I ask actors who study with me to commit to writing a Workroom post about being in acting class. The Process Journel focuses on craft, challenge, break-throughs, journey. When we have access to others' thoughts, feelings, instincts, insights, etc., we build comradery / as cheerlead & mentor / celebrate success & failure. It =s belonging to a creative collective ... The Workroom as a space we each create & own: a home-base + a laboratory to nurture flight.
Back when I was a struggling student in New York I kept a black & white photo of James Dean taped to the wall above my dresser. He is relaxing on the set of Giant and at the bottom of the picture, there's a quote: "Being a good actor isn't easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I'm done." Me, too.
The summer before last, I was cast in a production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. I was excited - the play's pretty remarkable, with lots of meaty parts. However, given the short rehearsal schedule & the fact that I hadn't done a play for a while - I got anxious. Looking to hold my own in a cast stacked with heavy hitters, I went looking for help. Through a stroke of blind luck I found Jeanie via her website & I asked if she'd work with me. She agreed.
At our first meeting I was inspired by Jeanie's passion. We worked together for maybe 7 to 10 sessions, going from breaking down text, to the character's physicality & vocal quality to what Jeanie always considers the most important question: "Why do you want to play this role?" We worked hard together & I worked a lot on my own. I was glad I prepared as much as I did. I felt good about my work. The play was well received & even won some awards.
A few months later, when Jeanie told me she was starting a new scene study class I jumped at the chance to take part. Her résumé speaks for itself, but I have to say Jeanie is one of the finest teachers I've ever worked with. Her passion is contagious, she's insightful & when something in a scene isn't working, she always seems to pull something out of her back pocket that steers me in exactly the right direction.
Fast forward to a few days ago. I found myself in her office catching up over coffee. I hadn't seen Jeanie for a few months. I had taken a break from class for the summer after close to a year of studying with her. We talked about what I'm looking to get out of class going forward.
As we sipped our Starbucks I told Jeanie I wanted to push myself. What I didn't say right then was that I wanted to be more courageous in the work - enough to use the unfinished parts of myself, the parts I'm afraid or ashamed of. I want more access to my power, too - the part of me that steps up when I'm up against something that matters. (I realize this sounds fucking pretentious, but it's what I want.) I want to bring all of myself to my acting. & I want to have fun doing it. If I'm going to spend time doing this shit, I wanna to do it right.
Jeanie said to ask myself what the roles I play can teach me, how they can help me explore the journey I'm on. Looking back at the past year in class I realize that's what has been happening all along. I may not have articulated it, but I've always wanted to play characters that teach me about myself & what it is to be a man out in the world. In retrospect, I see how I grew through the roles I played. As Jeanie likes to say "The part learns from the actor - & the actor learns from the part."
So, I want to tell you about 5 men I've gotten to know in the past year or so, & what I've learned from them. They've got different jobs & different backgrounds. They don't know each other, but they've got something in common. They all want to be better men. Their names are Frank, Austin, George, George, & Johnny. & they were created by Stephan Adley Guirgis, Sam Shepard, John Steinbeck, Edward Albee & Terrance McNally.
frank: a judge / THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT
MAY 2013. The first role Jeanie & I worked on together: Frank Littlefield, the judge who oversees Judas Iscariot's trial in purgatory. I wanted to make bold choices for this character, a gruff veteran of the civil war who holds his own against the devil. I started with external stuff. I showed up for the first rehearsal wearing a handmade, leather eye patch. I grew a handlebar moustache & worked on an Alabama drawl.
The challenges: My character never left the stage, the "drawl" slowed the pace of my scenes, & the Judge needed a playful gruffness while demanding respect from a tough crowd of characters, including Satan himself. & because this is not a naturalistic play, a different style of acting was called for - bigger, but still honest.
Breaking down the text with Jeanie, analyzing not just what he said, but how he said it, gave me the confidence to explore aspects I hadn't considered. That led to taking a lot of risks in rehearsals. By opening night, I worked out the technical issues & was having a lot of fun in the part.
