This past weekend I found out that NYU had ended it’s affiliation with the Strasberg Institute. To me, not only does it diminish the credibility of my alma mater but robs future students of the chance to study with the best teachers in New York City. I know, I am prejudiced because I love my former studio so much and the teachers that I had there. But there is a reason.
When I was nineteen years old I had arrived in New York and had one of the roughest years of my life. I was placed in an acting studio that I thought would be my dream. Instead it turned out to be a nightmare. My teachers for the most part were frustrated actors who never made it. To my scene study teacher and Shakespeare teacher as an outgoing, blonde haired, ocean eyed woman with a sea of ambition I was Dead on Arrival. My movement teacher/Director of Student affairs ran interference between me and the scene study teacher especially. I didn’t get along with my movement teacher either. She was my advisor in the studio and passive aggressive as could be. This woman told me I was doing well and then slammed me in my written evaluation. A lot of the training was sitting, listening and taking notes. It wasn’t the way I learned. While I wasn’t openly defiant, I didn’t question quite a bit. They told us they encouraged us to do so. In response I was labeled, “Disruptive.”
Of course all my teachers there were crazy. My dance teacher was passive aggressive. My improv teacher, an alcoholic, would sometimes not show up for class giving us a free Friday. Then there were the teacher/student sexual relationships. I was told I wasn’t a good listener. Meanwhile all my teachers seemed to do was bitch and moan, who wouldn’t tune that out?
After a midterm second quarter, I was told there was no place for me in that particular studio culture. These people had pretended to be welcoming but in reality were not. They didn’t celebrate anything different. I had gained some notoriety as a teen ventriloquist and they thought I should stop with the puppets because it was destructive to my mental health. The whole place made no sense. I began to hate it there worse and worse. After a D for my midterm grade I went to my advisors and talked about a switch.
One studio was suggested to me and I met with the head of the studio. A well meaning lady, she told me that I was better to work it out with my current studio before jumping ship. I know when she spoke to me she just wanted the best for me, and didn’t want to see me make the mistake of moving from one place to another as I traded one hell for the other. After talking to her I felt better. Maybe I could work it out there. The other part of me thought of leaving school and trying it out, just as an actor. However, several former classmates dropped out and then crawled back into the fold. My mom encouraged me to stay in school. However, I wasn’t sure.
Things began to turn around in my former studio, but after talking to another NYU advisor bluntly put it to me, my former studio was sending me a message. That’s when he suggested Strasberg. He gave me the email of the woman there. I emailed Maureen, the then Director of Student Affairs, and she set up a meeting.
I went to the Strasberg Institute, a much different studio culture than the one I left. The building was large and austere. The neighborhood was nicer than the Garment District, the home of my other studio. Instead of being able to walk in they had guards at the front desk. The whole place was huge, much bigger than the studio I was looking to leave. Was I making a mistake? I was so miserable where I was and was willing to take the gamble. If worse came to worse I would work it out where I was. But then something caught my eye. It was a picture of Lee Strasberg. A little old man with a watchful eye, he had this twinkle even though it was a photograph. All of a sudden, I wanted to know more.
I met with Maureen McNeil and she was very nice, much different than the woman who handled student affairs at my other studio. She asked me a little about myself and was fascinated by the work with the puppets which was a huge plus. Then she asked me if I wanted to watch a video of the Strasberg Philosophy. I said yes, why not? I went in and at first I will admit I was frustrated by Lee Strasberg talking. But then I took a deep breath and decided to listen.
Lee Strasberg was very bright and hit the nail on the head. He said that a person could have a lot of experience on stage and very little talent, or a lot of talent but very little experience. However, Strasberg said one thing I will never forget, that talent didn’t matter unless you knew how to use it. And talent was useless if when the opportunity arose, you didn’t know how to use it properly. At that moment I was hooked. This man was a genius. I suddenly believed in craft and technique again. I watched the rest of the video, hooked on every word this mercurial little man said. He made sense.
At the beginning of the year Sandra Bowie, a woman who I looked up to for my four years at NYU, told me after she had to run interference with my studio issues, “You are talented, lets get past that. Your job in class is to listen, soak things up like a sponge. Learn to use your talent now.” I had been trying to but the studio that I was leaving weren’t the people to help me. They wanted me to use my imagination yet ripped on me when I used it. Truth be told, I had a fantastical imagination and they just wanted me to calm down. I also had a plethora of life experiences. This was the place for me. I told Maureen this and she placed a call to NYU.
A week later I saw Sandra Bowie, told her what happened, and she assisted with the switch as did Garret Eisler. I finished the year with a light heart and a sense of starting anew, with a clean slate. Part of me was hesitant. I brought my mom to see Strasberg during a visit. She agreed I had upgraded. I hoped in my heart I was doing the right thing. While I knew a large part of me was, would it be more of the same?
Instead it was different. Much different.
Right away I liked my classmates and my classes. I loved the fact that I had two acting classes with two different teachers that were hours long. I loved sense memory and thought it was genius. More than anything my teachers weren’t just artists who were teaching, but they were artist who taught and loved every second of it!
