In the Chair : A Podcast on Acting
The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute is proud to present a new podcast on acting: In the Chair, founded by NYU at Strasberg alumni Will Brockman and Samantha Vita. A round table discussion between students, faculty, and alumni, In the Chair will tackle current events, alumni news, and The Method – and give listeners a peek behind the famous red doors of Lee Strasberg’s acclaimed school for Method Acting.
The Evolution of Lady Gaga
In this premiere episode, Will and Samantha are joined by Method Acting instructor Tim Martin Crouse and NYU Tisch at Strasberg student Jenna Fink. The group sits down to discuss the career and evolution of Young Actors at Strasberg alumna Lady Gaga, including her role in activism and the #MeToo movement. Tim, who taught Stefani Germanotta when she was a student at Strasberg, recalls her deliberate creation of the Lady Gaga persona. He cites her 2015 Oscars performance of The Sound of Music, describing how – for many – it was the first time hearing Stefani’s true voice. Her former teacher recounts how, in the face of Gaga’s meat dresses and spectacle, so many fans “didn’t know the depths of what she’s got to offer.”
The character of Lady Gaga has not only helped Stefani defy expectations but also given her a platform on which to speak out. Tim speaks to how the misogyny of the music industry and Stefani’s underdog disposition propel her activism. He explains that, in an industry riddled with figures like Harvey Weinstein, the lesson to learn is “protect yourself”. He implores actors to set boundaries and hold their network – including their agents and managers – responsible when those boundaries are broken.
“It’s your audition. It’s not theirs, it’s yours. So, who cares what they want out of you in your first reading? You show them what you want to show them.”Tim Martin Crouse
Both Tim and Jenna emphasize the importance of an actor feeling safe and in control of a situation, whether in a scene or an audition room. Tim explains that an actor feeling safe is what allows them to go deep into their work. If an actor feels uncomfortable – with what they are being asked to do, with the people in the room, or with the situation at large – they lose their willingness to be vulnerable. Jenna adds that, in the face of the #MeToo movement, communication and boundaries are key, especially when dealing with intimacy in scenes.
Does The Method leave you vulnerable?
The basis of Lee Strasberg’s Method is relaxation and sense memory exercises – drawing upon sensorial experiences from your own past to give life to a character. Looking to tackle a misconception about the technique, our hosts ask Tim if he feels that using The Method leaves an actor more vulnerable in a potentially uncomfortable situation. Tim’s answer? No. He explains that Method Acting gives you tools with which to approach your work, and that those tools serve to protect you:
“If you know you’re doing this or this or this to get to something, not only can you repeat it – which is going to help you when you’re working – but also you know how to get to it. You don’t need to be manipulated. You’re not giving your power away to someone else to get to something. You have the power.”Tim Martin Crouse
Want more? In The Chair can be found on iTunes, Spotify, and Listen Notes!
Will Brockman: Hi everyone. I’m Will Brockman.
Samantha Vita: And I’m Samantha Vita.
Will: We’re here at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and you’re listening to the first episode of In the Chair…
Sam: with Will and Samantha!
Will: Hi guys!
Will: So, let’s tell our listeners what this podcast is about. We are both alumni – NYU Tisch at Strasberg alumni – and we are looking for a way to talk about current events through the lens of what’s going on here at Strasberg. This podcast is going to focus on getting voices from teachers, alumni, students of The Institute to talk about the world around them and how we as artists and actors and human beings are affected by current events.
Sam: We also want to use this podcast as a chance to open up our doors a bit –
Will: The red doors!
Sam: – and give people insight on Method Acting and the technique that we have because there’s often a cloud surrounding it. There are a lot of preconceptions about what Method Acting is, most of which are untrue, and a lot of actors – popular, famous people in the media – saying that they are Method actors when they are not. So we want to demystify it, take the pretentiousness out of it, and be real about what this technique is. And promote our school a little bit because we love it so much and it’s a place we’ve really grown to be artists in!
