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Living Lindsay
Lindsay Crouse Doing & Teaching

by Quendrith Johnson

Lindsay Crouse has been in a burning kitchen with Christopher Walken ("Communion"); in a hockey rink ("Slapshot") and a court room ("The Verdict") with Paul Newman; the victim of a scam with Joe Mantegna ("House of Games"); an "Insider" with Al Pacino, and even handled "An Indian in the Cupboard." Those are just some of the movies to her credit, including an Oscar(r) nomination along the way for the bumpy Sally Fields-driven "Places in the Heart." Most recently she survived Kevin Costner's closeted serial killer from a good neighborhood in "Mr. Brooks" with Demi Moore, Dane Cook, and a surly William Hurt cast as Costner's dark side.

Trained in the classics by Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner, Crouse has made the obligatory TV guesting rounds from "Hack," "CSI," "Alias," to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." On stage she picked up an Obie for her role in David Mamet's "Reunion," and a Theater World Award for her deft approach to Harold Pinter's thoroughly unwholesome family values in "Homecoming."

Once married to David Mamet, with whom she has two children, Lindsay Crouse is also second generation theater folk, daughter of legendary playwright Russel Crouse ("Life with Father"), named for his writing partner Howard Lindsay ("The Sound of Music").

Lindsay has also witnessed a whole generation of young actors come up rootless, without a roadmap for living (see: the other Lindsay, as in Lohan). "With these huge salaries today," Crouse explains, "I don't think people know what they're worth anymore. When you work by the sweat of your brow, and you see audience increasing incrementally, there is a sense of yourself."

In response to the trend, she has devised a series of "classes" under the banner "Lindsay Crouse Teaches Acting." The cycle is ongoing, in depth, personal, emotional, even political. Classes commence Tuesday nights on April 8 at Magicopolis in Santa Monica before going nationwide, hitting venues from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana to points East in Boston and beyond.

From playing Yelena in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to playing herself in "Milestones in Cinema History," Lindsay Crouse, who is writing a book on acting due out soon, takes a moment to reveal why she's still a contender. [Postscript: Lindsay Crouse also mentions working with Paul Newman (1925-2008), who passed away September 26, 2008. Screenmancer Salutes Paul Newman whose influence on this actor was clearly profound and generous.]

QUENDRITH: We spoke briefly during the run of "The Weir" (by Conor McPherson) when you were at the Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles a few years back. "The Weir," an irish ghost story, beautifully written and heavily nuanced, is almost a teaching tool in and of itself. What drew you into teaching acting?

LINDSAY CROUSE: Years ago, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a neighbor and friend Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, said there were virtuoso students who could play their instruments very well but were not getting a personal connection to the music. I said 'these are acting problems I think I can help you.' Fingering had been a problem. It eased up suddenly with a sense of authority inside the person.

QUENDRITH: Speaking of authority, Uta Hagen, your mentor could be blistering in her criticism -- I think she once said to you, and you were someone she liked and cared about, "you know what your problem is..." How is your approach different?

LINDSAY CROUSE: Authority that is not blistering (laughs). I could not master that Germanic tone that she had. The main thing I want to offer actors is a safe place to work, so they begin to associate work with a kind of home-like environment. It is so uncomfortable to act. The environment in film and TV these days is speedy. There's very little rehearsal. There is a lot of tension for an actor. I feel it is important for an actor to feel safe. A warmth and an understanding, that's the tack I take. (The business today) is an environment that produces more fear in actors.

QUENDRITH: Is your style based on The Method?

LINDSAY CROUSE: No. I would say it is more based on (Sanford) Meisner and Uta Hagen. I also bring a lot of Tibetan buddhism.

QUENDRITH: By that do you mean being and doing in the moment?

LINDSAY CROUSE: In Buddhism there is no fixed identity. The idea that there is a fixed character seems to be not true -- otherwise there would only be one production of any play. So for students their job is not to 'believe' that they are their own character. It is a question of 'how is the character created? what does create the character want?,' not a matter of belief. I saw once a good actor, who was asked by a cameraman to step two feet further into the room. She said 'my character wouldn't do that.' I was so appalled. Everything had to be changed, the lighting, everything. We need to understand there is no such person as 'my character.'

QUENDRITH: In "True and false: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor," David Mamet with whom you lived for 13 years and were married to, calls The Method and all of the Stanislavsky-based theories, including Uta Hagen's "nonsense," and dubs it "a cult." Not to be outdone in invective, Uta Hagen then described his approach as "dangerous," "hateful" and a "fraud" which leads to "madness." How do you react to that?

LINDSAY CROUSE: I think with The Method, what David is referring to, if I may be so bold, is that acting has moved alongside human behavior for years and years. At the time The Method came to be, in the 1950's, how you portrayed human feelings looked like poses. Then like Freud and Jung, they looked for triggers for feeling. As we progress in this century, I think we begin to understand feelings are not something you can control. (If The Method fails not only are you) upset you're not a good actor, and you can not cry over the (sense memory) death of your father.

QUENDRITH: Perhaps what Uta Hagen was trying to say in defending guidelines, as she did in her life's work and two books ("Respect for Acting," "Challenge for the Actor"), is that guidelines rid the process of ambiguity because ambiguity causes chaos for the actor. Does that ring true at all?

