CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Corey Parker, Actor and Teacher/Coach – Part 2 of 3

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

 

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Here is the second installment of my three-part conversation with esteemed actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.

To read the impressive details of Corey’s career, see Part 1, in which 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. In Part 2, 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. 

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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, 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.

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With Sophia Loren in Courage (1986)

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?

Yes.

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.”]

Right.

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.

With the cast of Broadway Bound (1992): (L to R) Michele Lee, Hume Cronyn, Jerry Orbach, Anne Bancroft, and Jonathan  Silverman

With the cast of Broadway Bound (1992): (L to R) Michele Lee, Hume Cronyn, Jerry Orbach, Anne Bancroft, and Jonathan Silverman

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.

Sure.

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.

With Tom Hulce in Nothing Sacred

With Tom Hulce in Nothing Sacred (1988)

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!” It was like a big rubber mallet hitting your head. “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.

Yeah.

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?

Exactly.

[In Part 3, which will be posted next, Corey talks about developing “the confidence of ability”; the difference between being critical and being judge-y; and how music influences his creative process. –VA]