But Frank also deals with being confronted & even shamed by his own weakness. He acts like he's invulnerable. He's verbally abusive & even contemptuous of others. But the truth is, he has secrets, which are revealed in the course of the play by another character. Confronting my own vulnerabilites - the way I sometimes try to cover them - that was the take-away. The reason to play the role.
austin: a screenwriter / TRUE WEST
SEPT. 2013. I'd just started class and was searching for material. I remembered being glued to the TV as a kid, mesmerized by John Malkovitch & Gary Sinise in True West on PBS. Done. I played the charismatic drifter, Lee, & Justin Azgour his straight-laced, kid brother Austin. When we finished the scene the first time we went up in class, Jeanie took a moment & then asked us that question: "Why do you want to play this part?" I didn't have a clear answer. Then she asked us to swith roles. At first I bristled at the idea. Lee is dangerous, Austin seemed boring.
Something I've never had & always wanted is a brother - & that's one reason I wanted to work on this play. Austin, the younger brother, seemed like the polar opposite of Lee. & I wondered why two brothers would choose such completely different paths? Why did Austin become a successful Hollywood screenwriter, with a family, & Lee a drifter & a thief with nothing tying him down? They seemed too different to be part of the same family.
Justin & I rehearsed in the dusty, single-car garage behind my apartment in Hollywood. We set a card table up on its cement floor covered in motor oil. Sitting in lawn chairs as we ran lines it started to come to me: the two brothers, Austin & Lee … are really the same man! They seem to be polar opposites. But actually... everything about Lee exists in Austin & visa versa. They both want connection, but don't know how to get it. Both crave their distant father's approval. Both of them want success. & they both want to be free. That's every man. That's me.
Austin, is by all accounts successful. Yet, he craves what his criminal brother has. Lee's got the gift of the gab, he makes friends easily, the world is his oyster. But he's lost his potential for success in the world. Austin's a grown man with responsibilities & success, who's lost part of his heart. He stops himself from going after things he wants. After one work-through in class, Jeanie asked me "Where do you stop yourself? Where do you get in your own way?" I thought about it. Fear is a strange thing. It keeps you safe & it can keep you sedentary. I realized Austin wasn't boring at all.
Justin & I put up the scene a bunch of times & I felt good about the work. & still, I felt like I'd only touched the tip of the iceberg. But that thing about having the potential to carry all these opposites as part of yourself - stuck with me.
george #1: a drifter / OF MICE & MEN
NOV. 2013. Evan Lorenzetti & I picked Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the final scene where George mercifully kills his friend, Lenny, to save him from a vengeful mob. Though not related, George & Lenny, are pretty much brothers, too. Unlike Austin & Lee, they actually take care of each other. A little boy in a man's body, Lenny's physical strength helps them get jobs. But without George's help Lenny couldn't survive. They need each other.
The challenges: Lenny is such an iconic character it was a hard at first not to ape other performances I'd seen. In order to put myself in Lenny's shoes, I knew I'd have to take off my mask & risk opening up to my own feelings of dependency & weakness. I looked back at what it felt like to be a shy kid growing up in the Midwest. We moved around every year or so, and it felt like I was always the new kid desperate to fit in. I used this image to connect with Lenny's - & my own - need for approval & fear of being abandoned.
I remember doing the scene with Evan around Christmas. The first time through we felt pretty good. Then Jeanie gave us some adjustments. We did it again & at one point during the scene I hugged Evan & he lost it. The weight of the circumstances dropped in for him. We connected to our need for each other. We felt it - the reactions from the class confirmed it. It was beautiful, a win. I think Evan felt it, too. When I left the Workroom that night, my heart was singing.
george #2: a professor / WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
JAN. 2014. The opening scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably the most challenging scene I've worked on so far in Jeanie's class. Belen Greene & I were both kind of scared of it. Albee's Martha & George, are mean as hell to each other. & they're supposed to be. The play is about the breakdown of their marriage.
