Thursday, January 3, 2008

"Take Your Toys"

That was the admonition given by my dear friend and longtime acting coach, Bobbi Holtzman. I heard her say it countless times to actors, including myself. In a nutshell, it means going after what you want. Need something from another character ? (all characters do). Get in there and get it. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself; if you need something, go for it. This direction, one of many I received from my 12 or so years studying with Bobbi, always led to the kind of raw, emotionally available work for which she was known. I think of her every single time I am faced with an emotionally challenging scene to play.

I've been thinking about Bobbi a lot this week, wondering what my life would have been like had I never met her. After a long decline, she passed away at midnight on New Year's Eve.

I first met Bobbi during my undergrad days at Cal State, Northridge. She was on the adjunct faculty there, meaning that she occasionally taught a class or two. I had heard her name bandied about the department for a year or so before I landed in her Acting II class. I knew immediately that she was something special. She spent no time at all on how you moved or what you sounded like; her emphasis was on what you (and your character) were feeling, and how to express it honestly and completely.

I was mesmerized by this woman, so different from anyone else teaching on that campus, so when the semester was over, I summoned my courage and asked if I could study with her privately. She ran a professional actors' workshop at the time, and I was thrilled to be able to join it. Thus began a creative, artistic, and personal relationship which lasted to this day. Bobbi's workshops were tough; you would sometimes work a scene in class for a solid hour and a half. During those sessions, when she was both a commandant and a cheerleader, Bobbi taught me the art of acting.
And what a class. We met at a pre-school in the Valley, so this very adult work was being conducted among tiny chairs and tables and fingerpaints. Nobody cared about the surroundings, though. Bobbi usually assigned me roles which I would never play out there in the Real World, but from them, I learned my craft. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Caligula, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Delicate Balance, Romeo and Juliet, the list goes on and on. I still occasionally use a speech from I Never Sang for my Father, which we worked on extensively. In addition, Bobbi was always eager to explore work we may have been doing outside class. She helped me tremendously when I was appearing as "Harry the Hoofer" in The Time of Your Life in Hollywood (I had to conquer one of the actor's danger zones, the Telephone Call). She coached me on the pieces with which I auditioned for graduate school, pieces which ultimately changed my life.

Bobbi was a well-respected stage director during that period, too, and I appeared in her production of Brendan Behan's The Hostage. She gave me the confidence to play the flamboyant Rio Rita, the Irish transvestite. She appeared onstage herself a good bit, too, and in productions such as Awake and Sing, Toys in the Attic, In a Northern Landscape, and Working, she put her teaching techniques to the test. She took her toys.

There are less than a handful of people whom I would consider made a real, lasting impact on my creative life. Joan Peterson was one, as was (and is) my best buddy Judy, but I can say for certain that Bobbi Holtzman's influence will be felt in my work forever. She taught me to be brave and honest, assertive and vulnerable, all at the same time.

I still recall the last scene I worked on with Bobbi, in a workshop only a week before I left for grad school. Every once in a while, she would give you a role you were born to play, but one which had passed you by. Such was "Tom" in The Glass Menagerie. While I was playing this uptight southern boy who is forced to leave the family he loves, I'm sure I did not recognize the similarity to my own life. But perhaps Bobbi did. Perhaps she knew that, by going to grad school, I was taking the only positive step I could take to improve my life, all the while feeling tortured over what I was leaving behind.
Blow out your candles, Bobbi. And so, goodbye.