Rob Adler on Acting, Teaching Acting to Children and Adults,
Games, and Other Thoughts
Interview by Sue Basko
You seem to be an actor, a teacher, maybe an improviser. Please tell me about you and your work.
Yes, I am an actor, director, teacher and though I prefer a script, it seems that life is improvised, so yes, I am an improviser. My work as an actor is about helping to tell stories that inspire people into action. I want to help demonstrate that there is real power in coming together, identifying and relating. There is a great history of people coming together to act. I believe that stories help us to imagine the possibilities and theater, films and television allow us do that together. I also coach and teach actors working in film television and theater. The focus of my teaching is to help people find spontaneity, presence and play. The play’s the thing.
Please tell me about your background, what led up to where you are today.
While watching the VHS of Superman II, at age five, for the umpteenth time, it finally occurred to me to ask my big brother how they made him fly. When he told me, I first understood that there was much more to the picture than what I saw. There was a crane! And the notion that someone might sew me a cape and dangle me from a piece of construction equipment piqued my curiosity to say the least. My aunt Margaret made me a cape but I’m still learning to fly.
I fell in love with the rehearsal process with my first play, which was a school production of Peter Pan in which I played Curly the Lost Boy. By the opening night, I was hooked. That summer I attended the Summer Arts Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey where I lived. I apprenticed summers thereafter at a local theater, where I met some amazing artists who would become my mentors. I studied, read and practiced everything I could. I swept floors and built sets, hung lights, made props and costumes, and stage managed. I danced and sang and acted.
When I was sixteen, I was invited to study Shakespeare in England with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I had always loved language (a gift from my grandmother), but in the UK I learned some skill with verse. From Fiona Shaw, I learned to fuel text with passion.
I decided to study in Chicago after High School, because I wanted a non-psychological approach to acting. I had read about the method, affective memory. I had read Meisner and Strasberg but sensed they weren’t for me. In Chicago, I found a physical, collaborative approach to acting and the skills to play to spaces large and small. I learned an intimacy and intensity that lent well to film & television.
After completing Theater School, I did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Woodstock, NY, directed by my old mentor, Richard Edelman. I then moved to Los Angeles. In LA, I began working with David Avcollie, studied with the Groundlings, Second City and Joyce Piven, all of whom derived their work from the games of Viola Spolin, which I had studied in Chicago. I pilgrimaged to Wisconsin where Spolin’s son, creator of the Second City, Paul Sills, was still teaching. Upon returning, I met an actor named Todd Stashwick who was also interested in Spolin Games as they applied to theater. We created what we called The Hothouse Spontaneous Theater. I taught adults there and at the Chicago & Seattle Improv Festivals.
It was then that I also began teaching kids. But, to kids I taught Shakespeare, while performing (I did a five year run as Bottom in A Midsummer Nights Dream!) as a member of LA’s oldest classical theater company. This was a wonderful juxtaposition: Games to adults & Shakespeare to kids.
I left the Hothouse when I was hired by ABC to be the on-camera acting coach for Disney’s High School Musical: Get in the Picture. Now I coach actors on set and teach classes at two Hollywood acting studios and periodically at schools and theaters nationwide and worldwide. I continue to act in theater, television and film and I’m working hard for more of the latter.
You work with children. Where, doing what?
Currently, I’m teaching young actors at an acting studio called Talentorium. I’ve taught master classes and workshops at theaters and schools from Boston to Baton Rouge, Orange County to Orlando, Seattle to Syracuse! I also coach young actors on set.
What are your main goals in working with children?
To increase their capacity for focus, build confidence, presence, compassion and joy. To meet them where they are and help them take the next steps. On set, I aim to help them fulfill their part of the whole.
I think acting classes or skills are a big help in all other aspects of life. How do you think this applies to children and teens?
Teenage is tough. Preteens might be tougher. Acting skills can help a person to be comfortable in their own skin and in the present moment. They can help us escape our critical mind and learn to relate. Acting can teach assertiveness, build confidence and enable creative problem solving. Acting skills and living skills are closely related.
Are you from a certain school of theater philosophy? Please explain.
I have studied many schools and philosophies. I apprenticed with William Hickey of Uta Hagen’s HB Studios and also studied acting in the UK, The First Folio approach to Shakespeare, the Japanese training of Tadashi Suzuki, American Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, clowning with students of the French mime Jacques Lecoq, Hungarian Rudolf Laban's movement analysis, The Feldenkrais Method and others.
I chose to attend Chicago’s Theater School at DePaul University because of their physical approach to actor training and their de-emphasis of an individual method in favor of exploration of many and pursuit of a method for each individual. It was there that I began my study of Viola Spolin’s Games, which I continue to play now. I have since made it my business to study Spolin’s approach with as many experts as possible as I did from her son, Paul Sills, and her protégés, Gary Schwartz and Bob Moyer, among many others. It is Spolin’s philosophy that guides much of my work. But, unlike in music, an actor’s instrument is our self, so no one can teach you where to place your fingers to play a chord. Actors must learn from experience, play with communication and be students of life.
What are your personal goals in acting? What would your next big step be?
