Archive for Interview

Studio Spotlight: TJ Mannix

photoTJ Mannix is an actor and improviser living in New York City. His credits include “Law and Order”, “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular”, and appearances on stage as a member of the The Second City Company.  He is currently teaching his 29th round of Commercial Audition classes at the Magnet Theater. His website can be found at www.tjmannix.com.

On first meeting Cay

I remember I was at the movies, and I saw Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America, Wit) standing there, looking like she was waiting for someone. So I walked up to her nervously and I quickly said to her “I don’t want to bother you, but I think your work is raw, honest, and vulnerable, and I thank you so much for that. That’s the kind of actor I want to be.” And I started walking away. And she said “Wait a minute! Come back here!” And so we got to talking and gave me Cay’s number and said “This is my acting teacher.” It was written in half red and half black because the pen ran out of ink half way through. I still have it to this day!

I’ll never forget, my first class with Cay a girl got up and started a monologue. Usually you have a few scenes first, but for whatever reason there was a monologue at the beginning. She had tears pouring down her face, falling on the table, sobbing her way through the whole thing, and afterwards Cay said to her “Alright, how do you feel?” The girl said “Okay. I think I did good. I really felt it.” And Cay took a moment and then said to her “Okay. I think the tears are a crutch for you.” And I thought, I love this woman.

Finding the path to acting

I was always a musical theatre guy. My parents wouldn’t pay for a theatre degree, so I got my degree in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Miami – and managed a double major in theatre. From there I had an internship that led to a job, working as a writer and producer, and shadowing other reporters for a news network. But in broadcast journalism what nobody tells you is you don’t get a vacation for the first five years you’re working, you’re always so busy moving from television market to market. So I took a year off to travel the world. While I was gone there was a flood at my parents place, and all of my reporting tapes and my work from the past few years was destroyed. So I ended up teaching with an international school in fifteen different countries for three and a half years. I managed a group of teachers in voice, dance, and instrumental techniques.

When I got back I started working in North Carolina on the corporate route, working for Viacom, Blockbuster. I was training managers. And then I stopped and I looked at my life and I was like “This is not what I want to be doing.” So I moved to New York to act, but had no idea what I was doing.  I ended up taking a “golden handcuffs” job – good money but no time to audition.  I justified it by having Tuesday and Thursday nights off for class. And I kept adding tools to the belt. In those days I kept thinking I need to pause, figure out the tool I need here for this scene or this character. Then one day I realized I don’t need to stop, the right tools will arise when I need them. It’s like in a scene, you have this moment, this pinch from your scene partner or whatever it is, and you don’t need to analyze it. It’s like your preparation, you can just toss it into the well and trust it will be there for later. (Laughs) I literally picture this old, stone, moss-covered well in the back of my mind that I keep tossing these things into.

Getting derailed and things that scare the shit out of you

I was making ridiculous money, I got the salesman of the year award, but it got to the point where I thought, I don’t want to be good at this, I need to be auditioning. I had a nest egg saved up, my plan was sound…then my timeline got interrupted by 9/11.  I ended up being one of the first responders down there and opening up a shelter. I had taken a red cross class when I was younger, and when they asked for volunteers I told them “It’s been a long time, I don’t remember the paperwork, I probably don’t remember most of the vocabulary, but I’m here” and they said, “Alright, get on the bus.” All of the corporate jobs went out the window. I spent six months at ground zero, and all of us, the first responders, we saw terrible things down there. I ended up opening up a shelter, doing damage assessment on the Pile, and overseeing emergency service centers around the city. I spent Four more years out of the job [acting] and out of it. Most of us are still facing major health problems, and getting our lives back has been a gradual process.

When all of that was over I couldn’t go back to the corporate world. I wound up going back to class again. And Cay pushed me. There were things I was terrified to work on. She really pushed me. I remember working on GR Point (David Berry) which is a play about this M.A.S.H. unit in Vietnam. I realized then that if you want to act you have to use everything in your disposal, including the stuff that scares the shit out of you!

