September 10, 2008

From the Eyes of Our Actors

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Jeffrey Guyton once got arrested while wearing clown suit and furry slippers. Sonja Lanzener had to ask for a key to her hotel room while completely naked. Paul Hebron was once left snorkeling by himself when the entire camera crew of the commercial he was shooting changed location without telling him. Michael Kaplan used to give kids tours around shopping malls. John Hertzler began his professional career with intentions of becoming a lawyer.
We’ve all heard before that the acting world is a difficult one to live in, but nothing could demonstrate this fact more provocatively, more charmingly or more hysterically than the showcase put on by Cornell’s Resident Professional Teaching Associates (RPTAs) on this past Sunday at the Schwartz Center.
These actors — who have worked on everything from Seinfeld and Star Trek (Hertzler) to Broadway shows like Uncle Vanya and Born Yesterday (Hebron) — are part of Cornell’s unique theatre program, which brings professional actors to Ithaca for yearlong residencies. During their tenures, RPTAs teach sections of Theatre 2800: Introduction to Acting, perform in many of the Schwartz Center’s performances and serve as mentors to student-actors during the rehearsals for these performances.
Guyton notes that “the idea of a marriage between professional theater and theater training is not unique to Cornell, but [Cornell has] one of the best [programs].”
Hertzler agrees: “You can’t usually do both — you have to make a choice.” The dearth of comparable opportunities elsewhere contributes to the uniqueness of the RPTA program, which allows the resident actors to teach and perform at the same time, a combination that Kaplan explains is “sort of a dream job
The showcase on Sunday —intended to introduce returning RPTAs Guyton, Lanzener, Hebron, Hertzler and new resident Kaplan — opened as Lanzener noted that actors live with “people not knowing we do.” She continued sardonically, saying, “We don’t [know] either.”
The showcase, however, presented its audience with a pretty good idea of just what the often glorified and mysterious position of professional actor entails. The RPTAs put on a series of acts: some traditional monologues, some untraditional monologues and some casual anecdotes about funny or ridiculous experiences the actors have had over the years.
The traditional monologues included Guyton’s performance of a monologue from Shakespeare’s Richard III. The ways in which he twisted his body could have fooled anyone into thinking that he was actually deformed, just like the infamous king.
Among the less traditional monologues was Lanzener’s “Homeland Security” piece, followed by one titled “Homeland Alert” and a final “Homeland Update.” During these monologues, Lanzener narrated over slides of pictures with lines such as “If a terror attack occurs and a loved one is not available, consider giving yourself felatio” and “in case of emergency, the parking break may be used as an adult novelty item.”
Another untraditional monologue was Kaplan’s stunning performance of Deer Season, by Donald Yonker, which told the story of a tortured high school boy who eventually shot the bullies that tortured him. It turns out that the character delivering the monologue was the boy, himself, as a child psychologist years later.
As thought provoking and remarkable as the monologues were, the casually told stories detailing random events during the actors’ careers were perhaps the highlights of the showcase. A recurrent theme in the stories (one story from actor), was that in the random and often harsh world of acting, it is luck that matters the most.
Hertzler noted that luck is his answer to the often asked question from his students, “How’d you get into the business?” He explained that he landed one of his early roles, “the much coveted role of Gentleman #4” in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, because he fit the costume provided by production. He concluded with the lesson: “Be at the right place at the right time, and be the right suit size.”
He added that it is not only important to “be at the right place at the right time and be the right suit size,” but also to “know your Latin.” Once, when auditioning for a role in which the script included a word he was not sure how to pronounce, Hertzler decided to say the lines in Latin. Luckily, the director loved the Latin spin and hired him for the role.
Kaplan also stressed the importance of luck in an anectode about landing a part because the casting directors happened to need an actor who had a chin that would jut out under a mask. He laughed and echoed Hertzler’s words — “Be at the right place at the right time.”
An act that received even more hysterics from the audience than Lanzener’s “Homeland Security” series was her account of an occasion when she was staying in a hotel while on tour. She locked herself out of her room — without clothes — during a session of sleepwalking. She had no other choice but to walk down, naked, to the front desk to get a second key, noting that she simply did not look at the male bell hop in the lobby and “tried to look as sane as possible.”
While, based on the insane stories told during the showcase, you might not expect it possible for actors to have a life outside of their profession, the reality is quite the opposite. Guyton has an eight-year-old daughter and Hertzler a nine-year-old. Actually, Hertzler’s daughter is part of the reason he joined the RPTA program in the first place; he wanted to get his family out of the big city (Los Angeles). The first time he ever came to Ithaca, he decided it was the perfect place to be.
In fact, some of the other actors expressed a great appreciation for Ithaca as well, especially as compared to L.A. (where a few have lived previously). Kaplan feels the City of Angels has less of a “respect for the profession [of acting] than many places on the east coast.”
The general spirit of Ithaca also seemed to resonate during Sunday’s showcase, especially when Hertzler, with the help of the other RPTAs, sang an interesting rendition of “God Bless America,” titled “Gott Bless Amerika.” Dressed in an army suit, he belted out lines such as “I’m proud to be a Republican; at least I know I’m right.”
Anyone could see by watching the showcase that, while success in show business may be based in part on luck, these RPTAs did not just get lucky. They are talented actors, inspiring teachers, hilarious comedians and average people.
Perhaps the most notable thing to be learned about Cornell’s resident professional actors is that they seem to enjoy helping people have fun just as much as they enjoy having fun themselves.