Will: Hopefully we’re giving you a little behind-the-scenes look. It’s one thing to know the facts about what you will learn at an acting school, but it’s a very different thing to hear the people and hear the characters that exist within this building. This really is a building of characters and every time I walk in here, no matter how long it’s been, it feels like home in such a way. There such a very specific group of people who are here and you’re going to hear from in the next few episodes.
Sam: And we are so excited! It’s gonna get real. We’re not afraid to go there on certain topics. We want this to be an honest and fresh and new take on this place that we love so much, this place where we’ve become artists in.
Will: And better human beings! So with that being said, I’m Will.
Sam: And I’m Samantha.
Will: And we’ll be right back!
Will: So today we are joined by two very exciting guests. We’re here with Tim Crouse, who is a teacher here at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, and Jenna Fink, who is currently a third year student. We’re very excited today to talk about Lady Gaga, who is really having a moment in her career because she’s switching lanes while maintaining a lot of different things. Tim actually taught Lady Gaga when she was studying here at The Institute!
Tim Martin Crouse: She wanted to learn the sensory work. She wanted to learn everything about acting, like, yesterday. She is very, very ambitious. Very pleasant, very easy to deal with, and very bright. She knew where she was going, even though she had no idea she was going to turn into this meat dress wearing thing. She definitely had an idea of where she wanted to be. She was obsessed at the time with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. That’s all she talked about. In fact, she stopped studying here only because Christina Aguilera’s vocal coach took her on as a student and it interfered with the classes. That was the big thing for her. She did piano lessons. She really wanted to do it. She was very consummate, which I think is the thing that really makes her different from a lot of the people that go out there.
Will: So, what has it been like for you, as someone who taught her, to watch her career trajectory in the way that it’s played out so far.
Tim: Well, the way that it’s played out is exactly how she planned it out to be, which is interesting. Not when she was fourteen, she wasn’t thinking of all this, but when I dealt with her later on – she was supposed to be in the last movie I directed but her concert schedule got in the way – she talked to me about Lady Gaga. She’s obsessed with Madonna. Madonna’s kind of her lynch pin and she looked at the pitfalls that Madonna had. Madonna as an actress – you can never watch her and not see Madonna. That was one of the reasons she wanted to create this Lady Gaga thing. She said, “I know pop music is a very young person’s thing and I wanna go from the music back into the acting and, that way, I can go back to being Stefani Germanotta”. The thing is, she always had this planned out. She didn’t have an idea of exactly how it would plan out, although I think it worked out really perfectly, but she really was about fame. She studied fame.
In her late teens, early twenties, she had a record deal and she cut her first record and it didn’t get released. It got dropped. That was really the big thing that made her throw everything in the air and say, “What do I do?”. Because she was playing the game, she was doing everything the way they wanted it done. She was writing very good, decent pop songs which actually ended up getting sold off. It was really when she got the second record deal when she basically said “screw it, I’m gonna learn what I learned before and do what I wanna do”.
The thing about a lot of the students that I’ve had who’ve become famous – Claire Danes, Rosario Dawson, Chris Evans, and so on down the line – is that you know them as you know them, which is a kid, a student. As they become famous, they get this “thing” around them, which isn’t really them as much as the people around them now treating them as something different. It’s very weird to be around them, sometimes, when they’re famous because you still see them as a student. I remember one time when Claire was at Strasberg giving a talk and I said, “What do you need? What can I do to help you?”. She said, “I’m so scared” and you could tell, for that moment, she was looking at me like her teacher from 20 years ago. I remember thinking and said, “What are you scared about? You do this stuff all the time”. And she said, “Yeah, but I’m at school”. It’s because she was still Claire, coming to school.
I remember when Stefani did the Oscars and they did the tribute to The Sound of Music. The students who are into her think she’s a freak, which I keep saying she isn’t; she’s smart very grounded, very centered – it’s just a thing she’s created. But when she sang, people were blown away that she had a voice and I said, “oh, you guys have no idea how well she can sing”. This was before Tony Bennett and everything. It kind of surprised me because I realized that they didn’t know the depths of what she’s got to offer. That’s where I was like, “good for her”. They had such different expectations of her because of the meat dress and the egg and all the other silly stuff; because they don’t think that she can sing; because we have so many people who are “musicians” now who can’t play music or can’t really sing. But she knows her stuff, trust me.
