Joanna Gleason introduces her Master Class Acting Workshop.
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. It’s quite a treat to welcome our guest today: the much-honored Broadway actress, singer and educator…a performer who has dazzled us across a plethora of mediums over an amazing career.
Tony Award-winning actress Joanna Gleason has starred in three of the nation’s most beloved features and my own personal favorites: Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes & Misdemeanors,” the Broadway production, Into the Woods and the “The West Wing” TV series … celebrated roles all executed with exquisite charm, grace and humor.
She’ll soon return to Broadway’s Supper Club, 54 Below, where the restaurant will host this thoroughly delightful star. And I hear she may have plans to take her act on the road beyond New York.
Joanna Gleason is passionate about teaching the next generation of artists through her Master Class Acting Workshops. Her newest course promises to unlock the actor’s imagination … with tools like meditation and past-life regression.
I urge you to see her in person, but for now our on-air conversation will have to suffice. And I wonder if I can ask her to begin with, in an age when we’re inundated with the moving image, what is most precious to take away from the Master Class, what can it teach us about the presence of our humanity and its depiction in art … Joanna, it’s such a thrill to have you here.
GLEASON: Thank you. Thank you for having me here.
HEFFNER: What is unique about your master class?
GLEASON: I’ve been doing this … teaching … for 25 years, usually brought in by colleges or high schools or theater companies and it’s a, a day of working with the students, monologues or scenes or very often we do it with music where they bring a ballad.
And I notice the recurring anxieties and the recurring obstacles within the young actor as they want to go out into the world with the emphasis on how do I audition and how do I make myself ready for that moment to be chosen?
But I skip a little bit ahead of that … there are classes that can get you ready for that. And there are vocal coaches and there are acting coaches.
But what we do in our class is we set up a context where you need to use your imagination and what you’ve observed to this point in your life to create … we create new contexts and you sing your song within that context. Like, this is like the time when I … and we’ll take you out of the nervousness of “How do I do this song and get this role” and into “How do I shine a light on this situation and illuminate this character?”
But our obligation and my firm belief now and it’s actually a mission statement that I wrote just ’cause I felt like I … it was time to write one.
Especially since I’m teaching in collaboration with somebody else from time to time. And I said, “Let’s write mission statements”.
And mine was about the fact that I think we’re in service to something. I feel I am now. The young actor seems to be in service to himself, getting himself ready and stretched and, and exercised and prepared and everything is about the head shot and it’s all arrows focused “this” way.
When you get to a certain point, we need to shine the light on the audience. We take the material, we honor our commitments to the writer and the composer and the director and our fellow actors, and the crew and the designers.
We turn on all these lights, but we shine them on the audience because it is they who need to be changed by the experience night after night. And if we do our job right and the material’s good, then something does change in them … for a night, or for a little longer. Something sweeter, a sweetness, more introspection, something calmer, a way of identifying “Oh, we’re not alone in the world, somebody’s going through what I’m going through”.
And that’s what I call “being in service” to something. And there’s no better feeling for me than to be in service to something, as a troupe, all of us … you know … our little tribe of, of actors … shaking our little tambourines and coming from town to town … saying, “Here’s what you would maybe like to see about your life.”
HEFFNER: Hypnotherapy is an element of your newest course. Expound on that for our audience.
GLEASON: This is so much fun. I, I actually went to a hypnotherapist, Dan Ryan, because I was having writer’s block on a re-write of a novel that I’ve written. And in the course of our work he said, “Yeah, you want to do some guided meditation for relaxation?” Yes. Yes. We do that.
And how about we’ll create a place that very safe and very beautiful where you can go to think about what you want to write. And, oh, yes, yes, let’s do that.
And how’d you like to try some past life regression? And I said, “Oh, yeah, sign me up” (laugh) so we did this and you know, you’re not asleep, you’re awake … you can have a glass of water, you can get up and open your eyes and ask questions, but the guided path was so phenomenally creative because I became a storyteller.
It was articulate, it was well thought out, it had characters, I had characters to play, situations, contexts and when it was over I thought, “This is useful”, and I asked him “Would you come teach with me?” … we’ll do, in a five hour day we’ll do three little sections of, of hypnosis.
And we did one and what was fascinating were the characters that these actors found, in the past life regression, were very useful … elements of them … were very useful when they got up to do their work.
