by Randolyn Zinn
The media is chock full of celebrity gossip, but you still may wonder how actors pursue the tasks of creating characters, accessing emotion and delivering a playwright's intentions.This week master teacher Michael Howard offers 3QD readers a peek into this elusive art.
Al Hirschfeld drawing of Michael Howard
Randolyn Zinn: I hear you just turned 90. Congratulations!
MH: Thank you, yes, I share a birthday with Shakespeare. And did you know that Shakespeare died on the same calendar day as he was born? April 23rd. So I’m always careful on mine. I don’t jaywalk.
RZ: You have worked as an actor, directed actors, you were the artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and you’ve been teaching for almost 60 years whether at Juilliard, Yale or your own studio here in New York.
MH: I had no thought that teaching was what I wanted to do. I started teaching at the High School of the Performing Arts here in New York where Sydney Lumet was teaching the senior class. When he took a job as an assistant director in television, he suggested that the school should hire me to replace him. We’d worked together as a group of young actors trying to form a company, that’s how we knew each other.
RZ: Where did you study acting?
MH: Before the war at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sandy (Sanford Meisner) and David Pressman, a wonderful man. And our dance teacher was a woman named Martha Graham.
RZ: What were her classes like?
MH: Hard to describe. Much of what we did was on the floor. She’d get us on the ground and twist us, bend us, give us pain. We understood that the development of our bodies would be useful. You could not be in the same room with Martha Graham and not recognize the enormous energy that came from her. At that time we weren’t aware that she was an icon.
RZ: What did you learn from Meisner?
MH: Oh dear, in one sentence? It’s impossible to say, it’s a challenge. I became aware of what truth meant in acting. I became aware of what the word ‘action’ meant. When I got to the Playhouse, I had done a play in what we now call off-Broadway as well as a tour and I considered myself…AN ACTOR! Sandy wanted to take away all you thought you knew about acting – on purpose! All the old-fashioned thoughts you had about what acting is Sandy worked very hard at breaking down and taking away all the things you held close…but he did it brilliantly…and painfully.
RZ: Did he build you back up again?
MH: Yes and he gave you what you needed. A new and different way to approach acting. Any 18-yr old actor who’s successful thinks Oh, I know what to do and how to do it! And that assumption is based on talent and intuition and pleasing an audience and feeling good. But those things don’t have anything to do with what acting is really about. Sandy worked on you constructively, efficiently…but not always pleasantly. I hated it. I was angry with him, naturally. To take everything away from you and to hear that you knew nothing was hard…but by the end of the two years, I was more sure of myself in some ways and less sure of myself in others. I think I had a sense of what I should aim for, what I should try to become, what it means to be an actor — not a performer, mind you, not a personality — but an actor.
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