Here is my conversation with actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.
I was so excited to talk to Corey about teaching and coaching performers, because that’s a rare treat for me as a coach, and he didn’t disappoint. I think actors and musicians alike will find plenty of food for thought in this conversation.
Corey has trained with some of the great Master teachers of the last century, including Uta Hagen, Ivana Chubbuck, Herbert Berghof, Susan Batson, Mira Rostova and Sandra Seacat. He is an accredited instructor for Ivana Chubbuck in the Chubbuck Technique. He has also taught at mentor Susan Batson’s Black Nexxus studios in New York and Los Angeles, at Lesly Kahn’s institute in Los Angeles, at HB Studio in New York and at John Ruskin’s Studio in Los Angeles.
As an actor, Corey is a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, a graduate of the famed High School of Performing Arts, and a lifetime member of the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York and L.A. He worked with Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and has worked with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company in their production of Orphans. He has starred in many theater productions in New York and L.A. On television, Corey has had leading roles in productions on ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, PBS, FOX, UPN and USA. On film, he has appeared in lead or guest star roles for Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, Viacom, Paramount, Lorimar, and many independent films. His indies have been shown at the Berlin Film Festival, the London Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the Seattle Film Festival, SlamDance, the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and WorldFest.
Corey has worked directors Mike Nichols, Gary Sinise, John Schlesinger, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Roland Joffe, JJ Abrams, Michael Lindsay Hogg, and James Burrows. He has worked with playwrights Neil Simon, Horton Foote, Vincent Canby, Albert Innaurato, Richard Greenburg, Lanford Wilson, and Charles Gordone. Actors he has worked with include Sophia Loren, John Malkovich, Mickey Rourke, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Walken, Sandy Dennis, Ken McMillan, Bruce Dern, Anthony Perkins, Sherilyn Fenn, James Spader, Debra Messing, Mathew Broderick, and many others.
Corey’s very active blog, The Actors Work, is a truly amazing resource for actors, teachers, and performers of all stripes.
I was looking at your headshots from when you were a kid, and I’m curious to know what you see when you look at those pictures.
When I see my earliest headshot, which is from 1970, I just see a really open kid. I enjoyed being a part of it. My mother [actor Rocky Parker] had started taking me and my brother around to auditions and stuff, and my father had died, and my brother and I were just sort of learning slowly how to audition. And at that age, you listen to the grownups, and so that’s what I see whenever I look at my headshots as a kid – a kid who’s probably listening and trying to do what he is supposed to do. I’ve never really loved doing headshots, but I love that little kid. I think he did great. I’m proud of him.
I get what you’re saying about openness. There’s really an open quality to your face in those pictures that’s so unspoiled. So many child actors just look terrible.
They look like they been through the mill from being trained to be reactive in a certain way that’s phony, or on cue, and I don’t get that from your pictures at all. But it’s interesting what you say about listening. Because that so fundamental to acting and to coaching, isn’t it?
When did you feel like you were ready to coach, and what did that feel like?
Well, I didn’t feel ready to coach for a long time, and what I would do was if I had a friend who wanted me to coach them – you know, actors do that with each other, it’s not such a big deal – I would coach actors that I knew, and that was always fun. I had fun doing that. But as far as actually starting to teach, I had friends who would suggest that I start doing it, but I really didn’t feel comfortable playing that role.
It was my teacher, Susan Batson, who at one point around late 1999, when I was in New York, asked me if I wanted to teach, and I said I really didn’t think so. I just didn’t think that was what I wanted to do. I love acting and I love studying, still.
And so she had me come down to one of her advanced classes, and when I got there she announced that she was leaving. She was going to Paris to work with Juliette Binoche. [laughs] So all of the actors in the class were completely shocked. And she left me in the hands of this great actor, Greg Braun, who is also a teacher.
So he was sort of my resource, just as far as what was going on in the class. But it was totally the immersion technique – she just threw me in. And that’s when I started teaching, and I started really loving it.
I had already been acting for most of my life, and I’d been in L.A. for a lot of years, and New York. What I found when I started teaching, immediately, was that I was teaching actors with a lot of the care that I wished some of my teachers had had with me when I was young. So, preparing them for the business, but at the same time really meeting them where they were at, instead of sort of forcing people to be further along. I didn’t want to leave stuff out. I’ve always felt like when I teach someone, I want it to be that when they go out into the business and they suddenly deal with a situation that’s kind of squirrely, whether it’s in an audition or with a casting director or with a director, that they’re, like, “Oh, this is what Corey was talking about.” Because I’ve lived through a lot of those moments.
So I just found that I was really protective over the people that I taught. It’s not coddling them – I want them to know reality – but I’m just protective over them. People come with a lot of baggage. People have been through a lot of things, whether it’s their personal life, or other teachers that they’ve had, or experiences they’ve had in the business. So that’s where I get really protective. It’s like, “Ok, we’ve got to find a way to acknowledge that stuff – and to find a way to work with it – that’s healthy, that’s not harming ourselves.” Once I got started, I realized that my teacher was right and that my friends were right, and that there’s value for me in doing this thing. I love doing it.
What do you think your teacher and your friends saw in you that made them think you’d be a good teacher?
I really believe that it’s the experience that I’ve had. We started off with you asking me about that early picture, and I really did start as a small child. My mother had three kids, and she was trying to do the best that she could. But I spent a lot of time going to auditions in New York. And, also, we moved upstate to Woodstock for nine years, and she used to put me on the Trailways bus when I was a kid and I’d take that down to the city alone.