On work now

Acting brought me back. I was doing volunteer work, weekly improv, and through that I started acting again. I started slow with commercials. You could do a one day job and nobody depended on you. Then I got back into auditioning and doing what I wanted to be doing and not letting life get in the way. Because working in the corporate world was no long an option, and acting was this thing I was doing to get out of the house…I started booking. When The Second City Came to town hundreds of people applied for an audition. 100 got auditions, and 13 of us got to call backs. I was like “What the hell is going on here?” They hired six of us. I’ve now done three tours with second city, I’ve worked on over 85 commercials and Voice Over projects, and this week I started I started teaching my 29th round of commercial auditioning classes. That thing I started doing to get my life back, that became my life.

I never thought I was particularly funny. I was a musical theatre guy. But I think…honesty sums it up. The key component of sketch is truth, to come at it from a place truth, and having that perspective from acting is great. The ability to leave myself alone, to silence the head, working in comedy is getting that focus and serenity. And I apply that to everything I do.

photo(2)

On teaching

I’ve been teaching at the New York Film Academy as well as my commercial audition class. What Cay always did well, and what I try to do is to meet the students where they are. It’s a level respect for the actor, for the fact that they showed up that day. If they are unprepared you find out what was their focus, what were they trying to do? There are a lot of teachers who will just take your money, never push you to improve. Cay knows where she wants you to go and what you need to learn, way before you even know, before you even have an idea of what you’re working toward. I had to develop my own vocabulary to help solve the students problem, to communicate with them and be able to meet them on their level.

 

Studio Spotlight: Mark Alan Gordon

_MAG 1BMark Alan is an actor, director, and mentor. As an actor, he has worked at such regional theatres as La Jolla Playhouse, Long Wharf Theatre, Syracuse Stage, The Kitchen Theatre, the Round House Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre of DC, and Arlington’s Signature Theatre. While living in NYC, his TV credits include the ubiquitous “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” From 2004 until 2011 he was the Associate Director of the MFA Program in Acting at Case Western Reserve University. From 1986 until 1988 he was the Associate Artistic Director of the Champlain Shakespeare Festival housed at the University of Vermont. He has also taught for the University of Vermont, NYU/Playwright’s Horizon Studio, and The Lab at the Hangar Theatre.  Mark Alan is a founding member of the Signature Theatre Company in New York.

On the lessons learned from teaching…

When I was in undergrad I took my degree under the school of education. I realized I kind of liked teaching a lot. A lot. And I was just teaching English classes. Then I did my MFA at Ohio University in Athens. No distractions. One of the great things about Athens was that there was nothing around you so you were there to study, and I really loved that. At OU, one of the components was if you opted to teach for the undergrad then you could make money. And I found the more I taught, the better my work became.

You’re looking at an actor, and you’re looking at a student with your faults and you’re able to know exactly what to do to help them. You’re watching them and thinking, “I know EXACTLY what you’re going through, I’ve been there.” And then, when I faced the same demons I would say, “Apply what you told that student to do,” and voila! Demons gone.

It was incredible. It was profound. And then someone gave me the first opportunity to direct a play, and that was…holding a whole show in your hand, and knowing how to create that based on being on stage and how it feels not getting help from a director, that was just such a huge discovery for me.

What play?

It was A Doll House. It’s actually a really funny story, I had spent time in Vermont in the 80’s because one of my internships led to working for the Champlain Shakespeare Festival, which at the time was a big thing. And I had never even thought about Vermont, I didn’t know what it was, I had to look it up on a map. And I arrived at night, and the next morning I wake up and I am surrounded by a sea of mountains and a lake…and I had no idea, no idea where I was. So the first thing I directed was up here, it was A Doll House. I got into an argument with an academic and he asked “Why do you call it a Doll House?”, and I said “It’s not Nora’s house, it’s Torvold’s house.” And it turns out this guy was one of the foremost Ibsen scholars…it kills me now that I was this cocky 26 year old who was arguing with an academic who’s book I read and was referencing!

