Drama in the Classroom

It is a sunny day in March, and inside a dark room two strangers are in agony. They reach out to each other to portray the same tension that an eager-to-please daughter and an anxious mother would feel in real life if the diabetic daughter revealed that she’s pregnant with a man the mother rejects as unworthy.

“Your body has been through so much,” Claudia Baumgarten says to her make-believe daughter, her voice controlled, unyielding. “There’s limits to what you can do.”

“Mama, please.” Character Shelby pleads for character M’Lynn’s blessing in a voice full of motherhood longing and little-girl needs.

The scene ends in a tearful hug, but the full-length drama doesn’t end well for Shelby. In this case, Mama was right.

These two actors played a tough scene from Steel Magnolias, a movie shot more than 20 years ago in Louisiana, years before the state’s consistent success in luring the film industry to its picturesque streets, bayous and tax credits. It was a fitting script for two locals hoping to get some paying roles out of the bargain.

Baumgarten sat across from Jamie Teer in a spare, shadow-filled room in the French Quarter packed with aspiring actors, working actors and acting pros. The audience watched with concentration. They were there to learn the craft, learning to pretend to be someone else while still fully being themselves.

They participated in a weekend workshop, entitled “More Than Acting,” taught by master teacher Deena Levy. Brought to New Orleans by Nom de Guerre Films, a production company owned by Nicelle Herrington and her director/producer husband TG Herrington, Levy led students in exercises designed to teach them how to use their own personalities in a role. Levy, a wiry New Yorker who has taught acting for 15 years, encourages actors to find a voice that’s essentially theirs, not the pre-packaged version they think a movie director expects.
“If anyone apologizes, I’ll kill you,” she joked before the group began its script work. “You move from one unanticipated moment to the next unanticipated moment.”

Levy normally coaches students at her theatre studio in New York, where she typically takes in 10 actors at a time. She takes an upbeat approach to the craft that focuses on building self-confidence and reducing stage fright. “I believe that the individual must approach the challenges of learning the craft of acting with the recognition that he or she is already successful,” she says on her webpage.

The New Orleans workshop drew a mostly youngish, jeans-wearing crowd with varying backgrounds. The group included a former Saints linebacker, a vintage clothing shop owner, a teacher, a screenwriter and some actors already getting steady work in the string of movie productions that are bringing movie stars, limos and bright lights to New Orleans streets. Many New Orleanians became addicted followers of the TV series “Treme,” a gritty rendering of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, because every episode brought a cameo appearance of someone they knew.

Unfortunately, the real acting parts go to outsiders, Nicelle Harrington says. Although some locals get roles, they are type-cast parts of bartenders and bouncers that require little knowledge of the craft, she says.

“It’s Hollywood South, but there’s no training,” Herrington says. “This is the missing link.”

Herrington, whose life is so embedded in film work that her son got his first acting payment at six, wants to change all that.

Having taught Channing Tatum, who stars in 21 Jump Street, a recently released film shot in New Orleans, and Kim Dickens, who plays chef Janette Desautel in “Treme,” Levy has ties to the New Orleans film scene by association. She was the perfect choice to lead a workshop in New Orleans, a place that offers film work, but no master teachers to guide local actors, says Herrington.

Herrington’s company donated its Esplanade Avenue studio space for the project, a building ripe for a Tennessee Williams drama. Its brick façade and iron railings could be the prototype for a scene out of A Streetcar Named Desire, complete with the sounds of trumpets on the street corner and horse hoofs striking pavement outside the courtyard. Nom de Guerre Films also partly subsidized each of the participant’s workshop fees, Herrington says.

Part acting coach, part therapist, Levy spent three days leading 13 people in exercises designed to encourage them to find their own voice by connecting deeper with themselves.

“Everyone has one (a unique voice) and it’s so conceptual,” Levy says. “I call it ‘breaking the code.’ The exercises are designed to surprise them into being themselves.”

Another one of her approaches is teaching students to use their mistakes as opportunities to bring something real to the role. She calls this technique “failing up,” a truthful misstep or nervous tic that brings an unexpected, workable moment to a scene.

“You don’t want to get rid of all your low self-esteem,” Levy tells acting students. She asks them in a pre-workshop questionnaire, “What works about your greatest weakness?”

Another question she asks is, “How do you use your stuff and put it in your work?”

To facilitate the process, Levy gives participants a role to play with another student on the final day of the workshop. She discourages memorizing the script and encourages them to allow themselves to flow into the part. If an awkward moment is noticeable, she points out how it fit into the scene.

 After Baumgarten and Teer finished their scene, for instance, Levy pointed out that nervousness led to some shaky hands.

“It was about the time you were going to say ‘Mama,’” Levy said to Teer. “At that moment, would your hands shake?”

Probably so, everyone agreed. Those shaky hands were truthful to the moment – a Levy moment.

Acting on it

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Source: Film New Orleans, Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy


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