And my grandparents would meet me there at Port Authority Terminal, and this was in the ‘70s so it was kind of intense. And then they would take me to auditions, and we’d get some food, and they’d put me back on the bus and I’d go back up. So the experience of being a kid and growing up in the business, moving back to New York when I was 13, and going to the High School of Performing Arts – there’s a lot of experience there.
And I think that’s what my teacher was referring to, and my friends. It’s like, you know, “Put that to use.” I’m sure you know that, too. There are experiences that you’ve had sometimes as a performer that may have been unpleasant. But when you start teaching, you realize that there’s actually great value to that experience and that it can be used to build something. And that’s what I love.
And I wonder if there was also something that they saw in the way that you were able to communicate with people, and the trust that you could form with people?
Yeah, you can’t do it without trust. I’ve studied with a lot of great teachers, and I’ve always audited classes, and I love watching people teach. Even when I don’t think they’re good, I learn from the experience of what they’re providing in their class, and what they’re not providing. And safety – feeling safe – you can’t do anything without it. Because people are going to have to feel. They’re going to have to open up. They’re going to have to reveal themselves.
And if you can develop a sense of safety, you got the perfect environment to train. You’re not going to have that safety on the set, unless you’ve got a really top director who creates that on purpose. But in the training process, it’s crucial that you have that safety – that even when you’re afraid, you can reveal that. You reveal what comes up, and you throw that ingredient into the work that you’re doing. So, yeah, feeling safe is definitely crucial.
I think it’s an interesting balance, certainly, when you’re doing one-on-one coaching and you develop a trust relationship, and the person you’re working with gets a sense of, “Ok, I can try stuff and fail and still feel good.”
But it can be really challenging, in a class situation, to try to set up the right dynamic with people who are observing. How do you deal with that?
I don’t let people audit. Everyone’s got to work. A person could come in, never having worked at all before, and I can give them a piece of material or an exercise, and that’s working. Everyone’s got to get up. It’s a different thing to sit and be “in your head” – I’m not really interested in that. We all have times that we spend doing that, but that can’t be the totality of the experience. You won’t get anything out of it. You won’t grow – you’ll stay at arm’s length.
So I don’t allow people to observe. If they want to come see, then they’ve got to come and do it. And it’s not in any kind of punitive way or anything – it’s just, take part. Join in. Because that’s when you can be changed. That’s when you can experience something. You can’t experience the same kind of thing sitting and watching.
But then, also, it depends on what each person’s bringing. When I teach in New York or L.A., it’s a very different experience from when I teach down here in Memphis. What I’ve learned from teaching in Memphis, which I just was never really around but it’s fairly obvious to everyone else, is that there are a lot of people who come in from a background where they’ve received no support, creatively, from their family. No support. Like women who come to me whose husbands don’t want them to do it, or their husbands threaten them not to do it. And we’re just talking about acting – we’re just talking about working on a character or a monologue or a scene. So the drive has to be pretty strong to be willing to overcome that stuff, and I think most actors have that drive.
But everyone’s coming from a different background. The background that I came from, everyone around me was an actor, and we grew up around writers, artists, musicians – there were always creative people around. My mother was doing plays. We lived in Woodstock, we lived in Hell’s Kitchen. That’s the world that I come from.
So it’s really true what you say. When I’m coaching people, if they really want to grow and learn, they’ve just got to show up and bring that willingness and some kind of commitment. And whatever else is going on in their lives – it doesn’t matter what it is – they’re going to grow, they’re going to experience that connection to the work, and that’s the whole point to me.
I think creativity is available in all directions. You can creatively solve most problems. I like to read actors’ and directors’ and writers’ autobiographies, because you hear about creative problem-solving.
Yeah, me too.
I think that people who come to act and want to just do it, even if it’s as a hobby, or if they want to do it as a living – to engage in creative problem-solving and to train that way is going to benefit you, I believe, in all areas of your life potentially. And that’s what I tell the parents of the teenagers down here who come to me. Their parents don’t really want them to do it, and I’m, like, “You don’t understand! [laughs] Creatively, their brain function is going to increase. You’re creating new neural pathways!”
Creatively, you’re doing something that’s very powerful, and the evidence always proves itself.
Does the problem-solving that you do coaching and teaching help you as an actor as well?
It doesn’t do it the way that I wish it would! The way I wish it would is that I could stand there and actually coach myself, which I can’t do. [laughs] I feel like I’d be the most understanding coach for me, but I can’t do that. [laughs] So I have friends that I work with, if I’m working on something. When I’m learning material, I’ll usually run lines with my wife or my son. I just keep people close to me that are caring and creative, and I go through the process.
For me, the older I get, it’s more like giving birth. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes perseverance and determination, it takes receptivity – all of those things. But ultimately, by the time I get onstage or get in front of the camera, there’s been that creative journey. And it continues, usually, until after the job is done. It’s right after the job is finished that you realize, “Oh my god, this is how I should’ve done it!” [laughs] But as long as there’s that pursuit of the creative. But yeah, it’s a little bit of a different compartment for me, teaching and acting.
One of my favorite things to ask people about is how they experience the zone. I know as a coach when I experience the zone, it feels so amazing to have inspiration just coming, coming, coming. How do you experience the zone? Have you identified any circumstances or factors that contribute to you reaching it more often?
