On-Camera Acting vs. Stage Acting: What’s the Difference?

on-camera acting

It’s a question many acting students want to know: What do I need to do to start landing parts in TV and film? Unfortunately, on-camera acting is an entirely different skill set than acting for the stage, but luckily, there are foundational tools that you learn through Meisner technique that can help you master both mediums.

So how exactly is stage acting different from on-camera acting? To find out, we talked to Catherine Head, a former acting teacher at Roosevelt University who now offers private on-camera coaching sessions, about her tips on transitioning from acting on the stage to the screen.

Head says, “Good acting is good acting, but what you’re asked to do on stage does not work on camera.”

Head says good on-camera acting is very minimal, so if you’re used to acting in front of an audience, you have to learn how to dial back your performance to make it much more intimate. Here are her top four tips on how to adjust from stage acting to on-camera acting.

  1. Lower Your Volume
    “When you’re on stage, you’re broadcasting to the person sitting in row A and the person sitting in row JJ… Vocally, you have to project,” she says. “When you’re on camera, the audience is on the top of your nose.” For on-camera auditions, Head suggests that you talk to someone in the same volume that you would in real life. So if you’re doing a scene with someone playing your spouse in the kitchen, talk as if you are only three feet away from them, not 30 feet. You can even whisper if that’s what’s called for in the scene.
  2. Make Smaller Physical Gestures
    Again, when you’re on stage, the audience has to be able to read your gestures from the back row. But on camera, every little movement that you make will be noticed, so try to keep you movements more contained and more like real life. Also, if you are going to do a big gesture, such as stand up or sit down in your scene, make sure you tell the cameraman in your audition ahead of time so he or she will be prepared.
  3. Don’t Overdo Your Emotions
    “Our thoughts read through our face on camera, and that’s not true on stage,” Head says. “Acting in front of the camera is a much more interior process.” That means you need to really internalize your character and begin to think like them. What is their point of view? Why are they saying what they are saying? What are they thinking? For example, Head says if you are auditioning for the part of a lawyer, don’t just say the lines the way you think a lawyer would say them, but actually try to think about what the lawyer’s motivations are and what his relationship is to the other characters in the scene. If your character is talking to her mother, imagine talking to your own mother to make the character more real to you.“The first thing I ask actors is ‘How are you like this person? How are you not like this person?’” Head says. “You need to see the world through their eyes.”
  1. Be a Good Listener
    On stage, the audience might not pick up the nuance on your face when you’re not the one speaking in the scene. But in TV and film, you never know when the camera could be focused on your face to capture your reactions. That’s why Head says you have to have strong listening skills. “In front of the camera, your listening is as important as your speaking,” she says. In fact, Head says a lot of directors make a point of focusing on someone’s face when they’re not speaking, just to communicate emotion without words. “I always think of movies like Dead Man Walking or Phantom Thread where the camera just rests on the person’s face,” she says. That’s why you have to really be listening and be affected by what is being said, rather than thinking about the next line you’re going to say. And the more you can be present, Head says, the more authentic your reactions will seem when the camera is on you.

 

Am I Too Old to Become an Actor?

older actor

One of the anxieties I hear expressed most often in my classes is something that actually has nothing to do with acting. Not really, anyway. It’s this: “I’m _______ years old. Can I really get started acting at my age?”

Sanford Meisner famously said that, “it takes 20 years to become an actor.” If you’re anywhere past the toddler phase of your life, that math can become pretty daunting, especially if you are looking to make acting something beyond just a hobby. So, in honor of the wonderful actor John Mahoney, who started acting in his late 30s and passed away this week after a long and illustrious career, today I want to say a little bit about the fear of being too old.

The first bit of solace is this: If you are anything past your 20s, the number of actors your age out there who are still actively auditioning and pursuing work goes down exponentially. The vast majority of actors out there fall in the 20 to 30 range. Actors in my classes in their 40s, 50s, and 60s often wind up finding a niche for themselves quicker than younger actors. A couple of years ago, I taught a 64 year old who had raised kids and had a long and utterly non-acting-related career, who wound up as a guest star on one of the network shows within a couple of months of finishing classes.

There are dozens of examples of actors who started late (what does that even mean anyway?) who have had successful careers. So don’t let fear of being too old to have a career get in your way. That student has since done several commercials, been in at least ten plays in Chicago and has done a lot of work in film. Why is he finding so much success? Because he trained hard, is good at managing himself and, frankly, he doesn’t have as many people competing against him for the roles he goes out for. He is also committed to doing this thing that he loves.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter: If you want to act because it excites you, because it’s something you’ve always wanted to, because you love it, then you are doing it for the right reasons and the love you have for the work will be your divining rod that leads you to work. Acting for attention or from a competitive drive is a surefire way to make yourself miserable and end up with a stack of unused headshots. If you are doing it for love, then you’ll do it because acting is a thrilling, wondrous exploration of what it means to be a human being. That thrill doesn’t have a “best if used by” date and it doesn’t ever go away.

