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A Conversation with Scott Fielding
Scott Fielding and Karl Steudel
(KS): What is your specific background as an actor, student and instructor? What are the various traditions you teach from?
(SF): I grew up in LA and took my first professional steps there. At that time, Darryl Hickman was at the top of a short list of “go-to” west coast teachers. I was incredibly fortunate that Darryl accepted me into his Thursday afternoon workshop, which was filled with talented working actors, bonafide celebrities, and a recent playboy centerfold. I studied for a couple of precious years with Darryl. His approach was a practical mix of Strasberg, Stanislavsky, a bit of Chekhov, and his own discoveries based on his many decades’ experience as a working film actor and industry exec. I also studied with Mala Powers who, like Darryl, was genuine Hollywood royalty. In the fifties she was a devoted student and confidant of Michael Chekhov’s. By the eighties, her film career was finished and she was teaching what she had learned from Chekhov. It was Mala who really introduced me to Chekhov, for which I am forever grateful to her.
One day I sold my car to finance a cross-country trip to attend a three- month Chekhov intensive in New York City. And then I was ten years in New York. During that whole period I never stopped training. I studied with everyone who had worked with Chekhov including yet another wonderful celebrity teacher, Beatrice Straight, and the best of the second generation Chekhov teachers, Ted Pugh and Fern Sloan. Over those years, I deeply incorporated Chekhov as the foundation of my work as actor and, later, director and teacher.
Also in New York, and equally importantly, I did the two-year Meisner program with Bill and Suzanne Esper. And then I finished a third year of by-invitation-only advanced Meisner training with Bill. Along the way I studied a lot of everything else, too: Stanislavski with Sonia Moore, Johnstone improvisation with Gloria Maddox, Linklater vocal technique with Chuck Jones, movement with Loyd Williamson, mask work with Pierre LeFevre... Heavy hitters, all. I absorbed everything I could.
Studying at the feet of masters was almost never less than thrilling. And yet my hunger for knowledge and experience was never satisfied. I became an autodidact in the fields of acting, theatre and film. I consumed voraciously every book I could put my hands on. (This was pre-internet, but old New York was a Mecca for used books, not to mention the libraries and the original Drama and Applause bookstores.) I “second acted” every notable Broadway show; I saw most everything the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, and La Mama produced, multiple times; I haunted the art house cinemas and sat spellbound through repeated double features of East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, On The Waterfront and Reflections In A Golden Eye, Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, ...Bergman, Fellini, Goddard, and Cassavettes, especially Cassavetes.... For a young actor/director, it was still a great time to be in New York.
After graduating from the Esper Studio, I did my share of Off Off plays and audition rounds. But I was more interested in the actor’s creative process than in myself performing. Above all, I loved the studio and the rehearsal room. And not only was I passionate to work on developing my own instrument and craft, but I was fascinated to observe others. Watching my teachers work with other students, watching actors develop or fail: this for me was, again, somehow always thrilling. And so it wasn’t long before I stopped dreaming about myself on stage, and began to focus my energies differently.
That was some twenty years ago. Today I’m a director, teacher and coach, and only an occasional actor. I ran a successful Off Loop theatre company in Chicago for five years. I directed and taught for several years in southeastern Europe, and continue to work there twice a year. I went back to LA for a couple of years and got an MFA. And four years ago I landed in Boston, where I founded Michael Chekhov Actors Studio. While the studio keeps me very busy - I teach six classes a week - I’ve also taught locally for Emerson College, Tufts University, and New England Conservatory, Graduate Opera Department.
How do you feel that what you offer is unique for this area?
The main idea of Michael Chekhov Actors Studio Boston is expert and systematic training to develop the actor’s highest creative potential. That, in the first place, makes us unique among independent New England schools or studios. The unfolding of an actor’s creative potential depends on the sensitivity and maturity of his instrument and the mastery of his craft. This fundamental view informs our overall approach to actor training. That’s why we don’t offer much in the way of short-term classes; instead, most of what we do is structured as one-year programs.
