We’re very excited to let you read our following interview with the legendary acting teacher of Lee Strasberg’s Method, writer and editor of her new book The Lee Strasberg Notes (Routledge), Lola Cohen.
DF–Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to teach acting?
LC-I’m Brooklyn born and raised in the same Flatbush neighborhood as Woody Allen. My mother owned the Rose Cohen Dress Shop next to the Kent movie theater. I was hooked on movies at a young age and I loved watching the great ones in black and white on TV, The Early Show and The Late Show. I now live in Woodstock, NY via NYC, Ibiza-Spain and LA for 17 years where I was one of the original staff members of the LA Weekly newspaper in its early underground days, studied and then taught at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute and began my family before moving back to NY in 1995. I received a BA in education from The American University in DC and I am currently an Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and an NYU/Tisch School of the Arts adjunct.
Growing up I remember my parents revering The Group Theater, The Actors Studio, Judy Garland, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, the great Rodgers and Hammerstein and other musicals and Lee Strasberg. They saw everything on Broadway in a time when it didn’t break the bank. I cherished the Playbills but was never inspired to pursue acting until I played a small role in Renaldo and Clara—which was filmed on Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Review and which practically no one ever saw. Lee Strasberg was a household name and so it was natural for me to seek him out to study. I interviewed at the New York Institute and was lucky enough to get into Lee’s class. I was fascinated by the work from the get-go and knew I had to learn everything I could about it. I began teaching his work in 1986 and continue to work at the New York Institute to this day.
DF-Where did you study and with whom? What is the approach you take to acting?
LC- I had the luxury of studying with Lee Strasberg in New York and Los Angeles for the last 5 years of his life. After he passed away in 1982, I then had the great good fortune of studying with two phenomenal teachers, the actress Kim Stanley and the director Jose Quintero, both of whom were brilliant and inspiring and who also taught aspects of the Method but with their own styles. My approach is pure Strasberg, which during his last years had evolved from his early work, enhancing the imagination and creativity of actors and directors by practicing relaxation, sense and emotional memory exercises, working on the text, characters and scenes.
DF-What acting work have you done? Have you worked in all three mediums – stage/film/TV?
LC- Recently I had a cameo role in Rik Cordero’s 2009 film Inside A Change which won best film at The Latino International Film Festival. I have directed productions of plays with student and professional actors including Jean Genet’s The Maids at the Strasberg Institute, Lewis John Carlino’s Snowangel while 2009 Artist-in-Residence at SUNY-Ulster, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Woodstock Youth Theater. But like Lee my main love and focus is on teaching and directing.
DF-Could you tell us a little bit about the Strasberg Method?
LC- Building on the system of the brilliant Russian, Konstantin Stanislavski, founder of the Moscow Art Theater, Lee’s Method is an approach to acting that emphasizes the internal approach as opposed to the external. The Method trains actors to use their own personal experiences, feelings, emotions and truths, fusing them together with the inner psychological life of the character. This enables them to live on the stage and respond truthfully to the imaginary circumstances created by the playwright. We train the actor’s imagination, senses and emotions to re-create– not imitate–logical, believable and truthful behavior by using sensory and emotional exercises designed by Lee to further the actor’s craft including being able to repeat their performances and is equally useful for acting and directing in theater, film and television work.
DF–What are the requirements for entering The Lee Strasberg Institute, to study acting?
LC-The only requirements are that prospective students be interviewed and must be able to take a minimum of two classes per session to allow them to be fully immersed in the experience.
DF–What kind of students come here to study acting with you at the Lee Strasberg Institute?
LC-Students come from all over the world to study Lee’s work including, in addition to the US, all of Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, China, Russia, Africa, South and Central America, India, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, Korea, etc. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful and diverse the student body is….passionate and enthusiastic, they come with their dreams and work incredibly hard. We have college age students, working actors and sometimes more mature enrollees exploring second careers or just seeking an enriching and deepening experience. Many go back to their home countries and develop or continue successful professional careers.
DF–When you first meet a student, can you tell right away if he/she has what it takes to be an actor?