Just ask Mike Nussbaum. He started acting in his 30s and has spent the last 60+ years lighting up the stage and screen. At 94 years old, he is the oldest working stage actor in America and he is still one of the best. I guarantee you, no one in the audience watching one of his shows is asking, “Isn’t he a little old to be doing this?” They’re too busy being dazzled by his tireless artistry and the humanity he brings to his work. He knows the answer to the question, “But how old will I be before I am successful as an actor?” The answer, always and forever is, “Exactly as old as you’ll be if you never started.” So get started.

6 Self-Care Tips for Actors

Self Care for Actors

Acting can be a very demanding profession. Spending hours and hours in the theater at class or rehearsals can be draining, not to mention the physical and emotional toll that a play or classes can take on you. And if you’re trying to do all of that plus auditioning, doing an occasional staged reading, running lines while also working a day job, you’re sure to wear yourself thin.

That’s why self-care is so crucial for actors. It’s essential that we take care of all of our emotional, physical, and spiritual needs so that we don’t burn out, and so we can come to each performance with our full selves.

So if your goal is to have better self-care this year, we have a few tips to keep you in good shape:

  1. Eat Healthy
    Any healthy food substitutions you can make are a plus. Just because you’re out late at rehearsal doesn’t mean you have to eat junk. Take time to make nutritious meals ahead of time and bring them with you, or take energy snacks with you to avoid fly-by food. Think of food choices in terms of colors. Green is good. So are purple, blue orange, red and yellow. Beige and white, not so much.Tackle mind-fogging sugar with healthy lower-glycemic choices such as coconut sugar, Stevia, raw honey and other healthy substitutes.  Limit gluten.  Notice how you feel.
  1. Exercise
    Finding time for workouts may seem like sheer fantasy given an already crowded schedule, but did you know that even a few minutes here and there can make a positive difference?Short sprints, walks around the block, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator — it all counts toward keeping in shape. Stamina-wise, you are helping yourself to deeper breathing, greater flexibility, mental focus, alertness and endurance.

    If you can make time for intense workouts, do it. Spice up your routine with a Zumba class, dance class or kickboxing. Make yourself accountable to someone else and tell them each time you go to the gym, or find a friend to go with you to make it more fun.

  1. Sleep
    The exhaustion culture may regard sleep deprivation as a badge of honor, but getting enough rest pays big dividends for your health and acting career.Healing—mental, physical and emotional—happens mostly while you sleep, so don’t deprive yourself needlessly.

    Routine sleep deficits can show up at inconvenient times in the form of lagging energy, distraction, lack of focus and missed opportunities—not to mention compromises to your health and wellness.

    The fix? Try cutting back on rehearsing lines or checking your social media late at night, move bed time up half an hour each night until you’re feeling rested when you wake up. Your attitude, health and performance will improve and you’ll accomplish more with less effort.

  1. Meditation
    There’s a reason successful people swear by this simple de-stressor. Even a few minutes a day is calming and centering, helping you notice important details you might otherwise miss.Meditation brings you into alignment with your deeper creative self, helps your day flow and yields amazing insights. You’ll also be more centered and better able to connect with your emotions in class or rehearsals.

    If you’re new to meditation, sit comfortably, shut out distractions, take a few deep breaths and let go of mental to-do lists.  Picture peace, or light, listen to what your inner voice is trying to tell you.

  1. Drink Water
    Staying hydrated can help boost immunity, keep your system in good running condition, and lubricate your voice.Go for six to eight glasses daily or half your weight in ounces (ex: 150 lbs. = 75 oz. water). Sipping throughout the day is more hydrating than drinking a lot of water at once.
  2. Maintain Outside Relationships
    If you’re so busy that you ignore friends who are outside your theater circle, think twice. Your social network can help you keep a balanced perspective and lighten the load. No matter how busy you are, keeping in touch with friends outside of acting is smart for moral support, a laugh, and good company.
  3. Seek Mental Help if Necessary
    Acting can be a very emotional profession. Not only do we have to deal with countless rejections, but also, the work we do in class or rehearsals can bring up unresolved issues and memories from the past. For tough issues requiring an unbiased listener, seek out a reliable professional. There are plenty of options for help—some with sliding fees—so don’t hesitate to talk it out.

Should I Be Present in Everything I Do?

mindfulness

Nope.

Whew, that’s a relief. Now let’s get into some specifics as to why.

Mindfulness is a buzzword craze that has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. The basic idea is that we spend most of our life being unmindful of what we are doing and automatically going through our day, and if we are able to be fully present we will have more joy, health, and well-being.

