Portions of this article appeared in Soap Opera Weekly, August, 10, 1999 . All Photos: Aaron Montgomery for JPI
Did you ever wonder what it takes to get up in a room full of sophisticated equipment, moveable walls, and a hundred staring eyeballs as you engage in the most passionate kiss of your life with a person you just met? And then, have to repeat it exactly the way you did it the first time, and the second time, and the third time, only to be told "Your hair's too short?"
Welcome to the world of acting, a profession that is rewarding and lucrative, if you're good, or get lucky. It's also frustrating, disappointing, and can suck the heart right out of you, if you don't. Acting for soaps has it's particular demands, as a new episode is produced every day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, with hardly a preemption and never a rerun. If you are cast as a contract player in a front-burner story line, you are called upon to deliver twenty, thirty, maybe forty pages of dialogue a day. It's not a matter of memorizing all that material. That's a given. What matters is the amount of work that goes into making it look effortless. Exactly what does an actor do to break in? To prepare for a role? To get the role? To succeed in it? How do they make it in soaps?
For the answers, I applied for a class at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio in Studio City, CA called: "How to Make it In Soaps." Taught by Jerry Douglas (John Abbott, Y&R), and a veteran of film and prime-time TV, the class promised six weeks of intensive study, plus an industry presentation with a casting director. Having done some theater in NY, a production background that provided experience on the set, and another acting class under my belt, I still wasn't sure I'd be accepted. This course was selective, with a limited enrollment. Thankfully, I made the cut.
Sequestered on the top floor of a two-story commercial building, the Tracy Roberts Actors Studio is rather bare bones. It's about the work, not the ambiance. Our class met in Studio A, the largest of three workshop spaces. Rows of seats lead down to the floor which serves as the stage. Props are the student's responsibility. Minimal furniture is available for sets. We worked all of our scenes with a desk, a chair, and a park bench as our only accouterment.
As Jerry Douglas took the floor the first night, I didn't know what to expect. He acted on a soap for 16 years, but did he have the ability to impart his knowledge and experience in a way that would benefit our development as actors? Time would tell.
The group consisted of 16 hopefuls of assorted ages with varied acting experience and talent. One or two were fans of Y&R. Many had never seen the show. Jerry laid out the structure of the course. We would be "cast" with a scene partner. We would do a cold read of that scene, and then work it for the next two weeks. By the third week, we would present the scene. We would then be cast in a second scene with another partner. We would work that scene until the last night of class, when we would perform for Meryl O'Loughlin, casting director of Y&R, and Tracy Roberts, artistic director of the Actors Studio.
The first night, Jerry explained his philosophies regarding the craft. "The most important thing in acting is honesty," he said. "You must come across as real to the audience, but it has to be honest sense. But how do you do that?
"Listen. Hear what your partner is saying," Jerry continued. "Listening is the food of an actor. You have to understand the work moment-to-moment."
In memorizing material, the trick is to make what's been memorized sound fresh and new each time. If you listen to your partner, the tone in his voice, the way he delivers the lines, you will remain "in the moment." If your partner screams his lines, you may be inclined to...
...scream back. Or you may decide to speak softly, so he has to calm down to hear you. If your partner whispers, you may ignore him. Make him wait before you respond. That's being in the moment. Reacting to what you "hear" each time.
"Actors are, in and of themselves, an instrument," says Jerry. "As an actor, we must learn to use our instrument. It has feeling, point of view. The best actors don't look like they are acting. They are inside the scene. Listening is what gets you inside. It's what feeds your instrument."
A consummate performer, even as he conducted the class, Jerry was consistently supportive and encouraging. He imparted words of wisdom from the onset. "Act with your heart. Correct with your head," he'd say time and again. "Robin Williams is an excellent example of acting with your heart. Charlie Chaplin. They are feeling the work. Acting is a feeling art. Take the script one line at a time. You will begin to put your feet in the footsteps of the character, and eventually, you will walk like the character."
Jerry believes that the writer will show you the way. "The first time you read a scene, read it like a writer," he says. "Understand what the writer is trying to tell you. Don't just read your part, read it with objectivity. Don't personalize it." He feels you should not rehearse with your partner until you understand what the scene is about.
Another way to get inside the scene is to create a "pre-life" for the character. Pre-life is something the actor constructs himself. It is his own imagination suggesting where the character was right before the top of this scene. Your decision for pre-life is what determines how you will react in the scene.
