Avid Theatre will present Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith next month at Chapel off Chapel. This relatively unknown Shepard work will be directed by The Melbourne Actor’s Lab founder, Peter Kalos.
Kalos is a man who is passionate about teaching the craft of acting but he is also brutally honest about what he expects in return and about what it takes to become an actor. He is a man who got to know all sorts of people on an intimate basis: Bob DeNiro, Marty Scorsese, Bette Midler, Marty Landau, Chris Walken, Mickey Rourke, Al Pacino. He is a man that any actor working today needs to listen to because, and believe me on this, he will inspire you to work harder, strive further and go deeper. As an actor, if these elements interest you, then the below interview is a must read!! Kalos tells it like it is…
Peter, as the founder of The Melbourne Actor’s Lab can you talk about some of the main motivators that prompted you to open the school?
Well, it’s basically what I have studied for 20 years- and it’s all I know how to do. I used to make my living as a script doctor in LA but I never studied writing- I studied acting and it’s what I can teach. Anything outside acting or writing- I’m a complete idiot.
I would imagine that the process of opening a school would not go without its pitfalls. Can you talk about some of the difficulties you encountered along the way?
Most actors in Melbourne are lazy- it’s a harsh statement to make but unfortunately it’s true. I was used to actors in LA who do nothing but act and work hard at a scene, and they’re in it for the long term. Here, most actors are looking for a quick fix / meet the agent / make me a start overnight deal- it doesn’t work that way. Acting is very hard work- you have to train for the rest of your life (most do in some form or another) and it’s a commitment. Actors here think they’re committed but that haven’t seen commitment.
When I first opened, many people came and went because they realise it’s hard work- most people still leave when I ask them to show me a monologue – they find reasons why NOT to do a monologue. Bad actors find reasons not to do the work- the script sucks, the director sucks, I have no time- it’s not my kind of thing etc. Good actors find reasons to do the work- everything sucks but they find a way to make it theirs. I now have mostly good actors that work hard- but it took time to find them.
You have, of course, had many decades of formal training yourself in the US and studied under both Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler to name a few. These two greats were of course both members of the Group Theatre but had a falling out over interpretations of Stanislavski’s System of acting (which they were using as the basis of their acting training) when Adler studied under Stanislavski in Russia. Strasberg went on to form his method and Adler began her own school incorporating what she had learned under Stanislavski. From your experience, can you talk about the fundamental differences between Strasberg’s method and Adler’s Training strategies and what are some of the fundamental acting truisms that each of these masters gave you?
First of all I studied with Stella Adler herself but not with Lee Strasberg. He passed way long before I got to LA- but I did study at his school for many years (5 full time and close to 10 part time) Stella was amazing with script breakdown- no one understood the script better than Stella. It’s where a lot of my understanding for writing came from. Stella was also very good with character work- The specifics of the costume, the gestures etc. Lee (I call him “Lee” because I hung around with Anna his wife for many years and all we heard was “Lee”) really brings the work home with working specifically from something personal, and not just recreating it- or mimicking it which unfortunately happens when the method is not taught well- Lee’s work is about Re- LIVING it- not mimicking it- huge difference between the two. I often compare masturbation to method acting- it’s thinking of something very specific, over and over again, and then the body will follow. You’re not “acting” an orgasm- you’re living it.
The basic difference in the work is this- Lee said “Feel the cold specifically- remember a time when you were cold- where were you etc. and soon… your body will “feel” cold. Stella would say “act cold- shake etc, and imagine a cold place North Pole etc and then look for the specifics in the body” One starts internally with a real past experience / the other starts externally with imagination.
Both are valid and as I tell my students- no one cares what you use- try everything (but try it FULLY) see what works for you for that specific scene and moment in your life. What they both taught me is: USE WHAT”S GOING ON WITH YOU – you’re going through a divorce in real life- you don’t have to act when you’re on the set- it’s already there. That’s easier said than done, it’s not enough to just “think” about things- they won’t affect you- that’s where the work comes in.
Your approach to training an actor is based on the method which in turn is based on the Stanislavski System. Do you feel it is true that many Australians are still suspicious of, and remain wary of, this form of acting training and all of the hard work and commitment this particular way of approaching the work involves?
