Maybe You Weren't Born This Way

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Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.07.27 AM.pngSome lessons learned in acting and in life from the perspective of a world-renowned performance coach, whose ideology suggests that actors aren't necessarily born, but made.

The actors were already on the small studio stage by the time the 60 or so audience members scrambled for their seats. About half were observers of the acting workshop, notepads and pens at the ready. The other half was participants who would hit the stage later that day. All morning, the performers waited patiently for the acting coach to arrive from New York City. They had been working for months on their scenes, anticipating the day they would actually be trained by the one and only Tom Todoroff. Founder of his own acting studio and conservatory, Todoroff has been coaching and directing actors for theatre, film and television for over 36 years, having taught Liam Neeson, Bob Hoskins, Robert Wagner and Alicia Witt, to name a few.

The 11th hour finally hit. Todoroff entered the studio on that chilly Saturday morning in February, slipped past the audience and discretely made his way onto the stage. He sat on his director's chair, facing the audience and angled towards the first performers of the day. They took their positions.

Cue lighting. Enter Lady Capulet, stage right, her curly hair flying wildly behind her, her nightgown, free and flowing, falling just above her bare feet. She carried in her hands a breakfast tray and placed it at her daughter's bedside. Her daughter, Juliet, distraught from learning of the death of her beloved Romeo, sat up in bed slowly, surprised at her mother's presence in her chambers, but welcoming nonetheless.

They spoke of Tybolt's death, Juliet's cousin, and the sorrow it has caused her and the Capulet family. But Juliet's grief had nothing to do with Tybolt and all to do with Romeo--though she hoped it didn't appear as such to her mother, who knew nothing of the affair with Romeo. No, Lady Capulet was set on marrying Juliet off to Paris, a noble kinsman to the prince. Something she explained to her compassionately and quite calmly.

The scene ended. The excerpt was no more than five minutes long, and when it was over, the observers, their faces now illuminated, clapped in appreciation. On stage, the players appeared content by their performance.

"So," Tom Todoroff said, addressing the actors from the edge of stage right. "What did you both think of that?"

Emma Elle Paterson, who played Juliet, hesitated. "I think it was good," she said, smiling sweetly. Sally Singal--Lady Capulet--merely shrugged and offered a simple, "It was okay." Wrong answer.

Todoroff's jaw tightened. "The universe is very specific," he said. "Beware of, 'it's okay.'"

TODOROFF LESSON #1: EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING.

It was a simple statement, but a powerful one. What does this mean in terms of talent? Are we specific to the universe, or is the universe specific to us? In other words, are we, as individuals, born with such gifts, or do we attain them only after years of practice, after we've told the universe exactly what we want?

For Carole B. Thomas, a local Montreal actor and lead producer of the Tom Todoroff Workshop, it is likely a bit of both.

At 21, she was a programmer analyst, and a damn good one, having graduated top female in her class at Dawson College. But there was only one problem--she was 21, and she was a programmer analyst.

So at 21, Thomas quit her job.

It was a decision based entirely on gut feeling, after her sister had invited her to a dance class one afternoon. Here, Thomas found a sheer passion for something new, a connection to something that had literally waltzed into her life, without warning. Thomas had no prior experience in dance, but it didn't matter to her. From that moment on, she immersed herself entirely in the art of ballet. With just months of training, Thomas decided she was going to aim for a full time scholarship with Les ballet jazz de Montreal.

"When I went to my audition, I wasn't worried about anything. It was like, what do they want? Okay, I'll do it."

TODOROFF LESSON #2: IN THE WORLD OF PHYSICS, IF YOU DO THE MOST, YOU GET THE MOST.

Fearlessly, Thomas had marched into the audition room, surrounded by applicants who had been dancing their whole lives and unperturbed by the fact that she knew close to nothing about dance terminology. She simply played the part; she dressed the way she thought a ballerina should dress, forced her small brown curls into a tight bun the way ballerinas do, and imitated every single move presented in front of her.

If you act like a duck and quack like a duck...

Out of the entire group of applicants, Thomas was the only one selected who hadn't been training most of her life. A month into the course, Thomas's teacher had discovered her secret upon staring at her blank expression during a lesson.

"Carole," her teacher had said. "You didn't understand a word I just said, did you?"

Thomas shook her head. Her classmates snickered, but the teacher held her hand up at them and asked the class to sit and observe as she danced a short, but complex routine. When she had finished, she called Thomas up to the front. "Try your best to do what I just did."

And so she did. Without a moment's hesitation, Thomas, still not knowing what exactly she was doing, visualized the routine she just witnessed, and performed it almost spot on. The class did not snicker.

From the world of dance, she emerged into theatre, where she discovered the perfect balance between her ability to sing and dance, and her talent for transforming into another character. When she auditioned for Tom Todoroff's Studio and Conservatory in New York City, she knew she had found exactly what she had been searching for all along--she was a natural-born story teller, and this was her medium of choice.