Sam: You mentioned that you’ve taught other successful actors in the past. I am wondering if there are any common traits or characteristics that they have?
Tim: Drive. Sacrifice. Work hard. Very focused. There’s not one that I would say is just luck. You can get lucky and get a break, but keeping yourself in a career takes a lot more than that. That’s the one thing that’s consistent with all of them. They’re all very smart too.
Will: So, one thing that Lady Gaga has had throughout the bulk of her career has been a sense of activism and a sense of urgency in that activism. She maintains a lot of truthfulness because it feels like it comes from a really raw place in her. She’s always been an advocate for women and the LGBTQ community, but the one thing that she did before it was in the zeitgeist of pop culture that it is now was advocate for victims of sexual assault, advocate for women and anyone who is a victim to be able to use their voice. She performed at the Oscars, I believe it was the year after The Sound of Music, with her original song “Til It Happens to You”. Obviously, now she is speaking on sexual assault in a different way. She just had that moment where she wore that Marc Jacobs suit and spoke about the bravery of herself and other survivors. Can you speak about the ways in which that has always been present in her? You were saying she’s a very smart individual, who is passionate and driven. How do you, as someone who knows her, view this as an integral part of her journey?
Tim: I think this really came around as she grew up in New York and got in the music industry, very young. Her parents were very good about supporting her and taking her out to performances and random things like that with her portable keyboard. The music industry is probably one of the most misogynistic industries around. All of the arts, unfortunately, have a lot of it. I think a lot of her reaction, her turning into Lady Gaga, was a part of that. Even though she very much embraced her sexuality, she also has always felt like an outsider. Identifying with the underdog has been a big thing with her. I think that a lot of artists before her put a lot of attention to how women were objectified or treated. Tori Amos – “Me and a Gun”, which was a brilliant song on her first solo album was about her assault. But Stefani is really… I mean, she’s just huge right now and I think that gets a lot more out there. She identifies as an underdog which means that she looks at other people as “we’re all the same, even though we’re different”. She embraces the difference to understand where the commonality is. I think it’s very important that she does it. And I think it is very truthful.
Will: I have one thing that I’m curious about. Because you’ve worked a lot as an actor and as a filmmaker and you were speaking about how the industry, in many different facets, is misogynistic – I would love to hear if you have any stories of observances or experiences that you’ve had, whether it’s about how times have changed since you started working or ways in which maybe it hasn’t changed so much.
Tim: Well, I don’t know. Ok. Harvey Weinstein was indicted, “exposed”. I found it kind of pathetic because everyone in the industry knew what a pig he was. I’ve had a couple of run ins with him, nothing major; I knew people who worked for him. It was common knowledge. And when I heard it being talked about, particularly in the teacher’s lounge, I was more shocked at the supposed “oh my god, can you believe this” aspect. Because I was like, “Are you guys kidding me? You guys have been around, you’ve heard this stuff.” I think it’s horrible, but it’s been that way. There’s nothing really new about it, except it’s suddenly on the New York Times. I even said to each of them, “Didn’t anything like this ever happen to you?”. I went around the room to all the teachers and everyone went “oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah”. I said, “of course”. Unfortunately, in acting, you are objectified because you are an object. Women get it worse than men, but men get it, trust me. We all have our stories. The thing that you take from it, what we have learned or hopefully have learned from all this, is to protect yourself. That’s the key thing.
Ultimately this industry isn’t just Harvey Weinstein or the actors who are the victims. It also about what agent or manager sent someone to that hotel room. Period. It never gets discussed. Let’s face it – someone’s arranging that. It isn’t just the actor and Harvey Weinstein. All those people are just as conducive and, the thing is, they don’t get exposed or mentioned at all in this. It’s not to point fingers, there’s complicity everywhere.
