For Over twenty-five years Anthony Abeson has conducted group acting classes and private coaching for actors in New York.Many of his students have gone on to successful careers in film and television, including Jennifer Aniston, Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s Anatomy) Ian Somerhalder (Lost) Esai Morales (NYPD Blue, The Cure,) Lisa Vidal (Numb3rs,) Cedric Sanders (The Ten) and many others.
Currently working on his first book ‘Must Be Strong Actress… And Look Great In Lingerie’ (Restoring the Ancient Potencies Of Acting)’ and continuing to run acting classes in New York; Anthony took time out to talk to TBMR.CO.UK
Q: How did you get into the line of work you are in today?
A: When I was about five I took tap lessons, but of course I abandoned them when I didn’t immediately get on television. I also started to play the piano which went on for ten years.
But the impulse to perform, regardless of what particular form it took, whether tap, piano or acting, that struck at a very early age. I believe that some people carry within them this strain of DNA, this ancient tendency to perform. Whether or not it actually presents at an early age, I think that they are carriers. In my case I went from tap and piano into acting (off- and off-off- Broadway, stock, film and television.) But what I noticed was that I was always teaching, even back in children’ s theatre. I have an early memory of summer stock on Cape Cod, and I am in a room with a bunch of bewildered apprentices, and I am writing the name Konstantin S. Stanislavski on the blackboard on a hot summer day to a bunch of kids that really wanted to be anywhere else but there.
But I take that as a sign that even back then, teaching was coming through me at the same time I was performing. Gradually I noticed I never seemed to have the time to do my acting homework. But I always had time to do my directing and my teaching homework. You always have space for ice cream no matter how full you are, but I never seemed to have the space left for the acting homework. So as I realized my appetite had shifted, I became more and more of a teacher - director and less and less of an actor. And that’s where we are at this moment.
Q: Do you get the urge to do any acting today?
A: Yes, I still get the urge and I have done things sporadically over the years. I believe that that’s re-emerging stronger and stronger, but I’m not as hungry for it as the students that I teach. They’re willing to put up with things that I am not. I don’t want to act if the vibes are going to be bad, if I am going to be given terrible direction, I don’t want it that badly. My students want it that badly, so of course what I’m trying to do is enable them to do good work under difficult circumstances.
Q: Do the students you’re teaching at the moment mainly want to go into television and film, or do a lot of them still want to do theatre and Broadway?
A: Well, I would have to say that despite my background and my training, which are primarily theatrical, the vast proportion of them are involved in film and television. I’ve got some kids in class right now that are on Broadway and I’m currently coaching several people privately that are starring on Broadway, but I would say that the vast majority are auditioning for, or working in, film and television.
Q: Are your classes formulated and rigid or is your teaching style more free- flow and relaxed?
A: Well, I can;t imagine anyone in their right mind admitting to being rigid, but I will say, Matthew, that it’s a great question. This is not a golden age for our particular art form, and one sign of that is the incredible recipe- orientation often encountered in the teaching of acting. There are places and people that will insist that there is only one way of working, which I believe is insane because each individual is utterly different. Stanislavski put it best of all when he said ‘No recipes… whatever works’ Can I tell you a quick story? I had a wonderful young, single mother, very disadvantaged economically, who was intending to study during a summer when I wasn’t teaching and I encouraged her to go elsewhere to study. She found a place that charged her $750 for one month. Now that’s quite a lot. I charge $200 a month, but everyone’s allowed to charge what they want. In the first two weeks of learning their method ( they were very invested in a particular way of working) she came to them and said ‘I’m trying to be true to your method and its making me feel like I suck and its making me feel like you think that I suck and I’m starting to lose confidence in my ability’. Their response was ‘keep doing it, finish the month and it will all come together’ Having spent all that money, she was very determined to get some return on her investment so she said ‘OK’. She redoubled her efforts, to no avail, and by the end of the month she said ‘You know, I’m worse now than I was two weeks ago. I’m starting to question my talent and I’m beginning to feel like I can’t act at all. What should I do?’. And they said ‘Sign up for the two- year program’ That’s insane to me, Matthew. It reminds me of those hairstylists that impose this one cut that they’ve learned on everyone, regardless of their differences. It’s beyond me, and it bespeaks a kind of poverty in terms of their imagination, their respect for and celebration of the uniqueness of the actors that they have in front of them, and it also exposes a terrible lack of variety of tools in their tool belts, if all they can do is keep banging you over the head with this one thing. There’s a lot of this recipe orientation and I find it very disturbing.
Going back to the original question about how do I work. I deeply believe that you have to have access to a wide variety of approaches and the flexibility and willingness to try them.
