Syllabus: Acting Up

By Richard Byrne

John Astin ’52 says the skills he teaches to his students in Acting I can be boiled down to two essential actions.

“Talking to, and listening to,” says the venerable actor of stage and screen, who has taught this introductory class for the past 18 years. “That’s fundamental in acting, whatever the style.”

Many people may know Astin best from his leading role as offbeat patriarch Gomez on the classic 1960s TV series The Addams Family. But the wisdom Astin brings to students has accumulated over more than six decades tackling Broadway roles, one-man shows (Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight), and, yes, those indelible roles on television (Batman, Night Court) and in film (West Side Story).

Astin pulls from many teaching traditions, but Acting I is rooted in techniques pioneered by legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Students wrestle with Meisner’s “repetition exercise,” tossing the same phrase back and forth to each other to develop confidence in behaviors and resulting instinctual responses.

“I want actors to take on complete authority when they are on stage,” says Astin. “To feel the strength and power that comes with relaxation.” The exercise helps students “develop a sense of play and stimulates the imagination.”

Emily Daly ’10, who took Acting I and now works as an actor and playwright in New York, says imagination is such an important concept in Astin’s method that keeping an “imagination journal” was part of the homework.

“It’s something I still draw upon professionally,” says Daly.

Students in Acting I hit the books as well as the boards. Astin believes actors should read widely, not only plays such as Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but also works of philosophy, literature, and technique. The final is a performance of a scene worked on throughout the semester.

Astin created the class in 2001 at the invitation of John Irwin, the Decker Professor Emeritus in the Humanities. It was put together so quickly—and proved so popular—that Astin could not winnow a single section of the class from 54 initial applicants. So he created multiple sections and taught all comers.

Acting I attracts a mix of students, from first-timers to young actors with significant professional experience. Junior Sinclaire Schaefer, who already works professionally as an actor, says studying with Astin was one of her main reasons for attending the university.

Schaefer recalls that Astin “said I had some bad habits I’d have to break.” She says that the introduction to Meisner’s technique in Acting I “has changed the entire way I look at acting.”

Daly says the essential core of the class—the talking and listening—“is one of the greatest influences on me as an actor and as a person.” She even served as Astin’s teaching assistant for the class, and recalls that some of the best work in one session of Acting I was done by senior lacrosse players.

Astin relishes the mix of skill levels in the class, and says that keeping everyone from experienced thespians to beginners on their toes is a key part of the endeavor.

“I’m always throwing curve balls,” he quips. “Always. That’s part of life. There is something about the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of my students that is inspiring. They renew my faith, constantly, in the human race.”