Why would two people so unhappy stay together? At times I left rehearsals feeling like I'd been punched in the gut. It was hard to connect with George. I didn't like him. He seemed like a coward. Instead of dealing with the insults Martha throws at him in a mature way, he engages in her game of humiliation. Then it clicked. I was uncomfortable for a reason. George & Martha reminded me of times I've struggled in relationships, when I've behaved in ways I'm ashamed of. Ultimately, it was the best kind of challenge for me: being forced to look at parts of myself that I don't like & using those parts of myself instead of hiding them. Portraying a man in all of his dimensions, not just the aspects I'm comfortable with.
johnny: a cook / FRANKIE & JOHNNY IN THE CLAIRE DE LUNE
Jennifer Soo & I picked the lonely people who meet working in a Hell's Kitchen restaurant, in Terrence McNally's two-character play. He's a cook, she's a waitress. The play begins with them passionately tumbling into bed at the end of their first date. We brought the scene at the end of the first act where the characters start to reveal themselves over meat loaf sandwiches in Frankie's one room apartment.
Johnny believes he's found his soul mate & tells her so. Frankie is cautious; hesitant to surrender to the undeniable magic between them. In class Jeanie said: "Johnny has decided that 'Tonight is the night I'm doing my life differently!'" This hit close to home. I've felt that desperation and had that persistence. My wife & I met 6 years ago & have been married for 3. But, before meeting my amazing wife, I sometimes wondered if finding a soul mate was ever in the cards for me.
My first challenge was vanity. In this scene the guy wears boxers & a t-shirt & I'm not in the shape I'd like to be. But that's sort of the point. Johnny puts all his cards on the table & embraces himself for who he is.
The second challenge was reaching for how silly & courageous Johnny is in his vulnerability. In the final exchange of our scene Johnny spells it out, "I want you and I’m coming after you." In my experience, it takes a lot of guts to say that to someone you want.
Jenny & I did the scene in class several times. Playing Johnny was like getting a shot of adrenalin. I like the man he is. He's got balls. He's been knocked down, but he keeps getting back up and going after what he wants. I was thrilled when Jeanie told us after our last time doing the scene, "You hit one of my bench-marks for great acting - not being afraid to make a fool of yourself." Sometimes I get high from doing this acting stuff. That was one of those times.
But no matter if I hit that high or not - that isn't the point. Class isn't about perfection. It's about getting present & really going for it. Albee's George, for example, I found a tough nut to crack. I never quite felt like I got there with him, but I still I was successful exploring & working with another aspect of myself. I didn't hold back. & and I was able to do that because our class encourages us to take those kind of leaps.
* * *
I heard an interview with music producer Rick Rubin recently. Rubin's worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to Kanye West. The interviewer asked how he gets the best out of the people he works with. Rubin said, "The goal is to create a setting where an artist can be completely vulnerable & feel completely free to be themselves one hundred percent." That's our class. Jeanie has cultivated a safe environment where actors support each other. Where we feel like we can risk pushing ourselves to the edge of our talent.
A lot has changed for me since I was that struggling student in NYC, looking at James Dean taped over the dresser. I've grown up. A few years ago I met an amazing young woman - my daughter. Because of an unfortunate set of circumstances, I didn't know I was a father until my daughter was 18. I first met her the summer after she graduated high school. Since then she's become an important part of my life. & I lost one of the lights of my life, my mother. An artist herself, she was the first person to encourage my creative spirit. Most recently, I met & married another amazing woman, my wife. She's the love of my life, & I wouldn't be the man I am today without her. My relationships with these three special women have helped to define the man I am. Or, I should say - the man I am still becoming.
In the second half of McNally's play, Johnny tells Frankie, "I'm trying to improve my life and I'm running out of time." If I could talk to him, one Johnny to another, I'd tell him: "Go for it, my man. Carpe Diem!" He wants to be a better man. Me, too.
John & I clicked from our first coaching session. His work ethic, his openness to suggestion & direction & his thoughtful intelligence make him a joy to work with. He's just someone you want to be "in the room" with. His innate authenticity & warmth make him an invaluable asset in a class, on a set, in a rehearsal room. Oh yeah -- & he's also really talented. John was recently seen in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Hudson, which won for Best Ensemble & Best Revival at the 2014 L.A. Weekly Theatre Awards. He co-produced & performed in the long-running storytelling show, Story Mixtape, at The Little Modern Theatre. He's currently working on a one-person show based on his experiences as a father.
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When Jeanie asked me if I would write a post for The Workroom about my process in class. My mind began brainstorming immediately. It had to be funny, selfeffacing, thoughtful & I had to end it with some sort of moral or lesson. With all of these little snippets & anecdotes swarming about, I began to formulate some really good stuff. Having had a little background in writing, I felt pretty confident that I could pull something together pretty quickly. But when it came to actually sitting down & cranking out the piece, I just couldn't get myself to do it.