There are some valid points here–most of us rely on habits to carry out the many complicated, coordinated activities we go through on a daily basis, and with the prevalence of technology, it is easier than ever to coast through your day without engaging in much internal or external life.

However, the flip side of the coin is what I am going to call ‘competitive presence’. We notice the time we aren’t being present and beat ourselves up for it. We post selfies of us meditating and doing yoga and articles about the possibility of ‘what if we were present in everything we do’. This creates an expectation that we ‘should’ be present and are doing something wrong by not being in this state. This can lead you to a lot of effort and you end up being like this guy:

Picture

Not too blissful, is he?

Part of the problem is being fully present all of the time isn’t possible, and the other part is that it isn’t really desirable. Let’s science it, shall we?

One of the most interesting books I have ever read is ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In it, he discusses the relationship between 2 sides of our brain–the fast, unconscious , and habitual part and the slow, conscious, choice driven part (the reality is much more complicated and interconnected than this, which Kahneman acknowledges, but he uses it as a simple way to accurately characterize a complex thing). One of the central themes of the book is that the conscious part of our brain takes a tremendous amount of energy to engage, and therefore we use our unconscious brains in order to operate efficiently. The conscious brain is so energy consuming, in fact, that using it constantly is extremely uncomfortable and tiring; and once it quickly wears out we actually tend to have no willpower left and end up going deeper into unconsciousness than before. So, because of the finite nature of the conscious mind, it is not possible to always be present; because of its discomfort it is not desirable.  So yes, take the pressure to be overly present off of yourself.

Now for the good news. I do think that it is possible to improve the efficiency of engaging our conscious minds through practices like meditation and **cough cough** Alexander Technique. By repeatedly catching moments when we are not conscious when we want to be and practicing engaging our conscious minds at these moments (I call it ‘practicing the pause’), we engage our choice and are able to resist being drawn into our unconscious at crucial moments. What’s more, I believe that over time enough of these overrides end up creating new habits–there is research in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ that suggests the conscious mind has an ability to form new habits over a period of time. However, if you do too much, you use all of our willpower (which is finite no matter how much you train it) and you don’t end up applying the work with the consistency to make real change. If you apply momentary ‘taps of consciousness’, I believe this is what allows the possibility of entering a flow state, an optimal balance between the conscious and the unconscious mind (which also is not ultimately sustainable and will fade, as do all things).

When I work with students, one of the things I tell them in the first lesson is not to over do it. If you try to be conscious of your movement habits all of the time, you will drive yourself crazy and not want to do it anymore (or perhaps turn into what one my teachers called an ‘Alexandroid’). But if you pay attention at key points, for a series of small moments, or perhaps 5 minutes a day, people are surprised at how little work can create major change, and how much more present they will feel in their own body. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, not to be present all the time, but to always be able to be present when you choose to be. 

I am going to leave you with a bit of video advice from one of the best Alexander teachers I know: Mr. Ron Swanson.

Interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique? Sign up for Jeremy Cohn’s Introduction to the Alexander Technique Class, happening either Wednesdays or Saturdays starting Jan. 24.

‘The training I was able to do with Jeremy in the Alexander Technique has inspired new confidence, ease, and creativity in my acting. […] Whether you want to ignite a deeper sense of mind-body connection or refine your philosophy on storytelling, Jeremy’s classes are transformational and will help you expand your sense of self. I think I even grew taller!’

-Harsh J. Gagoomal (Green Shirt Studio student and theatre artist)

History of the Meisner Technique

sanford-meisner

At Green Shirt Studio, we specialize in teaching the Meisner Technique, a specific form of acting training first developed by Sanford Meisner in the 1940s.

But where did his method really come from?

Meisner was born in 1905 in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. When he was a boy, his family took a vacation to the Catskills, where his younger brother drank unpasteurized milk and died – a tragedy that Meisner never recovered from.

After high school, Meisner began pursuing a career in acting, and he received a scholarship to study at the Theatre Guild of Acting, under the direction of Lee Strasberg.

Strasberg’s approach was to encourage actors to feel and experience the same emotions as the characters they portray so they can use their own personal experiences to fuel their emotional response to the work.

Today, Strasberg’s technique is referred to as “method acting.” We’ve all heard the stories of actors who have gone to extremes to try to get into the shoes of their characters, such as Daniel Day Lewis only eating what he could hunt and kill himself in the months leading up to filming the Last of the Mohicans, or Hillary Swank living as a man for several weeks before shooting Boys Don’t Cry.

In 1931, Meisner, Strasberg and two other members of the Theatre Guild, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, formed their own theater collective, called the Group Theatre. However, it wasn’t long after that that Meisner began to take issue with Strasberg’s teaching method, which encouraged students to recall intense emotional experiences from their past as a way of accessing emotions.