LC– Absolutely not. I have learned that talent may not be immediately discernible. It may be buried, brought out and nurtured through the Method’s work. Snap judgments’ about a person’s talent are often wrong. I have learned not to judge prematurely. And the opposite is also true where a student comes in all fire and brimstone and turns out to be unable to go further in refining their craft—lacking the stamina, will or strength of character.
DF–Could you tell us a bit about your current students — are they all looking to become working actors, or are some simply looking to grow as people or perhaps contribute to community theater?
LC-Most of the students want to work in theater, film or TV. Some come to just grow as human beings. Others want to teach. Many return to their hometowns or countries to establish careers or do community theater. Many work in the industry in other capacities such as, producing, writing, directing, casting, etc. The training is a great background for many theater arts professions and business positions where communication skills can enhance effectiveness.
DF-Are today’s younger actors easier to work with than in years past – since many are accustomed to being on camera either via a friend’s camcorder or a YouTube snippet?
LC-No, the same problems exist for the actor from Shakespeare’s time to this generation’s Youtube culture. Young people’s attention spans have changed because of the internet and constant social networking. Therefore, the ability to focus internally, relax, perform exercises and read broadly, as I direct them to do, is difficult for them. Learning to focus for what can be grueling work and preparing them to deal with the problem of repetition, rehearsals and performances, or take after take in film-making is unlike anything they have experienced before and may be at odds with their images or dreams of immediate “celebrity, glitz and bling”.
I also find that students’ awareness of or interest in other human eras, cultures and habits is limited which is an extremely important aspect of acting because it is one thing to play a character like yourself in a contemporary setting and quite another to become a character from a different background, culture or era.
DF–What are the biggest questions/concerns on the minds of your students?
LC- Students want to know if there will be work for them in this highly competitive industry. There are not many good acting opportunities here in the U.S. compared to the amount of people who want to be actors. We have no national theater or hardly any publically supported community theaters and our system does not support actors in any way except for actor’s frequent eligibility for unemployment insurance. They are conflicted about acting for commercials which compromises their desire for craft but has a financial reality.
After we begin our work, I observe that the students may be concerned with whether they possess the strength and will or the talent to continue the work. If their loved ones are skeptical or unsupportive, they may begin to wonder if the doubting Thomases are unfortunately, in the cold light of day, right, after all.
DF–What are the main misconceptions about the acting process that students bring to your classes?
LC– Acting is one of the most challenging and daunting professions. Students have difficulty believing that there are not short cuts to their fruitful and successful careers and are hard pressed to realize that they need to be driven, committed and love the craft to be able to handle the ups and downs or the applause and critiques and that their chosen profession is not for the faint of heart.
Our work takes years to learn and must be practiced daily with continuing classes and instruction. It can not be done in three months. There is no quick fix or easy way to learn Lee’s Method. It takes hard work and a strong will. Actors must make a commitment to work on their craft throughout their lives or, as Lee says, “you go backwards”.
Another misconception is that a broad and intellectual base of knowledge, history and culture is not needed to be an actor. I advise students to read novels, short stories, histories, biographies, plays, and to see as many plays and films as you can and to immerse yourself with all the other art forms such as music, painting, poetry and dance to become an outstanding expressive human being.
DF-What is your definition of what it means to “act?”
LC-To “act”, the actor starts with the given circumstances created by the playwright and determines how “to live” on the stage as such. The character comes alive if you believe in what you are doing, are properly motivated and able to get into the skin of the character through each of the senses which the exercises teach you to do. To “act” is to live the truth of each moment, revealing the inner psychological life of the character allowing the audience to connect with the experience in the service of the play or film.
DF-How do you approach script analysis? What do you think is the most important part of script analysis and could you tell us a little bit how you teach it?
LC-The situation is king. The words are just the outline. It is the actor who must supply the heart of the event by experiencing the life of the character and finding the subtext – what is going on behind the lines at each moment in the scene – in order to create a living breathing human being, not just a mask of reality externally delivering and illustrating the lines as cliché.
We then, break down the play or script very specifically into units of action and establish the transitional moments. We go from moment to moment, all the while trying not to anticipate the lines. We use improvisation and our sense and emotional exercises to find the logical and true behavior for the scene when necessary. We remind the actors that the actual characters don’t know what will happen in the next moment. This avoids anticipation which removes you from the present moment and is one of the main problems for the actor.