Jerry explained that pre-life should come from an emotional place. It's not good enough to say that right before this scene my character was watching TV, or was driving in the car. If your character was driving, where was he driving to? Or away from? Did your character just learn that a lover betrayed him? Or did he get the raise he needed so desperately to support his family? The emotion behind those examples is very different, and would cause you to behave differently in the next scene. "Pre-life should be about what you feel, not about what you were doing," Jerry insisted. But there is no right or wrong pre-life. It's what you decide.
Jerry assigned the first round of scenes. The material was from the scripts of Y&R. I was cast as Ashley Abbott in a scene with another woman who was to play Victoria. It was a scene about two powerful women at odds. Jerry had us sit face-to-face on the stage and read the lines to each other. He kept stopping me. "Ashley is a tough cookie. Show me tough." I'd begin again, only to be stopped mid-speech. "Get tougher!" I tried, but he wasn't satisfied and neither was I. "This is a part against type for you," he said. "Go home and work on it."
Jerry insisted that we work several times a week on the same scene. He believes that you can't rehearse enough. My partner lived over 20 miles away, but we scheduled two rehearsals. We worked the scene to death, and felt we were prepared for the next class, where we would get our blocking.
Blocking is how the director determines you are to play out the action of the scene. It is crucial in a technical medium like daytime, where four or five cameras tape simultaneously. Where you stand, turn or move is picked up by one of these cameras. You must meet your mark or you'll be off screen. Not only must you know your lines, and have your pre-life and feel your emotion, you must stand and do the exact things you are directed to do in the scene, or risk not ending up on tape.
"On the soap, you bring your script pages with you to blocking rehearsal," explained Jerry. "The director gives you blocking notes which you mark in your script next to your speeches. You start up stage. On this line, turn and move down stage. Then, walk to stage left and turn to look back up stage. Put on your coat, step in then walk off stage right. You only get your blocking once. You better get it right and learn it quick."
We concentrated on blocking technique that entire session. Jerry would give notes, the LA euphemism for criticism, and we would do the scene again, making adjustments per Jerry's direction. It was incredible to see the work progress. Each student's performance became richer and more powerful. The third week we came to class dressed in character. As Ashley...
...Abbott, president of Jabot, I wore a classic black suit and pumps. "Dressing in character is another thing that makes you feel the part," says Jerry. "Don't come to performance night in jeans, when you're playing a business man."
After three weeks and the first scene officially performed in class, Jerry had a good sense of our ability and potential, which made casting the second scene more realistic. This time I was Jill playing opposite John Abbott in the very scene that wrote Jerry off the show (two years ago). Big shoes to fill. I didn't envy my scene partner, who was about to play our acting teacher in his most poignant moment. We knew we had our work cut out for us. We created our pre-life and discussed it at length. We rehearsed several times before the next class. It was our turn to present the scene and we rocked! We had them. Even Jerry was mesmerized. He couldn't be more complimentary. He said I had begun to commit to the work and trusted the writing to take me (inside the scene). Not that I was being a writer, writing about the acting process, but that I was experiencing being an actor. I had made a breakthrough. This was week 4 of the class.
Still, he wanted more. This was an emotional scene. Jess Walton (Jill, Y&R) actually came to tears as she performed it on the show. Jerry wanted me to raise the stakes. But how to get to that place? How to make yourself cry, in front of an audience, after you've portrayed a myriad of other emotions in a matter of minutes. How to bring yourself to tears?
As part of my preparation, I spoke with many actors. One, whose been recognized for his work by both the EMMY committee and his fans, agreed that crying is very difficult. Some people can do it in the blink of an eye, he said, no pun intended, like his co-star, for example. He had to work at it by calling up a memory that involved the only time he'd ever cried for real in his life, when his first cat died. Sometimes, that would get him there. Other times, not. It wasn't easy.
Working with my scene partner, who had years of theater experience, was a sheer delight. His professionalism brought my performance to a new level. We rehearsed, two or three times a week, and I continued to work on getting to a place that would bring me to tears for this scene.
In the meantime, our industry presentation was fast approaching. Jerry wanted us to have current headshots for Ms. O'Loughlin. I arranged to have them done. Interestingly, my photographer, Linda Borgeson, played the role of Alice Frame on Another World in the early 1980s. David Canary played her husband, Steve. She then did 15 episodes of General Hospital. It seemed everywhere I turned, people had gotten their start in soaps.