Vermont is beautiful, it’s not just a place it’s a way of life. People are so amazingly civil and present when you talk to them. You don’t have compulsory conversations up here. I actually just got back from the gym and there was this person next to me, and we started a conversation about life, love, the pursuit of happiness. And that always happens, people connect with you.

On studying with Cay…

I was trying to think when I did start studying with her. I can’t remember what year it was, I moved to New York in 1988 and I was with her by about 1990. A friend of mine was studying with her. I started studying with her and it just blew me away.  It was a great mystery to me that I was getting work and booking jobs, but there was still this kind of feeling of randomness about it. I had gone to college and had got a scholarship to do an MFA, and I felt like I was trained really well but what happened was…I knew what I needed to, but I didn’t feel like I was really in charge. It felt very feigned, nothing really extraordinary. Part of what we do as artists is a continual self-evaluation. You spend quite a great deal of time thinking about yourself, and I wasn’t necessarily happy with my work. Within the first seven minutes of talking with her I was astonished at how well she knew me, and knew my work and what I needed to focus on.

I love that every time a former student of mine says they need to find someone to study with in Manhattan then I put them in touch with Cay. There was even a period where Cay asked me to teach at the studio, and it was great, I wasn’t terribly successful because I was much more (laughs)….there needs to be an “AH-HA!” moment in every class, there needs to be a moment in every class. These are adults and professionals and if you leave them feeling vague at the end of a class, if a student is feeling vague and if something is not clearer at the end of a class than it was at the beginning, then you just confuse people. But if you somehow can wrap up a loose end by the end of a class then the next class is even more exciting. She believes people need to get there today, they need to get there this class, not next week or next month. Today.  There is not a class that you take with Caymichael that you leave feeling wanting.

On the founding of the Signature Theatre…

I was there from day one. I was approached by Jim Houghton and  he had just done a Romulus Linney play. He had fallen in love with him as a playwright and wanted to know why, other than Holy Ghost, nothing of his was ever produced in NY. And when he came back to New York he came to me and we were talking about which one of his plays we want to produce. By about the third meeting Signature was formed with the idea that we would produce plays by American playwrights and we would do whole seasons with one playwright, and Romulus was the first playwright. And that was the birth of the Signature. And almost immediately there were a lot of people producing Romulus, there were a bunch of people and a bunch of theaters that were saying “Why isn’t his work being produced?” And then we had the notion that gosh, it’s a shame we are only doing this for a couple of plays, maybe this thing wants to be something more. It took off.  The Signature was one of the greatest periods of my life. I just found out they are getting the Regional Theater award for the Tony’s.

I actually sent an email to Jim yesterday. I remember this distinct moment when he was trying to get work as a commercial actor and there was the decision that he would be the artistic director. And basically Jim quit his job as a waiter and he committed himself full-time to this project. With a wife, and a life, he basically took that leap, and everything that he has gotten he deserves.

On time spent as Artistic Director for the Champlain Shakespeare Festival….

The reason I became Artistic Director was that the University of Vermont was funding the festival, and this was the professional arm and I was going to teach some intern classes. The first thing that happened was the Artistic Director and the associate Artistic Director were fired. I was asked if I would you mind taking over the program? And I said, “no problem”, and then they said could you teach up here? And I was young, I felt like there was so much more I had to learn. The minute I left though, I thought, “Jesus God, that was beautiful”. And then when I turned 50 I realized living in Cleveland wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I went back.

On the importance of choosing your work…

I remember in Cleveland having this meeting with the Artistic Director of the Playhouse, and he was screaming at me across the table, and what he said was “I have never known anyone who bought his ticket to a piece of theater for some sort of emotional connection to the piece.” I knew I had to get out of there. I thought in that moment “I have never known anyone who hasn’t bought a ticket for that reason!” I’ve never laid down money for a ticket because I didn’t have some sort of emotional connection to the piece.

