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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Growing up with coach Susan Batson

The acting coach who played the most significant role in my life is Susan Batson. I began working with her in 1979, I was 14 years old. I used to take the bus or the subway from Hell’s Kitchen to the Upper West Side. She lived in an apartment with two floors, the door opened onto the top floor, which was very small, had a kitchenette, wood floor and a spiral staircase that went to where the bedrooms were. Her son Carl was down there from time to time and on occasion would poke his head up from somewhere on the spiral stairs, asking Susan for something.

I did not know Susan’s story, but I knew that she worked very hard and I felt that if I wanted to work with her I needed to match her or try. This meant black coffee was always on the small stove. She smoked then, one cigarette after another. I think one thing she responded to was that I spoke with gut-level honesty. We drank black coffee and worked for hours.

I was a working actor by 14, a member of SAG, AFTRA and EQUITY. I brought audition after audition to Susan and we broke them down. I learned how to break down a script into beats and actions from Susan. Her script technique was largely influenced by Harold Clurman, whom she had worked with. Once we broke down the material, I got on my feet in that small space and dove in. Then she gave me adjustments. She was selfless with her time, she gave me whatever I needed, and then she refused to charge me a penny. She was known back then for giving away her time, and it would take her many years to change; today, a one hour session with Susan is over $500.  But as a teenager I decided never to leave without atleast giving her something and the most immediate need she had. I would go to 72nd Street and buy her a carton of cigarettes, return to her door and place them in her hand. Years later I would pay her back in a more significant and long lasting way.

While I attended the High School of Performing Arts on 46th Street, I returned to Susan’s apartment again and again to work on jobs that I booked, auditions that I hoped to book and to grow and evolve as an actor.  We had a shorthand way of working and we went deeper and deeper into the work. She held classes off and on. I remember once she gave me a scene from American Buffalo and the other actors in the class were all older than I was, they started tearing at me, they felt I didn’t have the junkie “in.” Susan stopped their attack and she started to speak to them about how to give notes. She talked about my age, about the gut-level commitment I was bringing and told them to appreciate what they were seeing. She knew that I came from a difficult childhood and that acting was saving me, keeping me afloat and giving me hope. She asked me questions about my choices and we discussed where I needed to go.

It was also at 16 that I got a call from Susan asking me if I could step into a Huck Finn scene with an actress who was auditioning for the Actors Studio in a week. I remember our first rehearsal was on a Sunday night in the main space at the Studio and no one else was there. It was my first time in there and it was the perfect setting. I looked around and vowed to myself to return. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles "Chuck" Gordon asked me if I wanted to stage manage a play he had written and would direct. Susan Batson was starring in it. We rehearsed in a space above the Police Department on 54th Street and 9th Avenue. I decided to tape record every rehearsal so I had capture everything Chuck said. He liked to talk and his talks were profound. We spent weeks in rehearsal. I watched Susan start to create her character, working from sensation and erupting in a version of a Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet, but from the soul. The entire rehearsal process was like a workshop for me, and in fact, that is all that it was, because the work ended when rehearsals ended. I do not remember why, but I believe it had to do with Chuck. But watching Susan work the process of character creation has never left me. 

At 17 I got an audition for the Broadway production of John Pielmier’s play, “The Boys of Winter.” I arrived at Susan’s early. I was in full Vietnam era military uniform with weighted backpack. There was a great Army/ Navy shop on 42nd Street off 9th Avenue. I walked everywhere and was hot and my uniform was sweaty by the time I got to Susan’s. She opened the door and immediately accepted my clothes, my state of mind and my world. I was in character and she knew how to work with me. Strangers would stare or glare at me. Susan automatically knew. She always knew.

At twenty I auditioned for the Studio and was accepted. A french documentary was filming me and the only other actor accepted that year- Burt Young. Being a member of the Studio allows me a place to work and to watch others work. 

