Actors Studio brings star power to Pace


By Scott Sager

Andreas Manolikakis, director of the new Actors Studio MFA program at Pace University’s Downtown campus.

The Actors Studio, a 57-year-old theater group known for the celebrity of its members and the James Lipton-hosted Bravo show, “Inside the Actors Studio,” has found a new home for its Master of Fine Arts program at Pace University’s Downtown campus. After severing ties with The New School in June 2005, it has since signed a new, 10-year agreement with Pace, where the first class of students will enter the three-year Actors Studio MFA program this fall.

Often regarded as a local business school, Pace’s high-profile affiliation brings increased creditability to its growing department of performing arts — a non-entity as little as three years ago. Between 1996 and 2003, the university dropped their Bachelor’s of Fine Arts program for lack of interest before bringing long- time faculty member Dr. Ruis Woertendyke Downtown to redevelop it. Today the BFA serves 180 majors and has 350 students auditioning annually for admission to its undergraduate acting program. For Woertendyke, “the inclusion of the MFA program is simply a further development” in the growth of the arts at Pace.

The director of the new MFA program will be Andreas Manolikakis, who has been a member of The Actors Studio since 1987 and was chair of directing at The Actors Studio Drama School at The New School, as the previous program was known. He has “no regrets about the departure from The New School” and sees it as a “necessary step for the protection of the philosophy of the original curriculum that was designed by the leaders of the Actors Studio.” Of the new affiliation with Pace, he is very excited. He describes Pace as “a great university” and one that is very much committed to this alliance. “Pace is doing all they can to provide us with everything we need,” said Manolikakis.

Preparations for the Actors Studio’s relocation have been constant since their agreement with Pace became official this past March. A first round of auditions was held recently in Los Angeles and New York, and another round will take place at the Downtown campus August 4th and 5th. Already, 60 students are expected to enroll.

To meet new demands on performance space, Pace recently approved the construction of two new black box theaters, which will be completed before the start of school in September. “The classes will have the size, the equipment and the sense of real theatrical studios,” says Manolikakis. Pace’s main venue, the 700-plus seat Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, is also due for an upgrade. The university has already received a $500,000 grant through the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to modernize the Schimmel Center and a $50,000 grant from the September 11th Fund to build a mid-size theater of approximately 250 seats. This new theater would be the preferred site of the MFA students’ first ten-week repertory season in spring 2009, though the Schimmel Center will also be available to the program.

While all MFA programs provide a performance experience for their students that exposes them to professionals and launches them into their careers, The Actors Studio puts particular emphasis on this culmination of the MFA training. Two philosophical foundations of The Actors Studio method are ensemble collaboration among actors, directors and playwrights, and an unswerving focus on the craft of the theater.

During the three-year program, for instance, acting, directing and playwriting students work together. Manolikakis describes this as one special element of The Actors Studio philosophy, in that “we train the three tracks together, developing a real inter-relationship, a common language and a common understanding.” The final 10-week season is a repertory of works, many written but all performed and directed by the graduating class.

Already, students in Pace’s undergraduate acting program can sense the changes underway. Rachel Popson, a BFA major entering her senior year, said that in her first year, she considered transferring because Pace was considered a safety school for theater at that time.

“Now it’s an ‘I want to go there’ school,” she said. “There’ve been such improvements.” The addition of a musical theater concentration, increased numbers of professors and class offerings have all impacted the undergraduate experience.

And the public stature of the program doesn’t hurt. “Prestige brings agents and casting directors,” to Pace’s student showcases, says Popson. She feels the development of the MFA program with The Actors Studio will enhance undergraduate exposure. Woertendyke agrees that this affiliation will “lend additional creditability and status” to Pace’s curriculum, although he “doesn’t want the MFA program to overshadow the success of the BFA program.”

The celebrity power of The Actors Studio is already on display. Public letters from Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn, co-presidents of the organization, and “Inside The Actors Studio” host James Lipton, now grace Pace University’s website. (Burstyn, according to Manolikakis, will even be teaching workshops.) The show has been taped at Pace since September 2005 and the 13th season will begin production this September in the Schimmel Center. BFA students have already been included in the four to six hour question and answer sessions with actors such as Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah that are edited into the one-hour broadcasts.

While Pace University is ramping up their theater programs, The New School has not been standing still. After deciding to end their relationship with The Actors Studio, The New School created The New School for Drama, a graduate school for theater, playwriting and directing that offers the MFA degree. This was a choice for a new direction, believes the Drama school’s director, Robert LuPone. “The previous program,” he said, referring to the Actors Studio, “didn’t deal with the realities of the profession. The same show that I could have put on 20 years ago for $15,000 now costs $300,000. Today you have to learn how to be creative and a genius with nothing. This is the reality.”

He feels the Actors Studio was “protecting a legacy” and wasn’t responsive to changes around them. He is expanding the New School’s curriculum, separating the acting students from the directing and playwriting tracks, adding courses of study in stage management and project design, bringing in professionals to teach and build relationships with students, creating what he calls a “vocational” program that prepares students for “the profession and real world pressures.”

Manolikakis is clear in his belief that the Actors Studio MFA Program is a solid preparation for a career in theater. “For us, understanding the profession consists of two elements: proper training and the right exposure. First we prepare the students through intense training and later, during our repertory season, we provide them with professionally produced productions.” The success of this method, he feels, is illustrated by the success of young alumni like Bradley Cooper, who is currently appearing with Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain.”

Still, there will be some changes between the new and old Actors Studio MFA programs, including new courses in physical and vocal training and storytelling through space. But the basic philosophy will remain intact, says Manolikakis, who believes that the Actors Studio experience is one that young actors carry with them beyond graduate school. “This craft is a lifetime development, a lifestyle philosophy as well as a creative philosophy.”

For information on upcoming auditions, contact the Office of Graduate Admissions at 212-346-1531, or via e-mail to ActorsStudioMFA@pace.edu.

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