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A Conversation with Woodbury Acting Professor Keith Szarabajka

Q: Of the various disciplines in which you’re involved — acting, directing, producing, writing — which do you find most satisfying?

Keith:  I find them all satisfying, it just depends on the project. There’s nothing like performing a part when you’re really in the zone and everything is cooking. Especially when you’re doing it in front of an audience, it’s magic time. But then, I enjoy directing too, and playwriting. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see something you’ve written come to fruition.

Q:  Do you ever give a one-word answer when someone says, “what do you do?”

Keith:  It used to be, “I’m an actor,” but I’ve branched out. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor, even though I did write plays all the time.

Q: “Bleacher Bums” was a breakout achievement. How did the play change your life?

Keith: It enabled me to move to New York and hang with agents and others — it was a sea change. When you go to New York and the play is a hit, casting directors and agents are calling you, and producers want to meet you, so you think, “well, maybe I should be here for a while.” But it was a tough four years until it really happened, which was around the time I did “Doonesbury- A Musical Comedy.”  I was thinking that if I don’t catch the brass ring now, it may not come around again.

Q: In terms of live theater, how do you keep it fresh?

Keith: “Every night is an improvisation,” as Michael Chekhov says, and as Konstantin Stanislavsky said. Every night is different, every audience is different, every performance is different. There are basic things that you do but the energy is never the same. You don’t even know what you’re doing until eight weeks into a run. Everything else is just guesswork.

Q: For an actor, how does the experience change as you move from live to recorded performance?

Keith: It’s the same experience and yet a different experience. You still have to get in touch with whatever your inner voice is. That’s what all the great acting teachers teach: get in touch with your inner voice. That said, it is more segmented when you’re working on a film or a television show than when you’re working in the theater. You play for who your audience is.

Q:  Describe your work with Dr. Larkin, chair of the Filmmaking program at Woodbury.

Keith:  He asked me to teach an “Acting for Directors” course.  I’m not actually teaching students how to act, although I do have them act. I’m seeking to give them a vocabulary for dealing with actors, because the class is comprised mostly of aspiring directors.  I want them to understand what an actor goes through to do a short scene or even read a piece.

I want them to have a wider field of knowledge about the different ideas about acting.  I’m teaching from Konstantin Stanislavsky’s book, An Actor Prepares, from Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting, Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor and Michael Shurtleff’s Audition, one of the most practical books on acting I’ve ever read.

Q:  For film students at Woodbury and just in general, is there a career progression?

Keith:  Not really. What makes sense is to work. Wherever you go, work. Work in a production company. Work at a small theater, where you get to see people who are actually doing it.

Early on, I joined a theater company and the play went to Broadway. It was a bomb, but it was an incredible experience. There’s no way you can learn that in school. I’m still figuring out all the things I learned.

Q:  Of the projects you’re working on now, what’s most exciting?

Keith:  I just directed this great play, “Lost in Time” by Tony Pasqualini, in Atwater Village.   Word of mouth has been incredible and we’ve gotten two rave reviews from Stage Raw and Show Mag.

Q:  Did you have a mentor, someone who gave you guidance along the way?

Keith:  Several. I had a high school drama teacher who I would always consult with, then Stuart Gordon, the artistic director of the Organic Theater Company.  John Heard was my mentor. Meshach Taylor was my best friend and mentor. Joe Mantegna was a mentor. Bill Norris was a mentor. It was sort of a group mentoring, and I was the kid. They taught me everything they knew and then some things they didn’t know. But they were also friends. So, it’s hard— who’s a mentor? Who’s a friend? How do you split that definition?

Q: What do you wish someone told you when you were getting started that would have been helpful to know?

Keith:  Follow your heart. I know that sounds really clichéd, but you’ve got to do it. That’s your inner voice, that’s what you’re going to rely on, that’s what’s going to make or break you. And if your heart tells you that you should be in school or be looking for a job or joining a production company or doing your own film, then listen to that.

Q: Given how atomized everything is today, media-wise, is it tougher to break in now? Or has it actually gotten easier?

Keith: In film and television, there are more outlets now, and more niche venues, than there ever have been. Plus video games, audio books and the theater. Theater may be tougher to break into, but there are a lot of really good companies around — Sacred Fools, my theater company, Ensemble Studio Theater L.A., Antaeus, and so on.

There’s a reason why they call it a play.  And I keep saying that in my class. I say, you all need to remember this: have fun, play.  Even if you’re doing a tragic character, you should be enjoying yourself in some way.

Learn more about the Filmmaking program