The question also touches on my background. I’ve worked with people that are so wildly different, some of them wouldn’t even talk to each other (for example Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg) but in a strange way this bewildering and mutually exclusive collection of teachers inoculated me against a tendency towards recipes, because how could you possibly subscribe to one way of working when you’ve been trained by so many varying influences?
Q: About the story you’ve just told, with the woman who is from a financially limited background. Do you have a large variety of students from both ends of the financial scale?
A: Well there are two goods things about the way it’s set up. Number one I deliberately keep my fees very low. I don’t really know people’s backgrounds, I just know that they’ve got the ability to pay a comparatively very low tuition, and if they’re in class, they can coach with me on auditions for 50% off. I really try to make it very affordable for them and a lot of people, including other acting teachers, have really questioned that. They say ‘Why, if they want to coach with you, would you give them a 50% discount?’. It’s a good question. I don’t really know. The only thing I could come up with is that if I had an uncle in the used car business and I went to him to buy a car, I would expect some kind of discount. I guess that means that in this unfortunate analogy I am their uncle in the used car business. The other good news is that it is all by audition because I’m much too old to work with the talent free, and so while I don’t know about their financial resources, the one thing I do know is that they have all passed the audition and, as far as I’m concerned, they have talent.
Q: With the audition side of it, do you attend all your auditions or do you have somebody that is at the auditions with you?
A: It’s just me.
Q: How many students do you have on average a year?
A: At any given moment we’ve got between 40 to 50 students in the classes, not counting the people that coach with me one- on- one. It’s worth remembering that those 40 to 50 are selected from hundreds of applicants, and that consequently the odds are pretty good that by the time we take one of them, they have definitely manifested talent because we’ve got an awful lot of perspective. But also I have to say, if you look at my background, you will see that for seven years I was a tenured acting teacher at the High School for the Performing Arts (the “Fame” school). That is a public vocational high school and it’s free to the five boroughs of New York City. The Drama department alone would have 3000 applicants every year, out of which we would take 70. It’s remarkable the kind of talent I was privileged to work with there, and so that’s another perspective that I’ve been given on what talent is and how it can present, which informs my audition-selection process.. I don’t think, before or since, I’ve been exposed to that concentration of talent per capita, save in my classes.
Q: You’ve been working in New York for 20 years. Was it due to the ‘Fame’ academy and Broadway being in New York that made you want to stay there, or otherwise would you have moved to Los Angeles and concentrated on acting and teaching for film and television?
A: First of all, I don’t know and I’m speculating now because nobody has asked me that before. I was born in Manhattan and I was raised here and it’s possible that there was some kind of call of the old home roots. . Most of my students, after they’ve worked with me, go to LA , and I’m happy and proud to say that many of them are doing quite well there. But in terms of the atmosphere of the place, the weather and the seasons, I would not be happy there. I’ve done workshops out there and I’m happy to do that but I’m a happier person and teacher here.
Q: You’ve worked in Paris and New Zealand. Have you ever been tempted to come and teach/work over here in England?
A: Yes. Sure. This is the thing. I really, really believe, not only in what I do with regard to the process of acting, but also with regard to the perception of acting; a perception, I am sorry to say, that is much degraded from what it once was and is meant to be. What was once revealing the truth has now become displaying yourself, baring the soul’s now baring the flesh. Not only do I believe in what I do, but I believe that it’s important to try to counteract that prevailing, degraded perception..
Bottom line to your question is, I’d do it anywhere. I was going to go to Italy this summer, this gentleman wanted me very much to go to a town in Italy that I shouldn’t mention and I said ‘Sure I’d be happy to go to Italy’. But I was silly enough to ask him what he would pay me. Every time I asked him this he would tell me how beautiful the scenery was, and I thought ‘Well that’s really wonderful, but it’s probably not the currency I should be paid with’ But, yeah, I would go anywhere if I thought that I could make a contribution.
Q: With cinema, film and television I agree with what you’re saying in that the screen has become more sexualized than it needs to be. Like you were saying about baring the flesh. How do you think that this could be changed back into more of an art form, What kind of steps would you take to reverse it back to a more artistic medium, instead of a sexualized one?
A: Well that’s a wonderful question. I’ll try not to make it a long answer but there are several aspects to this.
One of them is that the actor has to start to really see themselves differently. I think a lot of actors have internalized this kind of degraded view of the art form. A young woman I worked with a while ago got a call back for something and I said ‘I think you’re in good shape now so you can feel confident’ And she said, ‘But to boost my confidence I’m going to wear a really short skirt and I’m going to unbutton a few of the buttons on my blouse’ Did she really have so little faith in her talent that she felt the need to supplement it with cheesecake? It was so sad. She’s a talented woman, but yet she’s internalized this perception of herself as an actress/pinup girl.