Because things that they feared, things that they aspired to, things that they dreaded, things with which they had nothing in common, they placed them on, like costumes and it, it came through in their work.
So at the same time that they think they have another layer of protection from being revealed as the (laugh), you know, frightened little animals that we are, when we get up in front of people, it actually did reveal them, they felt safe and at the same time more revealed in their work.
And it worked like crazy so we’ve decided to do a whole bunch of these workshops together.
HEFFNER: How is it technically facilitated?
GLEASON: You bring something comfortable to lie on, you wear comfortable clothes. We start to work on monologues, we start to work on the songs, and then, at some point I say to Dan, “Let’s put them on the mat on the floor” and he just does like a 10 minute relaxation, meditation and up we go.
I talk about acting, I teach them how to roast a chicken, this is critical and essential to life. And we talk about a lot of things and then people slowly get up and start to work, and then we say, “All right, now this is the work before we’ve done the regression.” Back down on the floor and for 20 minutes Dan does the past life regressions. And then they get up and we go to work again and we see the difference.
My, my feeling is that I’m not there to teach them X, but I can teach them the difference between X and X plus 1. The first time they do something and then the next time they do something, with the transformations with the exercises.
So that’s what they take away … “Oh, how was I different this time?” And they keep the elements of it that they like. You know it’s another tool. This is really … our subheading is tools, tools of the mind for actors. And we’re enjoying it and the students seem to love it. So, more of that.
HEFFNER: MmmHmm. What’s the average age of a student in your seminar?
GLEASON: I like … I, I’ve taught in high school, so I’ve taught as young as 13, 14, 15 and those are wonderful and those work the best when they’re in the … protective custody of the school where they go and, and they feel safe there.
But I, I generally kind of like to open it to, you know, 17 and above. My last student was 73 … I had a 73 year old student, and, and working professionals work really well with this. But also, the kids who are just leaving college and are not quite sure what’s next and don’t have the next safe venue … you know, they’re out there in the world now. They’re not in school, they’re not in a, a theater department.
So I like to also create a bond among the students knowing that they need to be there for each other.
I find actors really bright, by and large because they’re observant, because the better actors are incredibly observant and to that end they do look out the window, instead of just in the mirror. They do go to museums and they read the paper and not just get all their information from their phones and what’s pasted on … pasted on Facebook.
I do find them very bright, but I encourage them to study things that are not like themselves. I said, you know, you go to a dinner party with four actors and, and four civilians, if you want to, and there’s a time when the four young actors will break away and start talking among themselves about auditions and about this part and that part.
And that’s just death to a dinner party because we’re not that interesting except to each other. So I suggest when you’re at a party with people who don’t’ do what you do and ask what are you doing, you say “Oh, I’m an actor da, da, da, da” … drop it and ask questions about them. Ask five questions about them, because the deeper you go in knowing somebody who isn’t like you, you can play them at some point, you’ll learn something about something that isn’t within your circle of, you know, experiences every day. It’s essential.
HEFFNER: And that’s kind of the fact-finding mission of humanity, in that process.
GLEASON: Well, the fact finding mission of humanity, which we’ve made an elective instead of a, you know, core course, mandatory course … it, it’s elective to learn about someone else, because we are very “me-centric”.
And it’s hard, we’re losing empathy, we’re losing the ability to relate to one another, to see each other as human beings. This is a world wide problem, it’s not just epidemic in the, in the arts.
But the thing about artists is … I, I believe true artists are born speaking a different language from the one this is spoken in the house they grow up in, unless your family is a family of artists.
That’s … means you have to be bi-lingual … it means you’re asking your parents to be bi-lingual, to understand you … little, little bleeding artist heart and then also function in the world of “clean up your room and let me see your report card and why don’t you like geography?”.
So to that end a kind of tolerance that we as actors have to have for the people who are raising us (laugh) a kindness, even though we’re adolescents and rebelling and then asking from your parents to understand that maybe your children are speaking a different language from time to time.
The need to hear a kind of music, express themselves through music, rap, dance, ballet, tap, ice skating, painting … whatever it is … keep an eye out for that, for the language you don’t quite understand. And then try to get a translator for your kid. It’s important to me that communication lines be open.