Instead of reliving past experiences, Meisner believed the actor’s job was to live “truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” He believed that actors need to learn how to respond authentically to what is happening in the moment, to make their performances more real and lifelike.

When the Group Theatre disbanded in 1940, Meisner became head of the acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where he began to develop his unique series of exercises that are today known at the Meisner Technique.

To encourage an authentic emotional response and to get actors to be fully present in the moment, Meisner developed an exercise called repetition, where one actor makes an observation about another actor, and the other person repeats the phrase back to them, repeating the process over and over as the emotions and behaviors change among the actors.

One of Meisner’s philosophies was that actors don’t need to learn how to be someone else. They simply need to learn how to be more honest and authentically themselves by allowing themselves to be affected by what else is happening on stage. As he put it: “To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that’s what we’re here to do.”

Meisner continued to teach at the Neighborhood Playhouse until 1958, when he moved to Los Angeles to become the Talent Director at Twentieth Century Fox. However, he returned to the Playhouse in 1964, becoming head of the drama department until 1990. In addition, he and his partner, James Carville, opened the Meisner/Carville School of Acting in the Caribbean and Los Angeles in 1985, and later opened a third acting school, The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, in 1995, before he passed away in 1997.

Through all of these endeavors, Meisner influenced hundreds of actors over the years, including Christoph Waltz, Diane Keaton, James Gandolfini, Sydney Pollack, Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Tom Cruise and more.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Meisner Technique, our next Level 1 classes start Jan. 8 or Jan. 13!

5 Ways Actors Get in Their Own Way During Auditions

Auditioning

Auditions shouldn’t be stressful. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. All you have to do is be reasonably prepared with your material and come into the room calm and confident enough to let your real self shine through.

Unfortunately, far too often, very good actors don’t get parts that they should because they find ways to sabotage themselves during the audition process. Here are a few of the biggest ways that actors get in their own way during auditions.

  1. Psyching themselves out/putting too much pressure on themselves
    It always seems like the more you want something, the worse you will do in the room, or at least that’s how it seems with me when I audition. Sure, a lot is riding on it, perhaps (but perhaps not), and, on the other hand, what do you have to lose? The more you can reframe the audition process and think of it this way — here is something I made for you, here is what I can do, take it or leave it — the better off you will be. This goes along with No. 2 (preparation) below, but if you are prepared and think of the audition as an opportunity to perform, rather than a situation where you’re just going to be judged, things will be a lot easier for you. And there will always be another audition opportunity that comes your way. This is not “it” for you — I promise! And if you think this is “it” for you, contact me for a pep talk — I will give it to you!
  2. Not preparing enough beforehand
    It’s really best for an actor to prepare well in advance of an audition and to know how to work efficiently. If you don’t know the right way to work, it’s probably time to get some good acting training under your belt and to work with an acting coach (or at least an actor friend you trust to give you good, constructive and non-judgmental advice). The short answer is that you need to work to find a deep personal connection to the material and understand very well the given circumstances of the scene or monologue that you are preparing. And if you are only given the scene the one to two days before the audition, or the night before, or merely hours or minutes ahead of time, you need to be able to work efficiently under these time constraints.If you are in charge of putting together a monologue package for yourself, do not wait until a few days before your audition to start working on a new monologue. Give yourself plenty of time, which will reduce the pressure on yourself the day of.
  1. Over-rehearsing the day of auditions
    But wait, you just said in No. 2 to be prepared! Exactly, but I find that over-rehearsing too much on the day of your audition can get you into your head on the day of the audition, and the best place for you to be in order to nail an audition is prepared, relaxed, and ready to play. Getting yourself too into your head on the day of an audition will keep your focus inward instead of outward, which is where we want you to be. We want you refreshed, relaxed, and the best version of yourself on the day of an audition, which is why I recommend getting as prepared you can be in the days leading up to the audition, and the day of the audition maybe do a quick refresher, but put the focus on relaxing, warming up, and give yourself plenty of time to get to the audition so you are not rushed. Also, do something fun ahead of time that gets you into the head space that you need to be in order to really feel ready. For instance, if the character that you are playing is a bartender, maybe you can wander in to have a cup of tea (not a cocktail) at a dive bar a few hours before the audition and observe the atmosphere.
  2. Not warming up/relaxing ahead of time
    A lot of actors shoot themselves in the foot by not warming up before an audition. What does “warming up” mean? It can mean a lot of things, but mainly involves doing some vocal and/or physical exercises to make sure that your body and voice are warm, and not cold. Your audition performance should not be the first thing you do with your body and voice that day, so do whatever you think will be helpful to you in order to really feel ready, whatever that means to you. I highly recommend some breathing exercises (a good one is to lay on the ground and just breathe for 10 to 15 minutes), humming to warm up your voice, or a few easy vocal exercises that you feel comfortable doing without strain, and something physical, such as stretching, jogging, or yoga sun salutations (the perfect warm-up to marry the breath with the body). When you get to the audition location, arrive early so you can do some deep breathing ahead of time and/or some stretching so that you can release any unwanted tension prior to walking in the room.
  3. Punishing themselves afterwards
    All of us have been guilty of punishing ourselves if the audition didn’t go well, or, if you’re like me, even if it did go well. Let’s not do that to ourselves! This is why I recommend that you do something nice for yourself after every audition—it can be something big like taking yourself out to dinner or a movie after the audition, or something small like getting yourself a small size your favorite latte afterwards. Maybe it’s time to go back to that dive bar and finally have that cocktail! Whatever it is, make it something fun, and along the way encourage yourself to let go of any judgmental thoughts about “how it went,” because it’s over now. Time to let it go, give it up to the universe, and live in the moment.