So one of the ways to change this is we have to start thinking about what is the thing that we are revealing/displaying. T S Eliot said we are ‘both spirit and body/ And therefore must serve as spirit and body./ Visible and invisible, two worlds meetâ€¦’ in us. I think that if you are being asked or compelled to only deliver the one without the other, then you should really stop and question where that’s coming from in terms of the industry. The other day a young woman asked me , she was about to book a film, and as she was leaving they said ‘Oh by the way, the part’s going to require some partial nudity’ She called me and I talked to her about it, because of course there are moments when it is legitimately going to reveal not just your flesh but something about the spirit of the character, the situation, and at that point its very important to recognize that artistic necessity and to go along with it. At the same time, if it’s really not what Eliot was talking about, the spirit and the flesh, then maybe we could question it’s necessity, perhaps even say no sometimes. Maybe we could stop thinking of ourselves as displayers of our flesh and instead hark back to the ancient and, dare I say, noble calling of revealers of the truth.
Q: Has your view on this ever caused you any difficulty when working in the industry? Do you have a closer working relationship with the actors, or do you get involved with talking to producers and the big studios about acting classes and skills, or is it just an actor- based situation?
A: I spend most of my time dealing with actors. I love them and I understand them and I am one in my heart and in my past. I would say that there is a small portion of my time that has been, is and will be spent on dealing with the industry. Maybe we could leave it at that * laughs *. ‘Cause you know, Matthew, I’ve gotta tell you one other thing if I may, because I forgot to, and in fact it is actually in relation to your question about the industry. There are two actually. A young woman that I worked with screen- tested for a project and the result was a sample of what I was talking about with the industry.
They called me afterwards and we talked about it and they said, ‘She’s hands down the most talented young woman that tested but we went another way’ And I said ‘Well, why was that?’ and they said , with the tone of one who was explaining the unbelievably obvious to the unbelievably obtuse, they said ‘the other girl was a Victoria’s secret model’. My kid was the best actress, but that’s who they went with.
The other thing that is related to this concerns a young man, James, who works all the time, a very talented actor. A year or two ago he called me and said he was so excited that a network wanted to see him do something, so we prepared some monologues, one from Tennessee Williams and one from Chekhov. We worked liked demons and I said ‘James, you must call me right afterwards to tell me how it went,’ because it’s not often that a network calls to want to see an actor do something. So he called me after and I said ‘James how did it go? Which one did they like the best, the Tennessee Williams?’ And he said ‘no’ and I said ‘Well, how about the Chekhov, did they like that one?’ and he said ‘No, they didn’t see either one of them’ and I said ‘Well James, if they didn’t see either one of them, then what the hell did they want to see?’ and he said ‘Anthony, what they wanted to see was me with my shirt off holding an automatic weapon’. I believe that that is an eloquent statement of the problem and I also couldn’t possibly make that up.
That is a real network with real power to cast real actors and produce real projects that are going to be seen by real people that are going to have a real affect on those people. And that’s why I say I’ll go anywhere and I’ll do anything to try to counteract this, because it is laughable. But it’s also destructive to the actors and equally, if not more so, to the culture.
Q: Going along the same lines as what we’re talking about now. You are currently writing a book, ‘Must Be Strong Actress… And Look Great In Lingerie’ (Restoring the Ancient Potencies Of Acting)’. Could you tell me more about that ?
A: Yes, look at the title. That is a real breakdown. A breakdown is the character description that the casting directors use to describe the characters that they’re trying to cast, and that is from a real breakdown: ‘Must be strong actress and look great in lingerie’ and the ’strong actress’ was in capital letters. When they were casting this, I was very impressed that they were really interested in the acting ability, and then I saw after the capital letters ‘must look good in lingerie’ and I thought , ‘Well, there it is’. And that’s a real one. If you notice, the subtitle of the book is ‘Restoring the Ancient Potencies of Acting’ which refers to our earlier conversation.
Q: How are you getting on with that? When is it due out?
A: Well right now it is in the hands of literary agents and so it is in the birth canal. I have also been resisting certain kinds of literary advice which I think has delayed it because with a straight face people have told me, and this is another manifestation of the culture, ‘Anthony, it’s too high- minded. Dumb it down. Drop more names’. This is the kind of advice I’ve been getting and I’m sure I’m being naive to be really dismayed by that. I know that that’s part of how the culture is. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to dumb it down and drop more names, because, under those circumstances, what do I get if I win?
Q: Have you ever written anything before?