I don’t know about other people, but for me, as far as getting into the zone, it only comes when I do a considerable amount of homework. I have to do a great deal of very disciplined, consistent work, and keep persevering, and keep refining, and keep trying and trying and trying. And as I do that, I start to find my way through a script, through a scene, through a moment, through the next moment. And as that work goes in, as long as I’m leading from my heart and not my head, there is a breakthrough moment. I guess it’s similar for runners, where you run for a while and then there’s that breakthrough, and whether it’s endorphins or whatever it is that’s released, suddenly there is a letting go.
And that’s where that beautiful creative moment happens, where you’ve done the earthbound work, and then suddenly you either consciously let go or something allows you to let go, and you enter in. And then you’re in the life, you’re in the moment to moment, you’re not analyzing, you’re not in left brain, your right brain is kicking in, there’s creativity, there’s playfulness, there’s possibility. And so for me, it only happens if I really do all the homework that I need to do – not just homework for my head but also for my body. I’ve got to get my body up. I’ve got to create the world of the character, create the space, create the life of the character.
So in exploration and in doing that work, by getting into my body, by using my mind, by hopefully praying to some degree, by just opening up in some way and staying open – that, for me, is the big requirement. And I can’t guarantee it’s going to happen. It won’t happen if I’m being lazy or procrastinating and just not doing the work.
That’s part of the frustration, I think, with teaching. You’re, like, “Oh, if this actor would just do their homework! If they’d do their homework, we could really fly in this class, we could really move to the next level for them.” You can see that they’re on their way there but they’re not doing the work. And, you know, I’ve got a [son] – you can’t make someone else to do work. [laughs] So I do get frustrated as a teacher sometimes, because I’m, like, if these people would just do the work that we talked about them doing last class, and if they’d do it the way that I work, because I work intensely, then we could get to breakthrough. But you don’t get to breakthrough unless you do that work.
And then you can’t rely on the trust that’s developed from the preparation.
I totally get it. Working with musicians and dealing with a lot of people who want a magic cure for stage fright, I have found that preparation is the best way to bypass it, because then you feel confident and you know what your game plan is.
Yeah, there’s the issue of willingness, to me. If someone’s dealing with the fear or someone’s dealing with whatever the obstacle is, if you bring the willingness and that determination, then we can definitely do something. But if you’re “kinda sorta”, if you’re not really convinced that you really have a problem to work on, or you’re not convinced that you really have to do that kind of work, then you’re in some kind of denial and I can’t help you. So that willingness is so crucial. That’s the most important thing to me.
When people come to me, I don’t look to see how talented they are – that’s not what I’m looking for. When I was a young actor, the teachers always said, “Well, you can’t make talent, and talent’s the most important thing.” And maybe that was true for them, but it’s just not true for me. Because I’ve had actors who showed up who were immensely talented, but they wouldn’t do the homework so they just didn’t grow. They’re just relying on what they have, and that’s it.
And I’ve also had people that arrived and I thought, “I don’t even see any talent. I mean, I just don’t see it.” But they’re willing, so I’ll work with them. And I’ll usually dump a lot of work on them to test them and see if they’re going to do the work. And the people who do that work, who consistently listen and do the work that’s given to them, they grow. And they can outshine the people with that talent who don’t do any of the homework. So that willingness is so crucial, and that’s really what I look for.
Do you find that you form a quasi-therapeutic relationship with people that you work with?
Yeah, there’s always that line. It depends. I try to take my cue off of the person. If they’re telling me that they’re having a serious problem in life, with a person, and they’re dumping that stuff on me, I have to consciously create a boundary for myself and say, “Here’s what I offer from my own experience. I’m not going to tell you what to do. But in terms of the work, if you’re sitting here and everything is a mess and it’s totally dysfunctional…” You know, I was taught when I was young, “The crazier, the better!” I was in New York, late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and it was just, really, “The crazier, the better. The more stuff you’ve got, great, just throw it into your work.” And I’m not saying that’s not maybe an ingredient, but I just don’t work that way. I just feel like if you’re in total dysfunction, then you can’t compete, there’s no professionalism. You have some stuff to attend to.
What I will try to do is to use the work to help them grow and see what’s possible. Something I like to do is to give them a character who is going through a similar thing that they’re going through, but it’s written by a brilliant writer. And just by working on the piece, they start to see, “Oh, there’s a way to do this. There’s a way to actually work through this stuff. I don’t have to get stuck in the problem. There are solutions. I don’t have to think I’m the only one. Here’s another person going through it and it’s possible.” There’s always that sense of possibility with a character, so I try to find ways to use the work.
But I’ve sent people to therapists, I’ve sent people to all kinds of people. If I feel like there’s someone that can help them, they can go talk to that person. But yeah, boundary is crucial, because without that it just becomes something else. You’re no longer doing the work, and I get kind of a funny feeling and I don’t like it.
I just want to help the person but utilize the work with them. And it’s worked a lot of times. I’ve had kids come to me, they were getting high, their parents were super-right Christian, they’re in trouble in school, but they’ve told their parents that if they are allowed to act, they will do better – and we start working. And over time, they just keep coming and keep coming, for some reason – they keep doing the work. One person’s now living in L.A., one person’s living in New York, they’ve each got their own acting teachers there – it was getting them out of this area, getting them to be exposed to art, to life, to new things, to creativity, to other creative people.
Because sometimes, down here [in Memphis], they’re coming from backgrounds where their creativity is isolated. There are no other creative people around them, and there’s sometimes a pejorative approach to creativity down here. So there is a way, I believe, to trust the writers and trust the work, and help someone move forward in their process. I know that there is.
And your Spidey-sense goes off when things are crossing into the wrong place, typically?