Since then it’s been interesting getting work and deciding what work I want to do with my craft. It was that watershed moment of what is my emotional connection, what does this theatre believe in, what does the Artistic Director believe in? When I get an audition I look at it as I am interviewing that director, I am interviewing those people in the room.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it really does matter to me that I keep working. I’ve got students that I taught in Cleveland that have much better careers than I do. And that makes me even happier, and once I learned that, that everyone’s path is different, it became less of an ethereal idea and more of a tactile thing I could hold. I think the decisions we make in our own career are the most valuable things we can do. It’s such a long life, and I think it’s so important to make decisions early and to hold yourself to those decisions.

Studio Spotlight: Alanna Thompson

 

Alanna Thompson has been working professionally as an actor and writer for over ten years. Her television credits include J.J. Abrams’ Six DegreesLaw and Order: Criminal Intent, and Rescue Me. A link to her IMDB can be found here.

Alanna_T._102

I read on your IMDB profile that you have a black belt in kickboxing? 

It’s interesting you asked about that!  When I moved to New York I was doing kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. You wear a Gi, which is the uniform, and I would sometimes get marks on my neck called Gi burn.  I had a pilot audition at ABC and apparently the marks on my neck looked like hickies.  My agent at the time told me to stop fighting immediately — so I hadn’t trained in a few years.  Now, ironically, my current agent is really into jiu-jitsu so I’ve just started back again.  And of course I should be doing it!  You should keep doing anything that is a massive part of who you are.

So you started in New York but you are living in Los Angeles. What’s that like?

I feel like I’m living two lives.  On one side I’m auditioning for pilots and film, on the other side I’m developing material.  I’m always developing new material for myself. The managers and agent I’m with (3 Arts/Resolution) are wonderful and really help me gel between the two worlds.  To have meetings as an actor and writer valued in both positions is extremely exciting.  I think anyone who has the inclination to write should pursue it aggressively. Writing your own material is not only fun, it changes your career.  It’s an empowering place to be.  Your team can develop with you in different ways and you’re in the driver’s seat instead of waiting to be hired.  It cracks open the cookie jar.

How did you become an actor?

I moved to New York from Michigan where I went to college (University of Michigan). But I actually started before that.  Growing up I was always interested in acting and did plays, community theater, high school productions — but I didn’t think of it as a profession. Where I grew up it wasn’t exactly a popular career choice.  I didn’t study theater in college, but I was doing acting work on the side to pay for it. Promotional work, commercial work, just local things. I had an agent in Detroit, who I’m still close to, and when I booked a feature film and got my SAG card, I started to see it as a career.  I had to take two weeks off of school to shoot the movie… I told my professors I had a death in the family!

So you started doing one thing but acting professionally on the side? You never hear that! What were you majoring at the time?

I was majoring in communications, which is funny, because I actually don’t know what a major in communications is used for.  I’d been spending summers in New York taking acting classes, secretly dipping my toes into that water.  After college, when I moved to New York for law school, I decided that if I didn’t take a chance and try acting professionally I was going to regret it.

How did you end up studying with Cay?

I took a few incredibly bad acting classes, which I didn’t realize were bad at the time. I didn’t realize how disconnected the work was. I had just found my first agent and manager and was suddenly going out on all of these major auditions, but found myself really nervous. I didn’t know what was wrong.  I asked a talented working actor friend, TJ Mannix, for advice. He’s such an incredible actor.  TJ said, “Go meet this woman.”

Cay did two things with me. The first was really deep, connected scene study work and the second was private coaching for auditions. I sincerely regret that I never took her audition class because I’ve heard incredible things about it.  But I took private sessions with Cay to do audition work and she was so terrifically helpful.  She built an arsenal of things to do starting the moment I got the audition material to ground myself.  She completely changed the way I audition. I felt more confident immediately.  There’s just something vulnerable about auditioning, putting yourself out there. The casting process can be so bizarre.

What was your first professional theatre production in New York?

I did a play called Madagascar. It was a great learning experience. It was a really heavy piece and I played the comic relief.  It was a wonderful experience because I realized how much I loved working on stage – and how much I had to learn. The lead actress was so emotionally vulnerable every night, so consistently good. It was a shift because I realized how much more I had to learn. To not only access emotion and bring that performance, but to do it consistently. It made me respect theater even more than I already did.  Cay was always talking about working in a deeper, more specific way, and this actress was doing that.  And that was something I really wanted to do!  It was a total shift for m

Do you think theatre is important?

