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Sunday, October 21, 2012

*My interview with actor, director and teacher Mark Nelson

I first met Mark Nelson in the 1980's. He was playing Stanley in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. His kindness, decency and intelligence have always stood out to me. I have profound respect for his amazing body of work. I am really very very grateful that he took the time to answer my questions for this blog. ~

 Mark Nelson is currently acting in a new off-Broadway play, My Name Is Asher Lev.  He teaches acting at Princeton University. Mark has appeared on Broadway in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, Arthur Miller's After the Fall, Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men, and four plays by Neil Simon.  In 2009 he toured for a year with the Bridge Project, Sam Mendes' classical rep company, performing in New York, London, Madrid, and Epidaurus, Greece. As an actor, Mark has won the Obie, Drama League, Carbonell, and San Francisco Critics Awards.  His TV work includes recurring roles on "Law & Order" and "Spin City."  He has also directed plays in New York and around the country, and is a frequent guest director at the Juilliard School.  He is a graduate of Princeton and studied acting with Uta Hagen at HB Studio. 

Corey: Once upon a time there was a great sense of tradition that was handed to the actor who trained with Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner. The actor learned of the roots of their training, and of the absolute necessity of respect for acting. Today, there are many teachers who have no connection to the traditions. As a result, many actors and acting students never get to hear the words of the masters that called for commitment. How do you see the state of the young actor today, and more importantly, what do you think every actor must learn somewhere along the line in order to serve the work as a professional?

Mark: This idea of artistic tradition is on my mind a lot these days because of the play I'm working on, My Name Is Asher Lev, from the novel by Chaim Potok. I play several roles, including this crusty old Russian artist, Jacob Kahn, who mentors the young hero, a Hasidic boy who dreams of being a painter. And I have this one speech I love: “What the hell do you need this for? This is a tradition. A religion. You are entering a religion called Painting. It has its fanatics and its rebels and I'm going to force you to master it. Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it, or rebel against it." He's saying this to an ultra-Orthodox Jew! You think your religion is tough, kid, wait till you get a load of mine!
So when I deliver that speech I'm remembering my own tough, loving mentor, Uta Hagen. I'm channeling her and her crazy faith and commitment (only her voice was deeper than mine.) There's no doubt in my mind that meeting Uta is the reason I've hung in there as an actor for 35 years. I found her class at that crucial moment when I needed a philosophy of living as much as I needed the training. She was a huge, charismatic force, and she was fueled by the passionate conviction that acting is a form of service, a craft to be relentlessly honed, a serious aspiration. Up till then, for me, it was mainly a form of emotional release, a way to make myself heard in the world. In her class-- which I attended on and off for six years-- I finally got that it wasn't about me. It was about getting my ego out of the way, using my inner life as a means to something bigger and more valuable: telling the story. ~ I remember the laser beam of her attention, the frankness of the critiques, the big, throaty laughter when somebody nailed a scene-- I think those things are ingrained in me now more than anything she actually said. And she carried this astounding history with her: she had stories about working with Brecht, Brando, Albee, Paul Robeson, the Lunts. Geraldine Page and Rock Hudson actually came to watch her teach! We got the feeling we were partaking in a tradition, and we dreamed of joining it. She passed her practical and philosophical DNA on to hundreds of actors in that room on Bank Street, and now I hope I'm passing on a bit of it to my students.Of course many, many young actors are in it for the fame or the ego or the therapy, but I think that's always been true. The ones who will last, who will sustain a career despite the inevitable kicks in the teeth, are the ones with a sense of the craft-- that they're part of something that's worth a lifetime's dedication.

Corey: Is there an actor whom you have watched on stage or worked with who taught you what acting could be? Who blew you away? What was it about their work that inspired you?

Mark: So many. I've been blessed to work with glorious actors. Linda Lavin in Broadway Bound gave the greatest performance I ever observed at close range-- an impossible combination of sharpshooter comedy technique and heartbreaking vulnerability. The pain and the humor were inseparable. And Simon Russell Beale: I spent a year touring in rep with the Bridge Project, and Simon played Leontes in The Winter's Tale and Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. Two completely different, compelling human beings, on alternate nights. I knew of him as England's great Shakespearean actor, so I expected a majestic command of language, but what I didn't expect was fearless intimacy and heart. The grand classical technique just disappeared into the quirky human truth of those two characters. One night I was so knocked out by him that I forgot to say the next line.

Corey: What was the most difficult part you ever played and how did you address those obstacles?

Mark: About a year ago, I got to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in Washington, DC. A great part that's littered with landmines. How do you go to court to claim a pound of flesh from your business rival's chest? He either comes off as a monster of bigotry, or a noble Jewish victim with no other choice, and I couldn't buy either one. He's a victim of terrible anti-Semitism, and he's also a madman who espouses an ugly idea of justice. Particularly as a Jewish actor, I couldn't settle for a stereotyped villain, and I also couldn't see him as justified. ~ So my solution, finally, was to find a point right in the middle of the play where he loses his humanity, where he makes the choice to let his decency die. He's driven to it by loss, in the moment that his friend Tubal informs him that his runaway daughter Jessica has sold his ring, a gift from his late wife, to buy a monkey. “Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” He's endured a lifetime of abuse in Venice and kept the faith, but that lost ring breaks him. Nothing matters anymore. And the next thing he does is send Tubal to find an officer to arrest Antonio. So from that moment in the play, I was able to relentlessly pursue vengeance while knowing, as Shylock, that it was against everything I believed. 

Corey: When you teach at Princeton, you have students who are not necessarily looking to make acting their profession or their chosen art form. How do you approach these varied individuals and what do you require from them in return?

Mark: There's no theater major at Princeton, so all my students are immersed in other subjects: I have two Engineers, a Slavic Studies major, a biologist, and a bunch of English Lit majors. It's great for me, because they bring a wider world to the scene work. Some of the insights into Chekhov or Arthur Miller are thrilling, because they're informed by different perspectives than you'd hear in an acting class in L.A. or New York. I ask for a lot of commitment in class, and they take acting seriously-- Princeton kids are serious about everything. And because they're in left-brain analytical mode most of the time, I think they really treasure the chance to play, to let their feelings fly, to relate viscerally. That's a necessary part of an integrated human being, whether he or she turns out to be an actor, a professor, a scientist, whatever. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a kid experience a “light-bulb moment” in a scene, when he goes suddenly from understanding it to living it. That's about much more than acting; it's about becoming present in your life, really letting in another person, facing fear, recognizing yourself in another's shoes. I think all that is essential to the journey of any well-rounded person. Maybe one or two of them will go on to become actors, and hopefully the rest will go on to make enough money to buy a lot of theater tickets. ~

Mark Nelson in My Name is Asher Lev at the Westside Theater

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