Yeah, there’s that line. If someone keeps bringing in massive amounts of drama each time, I’m going to say something. Because, look, I’ve had plenty of drama. But if you’re going to stay stuck in the drama, you know, there’s that saying, “Keep the drama on the stage.” I’m not looking for you to have all the drama every time we talk. I’m looking for you to definitely share what’s going on, but let’s see how we can give that to your work, because the work is going to take you much further than just staying stuck in your own stuff.
In terms of all that, I’m thinking about the different schools of thought that came down from [Konstantin] Stanislavski and how they branched out and went in different directions, between [Lee] Strasberg and [Stella] Adler and [Sanford] Meisner, and how to use a synthesis of that. Certainly, there are some parts of that which are all about stripping yourself bare of all your defenses and thinking about all the terrible things that have ever happened to you and how to “use” that. And then there’s the approach of using your imagination so you don’t have to flay yourself so much. Where do you fall in that debate between all those schools of thought?
When I was a kid in New York, those guys were all alive. My mother had studied with Meisner some, she had studied with Strasberg some, she didn’t study with Adler, but they were the three different schools, and everyone hated each other and it was very divided. So for me, I really felt like if there’s any truth in someone’s technique, then there’s going to be something in common. There’s going to be something universal.
And so I really have always looked for – through Strasberg and [Harold] Clurman and Bobby Lewis and Adler and Meisner and everybody – what is it? Where’s the universal stuff that can serve the actor? And the fact of the matter is, it’s my opinion that every actor is different. [laughs] Every actor needs a different thing. And so I don’t agree with the rigidity of the three teachers. I just feel like if you remove the boundaries, then you’re looking at a continuum of work, and that’s kind of how I see it. And you can pick what works for you, and that’s how I teach.
I think a lot of great teachers that I’ve worked with, that’s the thing – finding your own technique is ultimately the goal. My teachers were mostly Strasberg’s teachers, people that he had teaching for him. I started working with Sandra Seacat when I was 13, and she was one of his teachers, and then with Susan Batson when I was 14, and she was one of his teachers. So the whole thing for me about Strasberg is obviously very rich in what’s available there.
And I’ve read everything plenty of times, and I know other teachers of Strasberg’s, but for me there was a tendency toward the toxic in what I feel is the overuse of the affective memory, the emotional memory. Now, I’m not saying it’s valueless, but on my blog there’s a letter from a woman who’s a therapist, she was a student of Susan Batson and I had worked with her, and it’s just about, what is the effect on the psyche of the actor when you start doing that all the time?
It’s just that. It’s not judgment, I’m not judging it, it’s just, what is the impact? And I know that I was trained with it, and when I started teaching I was teaching with it. And I tried to do it as lovingly and caringly as I possibly could, but over a long period of time it really got to me.
Yeah, it starts feeling a little abusive, I agree.
And so for me, I find the people that I work with who are actors, everyone approaches their work differently, and I’ll use anything that I feel might serve them. If it’s using imagination, if it’s using something from your life – I mean, you can’t deny your life, you can’t deny experientially what you’ve lived. As a matter of fact, that’s kind of the source. The way you see things, the way you’ve experienced things, that’s reality. And as much as Adler said that she doesn’t want to work that way, there is a line in [her book] The Art of Acting where she acknowledges it. [“Of course you have to bring your experience to the characters you play.”]
You can’t avoid it. You don’t have to stay centric to it, entirely. But the starting point of experience, I feel, is how the brain makes connections. What do you know of this topic? What do you know of this subject? What do you know of what this character’s going through? What’s your connection to it? If you don’t know anything, haven’t experienced anything, then you’ve got to research, you’ve got to use your imagination, you’ve got to watch people – you’ve got to do whatever it is that feeds you creatively, and find that process for yourself.
So I don’t have any rules or walls about “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” – I’m for anything that helps you creatively. When a child does finger painting, there’s no “should”, there’s no pressure, there’s no obligation – it’s just free. And so I feel that when actors are finding what works for them and exploring things and trying things, there should be that sense of, “Just try.” Just try stuff and see what you feel like. Some people don’t want to go near emotional memory. They’re not going to, and they don’t have to. But some people, they’re not so afraid of it.
And so, again, it’s not that I judge it, I just think that Strasberg went too far. There’s that great quote of Clurman’s – I’m paraphrasing – about how Strasberg placed emotion above everything. And then you have what Stanislavski talked about, and Ivana Chubbuck talks about, which is that you don’t want to just have emotion without the objective. With Stanislavski, there’s so much doing – the super objective, the scene objective, the beats, the actions – what’s the doing, what are you doing in this moment?
And getting back to emotion, in the ‘70s, when [Marlon] Brando was out and [Dustin] Hoffman and [Al] Pacino and [Gene] Hackman, all of these actors were revealing emotion at a time when we just hadn’t really had it like that before. We hadn’t seen men do that before – it just wasn’t really permissible in the ‘50s. Some actors did it – Brando did it – but in the ‘70s it all came together into this kind of toxic archetype of the actor who was really trying do that navel-gazing thing.
There’s great value in all three of the techniques. I had a student contact me once who was studying at one of the Meisner schools in New York. She’d gone through the first year, right? No text, just the exercises. And it was the beginning of her second year and she’d just been given a scene, and she was lost. She said, “I just don’t know. We’ve been doing exercises and everything for year, and I love it here, but I just don’t know what to do!” I’m not saying that the two-year program as Meisner taught it would leave an actor in that position – but Meisner is no longer alive. Students can suffer because his techniques are being taught by some who never trained properly. And so, which technique are you going to use? How does the actor find his or her way through the obstacle course to good training?
