Artistic Director's Blog

On Being and Serving the Next Generation…

October 20, 2014

I have found myself listening avidly to a radio program on NPR called On Being, moderated by Krista Tippett. The show consists of 50 minute interviews with leaders from religious and spiritual disciplines but also artists, scientists, philosophers and so on. The way it’s described on the On Being website is as follows: “On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”

A number of the programs I’ve enjoyed most are with civil rights leaders, most especially, Grace Lee Boggs, John Lewis and Vincent Harding. I find myself deeply inspired by these programs and, more to the point, by the civil rights movement itself. One of the things that impresses me about the three people I mentioned is that they speak about the movement, not as a thing of the past, but as an ongoing struggle. Grace Lee Boggs, still alive at the age of 99, talks unabashedly of the revolution. She talks about “revolution as evolution”. She and the others live in close proximity within themselves and in their communities to atrocity, injustice, oppression and perhaps particularly in the case of Grace Lee Boggs, to a keen awareness of environmental injustice and impending disaster. While they live so closely to these negative forces in society they are not by any means negative people. On the contrary they are supremely positive; one might say radically hopeful people. They are fighters for justice; one might say spiritual warriors of peace and reconciliation.

One of the most lived questions of my life is: what does it mean to be the Stella Adler Studio today? Another way to put this is what anchors the Stella Adler Center for the Arts as an institution in the world? What is our foundational, fundamental truth? To what are we rooted? What are our deepest convictions without which we wouldn’t be ourselves? Or, in actor terms, what is our super objective?

The answer is always something about life, about existence, about humanity. Institutions aren’t about themselves but about big life issues beyond themselves. Stella stated this with respect to actors: “You serve the playwright, who serves God, who serves the Universe, who tells these babies out there what’s wrong with the world.”

I find the means for a response to the question “what does it mean to be the Stella Adler Studio today?” in the civil rights movement as I’ve come to understand it particularly in the work and words of Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is, as I mentioned, a 99 year old, Chinese-American, teacher, philosopher, writer and primarily a political activist.

Listen to Grace Lee Boggs: “Historians of the black experience have a crucial role to play in helping blacks and everyone in this country develop a common understanding of the important role that the black struggle for human rights has played through the years not only to advance blacks but to humanize this country”. The word humanize is defined as “to make humane, kind, or gentle” and humane as “characterized by tenderness, compassion, and sympathy for people and animals, especially for the suffering or distressed”.

The civil rights movement, then, is a model not only for fairness, equality, and justice, but is also a model for deepening our humanity. The issue of creating an environment that values humanity is at the core of our work at the studio. For me, exploring the civil rights movement has been very helpful in finding a deeper expression of our mission, of our value of humanity and how it is expressed through the great and ancient arts of acting and theater.

In educational terms, what I’ve learned of the study of the civil rights movement and its continuing echoes today is that chief among the oppressive forces of the world today is corporate greed and commercialism. Our students live between two competing phenomenon: the theater, in its depth, perhaps the oldest art form, with an objective to elevate and uplift, to activate and engage humanity and its commercial expression, the industry, Hollywood. I would like to suggest that we have to prepare them to make a living but we have to train and educate them to make a life. Making a living is merely one element of making a life.

I hope as an exercise, you might be encouraged to think with me about how these ideals might help us realize our work as actors, how it might help us realize the studio’s mission and how it might help us serve our whole community and our audiences better, more holistically, with greater understanding and passion.

If you’d like to hear Grace Lee Boggs on On Being click here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/becoming-detroit/feature/re-imagining-education-by-grace-lee-boggs/1409

I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Combining the Art and Biz of Acting

July 1, 2011

(This article was published as an editorial in Backstage on April 28, 2011)

 In his Business of Acting column “Turning Pro” (April 7), Jeff B. Cohen puts forth some important tips for young actors on how to transition from being a student of acting to being a professional actor. He draws attention to a truism: The art of acting and the business of acting are often at odds; in order to get work, or even agent representation, one must learn to “sell oneself”—that is, represent oneself as a business. This includes understanding one’s type and how one is seen by agents, casting directors, and producers. Actors must also, in Mr. Cohen’s words, “constantly push, market, schmooze, cajole, and fight to be noticed.” All this is undeniably true and covered in any responsible actor training program’s “business of the business” class, usually in the final year of training.

However, in my opinion, Mr. Cohen overstates his argument when he claims: “Acting classes are great at teaching you how to succeed in the ‘show’ of showbiz. But much of what they teach does not help with, or in some cases actually hinders, an actor’s success in the ‘biz’ part.” Such a position sets up a false choice for a young actor. It implies, “I can either be an artist who doesn’t work or a salesman who does.” It thereby encourages young actors to sacrifice the cultivation of themselves as actors and human beings for the sake of commercial success.

This in no way corresponds to anything that I have experienced in my 16 years as the artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and the Art of Acting Studio in Los Angeles, or the lifetime I spent before that in and around the business. I’ve never once heard an agent or casting director complain, “This actor is far too sensitized, open, and artistically enlivened. He should study less Stanislavsky and read more Variety.” In fact, I hear the opposite. Agents, casting directors, and producers want what the public wants, craves, and needs—that is, human beings. Actors are human beings who train themselves to reflect for humanity what it means to be human. Actors therefore serve a vital role in our society and in civilization as a whole.