A: I’ve written articles for the Village Voice, a publication called The Theatre Paper and The Washington Star but this is my first book. And I’ve been driven to it by the very things we’ve been talking about today. It’s not something I just decided ‘what the hell I’ve got nothing better to do’. I really feel like I’ve got to sound the trumpet.
Q: I’ve been having a look at your site, at your previous students, and you’ve got Jennifer Aniston on there and Ian Somerhalder and various others. Are there any in particular that you have really fond memories of?
A: You mean besides the ones that everyone knows of? Students that you don’t know of?
Q: Yes, students that are not internationally famous but students of yours that have stuck with you and had a special part in your development?
A: Well yeah, I’ve got a lot of those. One of the great rewards of doing what I do is the kind of reciprocity of being touched. A lot of students are kind enough to say that I have touched their world and the development of their talent and their lives in some way, and I can truthfully say that in every instanceI I have also been grateful to be touched by them and their struggle and success. I can think of two people right now.
A young girl came to me a couple of years ago who is Pakistani and she had been geared towards a very different profession, geared towards something heavily academic, I forget what, it might have been scientific or medical. But it was totally not what her family was thinking of when she came to me to embark on an acting career, and she struggled. Very pretty girl and talented, but she struggled with the fact that she had to overcome a certain amount of cultural conditioning from that background, and she also had to overcome a certain amount of industry conditioning which is ‘What does one do with a Pakistani young woman?’. It was very frustrating for her, because she was encountering both internal obstacles, based on her nurture and nature, and she was also encountering external obstacles based on stereotypes that the industry has of ‘young leading lady’ In her background, which was Muslim, the very emphasis on sexuality that the industry requires became even more of a problem because of how modest that culture is, and yet that was the kind of stuff she would go up for. And then, of course, she wouldn’t book because she looked like she was Pakistani and a lot of the time they were looking for a blonde. This was a struggle that went on. We worked very hard, we coached privately on auditions, we worked in class for 2 years. Then she went out to LA and she finally booked a part on a show. We had also worked very hard on her ability to be tough and edgy, because she’s not, and she finally booked a part as an FBI agent. And they dropped her after about one or two episodes because they felt that there was still some kind of sweetness that showed through, and she was meant to be tough. Elated as we were that she booked it,, we were very, very downcast when they dropped her.. Because of the kind of struggle she’s had, I’m proud and thrilled to say that she is now a running character on a network series that has been renewed for a second season. What a struggle, and there she is on television playing one of the leads. Over the holiday season I was so thrilled because they had the stars of various shows for the network just pop on as themselves talking about up- coming shows, and there she was as an established member of that particular network, and I just cried. I was so touched that she’d overcome so much.
The second person is a young African- American guy that studied with me for years. He came from a very rough section of Newark, New Jersey, struggled with all manner of bad influences in his neighbourhood and even closer to home, really terrible influences, and never succumbed. But at the same time paid a price, because he was not supported in any way by the community or his family, yet he had to act and he was very talented. At the moment I met him he was working at a shoe store, in a mall, and he just couldn’t stand it any longer. To cut a long story short, he came to me and studied with me for several years and would come to class in his Fed Ex outfit because then he was earning his living as a messenger and continued to struggle. He’d had family responsibilities thrust upon him from the time he was a teenager when he should have been allowed to be a kid, but he had had to be a grown up. He’s so talented, a talented young leading man with tremendous integrity. And then, after he’d had this heart- breaking struggle with poverty, with family, everything, he shot a short film with the distinguished actress Novella Nelson, and it went to Sundance. Then he shot a film with Spike Lee’s protage and he’s just returned from Italy where he filmed Spike Lee’s WWII movie ‘Miracle at St Anne’s’ He’s now got a manager and a whole lot of other projects. He’s involved in five or six films right now, and when I think of how he struggled, I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more than this young man. I learned that at Performing Arts…..talent saves lives. All the more reason why talent should not be degraded. Talent not used is talent used up, and if the talent is used up, so is your lifeline, if you’re one of those that has to do it.
Q: It does show that any kind of creative job can have an effect on someone’s life and give them the direction to achieve the things they need. I think that’s fantastic.
A: And it is directly related, I think, to what we said way back at the start of our conversation. It is related to this Salmon- like instinct to swim upstream in pursuit of the dream: it’s in the DNA. I can’t speak for those who kinda sorta like it, or who try it because someone once told them that they should because they have a great look. I’m talking about the ones that have to, no matter what. It’s they who carry that ancient strain of performance DNA. They are like the rivers that must run to the ocean, like the fire that ascends to the Sun: all of them impelled to seek their Source.
Interview conducted by Matthew Scattergood-Morris
To find out more about Anthony & his work visit: http://www.anthonyabeson.com
TBMR.CO.UK would like to thank Anthony for taking the time to do this interview.