Today, when you study with better teachers, you learn tools from which you can cherry-pick. You can do repetition, you can choose an objective and go into an improv, you can use that objective and try it in the scene, you can go back into repetition, you can get lost and say, “Let’s go back to the beginning, let’s try the first line”, you can try to bring in an action just for that line, for the second line, for the third line, you can get lost and go back – you can cherry-pick whatever it is that you need.
And that’s why I ask actors, “What do you need?” There’s just so much available to the actor. There’s no limit. We’ve had actors for thousands of years. Anything that helps you. There’s putting on a mask, there’s masterclass.com, anything that’s, like, “Oooh, I want to try that!” That’s what turns me on, and that’s what I want for actors. And I think it’s the actor’s responsibility to communicate what they need and where they struggle inside with the work.
Do you ever surprise yourself with something that you come up with – an exercise, or some kind of inspiration, or a way of solving a problem?
Yeah, there’s always that, like, “I didn’t realize that that was what my teachers were doing!” [laughs] I always thought they were in complete control. When you’re teaching sometimes, and you’re in the middle of class, suddenly the right brain stuff comes out. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t think it, and suddenly it’s coming out and it’s fluid, it’s cohesive and it serves the work. I don’t know where it came from, and all I can bring is gratitude to that – I don’t take any responsibility for it. I love it when it comes. That’s part of creative problem-solving, it just goes back to that. You’re not going to solve everything with the analytical mind. It’s just not going to happen.
After I started teaching for Susan [Batson], I came to her one day and I said, “I don’t know that I’m always doing what it is that I’m supposed to be doing when I’m teaching. [laughs] What’s the bottom line? What do I need to do?” And she said, “Well, I asked that same question to Lee [Strasberg], and the thing that he told me” – and I think it’s in print, other people he’s told it to – “was to teach from the heart.” And that’s kind of crucial.
I’ve seen a lot of teachers teach, and I just don’t like watching people teach who have everything fixed in their mind, and they’re just referencing their list of “shoulds” in the left brain. I love people where the unexpected comes out, when suddenly you’re all in it together. Like, how much of you are you willing to bring? And I want to bring my heart. I want to bring that. I just want us to be whatever it takes for our creativity to come together so that you can grow, and sometimes heal. Whatever that is – that’s what I love to do.
There’s also a danger, sometimes, when teachers have a cult of personality that forms and it becomes about the teacher and not about the student.
Yeah, it’s unavoidable. I don’t like it. Sandra Seacat, my first teacher, she doesn’t necessarily do the workshops like she used to – she’s got a lot of famous clients and she has had since the ‘70s – but hers was very big. Susan Batson has it. But it grows around any a good teacher, especially in New York or in L.A. The students bring that, but that’s their choice.
I believe that actors can learn self-care as they train. When I did the interview with Ivana Chubbuck for my blog, I said to her, “Ok, I’ve asked you about acting, but what do you have to say to these actors who come out to L.A., start taking class and doing all that stuff – how do they live? How do they take care themselves?” Because no one ever taught me that. No one ever said anything about that to me. And I learned a lot of hard lessons just being in L.A. for 20 years.
And so there’s a lot of desperation, ambition obviously, and a desire, almost, to put teachers in a position where they’re above you. And that’s just kind of the nature of that desperation, that drive that actors have. Who the hell wants to be acting with a teacher that you think sucks? [laughs] You know? So you want the best, and you pick this person, and if you like them, you think, “Yeah, this person’s fucking great!” And you start building this thing around them. You don’t want the opposite, so yeah, we’re going to build that, we’ve got to believe in it.
But that’s where, depending on the background, if someone’s lost a parent, or they’ve been hurt, or they’ve been sexually abused as a kid, or whatever the wound is, that’s when that really kicks in. Actors come with their wounds and they haven’t really done the work on it, and then that’s a place where that stuff starts to really come out.
And then you have the teachers. Some teachers are really sober-minded and they just don’t play it. They do their job and they know actors are projecting that onto them, but they don’t play with it. And then, of course, there are a lot more teachers who do – a lot more teachers who have their own issues or their own wounds, and so now they’re constantly being built-up, they’re constantly being praised, and they start acting like a god, and it’s a stereotype but it’s just true. It’s just out there and that happens.
I know that for so much of my own practice, it’s been about getting out of the way, and remembering that it’s not about how much I know, it’s about what my client knows, and trying to just point them in the direction of that.
It’s so true. It’s so true, it’s that humility piece. It’s just, like, “Get out of the way.” It’s so true. When I’m teaching and something comes out of me that I didn’t think of before but I think it’s really wonderful, it’s just like you say, “Get out of the way!” [laughs] I’m here to serve the work. And I enjoy that feeling, I like the feeling of serving the work. I do not like the feeling of, “Oh, now I’m the big…whatever.” And, I’ve had moments of it – especially when I was back in L.A., there were moments of it – but it’s not sustaining to me. It doesn’t feel good to me, and I don’t want to play that role.
So I feel happier after class, or when I’m going to sleep at night, staying in the role of serving. And that’s what I ask for. I mean, I do pray sometimes while I’m working – I just pray for guidance, you know? I don’t know where we’re going – how the hell would I know where we’re going? But I do pray or just ask to keep that channel open, because any other way is just, like, “Oh, gosh, I’m going to solve it with my head? I’ll be another male teacher telling you what he knows?” [laughs]
I like the creativity, and I like people challenging me, and if someone tells me I’m full of shit – which they don’t – I invite people to challenge me because if the work is true, it will stand whatever test you want to give it. That’s the thing about the Stanislavski’s work. To me, it transcends even the Adler-Meisner-Strasberg triumvirate. It’s bigger, it just is. You know, Stella Adler had that quote about natural laws – it’s just a system of natural laws – and I believe that. There are just things about nature, and human nature, and it exists, it’s universal. And it’s existed all this time and served so many actors in so many different ways because there’s truth to the core of the work.