LINDSAY CROUSE: You have to be very clear about what you are doing as an actor. I hope the field of acting will evolve like any other field. It is an art form. We had human beings in the 20th century who were giants in their fields: Uta Hagen, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler. We are not in an era like that now. The biggest problem I see in schools and universities teaching acting is that I see them giving students a smattering of every technique. There is a lot of confusion. My teaching is based on standing in the bucket of Meisner and Hagen. Sandy Mesiner, I think, came up with his own decisions: 'we can control what we do, not what we feel.' What we are doing onstage is where we should focus our attention. The idea of someone being very passionate about their point of view is not necessarily a bad thing; you could sign on for that or not. Most of the great teachers of the 20th century have come to that on their own, burned the midnight oil.

QUENDRITH: What did you learn from other actors you worked with? I'll mention the headliners Paul Newman, Pacino, others, there are so many.

LINDSAY CROUSE: One of the things I learned from Paul (Newman) is that a truly great actor is generous. He was unbelievably thoughtful of my needs as a young actor. And giving.

Another thing I learned from a great actor like James Mason is the ability to move from talking to someone right into the scene, in a seamless manner. He had a relaxation that flowed. I would see him turn to someone in the scene; it was the same James Mason with slight adjustments. He wasn't...

QUENDRITH: Puffed up?

LINDSAY CROUSE: Yes, puffed up, plumped up with a character: what he was was adequate. There wasn't a great gathering of forces to change himself. Ed Harris is like that too; he trusts himself greatly. It has always been my theory that what the audience comes to see is you (the actor). Any myth is there to help us live our lives. That's why actors are all over the magazines; (the audience) wants to see us bring our lives to bear on these dilemmas. It's a mission. Any actor worth with his salt will say something 'shot through' them, and everyone knows it. So what you are really preparing people for is that experience --

QUENDRITH: To be wide open?

LINDSAY CROUSE:Yes, exactly. I think Paul Newman's speech, his summary at the end of "The Verdict" is one of the best on screen ever. He truly was coming very simply from himself. So poignant, so moving.

QUENDRITH: That was written by David Mamet, right?


QUENDRITH: That makes it a difficult situation to assess because you have a powerhouse talent in the writing too; so which is which? Or maybe that is the alchemy of the 'shot through' moment as you said. Growing up with your father (Russel Crouse), also a playwright, you must have seen a lot of amazing moments.

LINDSAY CROUSE: I was very fortunate because I was able to see the tail-end of American theater and could see how hard people worked. I was just talking to my mother the other day after we saw "South Pacific." Mary Martin (legendary Broadway performer, mother of actor Larry Hagman) never used a microphone; that is a lot of output on the part of the performer. Things that were required of the performers were different then. I am very grateful I saw that. Microphones allow people to be more casual in their delivery, not use as much of themselves to get something across, and it changes things.

QUENDRITH: What are some of the other major changes you've seen?

LINDSAY CROUSE: I was very young when I was cast in "Slapshot" (Paul Newman). My agent said 'we are going for co-star billing.' This was the third movie I was in. I thought 'I could not do this (demand the billing).' It was shocking. I think people really earned their stripes back then. With these huge salaries today I don't think people know what they're worth anymore. When you work by the sweat of your brow, and you see audience increasing incrementally, there is a sense of yourself. Now I think it is a free-for-all. I think a lot of the heart and joyful effort has gone out of it. In the theater, not connected to a movie studio, I think it still somewhat exists. You have to have the chops, or else everyone knows it. The theatre has a built-in self-protection.

QUENDRITH: In the old system they also sold persona, "stars" but it was manufactured; someone had control of it, you mean?

LINDSAY CROUSE: At least studios who hired actors used them, and promoted them. It is very, very different to see the world of acting as a profession in this country. Fifty percent of prime time television is reality. "Places in the Heart," you couldn't make that movie now. I don't know where it is going to end. I know there is a lot of pain.

QUENDRITH: Because of the type of work?

LINDSAY CROUSE: Because there is so little work. And it's not just actors who want to be winning awards; it is actors who want to be really working actors. Working actors are very generous people; they want to give. I was just meeting with Richad Feldman at Juilliard; they just brought in someone new. Everyone examines what they are doing when you bring in someone new to teach. (Today) you almost need someone to talk to young actors about how they are going to conduct their lives. Really discussing different ways an actor could set up their lives to be happy and healthy human beings.

QUENDRITH: Isn't happiness antithetical?

LINDSAY CROUSE: That should be a chapter in the book. Happiness. That is a 19th century idea, that one can not be happy. And it is not true.

QUENDRITH: Are you in some way, not in a grandiose way, thinking of taking up the mantle of Uta Hagen to be there for actors as she was?

LINDSAY CROUSE: Sure. She was someone who was so involved in her work; she wasn't involved in training someone under her to teach. It was such an amazing opportunity to work with her that out of gratitude for that I will always teach. There are so many people out there who never had that.

QUENDRITH: Uta Hagen used a blade of shame, though, she could be brutal with people.

LINDSAY CROUSE: She was brutal. She would tell you the truth, and cut you right in the middle. But she'd also hand you the key. It was for the sake of your power, not hers. She would hand you the answer. Someone once told her she 'could have been a household word, a star -- you could be on television.' She said 'Tampax is a household word.' I think that people forgave her because of her incredible knowledge and sense of truth. She was not out for herself, otherwise she could not have given up her life like that. She was a diva in her own right, a queen, and it was all right. Nobody put her on the throne for no reason. It was quite exciting, from someone of her standard to be treated as a colleague.

Lindsay Crouse teaches acting. For more information, call 310-573-6288 or email lcwork@mac.com.

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