“So Mike, you’re trying to play the scene. Just talk to her. Talk … listen. Listen … talk. The acting is in the talking and listening. The two of you are having a debate and you’re trying to change her point of view.”
It’s nine o’clock on a Tuesday night in the middle of July and I’m sitting in a classroom on the third floor of The Neighborhood Playhouse at the corner of East 54th Street and First Avenue in New York. Seated across from me is my scene partner. Three rows of chairs are lined up in the back of the room facing the center of the classroom. All three rows are full of students who are watching and listening intently.
This is the same classroom where a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed Robert Duvall (and countless others) sat more than forty years ago. It is like a shrine to actors.
I was in the middle of a scene when these words rang out from the back of the classroom. The scene stopped abruptly. I leaned my head to one side to take in an animated middle-aged man with glasses and graying hair sitting behind a desk. He was wearing his signature apparel: a collared shirt with short sleeves and a pair of Khaki pants. His name is James Brill, one of the most beloved acting instructors at The Neighborhood Playhouse and one of the most influential people to have entered my life.
“Jim,” as he is referred to by his students, has a reputation of working tirelessly with his students to bring out the best in them.
There is a power in his presence. He commands the same level of respect as that of a Sergeant Major in the Marines. It’s not that he is harsh or mean; it’s that he is so frighteningly accurate. He possesses an innate ability of knowing every thought, impulse or feeling in your head; it’s as if he has taken an x-ray of your very being and is now holding it up against the light and analyzing it like a surgeon analyzing the x-ray of a broken bone.
And when he speaks, he crystallizes ideas that you know are true, even though you had no idea that you’ve ever sensed them before. In fact, on more than one occasion, I found it very hard to keep from jumping up and shouting, “That’s true. You’re so right!”
Jim imparts to his students an organized approach to the creation of real and truthful behavior within the imaginary circumstances of the theater. He is a graduate of The Neighborhood Playhouse and a student of the legendary acting instructor, Sanford Meisner. He chooses his words carefully and speaks with the accuracy and precision of a wordsmith. His use of metaphors and similes makes him a modern-day sage. Indeed, even the most abstract and arcane principles of acting are easily understood.
Nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of this experience. Jim expects a lot out of his students and will not tolerate mediocrity. This explains why he attracts some of the most serious acting students and why his classes fill up in record-breaking time.
What makes Tuesday night (and Thursday night) the most anticipated nights of the week for me? A better way of phrasing this question is, “What makes this place so special that ‘neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night’ (nor eight hours in court) would keep this lawyer from getting to class?”
Plain and simple, it’s Jim.
Jim is currently interviewing students for his upcoming foundation level Meisner class which begins on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. The class will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7-10 PM through the end of April.
For more information, visit Jim’s website here.