My next big step would be a regular role on a network series. I have a great desire to pay forward what I received as a child. As a kid, my siblings and I could rely on a few television shows to be there, consistently and make us laugh. I relied and counted on them. After a play, the audience gets to thank the players in the form of applause, but how can I thank Sam & Diane? Cliff & Claire? I can be there on the screen for some latch key kid to count on week after week. It is this gratitude that lead me to Hollywood and to wonder what else could be done. I have come admire great storytellers like Warren Beatty and Tim Robbins who shine a light on a path for me.
You have a presence, even in small photos. You capture the space. Why are you not famous? Or are you and I just don't know?
I guess that I’m not famous because I haven’t learned how yet. I love how you ask this question. I consider it a great compliment that you feel I have presence and capture the space. Space is what’s between us and it is one thing that I am certain binds us. Connecting with the space is a large part of my daily practice. Being an actor, playing in many media, I must explore the space if I am somehow to connect and communicate to another through it.
I have a sister who teaches figure skating and a niece who teaches gymnastics to young girls who might be Olympic contenders one day. They say it takes the full package -- the child must have talent and desire and discipline, and the parents need the money and time to support the classes and activities. Is it the same in acting?
Not exactly. Acting is as old as fire, we all do it. I like to say that Act is a three letter word with a two letter definition: do. To make an art form of that is a wonderful challenge and it may be the very basis for a conscious life. I’ve had so many good teachers it is hard to imagine I’d be anywhere without them. Three of the best came to me for FREE: The drama teacher at my public school and two wonderful teacher/directors at a local theater who accepted my offer to volunteer during my summer breaks.
I had desire but discipline is involvement. Talent in acting must be re-considered, its measure may just be our capacity for focus. No actor gets scored with a perfect ten like in gymnastics. It’s far more important that we simple learn to, stay on target, keep our eyes on the prize.
What are two things a parent can do to support the child's acting career and two things a parent can do to harm it?
A career as an actor is a lot like a career in the basketball, the odds are slim. Most actors work other jobs and have little security in their careers. It’s harder in times like ours, when so many people are underemployed.
Two things a parent can do are: 1) play games and 2) read aloud and tell stories together. I’ve seen parents push their kids into the industry while failing to develop their child as a person. To me that is failure.
I often ask my students why they want to be an actor. If the answer is about self, then I am certain they will have a rough go of it. If the answer is about service than they will find many opportunities in life to act in service, no career required. Service, compassion, and presence also amount to likeability, which is helpful in any career, especially acting.
What about Oakwoods? Do you know anything about that?
Not much. I know people stay there, often if they are visiting Los Angeles for Pilot Season. I taught a workshop there once and attended a party there once. Seems like a nice place.
Getting cast or not depends so much on looks. What types are popular now?
The same types have been popular for ages: The Buffoon. The Lover. The Servant. The Dreamer. There are more. The business part of show business knows what sells and sells it. There is only one you in all of time: Be that and they’ll call it what they call it. In my opinion, labels are limiting. The best actors are capable of transformation.
When I think of a lot of the top stars who "made it" in childhood, many came from single mother homes. I am thinking of Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster. (In other fields, I could name Kanye West, Barack Obama) I am sure there are others. Do you see single moms somehow having a touch for this?
What a wonderful question. My mother was single for part of my childhood, she is amazing and an example of what one can accomplish when their focus is clear. My mom once called acting my “baby.” She encouraged me to treat it like she treated me and my siblings. She worked as hard as she could, with as much love as she could muster, to care for us. I pale in comparison. Love is paramount. If and when I have kids, I believe that nothing would be better for them than a stable, loving home.
If a child who does not live in Los Angeles wants to be in TV shows or movies, what course of action should they take?
Well, there are TV and Movies made in many cities and now, from people’s home computers so I’d say go and do it! I got my first manager as a referral from my mother’s hairdresser in a small town in New Jersey.
What might be a good reality check for aspiring young actors? For their parents?
Van Gogh died broke with one ear, hardly ideal.
If a child or teen wants to study acting in their home town, with an eye toward a professional career, what resources do you suggest?
Get a good, diverse education. Study hard. Play hard. Build forts, imagine yourself magic, invite dangerous people to tea. Be silly. Stay loose. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Volunteer. Watch people. Get involved in local theater. Journal often about your experiences, this will provide an amazing point of reference. Be brave. Practice breathing, dancing, singing. Go to college. Make movies, do plays, write! Honor your body. Talk to people, find good mentors and role models. Read everything. Acting books are great, but acting is learned in the body, not the head. Read the newspaper, play charades. Fall in love.
Same question, but for an adult?
Same answer, add: Be relentless. Have capital. Stay open.
I would cast you in a movie, if I was making a movie. What role would you like to play?
The inspiring one. Since Superman II, I’ve loved the hero myth. But my heroes are people who bring others together, not those who rescue. Would you cast me as Dr King? I’d like that. Truthfully, I just want to act, to be a part of the dream.
Rob Adler (email: Spontaneitytrain@aol.com)
Because Great Acting Looks Improvised
Photos by Molly Koch
"Magic...it's the creative edge that sets you apart from your peers. Adler is a coach who can marry improvisation with not only scripted material, but the modern demands of the industry as well. Through his humor, passion, intelligence and generosity, Rob has a way of getting actors to let go and play." -Adam Mayfield, All My Children, current student
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