But as you know, Stanislavski didn’t say, “This is the work. You must do this work.” He said, take it and do your thing, try it and figure out what works for you. If something doesn’t work for you, toss it. So it’s all in that service of the moment. I mean, isn’t that ultimately where we go, the moment? The creativity happens in the moment, or it doesn’t.
So to me, technique is for problem-solving. When I was young I was taught, “You must learn technique! You must learn technique!” And of course you have to learn technique. But it’s easier for me to utilize technique in problem-solving. Let people get up and start working and then they go, “Oh, we’re stuck. What do I do now?” And that’s where you say, “Let’s try technique here. Let’s try this piece of technique…let’s try that piece of technique…” And suddenly they ingest the technique because they’ve found that it actually serves them. I don’t want to just pour it over their head. I think technique is there to help us, and Stanislavski’s work – which he didn’t invent, which he maybe gathered and alchemized, if you will – it’s all over the place. Anything that turns you on creatively is connected to that, for me.
It’s like, any artistic expression is really about trying to find what’s truthful and expressing the truthfulness.
And so much of it, I feel, is learning to recognize the truth. That’s half the battle.
Yeah, and it takes courage and bravery, because there are people who just can’t handle their truth. They don’t want to look, they don’t want to ask, they don’t want to dig, they don’t want to use it, they don’t want to go there. And so to get on it in your work, to say, “I’m this human being right now, in this moment, I’m fully present in this moment and available to enter into this work. And that means I might laugh, I might cry, I might get stuck, I might fail, I might fall, I don’t know. But I’m fully present here and available to step into this work in this moment, me, whoever it is that I am is available.” And to me, that takes a beautiful kind of courage.
Yes, it does. And what is truthful is a shifting target. There are some things that are fundamentally true, and you feel how it lands in your body and you know that it’s a fundamental truth. But there are so many different layers to truth, and it changes.
Yeah, sometimes we all connect with it. We see it up there and we all feel it. And then sometimes we see it and it’s like you can just see that the actor’s feeling it, like they’re learning something in that moment, there’s something happening there. It’s not clicking for me, but there’s something valuable happening there, there’s an ember there. We have to keep fanning the ember of them being willing to step further into saying whatever their truth is. Maybe I don’t want to tell my truth right now, and that can be the truth. Just stepping into, “This is fucking me in the moment.”
There’s a kind of irreverence to it, I think, and without that irreverence, it can become kind of like a dog chasing its tail. Because then we study and we train and we work, but we keep trying to do it “right” or “perfect”. But the irreverence is where we go, “Fuck what I know. [laughs] Or fuck what I’m supposed to do. Fuck it.” That “fuck it” thing is an important thing.
Yes, it is. And humor. Humor is so important – just not taking it so damn seriously, right?
How do you typically feel at the end of a coaching session? What state are you in?
It totally depends on who I’m working with, but the thing that I’m going for when I’m coaching is to bring about that shift. I don’t want the person I’m working with, and I don’t want me, to feel at the end of the session the way we felt in the beginning. I want it to feel like something happened, because I want there to be revelation to that. And so that depends on what state they’re in, and what they’re looking for, and what’s available from them.
But what I’m definitely trying to do is to go further in with them – maybe get them out of their comfort zone to some degree, maybe challenge what they’re doing all the rest of the time in their life. But in this session, let’s go in and play and ask the questions and pull this thing apart and see where this thing finds itself in you, where it lives in you. And suddenly, by the time we’re done with the session, then there’s an experience that, hopefully, I just earned my money. [laughs] Because there’s no one else in their life doing that. I’ve had that happen with a six-year-old – and at that age, the mothers are also present for a session – I’ve had it happen with teenagers, and I’ve had it happen with adults.
If someone is resisting or kind of shutdown, then I have to deal with that. I once had a student – you won’t believe it, but it’s true – she was a teenager, and she’d gotten into some kind of trouble, and her parents were very Christian, and she wanted to act. That’s all that they knew, and they didn’t like it, but they brought her because everything else was falling apart. And she refused to speak to me.
She came for months and would not speak to me. But what I did was, I got great plays from great writers, got two copies, and just started letting her read these characters. And when we would start to read the play, she would come to life as the character. She would express as the character, she would live as the character. And as soon as the play was over, as soon as we’d finish that session, still she would not talk to me. Now, as time passed, she talked to me [laughs], but it took months. It took months.
And so I knew back then, by the end of the session, even though she wasn’t personally interested in talking to me because of whatever she’d been through with grownups, and I understand that, through the work itself – the writings of Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard, the writing of these plays, these characters – she can start to learn just by reading them with me that she is not alone, that she is not the only one, that someone sat and wrote this play, that someone gets her, and that this world of acting and theater, this world is an infinite place full of possibility. And whatever she’s coming into the session with, whatever all that stuff is, there’s a whole new direction available to her if she wants it, and it’s creative.
If you’re going in a linear direction in your life, in every aspect of your life, then that hour that you work with me is not going to be linear. It’s going to be creative, it’s going to be pursuit, it’s going to be investigation, it’s going to be questioning, it’s going to be laughing, and it’s going to be utilizing the work of some great writer, some great piece, to get the ignition happening with you. So you can see, “Oh, there’s much more to my life, much more to my life, than just living with this linear path that society’s telling me I should have.”