Happy auditioning!

Sommer Austin Directs New Version of ‘Hellcab’

Hellcab cast

Sommer Austin is not a mechanic, but she’s learned an awful lot about cars recently.

Austin, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio, is currently directing a production of Hellcab for The Agency Theater Collective, which will be running from Nov. 17 through Dec. 17 at the Den Theatre.

The play follows the story of a Chicago cab driver who has a really bad day a couple of days before Christmas, and in order to direct it, Austin had to learn everything she could about what life is like for cab drivers, how cars sound, and most importantly, how to disassemble an actual cab and reassemble it in a theater — which happens to be on the second floor.

“Scenically, it’s a challenge,” Austin says.

Hellcab was originally written in 1992 by Will Kern, and this popular play has been performed by several local theaters over the last 25 years, including the last four years at Profiles Theatre. The play was even made into a low-budget movie starring John Cusack, Gillian Anderson, John C. Reilly, Laurie Metcalf and others in 1997.

After Profiles closed in June of 2016, Kern asked Dexter Bullard of Steppenwolf Theatre which Chicago company should be producing Hellcab, and Bullard recommended The Agency Theater.

At first, Austin, who typically focuses on staging new works or rarely produced Chicago plays, was hesitant about directing a play that was so familiar to audiences. Though she was a fan of the play, she wanted to find a way to make the story fresh and in the zeitgeist.

“I asked if we could have a different cab driver, possibly a woman, and Will [Kern] was down with it,” Austin says. “The play is a period piece set in 1992, but in the wake of all that has happened in the past two years in Chicago and the United States, I think it’s important for this story to be told in a different way, while maintaining the time period in which it was written.”

Kern re-wrote the script to feature a female cab driver, and Austin says having the cab driver played by a woman makes you think about just how vulnerable women are when they are alone in the city. “Putting a female in the role of the cab drivers really changes it,” she says.

Kern requested that the role of the cab driver be played by veteran actor Rusty Schwimmer, a well-known character actor who has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows including Gray’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Louie, Days of Our Lives and more. And Austin says working with Rusty has been amazing. “It’s very special for me to be working on Will’s script with an actor of Rusty’s caliber, and she also happens to be a friend of Will’s, so the play is quite personal to her.”

Austin’s directing team is also made up of all women and includes two assistant directors, Alex Molnar and Cordie Nelson, as well as a female fight/intimacy director, Jamie Macpherson. “Having a female cab driver for the first time in conjunction with an all-female directing team shines a different light on the text that really makes this play feel like a new work while maintaining the integrity of the text that Chicago audiences know so well,” she says.

Despite the change of the lead character, Kern still wanted the play to still be set in 1992 — back before there were Ubers or Lyfts or cell phones. And Austin says it’s remarkable how many themes from the play are just as true now as they were 25 years ago.

“It tackles segregation in the city, the loneliness of the city, racism… It addresses how we can be so close together yet be so disconnected,” she says. “It’s just interesting to see how relevant it is 25 years later.”

Austin says there has been a lot of serendipity in the production so far. First, Austin was able to get the door that was used in the original production of the play when a company member stumbled across it in a Facebook post. And the cab that Austin will be using on stage is the same one from the 1997 movie.

“A week after I started looking, the cab was on Facebook marketplace,” she says.

And if that wasn’t enough, Austin is currently teaching two students at DePaul University whose parents were both involved in productions of Hellcab, too. Says Austin, “I am really aware of the community in the theatre scene in Chicago, doing this production.”

As a director, Austin says one of the biggest hurdles of producing Hellcab has been choreographing everything that happens in the cab — matching the sounds of acceleration and breaking to the action, timing the stoplights, choreographing the actors’ movements as the car makes turns. “Creating that illusion of motion well is an interesting challenge,” she says.

And because there is no roof or windshield on the cab, there is no rearview mirror, so the actor playing the cab driver can never see her scene partners at all.

