News Column

Theater artists help themselves grow

December 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 01--Dressed in jeans and an untucked shirt, a small, lithe man with white hair and glasses slouched in a chair on the Gaslight Theater stage. Seated at his right, Teresa Doggett and Anna Blair gave him cautious glances.

The man talked about a scene from "Sandchair Cantata" by Nicole Quinn that the women had just performed. They played friends at the beach, keeping an eye on their (unseen) children while they talked about books to read and snacks to eat. Then, in the same even tone of voice, Doggett said, "My sister has cancer." It made Blair look right at her.

Austin Pendleton -- distinguished director and stage actor, familiar character actor in movies and on TV, a member of Chicago's famed Steppenwolf company and once head of New York's Circle in the Square -- liked the way they handled that exchange.

Doggett and Blair, he said, had built the rhythm of their conversation so effectively that when the content changed, the rhythm did, too. Doggett didn't wail or sob or drop her voice to a whisper. She slightly altered the rhythm of her breath, and in response, Blair grew still and looked right at her. That was all it took for the audience to appreciate that something new, and serious, was in the air.

It was a really good scene, Pendleton said. It was alive.

Doggett and Blair -- popular, well-regarded actors who have appeared on many St. Louis stages -- both gave a little smile.

The two of them and some 30 other actors familiar to St. Louis theatergoers were at the Gaslight for a special event last month. They had enrolled in a day-long master class with Pendleton, who in recent years has built a reputation as a renowned acting teacher at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village. (He once studied under its famed founder, Herbert Berghof.)

Pendleton's class was presented by the 7-year-old St. Louis Actors' Studio, which continues its current season in January with Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mount Morgan." The workshop was a big deal not just for SLAS, but for the larger St. Louis theater community.

But it wasn't a unique one.

A few examples: R-S Theatrics runs workshops on a variety of topics, from fight choreography to getting an agent. Mustard Seed Theatre is about to embark on a new season of workshops, dealing with playwriting and acting in song. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, best known for its summer shows in Forest Park, is inaugurating a series of acting intensives in such specialties as Shakespearean text, characterization and verse.

As a rule, these programs are open to adults who are interested but aimed chiefly at those who already do a lot of theater work. They are generally held over a short period to accommodate work and rehearsal schedules. Publicized on the sponsoring theater's own websites and by word of mouth, these programs add to the opportunities that have long existed for St. Louis artists at universities, private schools and with one-on-one tutors.

But the new programs organized by midsize theater companies mark a change -- a change that some artists consider proof that the St. Louis scene has reached more mature levels in quality and in aspiration.

"Actors are always looking for opportunities to train, and the resources are here now," said Michelle Hand, one of the participants in the Pendleton workshop. A frequent performer here, she's heading to New York next year to star in SLAS's off-Broadway production, "Day of the Dog." "And there is no greater thrill than to watch your colleagues work and get comments from such a distinguished artist as Austin Pendleton.

"It seemed to me that he kept reminding us to be fully present, to be alive in every moment. It was electric."

The fact that so many actors signed up for the workshop -- which required them to prepare, and perform, a scene or a monologue -- speaks to "the level of professionalism in St. Louis theater now," said Drew Battles, education coordinator at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. He recently starred in the festival's Shakespeare in the Streets' adaptation of "The Winter's Tale." "We all need this, and we know that we do. There is no better thing for an actor than to be in class."

In New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, actors and other theater professionals take workshops and intensives all the time, said playwright Deanna Jent, author of the widely performed drama about a family dealing with autism, "Falling." Staged off-Broadway last year, it will play Mustard Seed again in the spring.

Head of Mustard Seed Theatre and of the theater department at Fontbonne University, Jent has taught workshops classes for her own troupe and for R-S. She's keenly aware of the uptick. "Three or five years ago, I'd get a question: 'Is there a class I can take that is not for college students?' The answer was no. But since then, a lot of things have come together."

Although enrollment fees tend to be low -- it was $75 for the Pendleton class -- Jent said they do offer theaters a small, but helpful, extra source of revenue, on top of ticket sales, ad sales for programs and grants. It also gives theaters a wider ambit.

"I used to feel there was nothing but the rush to production," said William Roth, producing director of SLAS. "It was all 'What show are you in? What show are you in next?' There was no place to work your chops.

"These programs mark the natural evolution of a strong, growing theater community."

Workshops and similar programs -- such as SLAS's LaBute New Theatre Festival, for which Roth enlisted the help of noted playwright Neil LaBute, or the 24-Hour Play Festival fundraiser that Theatre Lab, a new troupe, staged last weekend -- often bring together artists who have never before shared a stage. That may pay off in future work, when people remember colleagues they didn't know existed, or even in friendships.

"If I could have met Deanna Jent or Philip Boehm (artistic director of Upstream Theatre) years ago, I would have loved that. I could have learned so much," said Christina Rios, artistic director of R-S. "The amount I personally have leaned from forums is astronomical."

She particularly remembers a workshop taught by Ron Gibbs, managing director of musical theater at Stages St. Louis' Performing Arts Academy. A soprano who uses a wheelchair needed tips on songs to perform at auditions. "Ron suggested, 'I Could Have Danced All Night,'" said Rios, who troupe is about to open "Oh Hell!" "It was great -- and where else would she have heard that?

"Of course, time (at workshops) is always short, so you need to come in ready to go. And you never want to think, 'I hope the next person sucks so I'll look better.' You don't want to laugh at him.

"You want for him to make it insanely hard for you, so you can learn more from him as well as from the teacher."

When he was a young actor himself, Pendleton says, he benefited from studying under Uta Hagen, one of the most celebrated acting teachers in American history. He also saw her perform the night that she opened in her most famous role, Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"She was so thorough," he recalled. "I realized, oh my God, she's doing everything she talks about, and more. You have to listen every moment, you have to be wide open. But to do that, you first really have to probe the work you are going to be in."

Workshops and classes can help theater artists develop specific skills to make those kinds of queries. "Of course, if (the students) didn't even know that they were supposed to ask those questions (about the play), that can be interesting too," he said.

"But if you just commit to the material, it will be original. There is only one you in the world."

{hr /}Familiar face

Of course you recognize Austin Pendleton. Through a career that spans decades, the 73-year-old actor, director, playwright and teacher has played many parts. Here's a very small sample:

Stage actor:

"The Last Sweet Days of Isaac" (Drama Desk and Obie awards)

"Mother Courage and Her Children" (with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline at the New York Shakespeare Festival)

The title roles in "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Richard III," "Richard II" "Amadeus" and "Tartuffe" at various theaters

Stage director:

"The Runner Stumbles" on Broadway. The cast included his wife, actress Katina Commings; they've been married for 43 years.

"The Little Foxes" on Broadway, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton

"Uncle Vanya" with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard

"Ivanov" with Ethan Hawke and Joely Richardson

"Tribes" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where he is a member of the company. It opens on Friday.

Playwright:

"Orson's Shadow"

"Uncle Bob"

"Booth"

Movie actor:

"Finding Nemo"

"A Beautiful Mind"

"Catch-22"

"My Cousin Vinny"

"What's Up, Doc?"

"The Muppet Movie"

"Searching for Bobby Fischer"

"The Associate"

TV Actor:

"Oz"

"Homicide: Life on the Streets"

"The West Wing"

"Touched by an Angel"

"Frasier"

___

(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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