TODOROFF LESSON #3: IT'S NEVER ABOUT THE ACTING. IT'S ABOUT THE STORY.

At the acting studio is where Thomas met Marjolaine Lemieux. She has been acting for 30 years, and has studied with Todoroff since the very first time he brought his workshop to Montreal eight years ago, in December 2006.

"I have seen so many scenes start from being pretty boring to incredibly emotionally-moving and exciting," Lemieux said, explaining that Todoroff teaches that the most important aspect is to reveal the story. Over the years, Lemieux has witnessed actors improve drastically after a workshop, but has also spotted a significant weakness in actors in general--their tendency to convince themselves they are "naturals," and hence require little to no training. The reality according to Lemieux is: it's 20 per cent talent, 80 per cent work.

"Someone who has it in their heart can act if they are willing to put in the work," Thomas agreed. "It's gotta come from a truthful place; that's how I raised my girls. I tell them, 'Your whole job is to be happy. Figure out what your talents are and share it with the world.'"

For most of his life, Montreal-born actor Chris Atallah's incentive has been just that. At 18, Atallah attended his first theatre class at the Montreal School of Performing Arts and has since focused his energy on training, training, and more training. Last year, at 23-years-old, he landed his first role in a feature film and has several projects lined up in 2015. "I don't believe I was born with any special skills or talents," Atallah said. "The reason why I act is to tell stories."

TODOROFF LESSON #4: SUCCESS IN MY FIELD IS MOLECULAR, CELLULAR ATTENTION TO DETAIL.

Although every actor has adopted their own process of preparation, Atallah's training has taught him the value of method acting; in other words, recalling emotions from personal experience in order to connect with the character. He is a firm believer that real-life experience is the secret to conveying a deeper truth.

According to a 2013 article published in the Business Insider, this technique is not uncommon among A-list actors. Even after filming, Daniel-Day Lewis refused to leave his character's wheelchair in My Left Foot. Leonardo Dicaprio hardly flinched when he injured his hand during the filming of Django Unchained; he had slammed his hand on a table so hard, it bled throughout the entire scene. While filming The Reader, Kate Winslet spoke with a German accent at home to her children, even though it irritated them. Robert De Niro went all out for his role in Taxi Driver; the actor obtained a taxi license and drove around New York City in a cab during his off-time.

For Chris Atallah, suiting-up and strutting around Wall Street for a week before filming Home by Now, currently in post-production, helped him walk the stockbroker walk, and talk the stockbroker talk. The technique qualified Atallah to gain a better understanding of his character's mindset after walking a mile in his shoes. Literally.

Details, details, details.

TODOROFF LESSON #5: MY WARDROBE AND MY PREPARATION SPEAK BEFORE I DO.

Back onstage in the studio, Emma Elle Paterson and Sally Singal looked as though they had taken a beating. Talented though they were, they felt far from it. In a little less than an hour, Todoroff had insulted their delivery, their wardrobe choices, even the way they critiqued themselves.

For the umpteenth time, Singal defended the artistic choices she made. "But I wanted this moment between Juliet and her mother to be special," she said, claiming, again, that this was the reason behind her hippy nightgown, warm breakfast-tray gesture, and bare feet, which, according to Todoroff, were utterly uncharacteristic of Lady Capulet.

The room erupted with laughter because by now, they knew it was merely pride speaking. She couldn't help but laugh a little, too. Everyone, including herself, was thinking the same thing: perhaps the lady doth protest too much.

Todoroff smiled. She had endured a lot of criticism in a very short time. He had interrupted her in many instances after every line, correcting her delivery and saying things like, "be aware of the downwards tone. Go upwards," and, "no, Lady Capulet isn't merciful. Say it firmly!" By the end of it, the audience felt their pain. The players on stage appeared drained, even irritated.

But Todoroff insisted. "Now, let's try the scene in full. Again."

TODOROFF LESSON #5: YOUR LIFE OCCURS IN MOMENTS. SAVOUR EACH ONE.

Cue lighting. Enter Lady Capulet, stage right, this time, her hair twisted in a tight bun. She held her chin up, the inappropriate wardrobe no longer distracting. She carried nothing with her but a powerful, presiding presence.

Her daughter, Juliet, distraught from learning of the death of her beloved Romeo, sat bolt upright in bed, straightening up for her stringent mother who was about to enter her bed chambers. Juliet stirred uncomfortably.

Lady Capulet strutted about the room, displaying nothing but false smiles and a commanding nature. Juliet's grief over "her cousin" was not an important matter. In fact, she should get over it and think only of Paris, a nobleman, who she was ordered, quite plainly, to marry without delay. This was not a matter for discussion. Lady Capulet's' voice shook in anger as she raised it at her daughter, shrill and sharply. Her last words lingered over the studio until, completely taken aback, the audience applauded and cheered. They were awestruck, inspired, moved.

On stage, the players beamed at their own performance.

For more information on Tom Todoroff's upcoming workshops, visit www.tomtodoroff.com.

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