Despite the technical challenges, Austin says the rehearsal process so far has been amazing. The cast is made up of 16 actors and six understudies, 15 of which are all current of former Green Shirt Studio students, and her two assistant directors are also current or former students

Austin says as a director, she likes to be as hands off as possible so the actors are free to discover their own characters. “With actors as wonderful as in this cast, I feel like my role is as a director is learning how to get out of their way. I’m not a person who likes to block things and say, ‘You need to be doing this here,’” she says.

At the beginning of the rehearsal process, Austin will tell the actors not to act at all, but just to talk as themselves. And sometimes she’ll ask probing questions of the actors and have them answer them in the first person as their character to get them to better understand their character’s motivations. “I also encourage them for a really long time to just play and not set anything,” she says.

Austin says she’s excited that the cast has really bonded well together and has a great chemistry.

“It’s got a lot of fast-paced, high-energy [scenes], so they’re really having a lot of fun together,” Austin says. “Direction is 90 percent casting, so getting the right people in the room is No. 1 for me.”

See Hellcab at the Den Theatre from Nov. 17 through Dec. 17. Tickets are pay what you can.

Teacher Profile: Azar Kazemi

Azar Kazemi

Green Shirt Studio is excited to add a new instructor to our roster: Azar Kazemi, a local director and acting teacher at DePaul University and Roosevelt University.

A native of Idaho, Kazemi studied theater arts at the University of Idaho and then moved to New York City, where she assistant directed three Off-Broadway productions, two under the direction of actor Ethan Hawke.

Now, at only 33 years old, Kazemi has made a quite a name for herself in the local theater community. She is the co-founder and artistic director of her own theater company, The Blind Owl, a socially-charged theater that celebrates stories where the political and personal collide. And she recently the U.S. premier of Debbie Tucker Green’s dirty butterfly at the Halcyon Theatre, which received four stars in Time Out Chicago. Some of Kazemi’s other Chicago directing credits include the Midwest premier of of Jack’s Precious Moment by Samuel D. Hunter, Crave by Sarah Kane, and The Coming World by Christopher Shinn.

We recently caught up with Kazemi to ask her about how she fell in love with acting, what it was like working with Ethan Hawke and what she loves about teaching acting.

Q: How did you first become interested in theater?

A: I saw a production of Top Girls by Caryl Churchill when I was 11 and fell in love with the theater. My best friend’s dad had directed the production and her mom had done the scenic design. Twenty years later, in 2015, I went with them to London and I got to see one of Caryl Churchill’s plays at the National Theatre. Caryl was at the performance and I got to meet her! It was pure magic.

Q: What made you want to be a director?

A: I had done acting first but my senior year of high school I directed a scene from Romeo and Juliet and realized I had way more passion for directing than I ever had for acting. From that point on, all I wanted was to be a theater director.

Q: You got a Bachelors in Theatre Arts at the University of Idaho in 2006. Then you moved to New York City. What was your experience like there?

A: My experience in New York City was so incredible. I felt I had always belonged in New York and had no problem adjusting. I got a job the first day at a restaurant and lived in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood that is part of Harlem. I had an internship at a theater company called The New Group as a literary intern, but helped wherever I could to learn as much as I could about running a company. I assistant directed three Off-Broadway shows and then got into the MFA program at DePaul, which brought me to Chicago.

Q: You did two plays with Ethan Hawke. What was it like to work with him?

A: Ethan was quite wonderful. He is so full of passion for all things theater and art. His energy was infectious for anyone working on a project with him. He is very goofy and would be the best audience member for the actors in rehearsal. I was so lucky to get to work with him twice as his assistant director. We had a great working relationship because he let me be a big part of the process and valued my insights. It was a crazy part of my life where I kept pinching myself because of the rooms I was in. I am so grateful for those experiences and how they helped shape the director I am today.

Q: Now you are living and working in Chicago. How is the theater scene different here than in New York?

A: It is so different here! In Chicago you know everyone and the storefront scene is so exciting! I hardly see shows at the big houses. Instead, I love supporting smaller companies doing incredibly risky work. I love that I can walk outside my front door and be within walking distance of so many shows. That is definitely different from the scene in New York where I feel a lot of the focus in mainly on Broadway and a small handful of Off-Broadway theaters.

Q: How would you describe your philosophy as a director?

A: I direct plays where the political and personal collide. Small casts, dark, gritty, emotionally raw plays are what I LOVE. I am lucky enough to have a small company in town, The Blind Owl, where I have produced and directed shows here in Chicago. I tend to produce work by and for artists of color and playwrights whose works aren’t produced enough. I consider myself an actors’ director and tend towards a minimalist design approach. I focus on language and movement in rehearsals in order to discover the emotional truth within the storytelling. My directing philosophy is that process is more important than the product and through rigorous rehearsals we will inevitably have a great product.