DF-What is your definition of character work? And is it possible for you to tell us in short how you teach character development?
LC-The work on the character is separate from the work on the play. We always ask– is the character close to you own nature, how are you different or alike. Where there is a difference you must supply the appropriate reality. We ask, what would the character do in each situation, not what you would do? What is the character’s state of mind or emotional involvement? How does the character behave and move? How does he or she dress? What is their profession? What would the character be doing if there were no lines? What was the character doing before the scene happened? You must act out the given circumstances which encompasses everything that happened before the play began. The Method’s exercises and procedures deal with character development which must be learned and practiced.
DF-What is the approach you teach an actor to use when breaking down a scene?
LC- Character development, units of action as described in the script analysis discussion above, improvisation to search for logical behavior, use of the set, blocking which is establishing movements during the scene, working with your scene partner, questioning and sharing ideas to find the transitional moments in the scene, creating the true physical and emotional realities demanded by the scene.
DF-What tools do you use to help an actor get to the emotional place they need to be in any given scene?
LC- The actors practice relaxing at will and learn a series of sense and emotional memory exercises designed by Lee to stimulate thinking and feeling to help the actor attain those moments of intensity, again and again for repeated performances and takes. Students do not focus on the memorized lines but on the reality of the situation. Actors actually re-create, if possible the previous scene off stage or at least in their minds in order to organically become the character, making the next scene logical and believable.
DF-How are your classes structured, like how much time is spent on doing actual scenes, and how much on overall philosophy?
LC-The acting classes are 4 hours long. The first two hours are devoted to the actors work on themselves and their instrument by practicing a very specific relaxation exercise to eliminate mental and physical tension and then a series of sense memory exercises in a definite sequence, although not written in stone. At the beginning of the work we do not emphasize emotional work at all. That comes much later. Several specialty exercises are also introduced, such as the Song and Dance exercise (which is neither a song nor a dance).
The second two hours are devoted to the actor’s work on the text, characters and scenes. Actors and their scene partners rehearse and prepare beforehand and then perform the scene in front of the class which is then critiqued by me. The scene is repeated in subsequent classes to see if the actor is able rise to the scene again and if they are effectively using what they are learning.
My book, The Lee Strasberg Notes, contains 36 excerpts of Lee Strasberg providing scene critiques to students from well-known plays and movies. These demonstrate the brilliant insights of how, master teacher, Lee Strasberg, both analyzed the “spine” of the scene and characters and instructed the students on how to use elements of the Method to achieve something greater and more expressive in their work.
DF-What do you hope a student leaves your class with?
LC- I hope that students leave my classes at the Strasberg Institute with an even more passionate love and commitment to their chosen profession. I hope that students also leave with a sense of power and accomplishment and that they believe in themselves and have learned that they can go further, act better, and bring more of their own feelings and experiences to acting.
I also hope that the actor leaves class with an informed point of view about how applying Lee’s Method to their own work will further their acting craft and careers. I hope that a fire has been lit and they are shocked and surprised by what they are able to accomplish at the Institute with hard work and a strong will.
DF-Are there any celebrities you’ve had as a student? If so, could you name them?
LC- Kelly O’Hara, the star of South Pacific studied with me at the Institute in New York. I coached Chris Rock on his first directorial outing. I trained Daniela Ruah, star of NCIS. I have several students now working in independent films. Ashley Bell is starring in the new Eli Roth film “The Last Exorcism” and she’s also on The United States of Tara. Nancy Mitchell partnered with , co-directed and acted in Rik Cordero’s award winning feature film “Inside a Change.” Dan Shaked is appearing in the new film, “Storm up The Sky;” Mariacarla Boscono just finished a stage run of “Cymbeline” in Rome. Many of my students have careers in their home countries. I just returned from Argentina where I met with my former student Victoria Galardi who is currently directing her second feature film there.
DF-Is it easier than ever to get a job as an actor today given the wealth of media outlets (cable TV, online content as well as traditional broadcast fare?)