The key to this is for people to be responsible. When I’ve cast things, it’s very important that people coming in to read with me feel safe to be able to do things. That’s my job as a director, as a writer, and certainly as an actor. If I’m doing a scene with you, you better be safe because only within us being safe and trusting each other can we go as far as we need to go. If I have to worry about myself, literally, I’m not gonna go as far. I’ve worked with acting teachers back when I was younger who used to just abuse you. I mean, verbally abuse you. Their thing was “we’re gonna break you down”. And I thought, “nope, not gonna go there,” which means I’m not going to be giving the best work because I’m not going to be that vulnerable. Now, the teachers that I trusted, you could go with because you knew that they had your back. I think people need to be responsible and think about what they’re doing. If someone opens a hotel door with a robe on, that’s not an audition. You say no. And then you call your agent or manager and fire them for sending you there.
Will: I think that’s interesting that you’re talking specifically about Harvey Weinstein, about how people knew. I’m certainly not actively working on major feature film sets – yet – and I knew about Harvey Weinstein. There were jokes about Harvey Weinstein abusing people on 30 Rock, on television. It’s in the culture and it’s nothing new, so there’s an entire network of people that just exist – like you said, that are complicit in this – that need to be called out in the way they are now. That’s why it’s important you do have people like Lady Gaga who are literally putting the pants on and taking their voice and using it a constructive way. It’s at the Golden Globes, having people like Asia Argento speaking out. It’s the mass movement of it that I have never seen, that I don’t think is precedented.
Sam: I’d be interested to know what you think about The Method specifically and how that technique affects someone’s ability to be vulnerable in what could be seen as unsafe situations.
Tim: I think the thing about The Method is that it’s very organic training. It’s giving you tools to be able to get to the reality of your scenes and your characters. To me, those tools are what protect you. Lee was never an invasive person. He wanted you to get there but he wasn’t about you talking about it. He wasn’t one of those kinds of teachers. To me, the tools are what protect you. If you know you’re doing this or this or this to get to something, you not only can repeat it – which is going to help you when you’re working – but also you know how to get to it. You don’t need to be manipulated. You don’t need someone. You’re not giving your power away to someone else to get to something. You have the power. I find that the work that Lee did is very empowering because you have the power to go do it.
Getting back to Stefani – the fact is that, if you’ve trained your voice, you have more power than someone who hasn’t trained their voice simply because you know how to utilize it. You know how to use it on a bad day, on a good day, in humid weather, in dry weather. You have the technique to do it. Technique gives you a freedom that I don’t think people don’t understand. They see it as constraining you, but it doesn’t constrain you at all. It actually gives you a lot more freedom to go. It’s like, once you’ve got your lines down, you’re much more free to play. You can’t play as much if you’ve got your script in your hand.
Will: With that being said, I think that would be a good point at which we can take a break. We’ll be right back.
Will: One of the most exciting programs at Strasberg is the Young Actors program. Young Actors at Strasberg is an intensive and diverse program for students in grades 2-12. Our program explores the creative process and helps students develop skills in acting technique, teamwork, and leadership as it applies to stage and film. Do you know a young person in your life who would benefit from Method Acting training? Find out more info today at strasberg.edu/new-york-theatre-film-school/programs/young-actors/
Sam: Before the break we were talking a lot about acting technique, specifically The Method. Now we have Jenna Fink with us, she is a third year at Strasberg. We were wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, how your training has been here, and relate it back to how you fit in all this with the #MeToo movement and what it’s like to be a woman and a woman actor.
Jenna Fink: Yeah! So, I am a third year student at Strasberg and I love The Method. I’m a big fan of The Method.
Will: Glad to hear it.
Sam: That’s good.
Jenna: I think that using personal experience is such a great way to approach characters. Being able to take parts of yourself and know how you are different from the character and the same – that is the character you are creating. I think The Method can help in creating a character both over a long period of time – in a play – or in a short film. I think The Method helps a lot with cold readings. You can just connect to something quickly, that gives you what you need, and you don’t have to think twice about it. The Method’s great for that. In terms of my experience, with the #MeToo movement –
Will: Even not as an actor, just as a human being.