I told myself I was busy. I told myself it should wait until inspiration hit. I told myself all sorts of excuses, but in the end, the truth is, I was scared I wouldn't be able to deliver. Here I was with an opportunity to meditate on & articulate what it is that I'm trying to achieve in class - something I was excited to do - & instead of diving in, I felt completely blocked.
A little background: I lived in New York for a couple of years after graduating from NYU where I received my BFA at the Tisch School of the Arts. As an undergraduate, I spent two years at the Atlantic Acting School, one semester at Stonestreet Studios & my final semester teaching theater in New Orleans. However, looking back, I'd say that my real acting training began post graduation - when I did a lot of non-paid, gritty, small theater. I learned a lot about myself as an actor; I began to understand my strengths & my weaknesses. Every job was a gift & I was excited for any opportunity to work.
In time, it became clear to me that if I wanted to pursue acting seriously I still needed to learn a lot more about my craft & about myself. So I applied to a variety of Masters' programs & was accepted into the ART/MXAT Institute at Harvard University. Here I had the good fortune to work with such directors as Scott Zigler, Marcus Stern, Janos Szasz & John Tiffany. A three month residency in Moscow gave us opportunity to learn from Russian Master Teachers & immerse ourselves in the city's incredible theater scene. We either performed or watched performances almost every day of the week. My hunger for the work grew. I felt challenged & stretched to new levels. For the first time in my life, I called myself an actor.
After graduating, I moved to Los Angeles, partly because I had secured representation, but mostly because I wanted a fresh start. My first year in LA was exciting & full of the energy of all things new. Intoxicated by all of the possibilities, I fantasized about launching my career in a big way. But it didn't take long for me to start feeling overwhelmed. There were so many other actors & such a small amount of time to make an impression! Like a lot of actors, I sometimes struggle with a lack confidence, especially when auditioning & this grew exponentially with every audition & every rejection. By the end of my second year in L.A., I felt incredibly discouraged. Career anxiety began to outweigh the joy of working on my craft.
Just around that time, I received an email from Jeanie about her new Workroom class. My manager, Matthew Lesher, had previously recommended her for audition coaching & even though I had only worked with her a couple of times at this point, I had a strong sense that this might be the right thing for me. My instincts were confirmed in the very first class.
From the start, Jeanie talked about the importance of being in process, of prioritizing that above the relentless drive for "results." This really spoke to me. I realized that with all of the anxiety about auditions & my career & achieving immediate & tangible results, I had lost sight of being in process. Of course I want to work as an actor & get those results. But the work itself is not just a means to that end. It exists for it's own sake. Being fully engaged in process of working on a role is why I fell in love with acting in the first place. It's about discovery & surprise, not about the finished product, & certainly not about pre-conceived ideas or second-guessing what you think THEY want in order to get the job.
So, finally I figured out that writing this post also had to be about process, & that it possibly would & possibly wouldn't be funny, self-effacing, thoughtful, or end with a moral or a lesson learned. Focusing on any kind of pre-conceived notion of a result I want to achieve actually serves to cut off my creative impulses. Whether acting or writing a blog post, the concept of 'being in process' is what I'm really interested in. So, here goes: what has "process" meant to me in my past six months in class with Jeanie?
Let me start with an anecdote :)
Jeanie once told us that a pivotal moment in her career came when she decided to bring her other, not as pleasant, "nice" voice to her work. By giving herself permission to use this voice, she began to bring her "whole" self to the work. This really resonated with me.
& it's those momemts of 'ugliness' - the moments where my classmates reveal those parts of themselves that they usually keep hidden, that stay with me, that I keep thinking about long after class. I see them work through the discomfort of allowing themselves to be surprised by who they really are, or who they also are, that inspires me to keep working & reaching outside my own comfort zone.
Earlier this year, Jeanie recommended that I work on a scene from Venus In Fur, by David Ives. I tend to get cast as girl-next-door, chatty, sweet, vulnerable types, so playing a strong, empowered, highly sexual & highly neurotic woman is something that definitely doesn’t come naturally. I was initially very nervous about being able to bridge the gap between the character & myself. Full disclosure: I felt that no way would I ever be able to portray the character truthfully as written.