HEFFNER: MmmHmm. I was going to ask you … what has evolved the most in terms of the character, performance and theater and acting in this country … since you began over, over the course of an illustrious career …
GLEASON: Before things were written down (laughter) while it was only on drums and carved on stone things … all the way back there … (laugh)
HEFFNER: (laugh) Not too long ago.
GLEASON: Ah, a while ago. Well, things have evolved and I don’t want to say, I don’t want implicit in the word “evolution” … I don’t want it to imply that always for the better …
GLEASON: There’s a very big emphasis now, we’ve trained a nation of watchers when it comes to theater … we watch … we watch because there are certain formulaic things now that we’re used to seeing.
On television if you turn off the sound, you can still know exactly what’s going on in many of the shows, not the great ones, but in many shows they watch.
And in the theater, they will watch something before they will listen to something. So dialogue … we’re losing … in, in the musical theater we’re losing the importance of a good book, we’re losing the importance of a scene instead of a 9th song where a scene should be, because some of the songs are becoming so banal and what they’re really doing is just carrying dialogue in what would be a scene.
I like a song to have to come out when you can no longer speak and then the thing that music does … that thing that music does that can move you … takes over and the things that are sung are coming from reflection, are coming from need, they’re not expository, they’re not day to day banal conversations set to music.
So I, I think the art of writing, of a really wonderful musical is, is precariously teetering, but we still have geniuses and young people coming up who are geniuses among us, so there’s always hope.
HEFFNER: So a more thoughtful rendition of, of an earlier vintage is something you might want to explore.
GLEASON: Yes, incorporate all you want, in terms of the new forms of music … just keep telling me a story and don’t just keep shouting at me the same story over and over again. Just keep telling me the story and I want the story to have a beginning, a middle and an end and a crisis and a turning point, and a catharsis and a, and an eleven o’clock number, you know, and I don’t want the supporting characters to be stock clichéd supporting characters, if you’re going to have them, they have to have a story, too, and weave in more than, you know, just the main story … understand the art of weaving in subsidiary stories, too, and have them pay off. Carry more than one thought at a time.
HEFFNER: That seems intertwined with the, the lack or loss of character development …
GLEASON: Character development is sometimes a function of the haste in which the story needs to be told. The haste to get to the next song, which are the big selling points, you know … the sketchy-ness of the scenes, so how can an actor really start to … when an actress is obliged to flesh out an entire character in song, that we have actors who can do … we have amazing singers, who can do that because they’re also fantastic actors …
GLEASON: … but I say if you’ve got a book scene, I want to learn more about the book scene and then I want to bask in it in the song. I don’t want to have to think in the song, you know … wait is that the same person who just was in this scene before or is the song so much better that now I’ve … or, or is this person so strong in this song that it belies the conflict and decision making that they need to do. So, it’s a, it’s quite a balancing act.
HEFFNER: I mean, do you think that the young people you work with possess a conviction in theory that it should be something, because you had that … a very pristine and, and elaborate understanding of that. Do they share, share what you’re espousing today?
GLEASON: What I’m seeing in young people is …first of all the conviction that this is the venue they have chosen in order to express themselves in life. This is the place they want to be …
HEFFNER: Well, that’s … what you’re …
GLEASON: … oh, honorable … it’s how I started too. And it was the home I needed to find. And, and there was no better place to both assimilate and stand out, especially if you felt like an oddball, which I did, we’d moved so many times.
So here were the theater departments … yes … I can play an 87 year old mad woman from Chaillot, you know, and yes, I’m Katisha in The Mikado, of course, the unattractive outsider, you know, the, the ugly one.
And I thought great I can exorcise all these things and it’s for me, it’s for me, it’s for me, it’s for me. It’s my therapy. And I think a lot of young people start that way … let me escape from my life, let me go where I can be understood, let me rise above in a kind … in a classy skilled way above the rabble of bullies and haters and hair twirlers and mall rats because I have something to offer, but if I seem too elitist by being educated, observant and well spoken at school, they’re going to slash my tires.
So let me go over here to the theater department, the music department, the art department where I have a legitimate way to say “This is what I’m doing.” And it begins as a kind of therapy and haven.
HEFFNER: What did you learn at a formative stage in your career that you want to impart to this next generation?
