The Creative Moments Series - How to be a successful actor in Hollywood by someone whose been in practically everything! Creative Moments Interview with Stephen Tobolowsky:
interview by N J Howell
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You've probably seen Stephen Tobolowsky in a movie or tv show this week. I hardly go through a week when I watch much cable that I don't see him. He's been in just about everything! He has this amazing capacity to just "fit" in whatever role he finds himself. I tend to gravitate toward teachers I like as human beings too. I like Stephen as a person, not just as a great teacher or a talented actor.
I took a six-week improv class with Stephen Tobolowsky when I was in Los Angeles. The expansion I experienced in that six weeks improvisation class is hard to articulate ... Stephen gave me permission, nay, encouragement, to be free as an actor - to experience fearless freedom as a performer. His exercises were so unique and obviously emerging from his own journey as an actor. They stretched, inspired and excited me as a performer. I absolutely loved that he used music and that he gave us these intriquing improv assignments based on photos and famous people from the past. It was always revealing and challenging work in his classes.
A Tobolowsky Gem:
One of the memories I have of a personal AHA! moment in Stephen's class was after I did an improv on Los Angeles traffic. It was supposed to be funny but it was such a nightmare for me that I played it a little too real. I remember Stephen sitting thoughtfully for a moment before he said he was concerned about my character. He said that the audience can't care too much about the situation and still laugh at the performance. I never forgot that. When doing a broad comedy, like a sitcom, even if the situation is dire, the audience can't care about the actor to the point that the won't laugh. We have this innate compassion for someone who is suffering or, even in the absence of true compassion, we have manners. So broad comedy has to somehow stop short of being so real that the audience has concern about the character.
Even more important than the value of the exercises, in and of themselves, was the complete feeling of being in a safe space with Stephen. I knew I could explore, stumble, fall flat on my creative face and be safe in that kind of risk-taking that births inspired moments in acting. The obvious love he has for the craft shines through every moment of the class and generates a freedom for risk-taking that is rare in a public class with others.
If you are an actor or a comedian wanting to step into a more fearless and strong performance energy, I can make no higher recommendation than to study with Stephen Tobolowsky. His innovative, fun and unique approach is like a spring tonic for the actor's soul. As far as I know, Stephen still offers the occasional improv class thru Kalmenson and Kalmenson in Burbank, CA. If you are in the area, or going there for auditions or other training, and want to see if Stephen is offering a class, just call Kalmenson and Kalmenson at 818-377-3600. If you study with Stephen, please tell him Neva Howell said hi. Thanks!
About Stephen: Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared over 100 movies and 200 television shows. He was nominated for a Tony award for "Mornings at Seven"." He currently can be heard on The Tobolowsky Files and on iTunes. By the way, I've been listening to the Tobolowsky Files and all I can say is, please, go listen to a master storyteller. They are simply fabulous. Here's what Stephen has to say about being a character actor: "The very best character actors are made of equal parts discipline and madness, and the fact that our faces are more familiar than our names is not our curse, but our blessing."
OK, without further ado ... Creative Moments with the brilliant Stephen Tobolowsky:
Question 1: Stephen, If you could give a performer only one acting tip for creating inspired and believable characters, what would it be?
Stephen's Response:. The short answer is to be a better listener. On level one - listen to what is being said to you in the scene. Actors often get so locked into their performance they don't realize that their performance will be alive and spontaneous if they respond to their partner in the scene. In life we almost never are concerned about how we deliver a line - we are concerned with having our partner understand our point of view. How we say something is determined in the moment: How important is our point, how eager is our partner on hearing our point of view for starters. So in the larger realm the actor must understand the point of view of their character - that requires being a better observer of life and characters and situations around them.
Question 2: What advice would you give creative performers on developing their career, making a living, and enjoying the creative aspects of life as a performer in film and television?
Stephen's Response: 2. Reflects on the first question as well. No one is guarenteed a living - especially in the arts. My nephew is getting his doctorate in ancient languages of the Middle East and he is now getting nervous he won't get a living wage in the world with all of his study. Like an actor he may have to consider bar tending or being a teacher - teaching others ancient Middle East languages.
What causes despair in actors is that they feel out of control of their creativity. I suggest - here is my connection to the first question - keep a journal of things you observe. This journal will feed your acting - will be a source of material in improvisations - and will give you a broader understanding of humanity. It's simple and in your control.
As to money. There are commercials. You need to network. Actors should find directing or writing workshops to join. You can help them by being a guinea pig and you can develop contacts in another artistic discipline. They may get a job and hire you. Stay in acting classes to network. Do plays to get seen and to stay sharp. Always try to learn something new. In your spare time - read a play. Listen to a composer you have never listened to. Go to the art gallery. It will feed your soul...which also needs to be fed.
More Creative Moments: Gary Marsh Interview