But … after the first read through, I decided to give myself permission to explore the character & the scene without the added pressure of self-judgement. By giving myself over fully to the idea of staying "in process," with no obligation to reach some kind of end-result, I found great freedom to grow. And I found parts of myself that I never knew existed. I used myself physically in ways that that initially felt foreign to me, but gradually Vanda's physicality & her voice began to feel like parts of me that had always been there, that belonged to me - I just rarely let that side of myself come out & play! I felt close to the character in ways that I never would have thought possible.
About a month after working on Venus In Fur in class, I found myself at an audition for my theater company for the role of a strong, uninhibited young woman who aggressively seduces an older man. The discoveries I made via VIF not only made this character more accessible, but even more importantly, it taught me to allow myself to make the audition a 'process.' Instead of looking outside myself to try to find ways to make myself more like my pre-conceived idea of the character, I found myself discovering where the character lived inside of me. & I'm delighted to say that my determination to nurture process over results did not stop after I had been cast in the role or even after I started performing the role.
What process means to me right now is relieving myself of the pressure to be funny, self-effacing or thoughtful. It means coming into work with an open heart & mind. It means constantly finding new questions to ask & being okay with not always having answers. It means bringing my entire self to the work, including the parts I'd rather leave at home. It means embracing who I am & where I am at without any commentary or apologies.
That scares me, just like writing this blog post scares me. Because where I am is unfinished, imperfect & vulnerable. And that's okay.
Jenny was referred to me by her manager, Matt Lesher.
From our first coaching session I could see she not only had talent
in spades, but embodied a receptive, professional attitude that
makes her a joy to work with. She raises the bar for everyone in class,
mirrored by her level of support & encouragement for others.
Scene work so far = Oleanna Mamet / The Three Sisters Chekhov /
Venus in Fur Ives / Red Light Winter Rapp / In The Next Room Ruhl /
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune McNally
Jenny was most recently seen on stage performing in
Do Not Disturb at Theatre of NOTE. She has begun rehearsals
for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she will be reprising
her role as Mae in Theatre Movement Bazaar's Hot Cat. Keep an eye
out for her in a supporting role in the upcoming thriller Division 19.
AKA Talent (Commercial & Theatrical): 323.965.5600
Insight Management: 323.932.9818
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My first professional job in theatre was at the age of 16, as a dresser in Sydney Australia. From there, with the mentorship of some wonderful professionals, I learnt the trade from the ground up; eventually acting in the finest theatres in the country. At the age of nineteen I was hired by a British theatre company & went to London where my real education began. Over a period of 20 years I engaged in a diverse career that spanned theatre, music & film.
Some highlights include: Shakespeare’s Moth in Love's Labour's Lost; Michael Mclure's Billy the Kid in his groundbreaking work, The Beard; a very serious Garcia Lorca in Madrid & Barcelona; & Pantomime at London's Roundhouse Theatre (where I doubled as Fairy Fluff & the redoubtable Harlequino). Then there was a new play called Magpie's Nest, about a jaded, tragic drag queen. It took place in a men's jail & involved months of research & hours of prosthetics before each performance. & I also wrote rock & jazz musicals - always singing the lead (of course!). Singing face to face with an audience was pure love for me.
Around age 36, I was struck by Post Polio Syndrome, a disabling condition that kicks in about 30 years after one recovers from polio. My decline, over a period of about 8 years, left me unable to walk or use my arms; with a broken immune system & a suspected tumor in my lung. Life as I knew it seemed over. It is an understatement to say that the future ahead seemed unreservedly bleak, or at the very least boring! I could no longer work as an actor, writer - or anything else. I resigned myself to spending the remainder of my time on this earth completely disabled.
Then, a sort of miracle happened. Years earlier I had met a doctor of Chinese medicine who had startedfirst school of acupuncture in Australia. He had quietly followed my career - & my decline. He told me he had a series of "secret exercises" that could cure "anything." At this point, having nothing to lose, I learnt them. It took a lot of hard work, but to make a long story short, I made a miraculous, almost unbelievable recovery.