GLEASON: I learned that for the longest time I considered the time between jobs my down time and I called it down time, until I realized, “Wow, that’s sad …
GLEASON: … I should be building a life. And there was a moment when I realized “I need to build a life, I need to build one with solid floor boards, I need to stop feeling that my real life feels like I’m on tour. Different casts of characters, different locales, different scenes to play, limited runs. I thought, this shouldn’t feel … this is what life should feel like … that’s for the theater, that for work. My real life has to be, you know, much more solid than that. And I went in quest of that and, and I found it, thank God. And, and for me now there’s no such thing as down time.
HEFFNER: And those intermittent periods enrich your experience in the next acting pursuit or singing pursuit.
GLEASON: Yes, it’s made everything better. It’s made everything better because you know if there’s one thing that does not have to “must go on” … it’s the show. (laugh)
GLEASON: But you know I mean “the show must go on”. Yeah, of course, the show must go on … it will go on without you. That’s why it goes on. It’s not that you have to be the one that has to … must have it go on. It will go on without you.
HEFFNER: And there’s so many kinds of shows one could perform in today.
GLEASON: Oh, yeah, there’s a huge range of stuff and …
HEFFNER: You’re beginning a social media presence in and are on Facebook and …
GLEASON: Yes, yes.
HEFFNER: … and Twitter and your seminar are accessible …
GLEASON: Right. Not a seminar, a workshop … you get up and work, you don’t just sit and listen to me pontificate …
GLEASON: … you know
HEFFNER: I’m accustomed to saying that, I’m accustomed to saying that … no …
GLEASON: No, no, it’s a workshop …
HEFFNER: Participatory …
GLEASON: You know you pays your money, you got a lot of time with me working on your …
GLEASON: … stuff …
GLEASON: … because that’s what you’re there for, it’s a, it’s a five hour day, you know, with snacks. And hands on. I like to be hands on. I also like to be “Yes, here I’m going to teach you some stuff I know because I’m just here now and you should know … and one student asked me recently, “If you could me your 23 year old self on the street …
GLEASON: … you know kind of stretching for … meet your 23 year old self on the street … what would you say to her?
GLEASON: And I said, nothing, because she wouldn’t believe me. And she wouldn’t want to hear it, not at 23. It’s of no use for me to impart all this wisdom onto a 23 year old. I have to find the pieces that will resonate with them now …
GLEASON: The tiny, useful, practical, occasionally philosophical … pieces that they can absorb metabolically now while there focused on so many other things and they must learn to cook a chicken. This becomes essential.
HEFFNER: I mean how do you channel that without a … them taking offense … I mean without that … wall of restriction imposed around them?
GLEASON: You mean when they think they’re being overwhelmed by “Here’s my advice to you”?
HEFFNER: (Laugh) Exactly.
GLEASON: I don’t … I, I … I always open it up to questions and always there will be a question asked that completely dovetails into that answer or is really a kind of subconscious way of asking those questions.
GLEASON: What about my life? Why do I feel so lonely? I ask them about loneliness a lot, because many of them have left college or are about to go off to college and the homesickness is on them like a, like a veil.
And I can see it, I’ve had a lot of kids in my life and I have a son and he’s 35 and married and I have three step-children, grown, and I have grandchildren, and I have two former step-children so they’ve been all these beautiful young people.
But loneliness is the result, I feel of sensory deprivation and so I say to them, you know, when was the last time you heard your name said? Does anybody ever call you by name, when’s the last time you smelled something delicious, cooking or heard a beautiful piece of music or tasted something that wasn’t out of a vending machine or, you know, just a power bar.
And when’s the last time somebody gave you a hug or just touched you like that? If none of these things are happening regularly enough you’re sensory deprived and that feels like loneliness. Then by then little eyes are getting … and I said, “So you know you guys are a tribe. You’re working together in this class, or you’re at this school or this is your theater department. Take care of each other.” The big competition …
HEFFNER: I’m sure that resonates …
GLEASON: … it does. The big competition is out there … the big competition for the parts and getting into the companies, will make it, will make its own divisions. But there is no profit in, in carrying around enmity.
HEFFNER: Mmmm. And what are some of the classic performances that you hear these performers talk about as ones that they want to emulate … any, any particular consensus?
GLEASON: Well, you know … unfortunately being the, the dinosaur that I am with my career …
HEFFNER: No, no.