LC-No. It is never easy. As discussed above the current industry has fewer acting opportunities because there is not the extensive network of community and repertory theaters. New plays and independent films have difficulty getting produced. Hollywood’s love of animation and computer generated characters also reduce opportunities and young people’s desire for a meaningful non-traditional business or professional career have resulted in a continuing large number of those desirous of acting.
DF-Which books and plays are according to you a must read for the aspiring actor?
LC-The Institute’s reading list on theater is included in the The Lee Strasberg Notes (not including plays). Lee asked us to read everything we could about the theater and its history, such as biographies of Shakespeare, Edmund Kean, Eleanora Duse, E.G. Craig, Jacob Ben-Ami, John Barrymore, Mrs. Fisk, Salvini, Chekhov, etc. Learn who came before you. W hat made them great? Read poetry and the great critics like Stark Young and H.T. Parker. This type of in depth criticism doesn’t exist much because of changes in our current culture. For example, George Bernard Shaw wrote the best essay comparing the external and internal approach to acting describing the performances of Duse and Bernhardt. Read Richard Boleslavky’s The First Six Lessons, which is fascinating and illuminating. Read everything Stanislavski wrote, eventually. Familiarize yourself with the work of the great stage and film directors from world theater, Vachtangov, Meyerhold, Ford, Cocteau, Wells, Wilder, Kazan, Bergman, Fellini, Coppola, Lumet, Scorsese, and on and on. Also, Lee recommends Harold Clurman’s wonderful book about the Group Theater, The Fervent Years to get a sense of their work and contribution, a truly progressive American theater. Read everything by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Gorki, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Brecht, Lorca, Wilde, O’Neill, Odets, Kingsley, Williams, Saroyan, Miller, Albee, Pinter, Simon, Stoppard and more. Read Lee’s previous books, Strasberg at The Actors Studio and his autobiography A Dream of Passion.
I also recommend reading material on the other arts and biographies of non theater- artists which portray the trials and tribulations of the artistic creative life. I also advise the reading of world literature and the classics which will provide a broadening of the students understanding of world history, culture and the everyday realities of life and custom in different parts of the world and eras.
DF-And which movies are according to you a must see for the aspiring actor?
LC-The list is way too long, however, I do advise avoiding pure action movies where car chases and gratuitous violence are the principle elements and where there is no intelligent or well reasoned character development or story. Section six of the The Lee Strasberg Notes, entitled On the Theater, Acting and Actors, includes vignettes which Lee cites to make a point about films, theater, specific performances and actors or directors, etc. many of which are an excellent starting place for movies and plays worth seeing or reading.
Also, I advise watching the films of other inspirational contemporary and classic directors and actors of world cinema. One starting point is watching Academy Award and Golden Globe winners and nominees including foreign movie awardees.
DF- For our international/out of the area actors, wouldn’t it be a great idea if The Lee Strasberg Institute could start with giving online private acting coach lessons?
LC-We always teach in “units” or classes. The actor must learn how to concentrate and perform in front of other people no matter what else is happening on the stage, the film set, or in class. Being in a group class gives us that opportunity and is crucial in learning how to concentrate at will while being part of a collaborative art form and getting one-on-one feedback in all types of situations.
Coaching an actor for a specific part and reviewing lines is a different thing.
DF-What was the best acting lesson/tip/technique someone ever shared with you?
LC-Here are a few of Lee’s pearls of wisdom, not in any particular order.
“The character comes alive if you believe in what you’re doing.”
“Take your time and be specific.”
“The thought comes before the line, not the line before the thought.”
“Art is in the choice; the choice is that which conditions art.”
“Art is longer than life.”
“The imaginary realities you create must force the scene to happen.”
“When left high and dry by a director, the actor must fill the directorial void themselves.”
“Use the relaxation is to eliminate fear and tension that interrupts expression.”
“Words are a lifeline the actor desperately tries to hold on to, don’t, you must sink or swim.”
Visit www.strasberg.com if you would like to receive some more information on The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and visit www.theleestrasbergnotes.com for more information on the new book of Lola Cohen” The Lee Strasberg Notes”.
Special thanks to Steve Wilson from BWR Public Relations www.bwr-pr.com
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