There’s nothing on earth that can do what live theater does.  An audience and performers having a shared experience in real time. As a performer it’s addictive, it’s exciting and challenging. I think a lot of great work is being done in theater, incredible actors are cutting their teeth there. It’s fantastic training. You get these actors and writers who are just powerhouses!  There’s a reason why so many hot cable shows are using talented playwrights. To me, out of all of the different mediums, it’s the one that deserves the most respect.

What is your acting process? What do you do when you book the job?

I read the script, obviously — and then I have a check list from Cay that I work through.  I do script work, breaking down the material, but then I also do the emotional work.  I pay attention to what I immediately connect to.  What’s interesting to me?  What hooks me into the material?

The most important thing is, and I always remind myself, is this thing Cay talks about:  The creative process isn’t linear — you don’t walk, then crawl, then dance. It’s more organic and it has to unfold from that organic place. It doesn’t always look the same, the process is constantly growing and changing. Cay has the most amazing stories, and there is one specific story I always think about when I’m working on a role or writing — but you’ve probably heard her say it already.

Maybe not, what’s the story?

She had a friend, a great choreographer who married a famous dancer — and they had a kid. At a certain point, the toddler wasn’t walking yet and they became concerned because they were both such physical people.  They took the kid to the doctor, who looked at this toddler and said, “See those white things inside his mouth?  Those are teeth.  Every bit of calcium in his body is being recruited to cut teeth.  It doesn’t matter what you two expect — some kids walk first, some cut teeth. Leave the kid alone.” You can’t control the creative process.  Trust your intuition, follow your nose.  That’s really magical advice for writing and acting.  I think about that kid all the time!

It’s the same for writing. You get so many notes from your agent, your manager, people around you.  If you don’t trust that little tuning fork inside you, you’re in trouble.  Trusting your gut is hugely important to me right now.  And I learned that from Cay.

Studio Spotlight: Judy McLane

Judy McLane is a Broadway actress currently starring in the long running show Mama Mia! As an actress and singer she has worked across all mediums including television, film, and concerts performed around the world. Other Broadway credits include Kiss of the Spider WomanAspects of Love, and Chess. Her national and international tours include, the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat co-starring with Donny Osmond, Mrs. Baskin in Big, and Side By Side By Sondheim, directed by Rob Marshall.

A full listing of Judy’s  impressive body of work can be found here

Judyheadshot1

So how long have you been doing Mama Mia?

Forever. Forever and a day. (Laughter) My story with Mama Mia is I   started doing one role, Tanya, for seven and a half years and I’ve now been playing the lead role Donna for the last two years. It’s amazing. They let me go when I need to. I do a lot of symphony work…it might be 40’s music, it might be Broadway, or Gershwin, Cole Porter…so many different things. I just did Atlanta Symphony on New Year’s even, they’re great! I’ve got the best of all worlds. I went to do Next to Normal in the North West which I coached with Cay. They are really cool about that.

How do you do a show for 9 years and still keep it fresh every time?

You know, it’s the question I get asked most often. And you know, I’ll be honest with you, going to Cay gave me such an  incredible foundation. I studied with her for many years, took movement classes there, and her class off and on. I’d go work on a project and come back. I coach with her pretty much on any new project I get, and she gives you such a foundation of preparation and a sense of place and a sense of how to go about a character and what to do. I still use that and maintain it. The difference being that I have to make it  fresh every night so sometimes I’ll change a preparation. I’m lucky that I have different people coming to the show every night in different roles so I get to play opposite different people when they change the cast. In a long run you have understudies, so that helps to keep it fresh, but I really still use “peeling that onion” as Cay says, going down and digging deep, and it has really been a lovely playground. Even though I have to get out there and maintain the event of the play and the event of the scene, they are pretty good at letting me try things and letting me play as long as I stay true to what we are doing. So I play. I remember a class I had years ago where she said touch something, go around and touch things, and I use that a lot. I use my physical body in that way quite a bit and that’s been really effective for me.

