to study or to learn. I would say remain open, yet at the same time stay true to whatever your instincts are…because that's the way to grow."