Yes- I find it ridiculous actually, here’s why- the actors, teachers and establishments who “hate the method” turn around and in the very next sentence tell me who their favourite actors are, they give me a list of method actors. Especially when that same group of people say “we don’t believe in the Method” and then they turn around and talk to me about Taxi Driver – just stupid! I’m fine with people not wanting to use the Method- what I’m not fine with is when people haven’t studied it properly and then say it’s not for them.
Some schools here (VCA for one- there- I said it!) does a horrible job at teaching the method. I know this because I have several of their students come to me and tell me what they did in class, First of all they teach work that I was only allowed to go near after about 3 years full time study – and even then I did the work for about a year- like the animal exercise- here they teach it to people that have been there for 3-6 months and then they barely do it for a month.
The sad thing is the actor misses out- he’s taught an acting tool so poorly that he’ll never use it in his acting life- EVER! He’ll just go back to basic skills- memorise lines, “act” it out etc. it’s what most “untrained” actors do. I have tried to contact some of these places to tell them- hey just hear me out… but they don’t want to hear it. It reminds me of Mel Gibson’s film “Apocalypto” all these indigenous tribes are fighting amongst themselves, and meantime the big boat with all the white people approaches- will soon diminish and wipe out all their internal conflicts.
Many schools here in Melbourne are quite arrogant and narrow minded- especially the government funded ones- meanwhile L.A. is getting on with the real work- training actors and making movies – we’re stuck here still trying to figure out how “Australian” is our product. We’re paying a huge price for it- all our great talent is over there- there’s nothing substantial for them here but we have the tools, we just need to change the way we think here.
You are currently directing the Sam Shepard/Patti Smith play Cowboy Mouth. Can you talk about what initially drew you to this piece?
Vanessa (Moltzen) had just come back from LA- she was feeling down and I said to her- don’t just sit there and blame Melbourne- go do something. She came back about a month later and told me she “found” Michael, and that they’re doing Cowboy. They had already cast themselves, we got together and I liked the way she “found” him- it matches the script- we went on from there.
What does attending a Peter Kalos audition entail?
An audition? Forget the lines PLEASE! I’m looking for an energy, someone that understands the piece- the needs of the character and feel free to adlib- feel free to do it again, take it over etc. If I see someone “searching” for something in the right direction I’ll take that actor any time over someone who has it down perfectly but that’s all they can do with it.
I was in the room when Leo DeCaprio auditioned for Gilbert Grape- he WAS the part- no lines etc. just the character and the need. I keep telling my actors that casting agents have seen the generic /safe audition 40 times already that day- jump off the cliff and give them something different. But don’t mistake “different” with abstract, give them something REAL and along what the character needs- the words are the last thing on their minds… well- it should be anyway, once again it helps to have a casting agent that knows what to look for. Many of them don’t- they have a fixed idea with no room for “something else” in the character.
We have to change that way of thinking. Kazan used to take people for a walk around the block and ask them questions along the needs of the character. I didn’t read that in a book- both Kaza and Peter Bogdanovich told me. So when I hear casting agents and directors who want people to be word perfect in an audition I say to myself “If Kazan didn’t need it- why should we” Trust me, we’re not above him- not even close!”
Can you talk a little bit about what sort of traits an effective director should have in their ‘tool box?’ And aside from the obvious, how important is the actor in the whole actor/director/rehearsal process?
One thing I think most actors don’t seem to understand is that “directing” means just that- DIRECTING- not “I’ll just turn up to the set with the lines down and the director will tell me what to do because it’s his vision.”
A good actor brings his /her choices to the set and together with the guidance of the director they go down a path and discover interpretations of the scene that none of them knew existed. But this takes rehearsals and a lot of work that each one must do on their own BEFORE they get together.
Most people just turn up and hope it all falls in their lap- it doesn’t. An actor should explore many choices fully and then bring them to the rehearsal, and the director should guide him with these choices because the director sees the bigger picture. It’s not about the director telling the actor what to do. That’s why good actors like to work with good directors; it’s a process, a discovery and BOTH should serve the script –no one is above the story. Egos do get in the way but then the work suffers- creative arguing is good but it’s not about “do it my way or else.” The actor knows his character better than the director, but the director sees the piece as a whole better than the actor so he could guide him.
