Leigh Strimbeck Discusses Acting and Teaching

This article was originally published on The Sage Colleges website.

TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE PERFORMING IN THE LEADING ROLE FIVE TIMES THIS SUMMER IN EMMY AWARD WINNER JANE ANDERSON’S PLAY “MOTHER OF THE MAID.” THAT IS QUITE AN ACCOMPLISHMENT:

I was delighted to be cast as an understudy for the great Tina Packer in that production. She is the founder of Shakespeare and Company and a rock star of the theater world. It was a big responsibility because the part was Joan of Arc’s mother, and the play was very much about the mother-daughter relationship. It was a 100 page play, and the character was in every scene. The way it works professionally is you can observe as many rehearsals and performances as you want, but you only get one “put in”, which is a full run through with the cast. I had one rehearsal, and 10 days later I was called at 4PM to go on at 8PM that night in front of a full house.  It was thrilling and I did go on about once a week during the run. Everyone at Shakespeare and Company was so lovely and welcoming, the stage manager was very helpful and the director Matt Penn could not have been more supportive. They gave me a lot of room to do the performance, I wasn’t expected to go on and try and be Tina. I also really loved the play and thought being in rehearsals with Jane Anderson was inspiring. She is a very precise writer and I wanted to honor her work by being word-perfect. I ran the lines for the whole play every day from the time I was cast in July until September, some days I ran them all twice. And there Jane was on TV, a week after “Mother of the Maid” closed, winning an Emmy for “Olive Kitteridge”, which I watched during my work on “Mother of the Maid” to understand her writing better.

IN OCTOBER YOU PARTICIPATED IN THE FILMCOLUMBIA PANEL. SHARE A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT MENTORING PROJECT AND HOW IT HELPS TO INSPIRE AMATEUR SCREENWRITERS?

The actor Scott Cohen invites people to be on these screenplay reading panels. Screenwriters come and bring 10-15 pages of a script they’re working on, look at who is up there ready to act, and hand out the pages. The ability to read “cold” is very important. It’s very helpful for all writers to hear their work read out loud, and to hear it read well so they can take the next step.  Scott also brings some great industry professionals to the table, actors who are regularly cast on “Blacklist,” and this year I read beside Mary Stuart Masterson and could not have had more fun.

WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT TEACHING ASPIRING ACTRESSES/ACTORS?

I enjoy the students themselves, and all the different reasons they’ve come to acting class. I really like trying to figure out what each individual needs to go to the next level. I also believe that at an undergraduate level, we are teaching them to think like artists in general, as creative beings, and not just as actors. Sometimes there’s a great moment when a student realizes they are a certain kind of actor, or they realize they want to be part of the “tribe” of theater people, but not necessarily just as a performer.  It’s such a crucial time in a young person’s life, and the work they do in an acting class can open up all kinds of self-knowledge, empathy and possibility.

AS AN ACTOR, DIRECTOR AND WRITER YOURSELF WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PIECE OF ADVICE TO SHARE WITH STUDENTS?

Approach every job with discipline and give it at least 100%. You may  not like the job, but showing up on time, ready to do the work and working well with the team will be noticed and will lead to opportunities and good working relationships that you can’t imagine as you humbly sweep a floor, help with a mailing, or stand in the back row of a chorus onstage.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN THEATRE?

I believe theater is a storytelling art, whether it’s one person on stage or 100 with an orchestra and a hydraulic lift, and I think telling our stories is what connects us as human beings. I like being part of that. I also like that it’s a synthesis of so many art forms: sound, music, dance, and visual arts to name a few. I like that every project is different and that in my work I am never bored and almost always challenged.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PROJECT OR MOST MEMORABLE CAREER MOMENT THUS FAR?

I’ve done so many things that I’m proud of, and so many projects with students that I am proud of.  I have some films I’ve acted in that I’m proud of, including Little Bi Peep, written by and starring Russell Sage alumna Anna Shields. I acted across from Bruce Dern in the feature film “Fighting for Freedom” and that was a big deal. I am proud of co-founding WAM (Women’s. Action. Movement) Theatre in the Berkshires, and of devised theater projects I’ve done here. I still feel connected to, and follow closely, my theater family in Bloomsburg PA, the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. I do look forward to more acting roles as my sons are now in college.

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR DREAM PROJECT AND/OR DREAM ROLE?  

A European tour, more gigs on television, and I’d like to play the roles that are usually reserved for men: Prospero and Scrooge to name few.  Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey” would be nice, and a devised theater project about the impact of online pornography on the intimate lives of young women. I’ve always got a lot of ideas and things to get excited about.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT ANY UPCOMING PROJECTS?

Yes, I’m writing a play to celebrate the centennial of Sage, the working title is “Women of Influence”, we’re workshopping it in Spring of 2016 and it will perform in the fall. It’s a big challenge!  I’m looking forward to hearing stories from alumni to help shape the play!

AS A FOUNDING MEMBER AND PAST CO-ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF WAM THEATRE (WOMEN’S ACTION MOVEMENT THEATRE) YOU HAVE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE A PART OF SEVERAL PROJECTS THAT IMPACT WOMEN IN A POSITIVE WAY AND SHED LIGHT ON SOME IMPORTANT ISSUES. CAN YOU SHARE MORE ABOUT THOSE PROJECTS AND WHY THEY ARE IMPORTANT?

I believe what Kristof and Wudun say in their book “Half the Sky”, that the education of women and girls is the number one issue for this century. We have come a long way, particularly in the last 50 years, but we have a long way to go. There are so many things to work on, but artistic director of WAM, Kristen van Ginhoven, continues the important work of hiring female directors to helm plays written by women to help with gender equity in the theater world. I think young girls need to see empowered, fearless women out in all kinds of professions so they have motivation to get their education, and as many options as possible for a career, not just a job.

WHAT TYPES OF PROJECTS DO YOU SEE YOURSELF WORKING ON TEN TO FIFTEEN YEARS FROM NOW?

Lots of acting, I hope. It’s what I call my first skill, my entry point into the world of performance and what I’d like to do more of.  I want to go “home” and do some projects with BTE and also with WAM.

ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE?

I love working at a women’s college and the students at Russell Sage. One of my favorite quotes is “To teach is to learn twice” by Joseph Joubert. I live that every day here, including being on the team of teachers in the WORLD program.

For more, visit Leigh Strimbeck’s website or follow her on Twitter.

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