Studio Spotlight: Melissa Smith and the Art of Personalization Workshop

Melissa photoMelissa Smith is the conservatory director and head of acting at A.C.T. in San Francisco. Prior the A.C.T. she served as director of the program in theater and dance at Princeton University where she taught introductory, intermediate, and advanced acting. She has taught acting, improvisation, and scene study to students of all ages in various colleges, high schools, and studios. As a professional actor, she has performed at regional and off-Broadway theaters, including Soho Rep, Primary Stages, the Hangar Theatre, A.C.T., California Shakespeare Theater, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 

On how the workshop was formed

At ACT I found I was becoming particularly interested in the process of personalization. I work on Chekhov with my first year students, because his plays require detailed personalization and because the material is so rich.  In thinner material the writing may not have as much subtext, and an actor may have to invent it, but it’s all about the subtext with Chekhov. And when I say rich I mean sometimes what is driving the character isn’t directly mentioned in the words at all.  But it is implied, and the actor has to ferret out the clues. So you make one connection and it leads to another connection, and another, and so on. Once actors learn to read between the lines, and to personalize what is implied but not spelled out, they are better able to do more detailed work on any script, whatever the caliber of the writing. 

Talking to Cay, I brought up personalization and found out she was interested in exploring new techniques, too. Over time the workshops Cay and I have had at the studio have become more and more a collaboration between us so when she said she was interested in the same topic – and knowing her love of and knowledge of Chekov – I thought this was the topic for us this year.

Discovering the Caymichael Patten Studio

I studied with Cay almost twenty years ago, and after that I taught for a brief time at the old studio. I had graduated from Yale’s MFA program, I was teaching at Princeton, and I was doing shows off Broadway at some downtown theatres, but I was taught script analysis. I was not taught how to bring your self truthfully to the work, and I wanted to be able to incorporate that into my acting and into my teaching. So I asked around about teachers who were working in that way and Cay’s name was the one that kept coming up.

On the importance of Chekhov

Chekhov was such an incredible observer of people, and he wrote in such a way that…things change right in front of you on stage. Characters make major decisions. Your partner says something and it impacts you. I like to think about it in terms of subterranean bombs going off inside the character. You have to take into account who just walked into the room, who walked out, what did that mean? What did it do to you? There are these lines that seem like throwaways that, when you really dig in and connect in a personal way, could have a massive impact on your character many scenes later.

For example, in class yesterday (the third session) one of the actresses playing Arkadina was focused on working her scene with Trigorin. But then, while watching one of the other scenes between Arkadina and her son Treplyov, she realized that they had just had a massive fight.. And that helped her connect to how badly Arkadina actually needs Trigorin, how important he is to her. She found that importance in a totally different scene.

Portraying life as it is

One truth leads to another truth. Chekhov wrote at some point “I want to portray life as it is.” Life is messy! People are in one moment heroic and the next weak, generous and then selfish. One truth leads to another truth, and Chekhov demands more than one truth, otherwise it comes off flat.When I think of Chekhov, I think of going to the museum and looking at a Vermeer. I look at the paintings and I think, how can that be so alive and so present? The depth of Chekhov’s understanding of the human condition allows actors who approach his characters to spring to life if they bring themselves to it truthfully and specifically. And that is what inspires me about this work, and keeps me coming back to it year after year.