In an ideal world, it would be nice to work along those lines- and most good director / actor relationships fight very hard to keep that balance. If an actor brings nothing but the lines to the rehearsal, then he’s wasting everyone’s time, and if a directors is too closed off to the impulse of the moment then there’s no room for those magic moments to happen- I could go on about this forever.
It has been said that it takes 20 years to make an actor and that becoming famous is not a good enough reason to want to become an actor – it is the fire in the belly that should be the motivator. Is this something that individuals who want to become actors don’t understand?
I first heard that line from Mark Rydell at the Actor’s Studio. It does take 20 years for an actor to really mature. Keep in mind- 20 years of hard work – not just waiting for your agent to call. James Dean died early -imagine where he could’ve gone with all that he had.
As far as becoming famous, it’s not what it’s about- yes we all dream it etc. but at the end of the day it comes down to the work- you have to need it, not just want it. It has to consume your life, it’s not a hobby it’s your life and without it- then you can’t see yourself doing anything else. Many people think they “need” it but they don’t- you’ll be amazed how many people miss classes because they feel sick the last minute or they had a bad day at work, etc. etc. the list goes on and I’ve heard every excuse in the book- those people don’t stand a chance. There’s people out there that are like a locomotion- nothing gets in their way, but it’s about the work, not about being famous. And I can back that up because of all the so called “famous” people I’ve met- the good one’s anyway always talk about the work, the process, not the fame and fortune.
If you could give young actors one piece of advice only what would it be?
Work your ass off- don’t treat it like a hobby. Either jump off the cliff and do it fully or don’t do it at all.
And finally, what does the craft of acting mean to you?
Since this interview came about because of “Cowboy Mouth” I’ll quote the last word in the script- ESCAPE!
ABOUT THE PLAY:
One of Sam Shepard’s lesser known plays, Cowboy Mouth owes its genesis to an affair between Sam Shepard and rock star Patti Smith and is said to be the most accurate picture of their relationship as Shepard and Smith co-wrote the characters they would later both play on the stage. Smith’s character, Cavale, is a deranged woman who kidnaps Slim (Shephard) from his wife and baby and attempts to turn him into a “rock-n’-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth.” Slim accuses Cavale of ruining his life by continually tempting him with dreams of stardom.
Like most of Shephard’s plays, this one contains characters that are complex, intense, unstable and at times, disturbing. Rock music also plays an important role in his work as well – he is a playwright, but he preferred to be a rock and roll star in the early 1970’s when Cowboy Mouth was written. Shepard played drums for the experimental band, the Holy Modal Rounders, in the 1960’s. The Rounders took traditional country blues music, such as the work of Charlie Poole, and performed it in an improvisational, often psychedelic avant-garde manner.
Bob Dylan also had a major influence on his work, the phrase Cowboy Mouth first appeared in the Bob Dylan song “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and the play’s setting, the Chelsea Hotel was at the time known to be the one-time residence of Bob Dylan, and was famous for its legendary tenants, which also included Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas.
When Cowboy Mouth opened at the American Place Theater, Shepard and Smith starred in the play. But the merry-go-round of life was becoming too much for Shepard, and he left the show after a few performances to join the Holy Modal Rounders in Vermont. Not long afterward, Shepard took his wife and son with him to London, where he gave up drugs and distanced himself from his chaotic life in New York.
Featuring Vanessa Moltzen as Cavale, Michael Fenemore-Cocks as Slim and Luke D’Emanuele as The Lobster Man.
Preview: Thursday 12 May Dates: Friday 13 May – Saturday 21 May (excluding Sun, Mon & Tues) Times: 8pm Tickets: $24 Preview, $29 Full, $24 Concession and Groups 10+ (+ Transaction Fee) Running Time: Approx 1 hour Chapel off Chapel: http://chapeloffchapel.com.au/melbourne-comedy-theatre-art/uncategorized/cowboy-mouth/