I spent the next 13 years sharing my experience & teaching this remarkable Chinese healing technique in 16 countries. My skills as an actor facilitated spreading this technique around the globe, through workshops that reinterpreted what I had learnt for modern people. I created, produced & mounted countless teaching events for anywhere between 30 & 100 people. To a has-been-hoofer, this all seemed very much like being out on the road with a touring production.
I watched people from all walks of life improve their health, their workplace abilities, their sport, voice, movement, coordination, pain management - or in many cases recover, as I had, from a debilitating disease.
Finally, after writing a book & establishing an international school in Switzerland (where I still teach for 6 weeks once a year) I found myself healthy & with time to spare. I felt it was time to come back to the original course life had set for me. I had never been to acting school, so I set about finding one in my new hometown, Los Angles.
I dipped my toe in the water a couple of times; then I was introduced to Jeanie by an actress who had studied with her over the years. After auditing her class & meeting with her privately to chat & work on a monologue, I took the plunge & signed up. Back to basics. Starting from scratch. Embarking on an acting career in Los Angeles with no recent credits, no contacts & not even a clue about social media, felt … daunting. A teeny, weeny fish in an enormous pond!
It's been a rocky three months. Every week I get up in class & challenge myself. I've worked on Pinter, Beckett, Coward, & Chekhov. I've brought in monologues & scenes from Richard III,The Man From Nebraska by Tracey Letts, Revolution by Amy Herzog & from the film Alfie & the TV show Homeland. I've sung "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma. I've left class feeling exhilarated & full of new purpose & I’ve left class feeling confused & totally lost. Finding my way, losing my way, rediscovering, losing hope, triumphing, failing, trying again. & again.
After twenty-two years away from the business, it sometimes felt like stirring the dead. But deep down I am feeling more than just a reawakening. It's more like - how can I describe it - waking the giant. & right now, I don't know how tall that giant stands, for he hasn't yet, as far as I can tell made it to his feet. But he is gaining awareness of what is possible.
It's hard to express the astonishment I feel, mixed with a myriad of other feelings, about the work that has emerged. Part of this is due to the assortment of different roles that I've undertaken. It has been a revelation to me that Jeanie has remarked on my "incredible range" as an actor & even more so that I have been able to embrace this as something that might actually be true.
Perhaps this range has emerged primarily because Jeanie has thrown such scary, diverse & difficult pieces at me. In this class - or as Jeanie likes to say, "in The Workroom" - I have been able to explore roles I would never have dreamed of attempting in the past. Some, because they were not to my taste; most because I felt they were best left alone for only the greats to master. Mere mortals such as I were meant to shy away from such undertakings! But Jeanie would not have that! Not only did she expect me to come in fully prepared to jump into these pieces, but she also insisted that my own unique, genuine self come forth in every piece, with no room for hesitation. & good golly, Miss Molly, I can do it! Who knew!
What I am discovering is a new talent. On reflection I realize that in times past I could not have done such work: we worked then to eat. I was never trained. Most of the time, the work I did was dictated by the need to attract & please an audience. This luxury of training, of exploring, of honing - the pressure of living up to, or bettering your last performance - is revealing to me. I'm learning more than I ever previously understood about my abilities & about myself as an actor.
This has been a reawakening & a rediscovering of what had lain dormant for all these years & it's also been a fundamental shift. I am not so much unearthing a talent that once was; instead, I am finding a new talent that surpasses the old. Fed by greater knowledge & understanding of the human condition. Yes, because I am a man with almost a quarter of a century more experience; but also because of the compassionate nature & drive of this particular class environment that makes us all want to be fully prepared every week.am deeply grateful for this experience & pray that it continues to deepen in the coming months. I can feel it building & am curious where it will lead. & where, in the real world of acting, these new insights & skills will land.
Ratziel Bander was referred to my class by a friend & terrific actress, but because he had not worked as an actor for quite a few years, I had no idea what to expect. After a few weeks of carefully feeling his way, he leaped headlong into everything & anything I threw at him. In the last four months everyone in class witnessed a truly great actor lay claim to his talent. Though circumstances forced him to shelve his career, once he got started again, all his instincts came blazing back. To help him re-find his trust in himself & his work has been a privilege.
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