Tania Fisher interviews Roger Hendricks Simon
At first glance, the man of no impressive stature seems like any other person on the street. Simply dressed, in practical and conservative clothing, he strolls into the room seemingly unaware of his surroundings–you might even think he doesn’t remember why he’s here. Then, when you talk to him face to face–and begin listening to his deep, husky voice, noticing the twinkle in his eyes (which can also bore through you)–you can’t help noticing that when he talks about anything remotely related to the film or theater industry that what he says isn’t ordinary at all.
A graduate and founding member of Robert Brustein’s Yale Repertory Company, Roger Hendricks Simon celebrates his 40th year of The Simon Studio; a renowned and highly regarded New York City acting studio. Roger has taught and directed the likes of John Travolta, Debra Jo Rupp, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, and John Woods to name but a few. Elected to “Notable Names in American Theater” Roger has directed across the globe and has an inexhaustible list of impressive credits.
Director Oliver Stone refers to Roger as “that great actor and acting teacher” as Roger also keeps busy as a talented actor who has had roles in such films as Wall Street 2 opposite Michael Douglas.
Australian-born actress/writer Tania Fisher sits down with Roger to find out what it takes to have 40 years of success.
What led you to create The Simon Studio and teach acting?
I always enjoyed the idea of teaching, ever since I was very young. I was always interested in it as part of my work, too–to do more than direct, or teach, or act. When I was studying at Yale Drama School, the best teachers, for me, were the ones who were currently working professionally and passing on information about what they were doing that week. I felt I was getting the main line, rather than listening to someone who had done this many years ago. I gravitated to people who are doing the work now. What drove me to teaching was the desire first, the love of teaching, but I only wanted to do it if I was also a practitioner.
There’s something to be said for “when you get The Simon Studio you get Roger Simon”–can you expand on that?
Hopefully, you always want to get to the source when you go anywhere. If you go to Princeton, in order to study with Professor X and he or she isn’t there, then you’ve been cheated; you’re getting learning second hand. I’ve always felt that if you wanted to study Meisner, you should have studied with him–if not, then you’re just getting an interpretation, you’re not getting the real thing. I think that’s true of any teaching method. It’s a relationship–it’s a personal thing between a teacher and a student. The instructor shouldn’t be walking in and teaching and walking out of a classroom. When you are studying with someone, you are dealing with a personality, not just theory. If someone tried to teach the way I teach they would have to capture my personality as well; it wouldn’t be enough to just talk about what I taught. Teaching is about developing people; you’re not just developing professionals, you’re developing human beings. That is just as important as the information you give, otherwise you may as well assign a text book and everyone reads the book and that’s it. And that’s the problem with online courses; you read the paper, take the test, and it’s over. Teaching is a very personal thing and no one else can really teach the way I teach. It would be someone’s interpretation of what I said, and it’s not coming through my own personality.
You welcome writers and directors as well as actors into your class mix. Can you explain why you choose to do this?
A performance is a collaboration of writers, directors, producers, and designers working together with a common language to produce something. Therefore, if that’s the case, why should most training be segregating? If making art is collaborative, why not make the training collaborative?
With writers, it benefits both the writer and the actor to work together–actors learn how to read, do cold readings with new material that becomes part of actor training, and the writer gets to see and hear his work living on stage. The writer is alive and here now and you’re creating beneficial relationships with people.
It’s also good for the actors to know that directors are in a room, so that that they can be around them–directors are often looking for talent for their own projects and can also give a different perspective on the actors’ work. It’s valuable to have input from directors in class so that actors can hear different interpretations and directors who can work on a scene with them.
The directors learn from actors how to talk to them–they’re learning from me regarding how to talk to actors, and how eventually they’ll have to do that, so why not learn how to do that in the class?
It’s also important that the actor think about the other side of the fence when it comes to the work.
The studio becomes a place where projects can be developed and many are cast using my attending students.
For example, the work we did with the National Public Radio and the national endowment we received, went to our own people who were studying with us. At times the class is like a little ensemble company. A large part of the concept for the class actually came about from my directing in London at The Royal Court Theater. There I came into contact with the BBC and impressed them with a radio drama, radio being an important part of their theater culture.
As a Director of Shakespeare Festivals and regional theaters I looked for ways to keep that radio theater alive and, in the 1990s, there was the NPR playhouse in the U.S., and there were a number of us who produced old-fashioned dramas. Because my studio had writers, it was only natural that I looked to my students to develop plays in class. Then I would take them and perform them as live theater at the Samuel French One Act Festival where we had quite a few winners.
In New York we’d go right into the WBAI radio station and record and present plays live on the air. We didn’t have to rehearse, because we’d already been doing them as live theater shows. We did a whole series of radio dramas. Then, all of a sudden, NPR got interested in what we were doing, and they picked up a number of these live dramas that were done as new plays with no celebrities–they were just students in our class. This gave my students terrific voice training. These were young no-name writers who got national exposure on national public radio as part of The Simon Studio Presents, which went on to broadcast on the Time Warner channel and became a TV show that included interviews on the arts and so on.
There are an array of impressive guests that sporadically attend The Simon Studio classes: agents, casting directors, producers, and so on. What do you think the benefit is to your students in doing this?
The business has changed over the last 40 years–it’s all celebrity motivated now and if you pay out money you can get a night with so and so. It’s something I’m a little wary of and have always been careful about doing but, at the same time, I can see that’s how the times are now.
But I’ve always hated that you should have to pay for a showcase to be able to meet current industry people. You shouldn’t have to pay to meet people–it was not like that when I started, and I really resent that it’s become that way, but I’ve come to realize that this is how things are–and casting agents and agents do make this part of their income.
It’s important that the actors get exposure, but it also needs to be a good teaching experience for them–and an opportunity to get the feedback from current relevant industry players.
The people I choose to come to my classes are required to give valuable and relevant feedback. I feel if my students pay for the class they should get the experience–it’s not about getting cast or getting a job.
Roger Hendricks Simon’s interview with Tania Fisher will continue next week.
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(c) 2018 by Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher. All rights reserved.
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Photos, courtesy of The Simon Studio and Tania Fisher–from top, Roger Hendricks Simon; Abby Simon, John Lithgow, Roger Simon; Tania Fisher. All rights reserved.