So the work always, for me, does the work, and the work speaks for itself. I do feel like there’s a sense of purpose there. And time is short. As you know, people come into your life, they train with you, and then they’re gone and you don’t see them again, or sometimes you do. So when I’m in a session, I don’t know the future [laughs], I just know that time is short, and I’m here to gently and supportively work with them in igniting something that they can bring into wherever they want to go. And I’m not going to be like the other grownups – I can guarantee that.
What an amazing story.
Yeah, it’s true. A couple of years later, she called me out of the blue and apologized. But I understood. When I started training at 13 and 14, we had just moved back to New York City – I didn’t know anybody – and starting to train with these amazing teachers, they automatically brought this deep sense of value to my innards, to just me, to what was inside of me creatively. It was like they knew it, they saw it, and so they always approached the work that way. It wasn’t like there was something outside of me, that I was wrong until I got it right. They saw this valuable treasure inside, and that’s what the whole purpose was of drawing the work together with me, and drawing this stuff out of me.
And for me, that’s the only way. Every person I work with has their own treasure inside of them. I’m not bringing that – that’s theirs, that comes from them, who they are. Whether it’s a really straight housewife who just wants to try this, or whoever it is. Whatever you’ve been through, that treasure is in you.
It’s like what we were saying before. We go through stuff in life, sometimes, and we’re, like, “Well, that sucked.” But when you teach, you start realizing the stuff you went through that sucked is actually really valuable. And it can be healing to allow the work to mix with it, to some degree. And so that valuing of a person, I just think people don’t get that very often – not in any consistent way. And to have, then, the encouragement to bring that into action, and to be allowed to fail, and learn, and start to get the confidence of ability – that’s important for anybody, I think.
How do you balance needing to be critical, in the sense of pulling something apart, versus being “judge-y”?
That’s been a journey for me. Because to be honest with you, with some of my teachers there was very intense language used of, really, almost right or wrong, of doing the “real work” or not doing the “real work”. Very intense judgement. That was really drilled into me.
So I think it’s been a journey to learn that the most important thing for me – and this goes, again, to that protectiveness that I feel, anyway – is that a note I gave is valueless if I caused personal harm.
When I was young, I was [at] a rehearsal in a theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. My mother was in a play, and Charles Gordone, the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer, was directing one of his plays [The Last Chord] and she was in it. And I loved this guy. He was a great guy to me. And he got to this point in the play where they were rehearsing, and he only gave one note and he gave it a million times. And his one note was, “I don’t believe you.” And when he said, “I don’t believe you,” the actors had to go back to the beginning of the scene and start over. And he would say it again, “I don’t believe you,” to get them out of their head, to break that stuff they were holding onto, and allow them to find the syrup, the juice, that was waiting for them in his work. Perhaps if the actor stays focused on the work, they can grow from that.
But I tend to be a purist – that’s just the world that I come from, being a purist. And it’s taken me a lot of time and learning to let go – I’m still letting go of that sense of being a purist – because, to me, it’s false. It’s not really the most important thing. If I give a great acting note, or I point out something about the scene that’s some wonderful thing that I think is great or everyone thinks is great, but if I harm them or embarrass them – which I don’t do, but I’ve seen plenty of teachers do – if that’s what I do, then it’s valueless to me what I’m doing. And maybe that’s my purism. It’s valueless to me if I cause personal harm.
It doesn’t mean I can’t hurt your feelings sometimes. We’re working on something, we get frustrated, we might hurt each other’s feelings, I don’t know. But if I give notes that are just to rip you a new asshole or cause you harm…
I mean, the only time I see people do that where I can understand it is where a student is holding onto their limitation, and nothing the teacher says will bring them to the point of letting go. They’re stuck in their limitation, and they’re going to hold onto the limitation, and they almost start acting stupid, like their intelligence level drops. Because there’s an avoidance – there’s something inside of them that they were trained, or taught, by their parents – they’re holding onto it, and there’s no way that scene’s going to work, and there’s no way they’re going to grow unless they acknowledge it, and they don’t want to.
So yes, I’ve seen teachers just yell to the point where the person cries and breaks down, and suddenly you can see it – the block is gone. They let go, and now they’re ready to work, and they’ve just grown. They’ve just grown up in front of you. Of course, some students will leave and head to the elevator before the growth happens. I’ve seen that, too. When you train, discomfort may happen – agitation, frustration – but these are different from personal harm, where you as a person are being attacked.
These things can happen. But it’s not something I’m really looking to do. If I appeal to your intelligence, if I appeal to your sense of who you are, of the importance of what it is you’re trying to do, and if you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone and move forward and fail – fall out of the sky and get up and try again – if you’re willing to do that work, then we will get there. But I don’t like going home and feeling like I just caused personal harm to someone. I just don’t like it, I’m not going to do it, and I don’t think it’s necessary on any creative level. Yes, you can get into conflict with each other. But if I, in the role of teacher, take advantage of it by zinging you so that everybody else laughs at you or whatever, I’m not interested in that.
That’s why I couldn’t make it through that stupid movie Whiplash – it was just so ridiculous, I could not bear it.
Yeah, I couldn’t see it.
I took it for about 10 minutes, and then I was, like, “No, I don’t need this in my brain.”
It seems like so much of being a coach is not just being able to see what could be adjusted, and not just being able to know how to make the adjustment, but how to communicate it.