So often it seems like that’s what it is, finding specifically what works for you…

Exactly.

Mamma Mia NYI came from a singing place,  from a music place first. I actually got my degree as an Opera Singer at Ithaca College. I knew I wanted to do it, I came to New York and had to learn a whole new technique, and basically started studying with Cay. I got my foundation from her. I worked off and on with her for years.

Any survival job before you started working?

Not just one survival job, I did them all! I answered phones, I did catering, I totally lied and said I had waited tables before when I had never waited in my life. I remember when I got my first broadway show I had just gotten night shifts, and as anyone who waits tables knows, that’s where the bucks are right? So I had just gotten my own night shift and I was like “Oh man, this is huge!” Then that same week I got my first broadway show any my boyfriend at the time said “Oh my god, let’s go celebrate” and I said “But I have to work tonight, I have my night shift!” And he goes “You’re quitting!” The funny thing is, I swapped out my night shift for a year trying to hold onto it! I swapped it out and I literally kept it for a year!

What was your first professional role?

I did so much non equity work before I became equity, I did so many great roles. But the first thing I did where I started to work equity was Chess on broadway. I understudied the lead, and I did that role many times around the country in regional theatres.  And you get the role, you get to know it. Now I get frustrated when you don’t get the time to find a character and really express it. Like at the end of a six week run sometimes you think “I’m just now understanding what this character is.” I worked a lot at Papermill playhouse which really was like a playground for me, and they would let me do role after role and primarily musicals. The beauty of working with Cay is she often said Musical Theatre is like Shakespeare. When you go into a song it’s just heightened, it’s a heightened emotional moment. As long as it’s truthful and real then you’re doing okay.

What important lessons have you learned from studying with Cay?

Well I used to be in class thinking “I’m a singer, I come to the singing first.” And she really helped me to have more of a respect for what I did and have me realize okay, this is worth while. It’s not just about Musical Theatre equals bad acting. I bring the same process from class, whether it was Chekhov or Pinter, I bring the same process to what I do.

What is that process? When you get a character, what’s the first step, what’s the second, what guides you there?

Read the script, obviously. Hopefully with someone. Then see the similarities between me and my character are, and what’s the basis of where I come from and what I have to offer originally. And from that I branch out and make the other characters specific, who they are to me and what they mean to me personally. And then eventually break it down to each scene, see where and what the event of each scene is. And then what the physical life of the character is. I usually start incorporating that as soon as I can, as soon as I see where the character lives in me and what that is. I play two very different roles in Mama Mia, one a very upscale  socialite, and the other earthy, in the ground, centered in the core. I try to get that in as soon as possible because for some reason the physical helps me more than anything.

Why do you think theatre is important?

It’s important now more than ever, with social media and with technology. To go to a theatre and experience something as an audience member, to see it happen right live on stage, and to empathize and sympathize with a character, I think that is what connects us all human beings. I think we have those experiences in a dark theatre. It’s us and what they call the big black giant, the audience sitting there. As a collective we’re experiencing something, and I think that’s really important. It’s like they say, where two or more are gathered, not in a religious way, but I think it’s so powerful. You’re in a chair experiencing next to someone who’s having a total experience from you.

As for being a performer, I think to have the privilege to get in front of an audience every night and to have them experience something with me and share that is like nothing I’ve encountered before. I count myself so lucky and privileged to be able to do it. To give someone joy, or grief, or sadness…we want to feel. I once had an 80 year old woman come up to me after a show and say to me “I haven’t had this much fun in 40 years.” And I got choked up. What is life but our experiences? And having those with people. And if you can have that in a theatre, and choose what you see, I think that is just a gift. It’s a gift. I count myself so lucky to be an actor.

 

Studio Spotlight: Laura Chaneski

This interview is the first in the student blog’s new “Studio Spotlight” series. Each month one actor studying at the studio will have their brain picked on all subjects related to their experience as an actor and student in the professional world. Read More→