My first year I had both Bill Balzac and Ted Zurkowski for acting. Bill told me that I was so emotional that if I did the work I could win an Academy Award someday. Ted Zurkowski told us he retired from acting, was doing music, but still loved to teach. Through sense memory he got me to appreciate Shakespeare again and told me I had a knack for it. My dance teacher, Madeline Reiss had been a former Rockette and loved to teach students how to dance, even if it was just getting confident on their feet. While dancing scared the bejesus out of me it eventually became one of my favorite classes. Erick Buckley, a Broadway veteran, taught us voice and speech and never settled for anything less than our best. Kohli Hessler was another speech teacher who taught us IPA, made us laugh and loved every second of being a vocal coach. Of course there was Thai Chi with Ron Navarre. While the slow movement drove me crazy it was the best thing I did for myself. As an elective I took singing with Jan Douglas, one of the smartest things I think I did during my time at NYU. Not only was I not afraid to sing, but sounded pretty decent after a while. As in squirrels did not run.
The studio culture at Strasberg I found was much more healthy. If a student didn’t get along with an acting teacher they were able to change out, no harm no foul. Also, since the teachers liked to teach they encouraged us to be honest about how we felt about the work, and didn’t take it personally when we questioned it. The place was less incestuous, meaning that teachers didn’t exchange notes on students. What happened in class stayed there. Because Anna Strasberg kept tight reign, there was no sexual relations between students and teachers. The environment was free for students to find their voice and that meant making mistakes. The energy was happier and more serene. I remember calling my mother every day and saying, “I love it here. I love going to school.”
Immediately I began to soak up my training. I did my homework with passion whether it was rehearsing with my vocal production partner or going to a public place with a scene partner to do our scene in order to make it more realistic. I ran up to the song shop on Broadway to buy new sheet music. When I went to bed at night I couldn’t wait to go to class in the morning. My teachers were nothing short of inspirational.
My life outside studio improved too. I was more grounded when I spoke to people. Eye contact became less of something I had to work on and a more organic reaction. I relied less on heavy makeup and atrocious fake eyelashes and went more natural. I wasn’t just becoming a better actor but a better person.
In my second year I found myself growing even more. I had Erick Buckley again and one heck of a partner for vocal production. I also had Jeffrey Ferguson for dance, a man who never settled for anything less than my best. Lola Cohen, being a surrogate Jewish mother of sorts, cracked the whip and made our scene work the best it could be. Once she said, “You just say what’s off the top of your head.” I laughed, it was true. That’s when she told me, “April, that’s not a good thing.” Needless to say, I began to work on that character defect, making myself a better listener and a better performer. Lorca Peress was wonderful as she taught us script analysis and helped make me a part of Hot INK. Geoffrey Horne was not just a genius and an actor of note, but he was one of the few people in this world to get me. He told me my problem was that I didn’t think I was good enough. He was right. I didn’t. But through his class, his tutelage, I suddenly felt confident enough. As for Michael Neller, I loved him more than anything. The Aussie movement teacher was awe inspiring and was a nice way to start a Friday. John Van Weyden was tough and always expected homework to be done, but nonetheless made us understand the art of accents. Carlos Ferante opened us up to masks, and was someone who loved and understood my need to work with puppets.
Second year I remember Maureen McNeill telling me, “I heard about the good work you did with Hedda Gabbler.” That was a night and day reaction from the first time I walked in her door.
When I left Strasberg to make a go in the world of the performing arts, yes I fell more into standup and being an entertainer. While being weird has been my ticket to the party so far, I can use my instrument anyway I need to. There have been times in my career so far when people have asked for a dramatic monologue and I have surprised them. Many around me compliment me telling me I can do anything. Maybe I can, but that ability and confidence is because of the love and nurturing of the teachers at The Lee Strasberg Institute. I know how to relax, I know how to be natural, and I know how to be honest offstage and on. Most importantly, I know how to use my talent.
It breaks my heart NYU had ended it’s affiliation. Not only will my alma mater lose it’s credibility, but it will lose a legion of acting teachers who are nothing short of genius, passionate, and nurturing. The studio culture I had originally came from had teachers who would tell us they were teaching because it was better than waiting tables. However, at Strasberg, these were artists who loved the pedagogy and wanted more than anything to pass it along. Having teachers who love to teach, love their craft and love their students makes all the difference in the world. NYU is robbing future generations of aspiring actors of this gift and these kids don’t even know it.
I had come from another NYU studio where the teachers did not want to teach and I remember how damaging that was not just to my dreams as a performer but to my psyche. I also had teachers at that particular studio who cared more about their egos than the pedagogy or the craft called acting. Having had the other before coming to Strasberg, I knew how detrimental the ladder was. Therefore, I valued people who encouraged students to use their voices, make mistakes, and celebrated the outside talents we all had. At my former studio there was no such love. Now this current generation of NYU kids will not know the Method, the most effective technique for film or television, in it's most pure form.
To Lee Strasberg and his adherents, I say thank you for teaching me all I know. And when I win my first big award I hope to come and teach a master class. It's because like my teachers, I want to give back without ego but rather for love of the Method and love of my craft.
To NYU I say shame on you. Maybe if the students at Strasberg streaked you would have kept your affiliation with that studio.