Q: In addition to directing, you also teach acting at DePaul, Roosevelt and Green Shirt Studio. What do you like about being a teacher? 

A: Teaching is in my blood I think. My father has been teaching for over 40 years. Teaching acting reminds me of being in rehearsal, and that is my favorite place to be. Helping actors discover the story, their characters, and the relationships is thrilling! You would think it would get boring, but it never does. Each person you work with is different, and each play gives a new set of challenges, so you have an endless variety. Even working on the same scenes with new actors is exciting because I find out new things I didn’t see before. I feel extremely lucky to get to work on bringing the human experience to life on stage, especially in the classroom.

Q: What are you like as a teacher?

A: I care deeply for my students and have a very personable approach to teaching. I believe that actors are willing to open up more when they feel safe. So when my students trust me and know I’m rooting for them, then I feel the hard work can begin. Although I am very warm as a teacher, I still expect my students to be focused and show up prepared. I encourage actors to take big risks and to not be afraid to fail. In my classes you can expect I’ll always be honest and if you’re willing to put in the work, you will leave a better actor than when you arrived.

Q: You recently taught a Sam Shepard scene study class at Green Shirt Studio. What did you enjoy about that?

A: I loved teaching the Sam Shepard scene study this summer! It was bittersweet that Sam passed away during those eight weeks of classes, and it really shook up our whole class. We focused so heavily on Shepard’s language and finding the explosive nature of so many of his plays. The actors were all given a scene and monologue from different Shepard plays. Throughout the eight weeks, we worked on rehearsing and discovering the world of all things Sam Shepard. Having worked on Shepard more than any other playwright over the years, I feel very close to the work. By the end of the class the actors had a showcase of their scenes and monologues and it was truly exciting to see the progress in only eight short weeks! I hope to be back at Green Shirt soon for another class; it was so much fun.

The Actor’s Paradox

knock on the door

You’re reading a book when there is a knock on the door. You get up and walk to see who it is. You turn the deadbolt and put your hand on the doorknob. You open the door. On the other side, standing across the threshold, is your long lost brother. You have not seen him in years. You both stand there for a moment, looking at each other. He opens his arms to give you a hug. You hesitate before opening your arms to hug him back. You embrace. It has been ten years since you’ve seen each other and seeing his face is such a surprise.

Except, no it isn’t. Not really. It is just a scene in a play and you are only acting. You saw each other last night. And the night before and the night before that. Last weekend it happened, too. You rehearsed this moment every day in the three or four weeks before you opened the show. The last thing this moment is is a surprise. And yet it must be. It must be as if you have never gone through it before. This is the actor’s paradox.

Actors have a uniquely difficult challenge among artists. For our work to be good, we must possess the ability to both know and not know simultaneously. We have to live in this paradox, this human quantum state. There really isn’t another art form with such a requirement. It is unique to what we do.

Most of us just fake it. We pretend. We look at our friend, that actor playing our brother and we just put on the physical trappings of surprise. We open our mouth in pretend shock. We let out an audible gasp, just enough for the audience to hear it, because we want to show the audience how surprised we are. We need them to get it. For the story to be told, we telegraph the cliche of shock to the audience. We try to trick them away from seeing it isn’t really happening.

The trouble is, if you’re anything like me, fakery and trickery makes me immediately self-conscious. When I give in to pretending, it’s as if a giant blinking sign instantly manifests in front of my eyes, a sign that says in penetrating neon letters, “YOU LIAR!” My face gets hot and I fall into myself, ashamed and alone in my glaring dishonesty. I have let the audience down. I know that I have failed. And my work suffers. For the rest of the scene, I’m in my head thinking, “Did the audience just see me lying to them? Do they know?”

And the truth is, yes! The audience knows when we lie to them. Maybe not consciously, but, on some level, they always know! When actors fake it, even when they fake it well, the audience goes to sleep metaphorically and often literally. Sadder still, most audiences have grown accustomed to dishonesty and trickery. They’ll still clap and maybe even give a standing ovation at the end of untruthful performances. Out of politeness, they will settle for our lies. But they will leave with an aching suspicion that there could have been more in what they just watched, that there was something missing. And they are right.

We all know when we see truly great acting because it becomes invisible. Instead of a performance, we only see true life engendered before us. There is no pretending, there is only life itself. There is a knock on the door, it opens and the great actor actually is surprised.

But how? Why can some actors both know what is about to happen and not know simultaneously? Because some have learned, deep in their bones, that no moment will ever occur twice. No knock will ever really be the same as any other knock, no matter how many times it gets rehearsed. No matter how long you live, you will never repeat a single second of your life, onstage or off. Not really. The great actor accepts this truth and trains their attention on the specific miracle of each fleeting moment with such dexterity that they can not only see it unfold, but be fully in response to what is unfolding. They give up the futile, intellectual attempt to control and give over to the miracle of the temporary and all its potential.

