Passionate About The Actor’s Art: an interview with Michael Howard

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.

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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.

Sanford Meisner

Sanford Meisner

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.

RZ: And then you went into the army.

MH: Yes as soon as I graduated from the Playhouse, I was drafted and volunteered for the paratroops.

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Howard with Marlene Dietrich in Berlin

RZ: Did you see battle?

MH: Yes.

RZ: Wait, you mean you jumped out of airplanes?

MH: Yes, I jumped 7 times. 5 times in training. I had never even been in an airplane as a passenger. This was 1943. I was 19.

RZ: What does it feel like to jump out of a plane?

MH: Well, if you don’t do it right, it hurts. It’s always a jar. My memory is that it’s like jumping from a height of 15 feet. Of course if you don’t land properly, you could break something. In combat, the effort for a paratrooper is to jump from the lowest point possible, so you’re only in the air over a target for as few seconds as possible. I never jumped in combat. I went to combat in a truck.

RZ: I wonder if jumping out of a plane is like acting in some way?

MH: It is like acting in that waiting to take off is like waiting to make an entrance. The nerves are there. The heart races, there’s an element of wanting to overcome the challenge and to prove yourself. And there’s sweat and fear.

RZ: What did you after the war?

MH: I began looking for work as an actor. Got my Equity card in summer stock in 1947 but then realized I needed a great deal more learning, so I began studying acting with Lee Strasberg in his professional classes in the late 40s and continued with him until I auditioned and was accepted in the Actor’s Studio. Around that time I started teaching, as I mentioned before. By the end of the 50s, I was directing plays in New York off-Broadway, as well as acting and teaching. Truth is, I had a new son and what was important was making a living in the theatre.

RZ: You appeared in the first American production of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, is that right?

MH: I did. I played The Moon.

RZ: And in The Country Girl, you played the role of Ralph.

MH: Odet’s play, right. I played a number of parts, the author and the dresser. An extraordinary experience to work with Uta Hagen. Wonderful woman.

RZ: This was…1950?

MH: Yes and Odets was directing, but Lee Strasberg was there all the time, in the back, helping him. They were colleagues, had spent their early theatre lives together in the Group Theatre. Strasberg was a mentor.

RZ: Did Meisner, your teacher, have a particular take on the Method?

MH: Stanislavsky’s work was originally called the Stanislavsky System and from it many wonderful teachers in the United States developed their own rather individual understanding of that system and began to develop it in their own work. There is, of course, early Stanislavsky and late Stanislavsky. Every good teacher develops and changes over the years. Sandy Meisner’s approach had to do with physical actions and the importance of using the present self, the immediate self. The Sandy Meisner that I studied with in the early 40s was a much different teacher in the 80s. He didn’t do repetition in the 40s. There was some denial on his part on what others emphasized, like sensory work, like emotional work, sometimes called affective memory. To describe affective memory adequately is very complicated, but it’s a particular exercise that structures a way of bringing from the past into the present a strong emotional response. A parallel of affective memory you might know about is the chapter in Proust’s SWANN’S WAY about the madeleine. And psychologists were interested in this emotional phenomenon in the late 19th century. Stanislavsky was the first to develop an exercise for actors to access it.

Stanislavsky

RZ: There’s a famous disagreement between Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler in their approaches with the Stanislavsky system that I’ve never really understood.

MH: Stanislavsky was a great teacher and as such he never talks generally about all actors. When he met Stella Adler and spoke with her, I think he recognized in her an actor with a full resonant emotional instrument and therefore emphasized in his discussion about acting the physical aspects of the work, the physical action, the character development. He knew that Miss Adler needed no encouragement emotionally. Then he met Strasberg, who was clearly an intellectual, and perhaps he recognized that Mr. Strasberg was not exactly in touch with his emotional life, so this great teacher emphasized ways for an actor to access his emotional instrument. Of course, I am only guessing and it may be a guess that other people have guessed too, but there is no question in my mind that Stanislavsky was too good a teacher to give them by rote, ideas that may have interested him 5 years earlier or 5 years later.

Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg

RZ: Suppose a script indicates that an actor needs to cry at a particular moment and the tears just won't come?

MH: Just like in life, something happens and I think I ought to feel upset, but I don’t. I’m not upset. I should be crying, but I’m not. In life this happens all the time. We think it’s strange we’re not crying or we start to cry and don’t know why.