GLEASON: … on the walls of the Museum (laugh) of Natural History (laugh) … they, they don’t really reference much before the year they were born (laugh). And this is a little, this is a little disconcerting to me. My, my response to that is not to know any songs passed like 1994 (laugh), so when they bring in stuff, I say, “What’s that from?” just, just to be ornery and not keep up with things.
They don’t watch the old black and white movies. I say, “Oh, you want to learn about acting, watch the old black and white movies. Watch Spenser Tracey in anything, or Betty Davis. Watch “The Song of Bernadette”, see how it’s lit. Look at the John Ford westerns … watch how they tell the story. Listen to what dialogue, listen to what dialogue can be … you know, Howard Hawks, listen to it.
HEFFNER: Well, and some, some of those movies bring out humanity … “Judgment at Nuremburg”, “12 Angry Men” in such a profound way …
HEFFNER: … that it’s inescapable, even in black and white, don’t you think?
GLEASON: Well, and also in black and white you can see very clearly that the actor’s primary scene partner is the person on stage with them and not the camera.
And what’s happened with Technicolor movies where the young people who used to be the ingénue, and juveniles, off to the side, and the character people, you know the Betty Davis’s, Joan Crawford’s and da, da, da … they were the leads and the young people were, “Oh yes, the son of … the daughter of … oh, those pesky teenagers”.
But then something changed in the sixties and the young people became the leads and the parents or older people became the character people … not to be really listened to, there are great exceptions, of course, but kind of dismissible, and the youth market took over … the youth market took over everything. Well, it doesn’t bring with it any references or any experience or any judgment …
HEFFNER: Or history.
GLEASON: … or any history.
HEFFNER: And I’m not letting you leave, Joanne Gleason, until we talk about Crimes and Misdemeanors …
GLEASON: … oh, please.
HEFFNER: I mean what an illumination of the complexity of the human spirit. And you starred in it brilliantly and, and, and Woody Allen directed, wrote brilliantly …
GLEASON: Yeah. I think …
HEFFNER: … for anyone who hasn’t seen it … a preview … two plus decades later … please.
GLEASON: Yeah, Crimes and Misdemeanors in my mind of, of Woody Allen’s’ films, one of the finest. Because the themes are so clear and so smart and so emotional and it’s … to me it’s, it’s a … it’s symphonic in how the themes are drawn out and referred to and woven together and, and it’s funny and it’s poignant and it’s real and it’s about life that is both macrocosmic and microcosmic and there’s murder and there’s ethics and morality and life and death and God and spiritually and none … to me I, I just think that writing is among his … you know, it’s up there in the pantheon of his films.
HEFFNER: I mean don’t you think that that’s a film that should be assigned to every 11th of 12th grade English class? I mean as a companion to literature like “The Great Gatsby”. And I see the, the themes parallel …
HEFFNER: … in such a lucid way …
GLEASON: I, I would definitely put a couple of Woody Allen’s films, you know, on a list of … I, I think there should be film courses in every school, because what films have become are just reflections of the kids themselves.
GLEASON: … where adults are pretending to be juvenile and, you know, and the humor is, is sort of asinine and buddy-buddy and chaotic and that’s all very adolescent, but they’re living that. They have that and they’re living that and you know what they’re not seeing is how to make that instant decision to be a man … that instant decision to stop being a girl and be a woman. They’re not that interested though in being men and women yet and it’s going on longer and longer and longer.
HEFFNER: Mmmmm. Well, you said to me off camera that you, you thought that film really captured the essence of why we live, why we go on … I mean since that classic …
GLEASON: Crimes and Misdemeanors … yeah …
HEFFNER: … the classic line at the end of Annie Hall … “We need the eggs” …
GLEASON: We need the eggs. We need the eggs. Those are movies that leave you with something, you know, that resonate, and they’re not over when they’re over, not for me and I go back and watch them over and over again.
HEFFNER: And I hope that as you take on the challenges and responsibility of holding up this next generation to the standard …
HEFFNER: … of your excellence …
GLEASON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: … and your thought provoking acting, that you take some of these books, movies, black and white and certainly Woody Allen films to these, these young people.
GLEASON: Right. Right. Right. Here’s your reading list, here’s your watching list. You know if you want to be part of this tradition of story telling, understand what it was before you came along …
HEFFNER: This was a real joy.
GLEASON: For me, too, thank you.
HEFFNER: Joanna Gleason, thank you so much.
GLEASON: My pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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