When I was 23 I was in Los Angeles and I got a job on a show called “thirtysomething.” Susan was in New York. There was no internet. I would FEDEX my pages to her and we would work by phone. She broke everything down for me and gave me strong choices. When the first episode aired, my character made a splash. The Network offered me more episodes and later offered me another show to star in.

Susan taught me history. She never gave a lecture about it, she didn’t have to. Susan was and is history, and she is more relevant today than ever.  As an actress she had first worked with Uta Hagen, then Harold Clurman, then her time as an actress working at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, and then he had her teach for him. The magic stardust of her work followed her when she entered a room. You could sense it, practically see it.

Susan taught me professionalism and a work ethic. The work came first. Serve the work. If you are feeling something, make it available to the work. You have a life problem, make it available to the character. You don’t make it all about you, you always make it about the work. Give it to the work. Anything I told Susan was for her to help me use in my work. It would have been a sign of amateurism to insist that I was most important and that my complaints or issues were the point of what we were doing.
Instead it was like my instrument was a garden and by making all I had available to the work, something could and would grow from there.

Somewhere along the line, she quit smoking. I had already been paying her real money for years by then. What frustrated me most was that it seemed no one knew about Susan. Now, she had worked with Lily Tomlin for years, and loads of New York actors as well. But I wanted Susan to be known as the genius she is. Until that could happen, she was the best kept secret. There was nothing I could do on my own to assist in that way. The time wasn’t right.

When I was 30, I got a call from my manager. I was living in L.A. and my manager was also managing Nicole Kidman. My manager said Nicole and her then-husband Tom Cruise were looking for a “real” acting coach. They were going to make a film with Stanley Kubrick.

My manager said he didn’t know any coaches and he needed the real deal asap.  I knew that Susan would be shocked by getting a call from Nicole. I knew that Nicole would have her mind blown to meet and work with Susan. 

Susan went to London with Nicole and Tom. To this day Nicole and Susan work together on every project Nicole has. Susan started working with Juliet Binoche and more and more celebrities- Oprah, Chris Rock, Common, Zac Ephron, Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, Sean Combs and more.

The universe had come together and all at once I had been in the right place to give back to Susan- she is no longer a secret. Susan and Carl have worked so very hard to build what they have: their studio and their brand. Susan is one of the greatest acting coaches alive.

 There was a time when I was in L.A., teaching for Susan and she came out there. I used to pick her up every morning in my brother’s little 4 cylinder manual shift Nissan pickup. We would drive from where Sunset starts in Santa Monica and take it all to way to Hollywood. Each morning I would ask her acting questions, I rarely had the chance anymore to simply ask acting questions and I filled our time this way. What did she think about this, what did she think about that. There we were, the same two that started in 1979 working and talking, we were older now, but it was us again. I loved that time.

Once I saw another teacher take a class from Susan and then teach her technique in his studio and he called it his. I was furious. I was about to contact him when Susan said to me, “This art is infinite. There is room for him and for all of us in this art.”  She wasn’t petty, she was focused on serving the work. She continues to teach me lessons. And Carl, her son has helped me through so much, always in the art. Carl is a master teacher and he has always felt like a brother to me.

I did a scene at the Studio in L.A.  Martin Landau and Mark Rydell were moderating. The scene before ours had gone terribly wrong. I was outside the door, so I didn't see it. But you could hear that something was wrong. By the time we were allowed in to set up, we got ready and let her rip. The Studio suddenly filled up, the floor was full of actors ready to watch. There was little room to move and I knew I would have to deal with them on my exit out the front door. Our scene ignited and we lived the relationship and the world of the playwright, it was a great feeling. Afterwards, Martin Landau said "This is the kind of work we should be seeing at the Studio." 
It meant a great deal to me. The culture of the Studio is something I learned how to take part in primarily because of Susan's teachings. She continues to offer these teachings and she is at the top of her game. 

If you get to work with Susan or Carl, you will never forget it. It's been 38 years since I first got the chance. 

Carl Ford and Susan Batson

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