This takes training and a process, but it is possible. Not only is it possible, it is necessary. Because in the presence of truly great acting, we can remember that nothing is pre-ordained, that we can each change the world, that we are alive. Great acting reminds us that this moment is the only one we will ever truly have.

Is an MFA Acting Program Right For You?

Auditioning

If you’ve been taking acting classes for a while and have started to get cast in plays, you may start to wonder what’s next. If you are serious about wanting to become a professional actor, what is the best way of honing your craft?

One path that many professional actors take is to earn their MFA in acting. Typically, MFA acting programs last one to three years and feature a daily regimen of acting, voice, and movement classes, as well as the chance to be in multiple productions a year.

Many say that MFA acting programs are great because they are intense boot camps where you have the ability to focus entirely on your art without having to work a day job while auditioning at night. Plus, being in a program with others who are serious about acting and directing can be a great networking opportunity later on.

Others say MFA acting programs cost a lot of money without guaranteeing that you’ll end up making it.

Sommer Austin, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio, received her MFA in acting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she says the experience was invaluable.

“As an MFA actor, I was required to play big parts in plays as a fulfillment of my training, and that was so great for my acting, because in my undergrad years I hadn’t been cast regularly in mainstage plays in large roles. I also got to see people (my teachers) who were making a living in the arts,” she says. “MFA training opened up a whole new world for me in what was possible as an academic and as an artist, and I am very grateful because that experience is a large part of what has led me here.”

Austin says the biggest benefit of earning your MFA is that it gives you the ability to become an acting teacher, which can help pay the bills while you continue to work as an actor.

“If you have a terminal degree (MFA or PhD), you are qualified to teach at a college or university, which can be a great way for an artist to earn a living while they are trying to do their art which may not yield much financial gain,” she says.

So how do you know if applying to an MFA acting program is right for you? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions:

  1. Does getting an MFA help you get roles?
    While getting a graduate degree in acting doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a Tony or an Oscar, it can give you a solid foundation that will give you a leg up against the competition when you are auditioning.

    Austin says when she is auditioning people, she can always tell those who have an MFA in acting vs. those who don’t. “When I am directing a show and sitting in the audition room watching auditions, I can tell when a person who has training walks into the room,” she says. “The kind of long-term commitment and work that an MFA program demands really changes an actor.”

  1. What do you have to do to apply to an MFA program?
    Although each school has its own process, most usually require an application, then an audition and an interview and perhaps a chance to see you in a classroom setting. Austin says there is a unified audition process for the University of Resident Theatre Association, known as the URTAs. “They hold a massive audition which all of the URTA schools send reps to, and those take place once a year in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. So it’s possible to hit up a bunch of school auditions in one place that way,” Austin says. “The schools that are not URTA schools are often at the same location, but you will have to schedule a separate audition (and also a separate application fee) to be seen by them.”
  1. How much does an MFA program cost?
    You should estimate that you’ll spend about $38,000 a year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, or about $114,000 for most three-year programs. And that’s just on tuition. Don’t forget the money you’ll have to spend on housing, food, books, etc. However, just like with an undergraduate degree, you can apply for financial aid and also take out federal loans to go to school, as well. Plus, many schools offer a wide range of scholarships, and often you can work as a graduate teaching assistant or project assistant to offset your tuition. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a tuition waiver in exchange for a graduate teaching assistantship, plus a scholarship, to MFA students, making it essentially free to attend. Check with each school that you are interested in to find out what scholarship opportunities they have available.
  2. How hard are programs to get into?
    Most of the top MFA programs in the country only accept a handful of students each year. For example, DePaul University’s Theater School only accepts 14 students a year, USC School of Dramatic Arts accepts about eight, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison only takes 12 students every three years. So competition is fierce.
  3. Can you do it if you did not major in acting in undergrad?
    Yes! “The great thing about most MFA programs is that it doesn’t matter what you majored in in undergrad, because they base their criteria on your audition, an interview process, and your acting credentials,” Austin says. “So if you’ve been an actor but have a degree in biology, it doesn’t matter.”
  4. What are the best schools to apply to?
    This is a very difficult question to answer and one that is personal to each person. Before deciding, ask yourself some questions: Do you want a program that emphasizes acting for the screen, or are you more interested in acting for the stage? Do you want to move to L.A. or New York, or are you more comfortable in a smaller city? Are you all about classical plays and Shakespeare or more excited about experimental theater? Think about what’s most important to you and then find a program that fits the bill.

To get you started, here are two lists of some of the best MFA acting programs in the United States and the U.K. from the Hollywood Reporter and Backstage.