Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Part 3: Bridging the Gap: Educational Theatre to Professional Theatre

Emerging as a Professional
by Philip Cuomo
The following is the final post of a 3-part series about how an emerging theatre artist moves beyond their training into the professional world. This was inspired by a conversation I facilitated with a group of artists at Post5 Theatre as part of the first annual Outdoor Shakespeare Festival.

I finished my conservatory style theatre training in the 1980’s and with a few compatriots immediately formed a company: Oberon Theatre Ensemble. I spent three seasons working with Oberon and as a group we recognized that we were not developing as quickly as we wanted. I realize now that I was an impatient young man. But in looking for ways to improve, our company members branched out.

I met and worked with Robert Mooney, a teacher at ACT in San Francisco and a working theatre artist. I saw him perform Sir Toby Belch in New York City, one of many Sir Toby’s I have seen, and Robert was wonderful. His skill allowed him to be funny, mean and sympathetic all at once.

I enrolled in an audition workshop at the RiversideShakespeare Academy in New York that Robert taught. He created a list of ten possible audition pieces for me (that alone was worth the price of the class!). But the best bit of advice, or practice, he asked of the class - of me - was to identify people in the field I admire and want to work with. He challenged us to find ways to meet them, audition for them and eventually work with them. He made us create a list of 20. 

Mark Lamos
My list included Mark Lamos, who was the Artistic Director at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Shortly after putting him on my list I met him on a shoot of the film Longtime Companion. Mark was playing a lead in the film and I had a chance to be an extra for a day of shooting. I took the opportunity not for the $50 I was getting paid, not for the outside possibility that I would be upgraded to an under five, or for any other reason but to have the chance to meet Mark.

I introduced myself. He barely looked me in the eye as he shook my hand and moved away. The moment passed very quickly.

A year later I auditioned for him at Hartford Stage. They had an open call for a production of Romeo and Juliet and they needed Italian looking people. When I told him of our introduction he pretended to remember, and then he cast me as a supplemental extra. I was to be a background player. 

It was an artist-defining production for me. I was surrounded by some of the best and most accomplished American theatre artists: Roberta Maxwell, Robert Stattel (who introduced me to Julie Taymor and helped me land an audition for her), Bill Camp, Calista Flockhart (before Ally McBeal) Chuck Conwell…the list was long. 

Chuck was the fight choreographer and one of the reasons I was cast was for my physical ability and how well I moved. I was looking forward to the first fight call and getting a sword in my hand. But Chuck did not give me one.  

Charles Conwell teaches broadsword for
Philadelphia Stage Combat Workshop
I told him, “But, hey, I am good at this stuff!” 

He patted me on the back and said “Yeah, not everyone gets to carry a sword.” 

Instead Chuck gave me a three-foot length of sausage. I was the sausage man. Chuck then choreographed a sprawling fight with 16 combatants. And as the sausage man, I beat the crap out of the three largest swordsmen with my three foot length of sausage. 

I developed a simple and funny walk. During staging rehearsals I found opportunities to play around: slipping into a fountain, teasing the washer wenches, and getting tangled up in laundry. Then whenever Mark needed an added interesting dynamic to a scene or location he would call for the clown. “Get the clown out here,” he would say.

Before I knew it I was a clown. Bart Sher, who was the assistant director on the production, passed an essay from American Theatre to me about the commedia, other members of the artistic community suggested books to read and actors to watch. When I returned to New York I met and studied with David Shiner. I had seen David on Broadway in his Tony award-winning clown show with Bill Irwin called Fool Moon. David had made a name for himself in Cirque du Soleil. In fact he directed and created the last Cirque show here in Portland, KOOZA. After working with and learning from David for a couple of months, I never stopped working in the theatre again.

I was mentored by some of the best theatre artists in the country and they provided a path unique to my talents which helped define my artistry, my career or, as Sydney said some twenty plus years ago, my "lifestyle."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Part 2: Bridging the Gap: Educational Theatre to Professional Theatre

Collaboration and Community
by Philip Cuomo

The following is the second in a 3-part series about how an emerging theatre artist moves beyond their training into the professional world. This was inspired by a conversation I facilitated with a group of artists at Post5 Theatre as part of the first annual Outdoor Shakespeare Festival.

Growth as a theatre artist is especially challenging because it is so collaborative. One cannot quietly practice in a well-lit private studio, as a visual artist might, or a comfortable soundproof basement, as a musician might. The creation of theatre art is communal. It requires a community.

Both our educational and our professional institutions provide the infrastructure and community necessary to create theatre. Schools bring together people of like minds and interests, providing them with guidance, assignments and projects. Professional theatres bring together artists of comparable skill levels to collaborate on productions. Both form communities from which theatre is created.

The emerging artist needs to be challenged within their practice. It starts with training.

The Neighborhood Playhouse, NYC.
Professional training programs like Portland Actors Conservatory, ACT in San Francisco, The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York offer comprehensive immersion training for a community of like minded students. Professional theatres like Portland Center Stage bring together artists from around the nation. They are part of the American Theatre community.

The issue before us is how does an emerging actor develop the skills necessary to be part of the professional community of theatre artists both locally and nationally?

PAC alum Maureen Porter (far left) joins professional actors from
across the country in Anna Karenina at Portland Center Stage.
Photo: Patrick Weishampel
Immersion in an integrated curriculum establishes the basis for continual development. Training in a traditional academic setting or occasional classes does not provide a comprehensive understanding of the actor’s craft. Immersion in a program which includes enough hours exercising the voice, body and imagination creates the internal environment for an emerging actor to execute authentic action within imagined circumstances. There is a simplicity to the craft that is not easy and only through time does the emerging actor’s instrument fully understand and integrate the craft. Immersion training offers the actor the opportunity to practice and replicate the experience.

Once an actor recognizes the experience of spontaneously communicating authentic action and is able to consistently execute authentic action, they simply need to apply their craft in practice. I believe when emerging theatre artists put themselves in challenging roles in challenging plays, with talented directors who challenge them further, their skill set will develop within their practice. If an emerging actor does not learn the craft necessary to replicate authentic action it will take longer for their talent to develop. In this case, then, the gap between educational and professional theatre becomes wider.

So what is the venue for the well-trained theatre artist to develop the skills necessary to be part of the professional theatre community? The artists at Post5 have created a performance platform from which they are able to challenge themselves with difficult text in front of audiences. This is a great start. Post5 has also made a commitment to bring established professionals to either direct or act in productions, exposing their core company to wider influence.

Is that enough? Does the emerging theatre company provide the proper environment for developing skills?