I sense sincerity in Mr. Cohen’s article and in Back Stage’s decision to publish it. However, his fear that actors will be confused by Stella Adler’s statement that “One way to enliven the imagination is to push it toward the illogical,” or that Lee Strasberg’s observation that “Acting is the most personal of our crafts” will in any way hinder young actors’ ability to make lives for themselves in the business, is not only misplaced but a complete misunderstanding of what actors are and what they need. Actors are smart; they are capable of distinguishing the difference between inspirational teaching and their marketing of themselves. Furthermore, an actor’s artistic impulse—often cultivated and nurtured by a strong teacher or school—provides the fuel that propels him or her to work, which attracts agents, casting directors, producers, and, ultimately, audiences.

So if you are a young actor and have taken steps to arm yourself with the techniques and artistic principals of Stella, Strasberg, or Stanislavsky, and if after reading Jeff Cohen’s article you become doubtful of the value of your training, I say, by all means “schmooze, cajole, fight to be noticed,” but never forget who you are. You are actors!!! As Hamlet says, actors are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” Never forget what you are fighting for: the edification and uplifting of humanity. Never forget the means by which this is accomplished: in the words of Hamlet, “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Letter from the Artistic Director

November 29, 2010

“I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for.” Thornton Wilder

If you are reading this, you are in one way or another supporting an artistic organization that seeks means to set young people free to live meaningful lives. Thanks to you, hundreds of young people participate in an environment whose emphasis is not careerism, not the superficiality of the celebrity culture that seems to corrode age-honored values, but human vitality and connectedness to community, culture, art, and nature. The premise of all the work you help facilitate by supporting the Stella Adler Studio and the Art of Acting Studio is based on the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. We teach students that theater art must be about something beyond art. It must be about humanity. It must be about life. I repeat myself when I quote our mission “to create an environment that nurtures theater artists so that they value humanity, their own and others, as their first priority, while bringing art and education to the broader community”. I repeat myself because I want to make crystal clear what your generosity helps to generate.

To say thank you seems an inadequate gesture based on your generosity. A promise is more along the lines of what is called for, or a vow. So here it goes. We promise that we will continue to fight for a world informed by values that much of our media seems to reject. We vow to nurture young people to develop ways and means to nurture their humanity and to make a gift of that humanity to the world outside of themselves. We offer a solemn but joyful proclamation, inspired by your support, to bring this spirit to a diverse population that includes students in the NYU in New York and professional Conservatory programs on both coasts as well as low-income urban youth. We cannot do this without you. The gift of your support bolsters us for the fight ahead. Our gratitude makes that fight both a pleasure and a privilege. I think of it more as a dance than armed combat. So thank you, indeed, and see you on the dance floor.

Sincerely,

Tom Oppenheim

The Power of Art

January 20, 2010

Over the past ten years I have devoted myself to bringing free actor-training to inner-city youth. In that decade I have experienced clearly and conclusively, that theater can have an impact on a young life that goes way beyond the craft of acting. I have seen it over and again: the veritable transformation of lives, the cultivation of self-respect, of confidence, of coming into oneself, one’s voice, one’s life. I would like to share one example emblematic of countless others.

Darnell P. was a young man of sixteen when he joined our after-school program, though he wasn’t in school at the time. Three years before he came to us, his mother placed him in a foster home because she found out that he was gay. Darnell dropped out of school, dropped out of life, changed his name to Peaches and engaged in self-destructive behavior. He ended up living in a homeless shelter.

Darnell’s first year in our after-school program was difficult for him and his faculty though he had a spark, as so many of these young people do. Despite the missed classes, flare ups, despite the tough persona, the mask of the street kid, we stuck with Darnell and he with us. The year ended with a project in which he performed and that spark we saw seemed particularly bright as he left us for the long swelter of a summer in New York City, a difficult environment for any young person regardless of social economic background. We were especially encouraged by what Darrell’s guardian said after his final performance. “This is the first time Darnell has ever finished anything.”

“I don’t go by Peaches anymore,” were the words with which Darnell greeted us upon returning for a second year the following fall. We further learned that Darnell had taken his high school equivalency over the summer and enrolled himself in Manhattan Community College. Darnell still wrestled with his demons (who doesn’t?) but the transformative positive effect of actor training was gloriously present in him.

What is it about actor training that has such a life affirming effect on young people? The answers are numerous. Here are a few. Acting, particularly in the beginning, requires a robust confrontation with one’s habitual self. An all important gap emerges between the self one invents to survive in the world, often a mere caricature of a deeper, free and empowered self. Acting also demands the exercising of the inherent choice-making muscle that exists in all of us. Further, theater, an ensemble art-form, demands that people understand, respect, and make room for one another. Finally, theater gives young people a standard to reach for and fosters responsibility. All of this is true for any youth regardless of socio-economic background. However, it has particular relevance for youth from the inner-city who suffer abominable educational conditions.

Darnell is now is his third year of training. He has become a leader in the group, making daring artistic choices and cheering on his peers. He is articulate about his personal development and recently said that while he arrived at the Studio a depressed teen without direction, he has grown into a man who is connected to his feelings and inner strength. He has his own apartment, a part-time job, and is about to receive his Associate’s degree. When he is ready, he has an offer for a full scholarship to one of our Conservatory training programs. His journey has just begun and his light shines brighter than ever.