Our two main programs are The Meisner Foundation Training and The Chekhov Training. Both programs generally accept actors only at the start of the studio season, in September. The Meisner Foundation Training is modeled precisely after the traditional first year of Meisner training that Sandy Meisner taught and that I learned from Bill and Suzanne Esper. In addition, we also offer another one-year program, The Advanced Training, which is something like the second-year of Meisner, though we don’t hew precisely to the traditional line as we very much do with the Foundation Training. To my knowledge, there’s nowhere else in New England that offers a comparable Meisner program.
With respect to Chekhov method, not only are we are the only place in New England to offer a structured one-year program for this work, but in fact we’re one of only a very small number of places on the planet where comprehensive Chekhov training is available. That’s one reason why, whereas Meisner is a widely recognized approach, Chekhov remains still something of a secret. Although that’s gradually changing over the last ten or so years, in part because actors like Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson and Anthony Hopkins have acknowledged using Chekhov in their own creative professional work, and also because of the tremendous efforts of the international Michael Chekhov Association, MICHA, for whom I also teach, in making Chekhov training widely available to actors and especially to college and university teachers.
What class do you recommend beginner students to take first?
I generally steer beginners to our Meisner Foundation Training program. That’s the ideal place for beginners to start, because the program teaches the nuts and bolts of acting, so to speak. The basics. Chekhov on the other hand is, in a sense, more advanced. Chekhov’s a bigger, more creative world than Meisner. More fun, too. But the Chekhov Training assumes a basic knowledge of acting. And for that, Meisner is unbeatable. Meisner is also especially valuable for actors focused on film and television acting, which is the case for many of the young or new actors who come to us for training.
What do you offer in terms of private coaching?
I do work privately with actors for audition preparation and role coaching. Sometimes people ask about private lessons. I always tell them a better bet is to join a program or one of our workshops. First of all, the attentive actor learns by watching as well as by doing. Second, it’s simply prohibitively costly for most people to take private lessons. I’m not cheap.
Do you allow auditing a class, or have a shorter trial session?
Actors come to Michael Chekhov Actors Studio Boston because of our reputation for taking actors to the next level. Our actors get better. Period. Because of that, they book more work. They get better roles - more visible, more challenging, and better paid. I think people generally know that what we’re about. And I’m only interested in working with people who know what they want. I always meet with potential students over coffee. If they’re young or inexperienced that’s OK, but I want to know that they know where they’re headed. If working actors come to me, I want to know that they’re serious about developing their talent and craft. When the actor has that kind of self-knowledge coming in the door, then it’s inevitably a good fit, for both them and us. I invite those kinds of actors to train with us. If at the end of the first class they (or I) feel it’s not a good match, then we shake hands again and say goodbye, no obligation, no worries. However, it pretty much never happens that way. People with the determination to get to our door tend to find great value in our work, and so stick around a good long while.
I feel that training should be life-long. Do you agree, or have any houghts on that?
I couldn’t agree more and yes, I have plenty of thoughts about it. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s absurd to imagine a musician, a singer, a dancer, an athlete, who doesn’t train? Certainly it is. And so it should be for the actor. Now training is a kind of bucket word. We must understand that in the professional actor’s life, she’ll pass through any number of training phases. The most important is the one that lays the foundation. Where the actor fundamentally fashions his instrument and acquires a reliable approach to creative work. Where the basic questions of the craft of acting are asked and, practically, answered. This period of training may last a year, or more likely a couple, or even more.
After that, a period of advanced training is appropriate; that, again, may last one or quite possibly several years. Then there’s any number of kinds of specialized training an actor may engage in. And for the experienced professional actor, there’s the value - actually, I would say necessity - of returning again and again to training the fundamentals, to improving deficiencies or imbalances, and to acquiring new skills. Again: Can you conceive of a pro ball player who ever misses spring training? Unthinkable!
And finally, there’s the kind of daily training that the actor can and should do for herself throughout a lifetime. Acting exercises of all kinds, not to mention body and voice work. Yes, training certainly means studio training, under the expert guidance of a master teacher. But it also means at-home training on your own. Some people would call that practice. I would say, actors need to have a practice. Stanislavsky speaks of the actor’s toilette, or make-up. It’s a point I’m constantly stressing in our classes because I think it’s absolutely essential. Remember the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Well for the actor interested in sustaining a satisfying professional career, the question really ought to be, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall every season?” The answer, of course: Practice, practice, practice!