Sam: Yeah! Just as a human being.
Jenna: I mean, I think it’s super important that we’re talking about these things. I think it’s affected so many people, especially women, in so many ways. And I think it does come into the classroom because we are being so vulnerable with each other. It’s hard to not have it affect the work, especially when you’re doing more intimate scenes. With more intimate scenes, it’s just important that things are really choreographed, the way you would choreograph fight choreography. Because it’s not really any different. It’s just blocking and choreography and you need to know what you’re doing. You need to ask your partner if things are ok and they need to ask you, just so that you feel safe. That’s all stuff that should be happening in rehearsal.
Will: Right. That’s a good point about the choreography of it. I remember there was a movie that was just out with an actor who demanded that there was an intimacy choreographer on set.
Sam: They have that on HBO now.
Will: You were telling me about this! Yeah, it was The Deuce. It was Maggie Gyllenhaal and The Deuce. For the entire season – I remember because she was talking about this on The View – she was saying that, even if you were just an extra on set and you had a “scantily clad model” kind of job, you would be reached out to the night before: “Hey, this is the job you signed up for. Just wanted to confirm you’re still ok with this.”
Jenna: And it’s so important. Just to develop a vocabulary for talking about scenes that way and choreographing that way is so important. It’s so that everyone is comfortable and so that you can do your best work.
Sam: Especially at a place like Strasberg, we do so much improv. That’s a huge part of creating the scene and getting it to where you need to go. I totally agree. Do you think that The Method has ever… I don’t know how I want to phrase this. I feel like in class, one of the first things that you learn when you’re learning The Method is that you never use something that you’re uncomfortable with. The thing that you are using – there’s a seven year rule, or something?
Tim: Yeah, you need to be “complete” with it.
Sam: Complete with it! Right.
Tim: If there is something that creates dissonance in you, you don’t go there. Lee always said there are many ways to get to the same thing, so you don’t always have to go to the one thing that is going to be the most parallel. Once again, if you don’t have it formed within you, you’re not going to be able to do it fully anyway. So, maybe go to something else.
Will: I think that’s an interesting conundrum that a lot of people face. Especially when you’re on the younger side of actor training, you only have so much life experience to pull from. I know for me, not with stuff that’s as serious as assault, but I’ve tried to use stuff that’s happened more recently and it’s not there yet. It’s the protection of self. The psyche just isn’t ready for it yet.
Jenna: Even if it works once, it never works consistently.
Sam: I feel like in a university setting that happens quite often. I don’t know if you agree but that’s how I felt sometimes. If people felt like they needed to push to cry, or push to perform to get praise from a certain teacher – I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
Jenna: I think especially in the beginning, like first year, people would do things that they weren’t ready to do yet. I think as the training went on, we all understood that we didn’t need to do those things and that those things weren’t even the most useful or effective
Sam: Right. That’s good. I agree.
Will: The direction that we’re moving now in is that you need to be able to use your voice and speak up when you find something to be uncomfortable or a line that you don’t wanna cross. But it’s also putting a lot of onus on that person to be brave in situations when they’re probably not going to feel comfortable naturally. So how to you both, as an educator and a student, walk that line of making sure that you are keeping yourself and your students and your peers safe?
Jenna: I think that as a student it’s just about setting a clear boundary before anything happens. Saying, in an improv or in a rehearsal, especially in a scene that’s more intimate, “Ok, you can touch my shoulder. You can touch my stomach. I don’t want you to touch this part of me.” And if that boundary is crossed, recognizing that and going to the teacher or to an administrator, or even to a friend who you think could help you talk to a teacher or an administrator. But having a clear boundary makes it so much easier to know when something isn’t ok.
Will: Yeah, that you set stuff up from the beginning.