Finally, the big night arrived. Having a professional casting director, and the artistic director of the Actors Studio in attendance, gave the evening a definite edge. Meryl O'Loughlin took a seat next to Jerry in the front row. Tracy Roberts sat in the back. One, two, three, four... we ran our scenes like clockwork. This wasn't an official audition, but the butterflies in my stomach were oblivious to that.
We were up next. My partner and I set our scene and ran it. I let the action and the writing take me. Suddenly, as if by some magical transformation, I was no longer me. I was Jill saying goodbye to the love of her life. I was inside the character and the scene. As the moment approached, I got to the place where the tears welled up from inside. As our scene ended, our fellow students, Jerry, Meryl O'Loughlin and Tracy Roberts applauded. What a high. What an experience. What an amazing class. Everyone had come so far since the first night.
Which was O'Loughlin's one regret. That she didn't see us at the beginning. "I would have liked to have known the progress," she said. For Jerry's next session, she expressed the desire to see the scenes the first time they are performed, and then return on the last night. "That would help me." She thanked us and enjoyed our performances. Was there anyone she'd consider calling in to read for Y&R? "There are some, yes," she said. "When the right parts came up." I asked her what she looks for in casting a role. "Aside from the actor being physically right for the part, I am interested in good acting. I think to be a good actor, you have to have talent, but you have to study, study, study! With a variety of teachers," she said.
Meryl went on to explain that Y&R provides the material the night before. "We expect an actor to be well-prepared. The most important thing an actor can do, besides studying, and being professional and on time, is to decide, before he comes in to read, exactly who he is -- who the person is, to get a beat on the role and never, ever waver. Even if it's wrong. That doesn't matter. If he knows who he is in the role, you can redirect. If you know who you are when you come in, take a beat on the role and you're definite, you're going to come off as a good actor. I might write down, not right for this part, but I am going to write: good actor. If I write that, you'll be back next week for another part."
Jerry concluded the class recommending we continue to study. He stressed preparation. "Even if the actor you're working with goes up on his lines, don't be negative about it," he said. "Use pre-life to keep you in the scene. To feed you, even if the other actor doesn't feed you the line. Work on accepting, trusting and committing to the material. Just get up...
...and do it. Don't think. Feel. As a professional actor," he continued, "all you can do is learn to compete.You must say, I want to do the best job I can do under the circumstances of my life that day. You get work by getting good enough to compete."
For those in LA, Jerry's class is offered intermittently at the Tracy Roberts Actors Studio. It was an amazing growth experience for me. According to Jerry, I was one of two who had shown the most improvement over the six short weeks. "Even though you have (entertainment) experience, you're still doing the work," he commented. "There are a lot of people, even with experience, who could never do it. You've shown you can. You have an availability, a likeability, compassion. All good qualities to come through for a woman actor."
I credit my progress to Jerry's fine direction, his dedication to the craft, and caring about his students. He was always a cellphone call away. When Tracy Roberts, an accomplished actor, director, producer invited me to participate in her advanced scene study class, I was ecstatic. She found it hard to believe I'd been studying less than 3 months. "You were poised on stage. I saw emotion, and range of feeling. You must pursue this," something I fully intend to do.
As part of the entertainment community, I have always loved and respected the actors who made the writer's material come to life. Taking Jerry's class heightened that respect. It was an honor when Tracy Roberts introduced me to her sister (Ann Marcus, author of "Whistling Girl," a memoir of life behind the scenes on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Days of Our Lives), as a writer and an actress!
Actors work hard to put a little magic in your day. They put their heart and soul into every scene. They will make a fool of themselves before millions, if it will make some of the millions laugh. The next time a new face appears on your favorite soap, wait before you pass judgment. Recognize the difficult road they've traveled to get where they are. Applaud their guts and dedication. Give them a chance to find themselves in the character, and they may surprise you.
PostScript: This article is dedicated to Tracy Roberts who passed away in the Spring of 2002. As far as I know, the Tracy Roberts Acting Studio is now defunct. Meryl O'Loughlin is no longer the casting director at Y&R. She left about a year after this article was written. Jerry Douglas continues in the role of John Abbot on the Young and the Restless.
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