CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Corey Parker, Actor and Teacher/Coach – Part 1 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

I’m very pleased to present the first installment of my three-part conversation with actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

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 Fim 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 lives in Memphis with his wife Angela and his son Baker. His older son Charlie lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia.

I encourage readers to check out Corey’s very active blog, The Actors Work, which is a truly amazing resource for actors, teachers, and performers of all stripes.

This conversation will be posted in three installments. In Part 1, Corey talks about how he got tricked into becoming an acting teacher, how he does his own preparation as an actor, and when he’s most likely to experience the zone.

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VA: 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.

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CP: 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 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. [Note: you can read Corey’s interview with and tribute to his mother, Rocky Parker, in his blog post here.] 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.

Yeah.

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?

Yeah, definitely.

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.

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With Susan Batson

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.

Wow!

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.

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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.”

Yeah.

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!”

Exactly!

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.

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With Peter Boyle in Flying Blind (1992-93)

 

 

 

 

 

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With Matthew Broderick in Biloxi Blues (1988)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Or avoidance.

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 20-year-old [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.

Yeah.

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.

[In Part 2, which will be posted next, Corey talks about his training, why actors need to find their own technique, and how he tries to get out of the way of his students’ creative problem-solving. –VA]