Tim: I think that my job as a teacher is not only to encourage each of students to pursue what they want to pursue but also to build their confidence in what they do and in themselves. I’m not talking arrogance, I mean confidence. Which means, you have to know what your rights are. You have to understand, you have the right. When I teach the audition class, the first thing I always tell them is, “It’s your audition. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.” So, who cares what they want out of you in your first reading? You show them what you want to show them. Then you can take their feedback in. I think that’s kind of the rule for any artist which is: say what you want to say, do what you want to do and then listen, then adjust. Sometimes there are parameters set up by the script but you’re interpreting that. That what you’re really here to do. What I always felt that we were doing here at Strasberg was really creating artists. Which is different than creating actors and different than creating stars, we’re creating artists. Which is learning how to work. What an artist does is have something to say. There is something to be said about your version of Hedda Gabler over somebody else’s version. Both are right, but what makes them unique is that each has something a little bit different to focus on. I think it really is about fostering the confidence in the students to be able to do that.
Will: There’s a thoughtfulness behind that, I think, that’s fostered here. That is different than a lot of other places. In the former students of yours that you listed off before, there’s a lot of thoughtfulness.
Sam: A lot of listening.
Will: And that, I think, is the hallmark of something that sets people apart. That’s a really key thing, that I hadn’t articulated before. That’s a little golden nugget, right there.
Tim: Think about it – as actors, you are essentially shining a light on humanity.
Sam: Well, thank you guys so much for being here today!
Will: I think that’s a good place to end! We’ve reached our final segment, which is the long loud sound. The long loud sound is an essential part of relaxation –
Sam: Which is a preparation technique within The Method.
Will: – and we’re gonna give a long loud sound, so to speak, to something that we’re a little frustrated about, that we don’t wanna deal with anymore. Should I start?
Will: So, this week, I’m gonna give a long loud sound to winter dryness. I am already sick of the wind chill. I am bathing in moisturizer. There is always that one little piece of dead skin on your nose that like you can’t get rid of no matter how much you exfoliate. And I’m sick of it.
Sam: He’s sick of it.
Will: I’m sick of it already. I busted out my new winter coat.
Sam: It’s amazing. It’s red.
Will: But guess what it doesn’t protect? Your face! Your face. I am just bathing in hyaluronic acid and doing my best.
Sam: I don’t even know what that is.
Will: It helps skin cells retain their moisture.
Will: What are you giving your long loud sound to this week?
Sam: You know, I’ve thought a lot about it. I’m gonna give a long loud sound to sad boy rap. I don’t enjoy it! It’s not my favorite genre. And I think that it needs to stop, so. Well, it doesn’t need to stop, I’m just not gonna continue to listen. So there I go.
Will: What about you, Jenna? Long loud sound?
Jenna: I’m gonna give a long loud sound to the fact that it’s supposed to snow tomorrow. It is mid-November. It is not time for snow yet. I’m kind of upset about it.
Sam: I can tell. And Tim, what are you giving your long loud sound to?
Tim: Well, I’m not gonna go that light. I want people to take more personal responsibility with what they say, with what they do, with how they do their jobs. That’s the thing that I wanna make my long loud sound about.
Sam: We appreciate your candor. Woo!
Will: Well, thank you guys for listening! Thank you Jenna and Tim for being here!
Sam: Thanks Jenna and Tim! And special shoutout to our sound engineer, Sean Velasco-Dodge – sitting over there, holding our mic.
Will: Thank you guys for listening. Tune back in next week for our next episode of In the Chair with Will and Samantha.
Sam: Will and Samantha!
Sam: You like art? You wanna see a play? In an age where truth is on trial and alternative facts pervade the social consciousness, we come to the theatre to see ourselves reflected into storytelling presented on stage. Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People tells the story of the Stockmann brothers dealing with the aftermath of contaminated waters newly flowing into their town. This dramatic masterpiece explores the ways in which humanity must prevail over financial gain. Come see the events unfold December 6 – 8, 2018 at 7:00pm in the Irma Sandrey Theatre at Strasberg.
Transcript edited for clarity and readability.