Ithaca Journal - December 2006

Meisner mania! The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca hosts its annual showcase

By Jim Catalano
Journal Staff Amina Omari stood before her peers, calmly and coldly relating her latest art project: making over her boyfriend from ch

Another wacky performance art piece at Cornell or Ithaca College? Not quite. Omari is practicing a scene from a Neil LaBute play at the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca studio in Collegetown.

Since 2003, the students of the Actor's Workshop have displayed their talents in an annual Winter Showcase. This year's event will take place Saturday at La Tourelle, with two seperate segments, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Note: the material is for mature audiences only.

A means to Meisner

Under the direction of instructors Eliza VanCort and Katie Spallone, the students are trained in the Meisner Technique, the cutting-edge method that stresses connecting and reacting honestly in the moment.

Taught by Sanford Meisner at Manhattan's Neighborhood Playhouse 1935-1990, the Meisner Technique comprises five semesters: first semester, repetition exercise; second, emotional preparation; third, character work; fourth, external circumstances, relationships, intentions; andfifth, script analysis and monologues. There's an optional sixth semester of monologue work, too. VanCort and Spallone teach mixed classes, containing students from all five semesters.

"My favorite part of the class has always been the basic repetition exercise - some of the most beautiful moments I've had on stage have been during basic repetition," says Saramoira Shields, a Cornell student. "There's something about getting yourself up on stage and just listening to another person that's really refreshing - and then letting them in, letting them really affect you emotionally - that's exhilarating."

Omari seconds that. "The repetition technique is great," she says. "It teaches you to identify your gut-level feelings honestly and put them into clear, direct language. It roots you in the moment, and it connects you to your partner. The more repetition I do, the more I love it."

It's not a commitment to be taken lightly, though. "There's a Barenaked Ladies song lyric that goes something like this: 'They can't teach you acting; it's baring your soul.'" says Mary Kuentz. "While I definitely believe they can teach you acting, you have to be willing to bare your soul in order to learn."

Mikel Moss concurs. "At first, it was challenging for me because you really have to be willing to put yourself out there, and be brutally realistic," he says. "You have to be honest in every single moment not just in your words, but in your expressions and movements or else the craft will not work. Katie really made it easy for me to just keep it real. Now , I feel that I have come a long way and am much better at staying in the moment and being real with my emotions."

Following footsteps

Students come from all walks of life, and span a huge range of ages. "I really think that the most amazing thing about this class is its diversity-people of all ages, races and backgrounds coming together and learning to not only work with each other, but to trust, support and appreciate each other," says Spallone.

"It is probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done, to be able to be privy to that kind of interaction between people. Students walk away from our classes with more than just an ability to interact with someone onstage, they leave with an innate understanding of the human condition. There's definitely an 'it' factor that this class has that other acting classes don't have."

Ithaca High School student Hayden Frank is following in the footsteps of his older brother Chris, who went through all six semesters.

"It's hard to name my favorite part about the class, but I'll narrow it down to the two that I value most," says Frank. "I've made extremely close friendships with people I never would have expected. I'm 17 and I'm now close friends with people in their 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's,which in the long run is probably what I'll value most.

"I also love the ability to escape into total fantasy twice a week. I haven't gotten to use my imagination this much since I was a four-yea-old building forts in my T.V. room."

Frank's mother, Ellen McCollister, also is enrolled in the Workshop. "I think my interest in the class was piqued after I turned 50 last January and decided life was full of fun and too short to spend it being self-conscious and holding back in my art and music passions," she says. "Plus, Eliza assured me that she was starting a new adult class of only first semester students and we wouldn't have to perform in the first showcase if we didn't want to!"

Rich rewards

While some students have put their Meisner Technique training to use landing acting roles (see sidebar), others are simply appreciative of the positive impact the class has had on their lives.

"I had two piano performances recently and a vocal performance," says McCollister. "I could already tell that I was more focused, more present, and enjoying them more."

"I've also noticed that the basic Meisner technique of learning to listen to and see every nuance of your partner makes for more intense and truthful encounters in everyday life," she continues. "This is great for family life since we have all had exposure to the technique (my husband vicariously through the rest of us.) It does, however, decrease my tolerance for a lot of daily b.s.!"

"The most useful part of this class has been the emotional clarity it brings to my everyday interactions," says Omari. "After six semesters in the class, I know myself better -- you could say I know my own emotional plumbing. This makes me a better writer, a better person, and a better actor."

"I've also gained a lot personally," adds Kuentz. "I've learned that acting is my way of being an artist," she says. "I don't paint or draw or dance but I express creative ideas through different emotions, characters and roles. It's given me a great opportunity to tap into many facets of myself that I wasn't aware of before."

Sometimes, the benefits spill over to the workplace. "I really have a lot of regard for this class because of all it has done for me," says Moss. "I consider it a form of professional development. I recently gave up a position with a local non profit that said they were out there to help minority and low income students be successful in their educational pursuits because they were unwilling to let me be successful in mine.

"Before taking this class, I probably would have let them (the non-profit) walk all over me, but this class has really put a lot of personal and professional things in perspective for me. it's that important."

Future plans

With three fully enrolled classes for next semesters, as well as a waiting list, VanCort is pondering her next move for the Workshop.

"We may have to open yet another section," she says. "We're constantly expanding because the people on our wait-list will hound me if we don't."

That will adding more instructors. "Katie and I realize that we can't teach every class and luckily we have some amazingly talented people we're training to help us meet the demand for new classes," says VanCort.

Omari is becoming VanCort's assistant with the hope of eventually being able to teach her own class (Spallone followed a similar route to becoming an instructor.) "I'm so excited about becoming her assistant," says Omari. "Watching Eliza work is amazing - she's so insightful and precise about what her students need at a given time. Everybody has a different learning process, so she individualizes her teaching for each student. I'm hoping that some of her intuition will rub off on me."

VanCort is also weighing classes for teens and pre-teens. "We're giving it serious thought, but haven't made any definite decisions," she says.

VanCort has some thought as too why the Workshop has become so popular. "I think largely it has to do with the fact that Ithaca is an incredibly progressive, creative town," she says. "Behind every accountant is an actor waiting to break free! Truly, I've had so many students who are not and have never been involved in theater who just love the creative outlet the class affords them.

"The students who want to become actors also love it because it is a real, comprehensive Meisner program and agents and casting directors in Los Angeles and New York City love seeing two-year Meisner programs on actors' resumes."

A dual purpose

VanCort has a couple of goals in mind for Saturday's showcase. "First and foremost, it gives our hard-working students a platform to showcase, if you will, their formidable talents," she says. "My evening class is very top heavy; ost of the the students are advanced, so I feel really excited about showing their work to the public. I couldn't be more proud of each and every one of them!

"This showcase is also doubling as a fundraising event," she continues. "This past semester we have simply been inundated with people hoping to take classes at the Workshop. Most people hear our prices and are surprised at how little we charge ($395 per semester, which includes two classes per week for 15 weeks).

"However, a few people simply can not afford the fee. I can't stand turning people away and believe passionately that the arts should be available to everyone. It's our hope that we will raise enough money this showcase to help people struggling financially to afford the class. We're asking that people pay a $5-$10 cover , sliding scale, at the door. The proceeds from that money will go to scholarships for indigent incoming students."

For more information, visit or, (607) 339-9999, or e-mail