RZ: But what if the director says I need you to cry right now!

MH: One thing you could do is quit. I’m tired of those people! Of course there are times when the play and the director need you emotionally involved, deeply concerned, caring, and upset, but there just may not be wet eyes every night — except for the great cryers in the world. They exist in actors, your friends…everybody has someone in his or her life who cries all the time. All you have to do is say ‘mother’ and they cry. On the other hand, there are times when crying hysterically is absolutely necessary. In Odet’s Country Girl, the ingénue is beat up offstage psychologically, almost physically, and she makes an entrance weeping.

RZ: Is affective memory the strategy to use for that entrance?

MH: It’s certainly one way to prepare. The problem for the actor is to create the total experience of what happened offstage. The way she walks, holds her body, her breath, as well as the internal connection to such an experience.

RZ: And this is part of what your teaching is about?

MH: My teaching is about each actor developing their own acting method. The tools I use have not only been those suggested by the great theatrical actors, directors and scholars that have come before me, but also those that I have developed in the last 60 years and that been useful in helping actors grow, develop and thrive.

RZ: People think actors climb into somebody else’s persona, when actually, actors use themselves to play characters.

MH: That’s right. In the book I’m writing I say that acting is about the confrontation between the actor and the character the playwright wrote. The two face each other on the first day and together become one. How to do that? How to integrate, how to inhabit?

RZ: Very complicated.

MH: Yes. There was a time when it was thought that the actor’s job was to be able to do anything a director wanted him to do. I believe now that the world of the theatre has changed and for good reason. Two exciting, complicated, even egotistical, entities confront each other in the same situation and make demands on each other: the written character, full of secrets – and the actor, full of his own rich life, wanting to understand, wanting to argue with the character, to convince the character. It’s a struggle with each, bringing so much life and history and then finally for them to become one, it's a small miracle, a new 3-dimensional human being.

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Michael Howard in class

RZ: Can you give an example?

MH: Have any two Hamlets ever been the same? The character as written is always the same and then comes the actor picking up the script. On the page, Hamlet says here comes Ophelia. And then what happens? The actor says to himself, I know about this relationship. We know each other, we played together as children and now every word that comes out of him is about something he cares deeply about. Next year another actor picks up the same script and says, that nasty girl, doing the bidding of her father, disloyal, spoiled brat that she is! I know that kid! We’ve got two completely different events, two different characters.

RZ: When you meet someone who wants to be your student, how do you know if he or she is someone you want to work with?

MH: I try not to do it by rote. I try to get away from thinking I know talent when I see it. Which I can’t. To do what I do as an actor, I mean this literally, I have to remind myself to just be there, be in the room with a potential student. I ask them whether they need me now. I am not good for every actor. And it could be I would have been better for them last year and not now. Or they’re going to need me in two years, but not now. So I want to find that they need me and not another teacher because there are a lot of good teachers in New York. I try to decide whether or not they need me.

RZ: What do you think you have contributed to the development of the understanding of acting?

MH: I don’t know. Nothing. Here’s what I do know, with some pleasure and surprise. I think I’m very good at what I do. I think I’m useful because I love what I’m doing. I love and respect actors. I think what actors do is important. They make ideas on the page come to life in a three-dimensional way. I think I’ve changed individuals, nothing more.

MH by Angus Dykman

photo by Angus Dykman

RZ: Because you see your students getting better.

MH: I see them grow and change and I’m delighted. I don’t think anyone would say It’s only because I studied with X that I’m now a successful actor. No great vocal coach ever made a singer; they might have helped a singer; they encouraged a singer; perhaps they stopped a singer from going down the wrong path. Careers happen for a lot of different reasons. And talent is not something I can give anybody. Talent has to do with temperament, genes and your childhood. And luck! That’s the goddamm truth! Did I answer your question?

RZ: Quite surprisingly, yes.

MH: Look, I know a great number of people that I care about who have never found that thing to do with their lives about which they are excited and fulfilled. To have found work that gives one joy and an enriched life, like you’re doing, like I’m doing, we are so lucky. Most people do not find such fulfilling work. There was a time in America when making a fine pair of shoes…the cobbler would look at it when he or she was finished and feel wonderful and say Look I’ve made a really good pair of shoes! There’s so little of that left in the world, so little. What people make mostly now is money. I wonder if that can be as enriching or satisfying?