The motto of our studio is Show Up - Train Hard - Act Better. Showing up means, in the first place, showing up for you. It means determining your goals, committing to them, and finding the self-discipline to persist in taking massive daily action to achieve them. Training hard is relatively easy. In fact, it’s a pleasure to train hard, or should be, if you’re clear that acting is what you want to do with your life. Showing up is really the tough part: consistently showing up at the studio, consistently prepared, consistently eager; and showing up for yourself, in service of all your creative and professional goals, at home. When actors have a handle on that, when they’ve got showing up and training hard dialed in, that’s when acting better becomes pretty much a sure thing. So really you could say Show Up - Train Hard - Act Better is more than a motto for our studio. It’s a simple formula for success in our profession. I could even go so far as to say, in life.
Any other thoughts for us actors, specifically those of us in New England?
It seems me that the big advantage of New England, and Boston in particular, is that there’s plenty of opportunity to work and relatively little competition. First, there’s a vital and growing theatre scene in Boston. Lots of small companies, always new groups. (Unfortunately there’s a virtual dearth of affordable rehearsal and performance space, but that’s another topic.) And some quality mid-size companies and of course several solid equity theatres. So there’s a lot of theatre here. Second, because of all the colleges and film departments, there’s a constant need for actors in student films. And that’s just great, because there’s all kinds of ways a young or new actor can benefit from working on student films. Actually, there’s fantastic opportunity for that here. What’s more, there’s a great deal of independent film work in New England. Web series, too. Not to mention the growing number of major features that are being shot here all the time. And those movies also mean real opportunities. I’m not talking about background work, either. I don’t train actors to work background, no! In the last couple of years our students have worked with and even opposite major Hollywood stars on features shot in or around Boston. So when I say there are real opportunities here, you can see that’s concrete.
Now what I said about relatively little competition, let me unwind that. In my experience, I’d say there’s a lot of local talent. But there are not a lot of well- trained actors. Of course there are some. (And they’re the ones who consistently work!) True, there are quite a few local college programs for acting, but many of the kids don’t stick around after they graduate. They run off to New York, LA, Chicago. Of course they do. What I want to say is that while there are tons of people in the at-large acting pool here, my view is that the competition is soft, because people are untrained. That means they often don’t really know what they’re doing, how to prepare a role, how to deliver a role, how to audition. And so that means actors, trained actors, have a huge real edge. In New York or LA, the competition is truly ferocious. Not just because of the numbers. But because everyone is trained. They’ve got MFA’s from NYU and Yale Drama and Julliard. They’ve completed conservatory training at the top studios. And the smart ones are always training, always in a class, always working on themselves. (Those are the ones most likely to succeed, naturally.) But in Boston, a really well-trained actor is still exceptional relative to the total number of self-described actors. And there’s the opportunity.
So my advice to New England actors is this: take advantage of the real opportunities here before running off to NYC or LA. Get some solid theatre credits on your resume, if you want to do theatre. Get plenty of on-camera experience. Put together a really impressive reel. And get yourself a solid foundation in acting craft if you don’t have one. If you do have a solid foundation, great!, now get to work on developing yourself to the next level. Real world experience is wonderful (yes, get out there and work!), but you must also seek out the best teachers, coaches and mentors you can find.
Remember that performing is something quite apart from training. Both are necessary to play in the big leagues. Training, experience, talent, craft, a mature and polished instrument – the actor needs all of it in order to succeed in our profession. And finally, while the saying “It’s never too late,” is right from one point of view, from another, it’s not. Sometimes, sorry to say, it is too late. I think it was Shaw who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” All too many of us don’t really wake up until we’re “old.” I say wake up now. Be sober about what it takes to make it as an actor. Decide, really decide, knowing what it takes, whether being an actor is really what you want for your life. And if the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” then go for it, pedal to the medal, balls to the wall. Feed your passion daily and use it to fuel your determined and thoughtful action.
Remember what golf legend Gary Player once said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Show up. Train hard. Act Better. Good luck!
Karl Stuedel is an actor and owner of NewEnglandActor.com. The interview also appears in Karl's forthcoming book: The Complete Guide to Acting in New England.
Scott Fielding is the master teacher and director of Michael Chekhov Actors Studio Boston.
This interview was recorded in April, 2014.