Big time. It’s so true. It’s so true, and it’s so rare. I mean, there are some great teachers, and I think people like Ivana, she constantly impresses me with that. Every time I go to L.A., I’ll go and watch class. I started working with Ivana Chubbuck in 1990 when I was on thirtysomething.
So she’s been teaching a long time. And I’ve never seen her lose her patience because she’s saying something that she’s said a million other times in her classes. Maybe she does, but what I see is, she stays in with care, in trying to help you connect to this thing. And that’s how many tens of thousands of students? Of course, if you need breakthrough, she brings that, too!
And on the other hand, there are teachers who, you know, they’re just berating. They have low self-esteem or whatever, they’re taking advantage of their position, and that’s just the opposite. And so that ability to communicate, man, that’s so crucial.
The reason I didn’t study with Stella Adler when I was 17 was because I was afraid! [laughs] I mean, everybody talked about how she communicated and I was, like, “I don’t know that I can handle that!” [laughs] I grew up in a household where there was some yelling. I just didn’t know that I wanted to get into a class where that could be happening, that intensity that she had. Now I kind of wish I’d taken the damn class. [laughs]
But the communication is important to me. That’s why I like to watch teachers, and audit teachers – I like to hear how people communicate the work. And if it comes from the heart, then we are all doing something. I think we’re all equal. I’m not better than anybody else. I might work with someone who’s just a beginner, and in a couple of years they might be on hit show. Like, who’s to say? You know, we’re all in this together, we’re all equal. And my whole approach is, sometimes I talk like the teacher, and sometimes I talk like the actor. So as the actor I can say, “Ok, what I see here is…” And they’re, like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!” We’re in the same boat. That’s the only way I’m interested in doing it. That’s the only way that feels right to me.
When you’re watching a performance – not in a teaching setting, but just watching a performance – do you find yourself thinking about how you might make adjustments to the performance?
Yeah, it’s all the time. If the performance is really good, I forget, and that’s what I like – those performances that just pull you in and you’re, like, “Oh, yay, I loved it, I had fun!” But then things slow down and suddenly I’m, like, “Ooh, I would’ve adjusted that…!” [laughs]
You can do that stuff, but it’s just having to be off duty. I try not to say anything, but sometimes I’ll be watching something with my son and my wife, and sometimes it’s, like, “Oh, do you see there? See that he’s…?” [laughs] I really don’t want to do it, but I do get passionate about it.
I love watching old movies. I love watching Turner Classic, I love watching actors from all different eras. Especially starting with the ‘20s where the Broadway actors were coming to L.A. and figuring out how to adjust for camera. There were just so many different phases of learning that actors have gone through, and I just love watching them solve things creatively. I just love their solutions.
I think acting is magic, and I think actors can create magic, and I do think that alchemy is involved in an energetic way. Because you’re just a person who walks in the room and you start doing this work, and suddenly, when you’re on the screen or onstage, energy is transmitted to everyone, to the entire audience. And this is not minimizing the play, but the play itself can’t do it. You need the actors that take this energy from the writer, through the play, do this work and suddenly fill the audience. That kind of transmission, I don’t know many other things that can do that. I mean, obviously, music is incredibly powerful, and music doesn’t require words. [laughs] But actors getting up and acting out the stories of being human – I love it.
And I do think even instrumental music has to have a story that you need to have in mind when you’re performing it. Are you a musician? Do you play any instruments or are you musical in any way?
I love music. When I was young, I took piano lessons and guitar lessons, and I have some guitars in the house, we have a piano, but I’m not a musician, per se. I’m not “in the band”. [laughs] But I do love music, I have a lot of music, I like using music with the work, with exercises.
That’s what I was going to ask you.
Yeah, it’s really powerful. I’m definitely into the power of the music in helping storytelling. I think that it can help actors to drop out of their head, to find ways to use the music. I remember seeing Steppenwolf [Theatre Company]’s production of [Lyle Kessler’s] Orphans [directed by Gary Sinise] which Terry Kinney and Kevin Anderson and John Mahoney were in.
[Note: Corey actually took over the role of Phillip when Kevin Anderson left the show – read Corey’s story about that experience on his blog here.]
That production was the first time I had ever seen what was called “rock and roll theater”, where they just had huge JBL speakers and they had this incredible Pat Metheny soundtrack, and everything was choreographed. And it was an incredible experience, that these things can all come together to form something that’s even more heightened than simply the performances. So I think it all works together. And that’s part of, if it helps the actor, then use it – a song, a playlist, whatever way you can find what turns you on and helps you.
And thinking in terms of rhythm and beats and dynamics and all that.
Yeah. We’ve got to connect the dots somehow, and the left brain is not going to do that. The way that it does it is just dull. So it’s the creativity that we’re searching for, that’s what we’re looking for – what turns you on creatively, what allows you to go further creatively, what allows you to step into the unknown and to discover the unknown – anything that inspires.
And I think that’s kind of the bottom line for actors – find what inspires you. I don’t care who you’re studying with or not studying with, or where your career is at or it’s not at. Stay inspired. That’s been my experience, and it’s so crucial. Then it doesn’t always matter so much everything that’s happening in the business to you, or not happening. Just stay inspired. Who turns you on creatively? Who do you look up to? Look at them doing it, and just stay feeding yourself.
That’s kind of the crucial thing that I was talking to Ivana about in the interview – how do we take care of ourselves? And that’s ultimately more important to me than technique, it’s more important to me than actors trying to do everything they think they’re supposed to do. We’ve got to take care of ourselves.