RZ: So this book about actors you're writing…

MH: Yes, it’s about uncovering the actor.

RZ: What do you mean by that?

MH: Revealing from where actors emerge, what they come from, what they need, what gets in the way, what encourages them, what bears the right kind of fruit, what relationships, situations, etc. It’s a new experience for me. When the writing goes well, it can be thrilling. It takes a bit of self-love to create. Shakespeare wrote “Self love my liege is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.” Isn’t that something?

RZ: Which character says that?

MH: Aha! Let’s see…..maybe it’s from Henry IV…?

FOOTNOTE: Dear Reader: He is correct! The Dauphin’s line from Act II Scene III of Henry IV.

RZ: Which brings us to playwrights. Who are your favorites?

MH: You will guess I will say Chekhov and Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s first. I’m nowhere near a Shakespeare scholar, just one of the millions who are amazed and challenged by him. Patsy Rodenburg, for instance, she really knows Shakespeare. Patsy is one of the world’s leading acting coaches who’s worked at the RSC, The Royal National Theatre, etc. and has been teaching at my Manhattan studio for 20 years.

RZ: How do you approach Shakespeare?

MH: I approach him as a humanist, an extraordinary man who understood what it is to be a human, who understood the human condition. I know he’s a poet and I love the poetry when I find it. I love the epigrams and aphorisms. Patsy and others can talk importantly about end of line and the beauty of meter, the poetry, how great the language is and I say Yes! Oh yes! but what knocks me out is his spellbinding understanding of what a human being really is in all its complexity. And now I’m thinking about UNCLE VANYA and I know you’re going to do it this summer.

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Uncle Vanya, act one, Moscow Art Theatre 1899

RZ: With the Living Room Theatre Company, yes.

MH: In Uncle Vanya, Chekhov got past the melodramatic traditions and style of his day to uncover the intimate and original ambiguities of human life. He began to write about things nobody had ever written about before. Small complexities of human behavior.

RZ: What about American playwrights, who's on your list?

MH: I was raised as a young actor on certain playwrights and I’ve never gotten over it. I grew up with Odets and Miller and then Williams. By the time Sam Shepard came along, my head was in other things. I like Sam Shepherd. I understand Sam Shepard. I think that he’s written masterpieces, but I’m not as connected to his work as I am to my “family” of playwrights. I love Caryl Churchill. She’s a major writer. At the moment I think Tony Kushner, for instance, will be included in the canon of American playwrights 100 years from now. Kushner’s wide-angle lens, as well as the clarity of his close-ups, is extraordinary. I love Williams. His plays are a joy for actors. Miller is embraced around the world. The Chinese production of Death of a Salesman was understood by the Beijing audience as a play about a Chinese family.

RZ: I know you’ve developed your own exercises to teach acting.

MH: Yes, I have. However, it would be very hard for me to say this or that exercise is “mine.” I am sure a friend from the old days would say Michael, that’s exactly what Strasberg would say. What is true is that I have taken all the things from Strasberg, Meisner and many others and bent them or watered them down or beefed them up until what I do belongs to me. All the work we do as acting teachers resonates from where we’ve come.

RZ: This is how the theatre is a living tradition.

MH: Right.

RZ: To re-interpret approaches to acting is what makes acting acting, how it evolves from the tradition of acting, what has come before, like a family tree.

MH: Yes. I thought I would title this book I’m writing The Children of Konstantin. I think it’s a very good title because that’s who we are. The children of Konstantin Stanislavsky are Vakhtangov and Meyerhold. Richard Boleslavsky studied with them and is a grandchild. He taught Strasberg and Stella Adler so they are great grandchildren. And Strasberg was really the acting coach of the Group Theatre, so Meisner, who wouldn’t like me to say this, is a great great grandchild, which makes me a great great great grandchild and the people I teach are….well, you get the point.

RZ: Do you have a definition for art?

MH: No.

RZ: But you know it when you see it.

MH: Yes. I wish I’d said that! I do recognize art when I see it And I’m often surprised by it. I’m passionate about the actor’s art. I’ve built my life around it.

RZ: Michael, this has been an inspiring conversation.

MH: For me too, Randolyn.

RZ: Thank you.

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