The Actor CEO Podcast Episode 25 interviews Terry Knickerbocker
Mike Moreno: My guest today runs a Meisner acting school located in New York City at the heart of Industry City, Brooklyn. It’s an affordable alternative to MFA programs without sacrificing quality in a conservatory setting. He has coached actors on over 300 films, television, and theater projects, both on and off Broadway, and regionally, including Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Boyd Holbrook, Natasha Lyonne, and many others.
Mike Moreno: He started the Terry Knickerbocker Studio to offer training in the Meisner technique to passionate actors committed to excellence. The studio itself opened in 2015 and has just expanded their space to include a brand new studio for their movement and TV/Film curriculum. Sign up at Terryknickerbockerstudio.com and say you heard about it through the Actor CEO Podcast. Now let’s say hello to Terry Knickerbocker.
Mike Moreno: Terry Knickerbocker, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. I really appreciate having you here. It’s such a pleasure to get to know you. I really appreciate your time today and sharing your expertise.
Terry K.: Well, it’s my pleasure, Mike, and it was also a pleasure to meet you when you came by the studio a little while back when Sam Rockwell was speaking. It was nice to meet you, and it’s nice to be with you today.
Mike Moreno: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a wonderful talk-back. He’s such a generous person and a wealth of information. You guys have worked together very closely and know each other very well for a long time, but it’s great to get that perspective of somebody who’s working in the business right now and sharing what they learned through a training program and how it’s helped them as a professional.
Terry K.: Absolutely. It’s very inspiring for the students.
Mike Moreno: Yeah, yeah. It was inspiring for me, too.
History of Terry Knickerbocker and his Training
Mike Moreno: Let’s dive into that, speaking of the training program. Let’s talk about where you come from and where your training comes from. How did you get into starting to teach acting? How long have you been doing that?
Terry K.: I’ve been teaching since 1986 off and on, and really solidly since 1990. I started acting when I was four, eventually figured out, as hopefully most actors who care about the quality of what they do, that I needed some training. Went to NYU, graduated from their program, and then realized out in the world that my work was hit or miss, which is a complaint and a phenomenon I hear from a lot of actors.
Mike Moreno: Sure.
Terry K.: I think that even though NYU is an amazing program and I had great teachers and wonderful classmates, like so many trainings, it started with scene study, which, to me, is a fundamental flaw in most of the American training systems because that would be like learning the violin by starting with the Beethoven Concerto.
Terry K.: I got frightened by that because one week I was able to do something, and then the next week, I wasn’t. I didn’t know any dancers like that or musicians or plumbers or architects, but I know a lot of actors like that. It really gave me a very unsettled feeling, especially after I’d graduated from this world famous conservatory.
Terry K.: I happened to see at the time, because I was working backstage on a show at La MaMa, this wonderful actor who every night just nailed it. Tears and character work and brilliant articulation, and just every night he stuck it like world class gymnast. I went, “I want to be able to do that,” and it turns out that he had studied the Meisner technique with Bill Esper, so I immediately called, had a talk with Bill.
Terry K.: This was in 1983, and he accepted me into his program and told me that, because I was cast in a couple shows at the time, I was figuring, “I’ll just go and I’ll just fill in the gaps,” and he said, “We’re going to start from the beginning. There’s no such thing as an advanced training for people who went to NYU or Yale, because we don’t know where the holes are, and I want you to quit those jobs.”
Terry K.: I got so mad. I went, “What is that about? What actor gives up work?” You know? He said, “Yes, but if you go from my class to those rehearsals or performances, you’re going to fall back on old habits, and you’re going to create some inorganic work because the director said, ‘Could you be angry there or could you get loud there or could you laugh?'”
Terry K.:I thought about it overnight and I went, “Okay. I’m in,” and I quit those jobs, and I haven’t looked back. That training in two years, which Bill was with Meisner for many, many years and then started his own studio about 50 years ago. It was a direct lineage from Meisner and from the work at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Terry Discovers Teaching the Meisner Technique
Terry K.: I left that work feeling so solid, like, “You give me a script, and I know how to turn that into behavior that’s interesting, that’s rich, that’s imaginative, that’s authentic,” and I felt I just had the most solid toolbox, which was not a feeling I had getting out of my earlier training. Then I sort of fell into teaching. I sort of started directing for a while.
Terry K.: I got an opportunity to direct while I was acting, and then I realized, because I wanted to be a director, that you can’t make a living as a theater director unless you’re like Joe Mantello and you have Wicked on Broadway and The Humans, and you’re getting residuals. There’s no way for theater directors to make a living unless you’re working all the time.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Most directors either worked on staff at a theater like The Public or Manhattan Theater Club, like in the literary department or something like that, or they taught. I checked with all the theaters, and no one needed anybody, so I started teaching as a way to pay the rent.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Then it turned into something that I fell in love with.
Mike Moreno: So, let’s talk about the Meisner technique and what you really appreciate about that way of approaching acting. What is it about that toolkit that helps inspire you and get all the creative best out of you?
Terry K.: Well, absolutely. For me, what’s great about it are a couple of things. Meisner was part of The Group Theater along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg and was part of that group that saw Stanislavsky come over with the Moscow Art Theater in the early part of the 20th century. Different people went off on different tangents, like the original stuff was a lot about emotional memory, so that’s where Strasberg went, then he changed his mind and became more into the imagination.
Terry K.: That’s really what Meisner latched himself onto, was this idea of the imagination, but I think also because of Meisner’s background as a pianist, he understood the value of scales, which no other acting technique was really doing. So, rather than doing scene study, he started and figured out this kind of brilliant thing, which everyone knows about, called the repetition exercise, which is really just the seed of a very ongoing developmental training in the first year. Sort of like learning to juggle.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: You start with one ball, and then as you get good with that, another ball is added, and then when that gets pretty good, you add a third ball, and by the end of the first year, you’re able to keep a lot of balls in the air, all of which work on very important fundamental skills related to acting, starting with listening.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Starting with getting your attention off yourself, which is a key thing, I think, to good acting.
Mike Moreno: Absolutely.
Terry K.: By placing the attention either on the other person or in this thing that we call the independent activity on something you’re doing with an object, that starts to free you up into spontaneity and also really develops true responsiveness so that it’s authentic. It’s not social. It’s not cliched. You start to have the permission to say what’s really going on, which we don’t get to do in our social life. You can’t tell a cop who’s giving you a ticket and is being a jerk how you really feel about him, so as we get socialized in society, a lot of our true spontaneity and impulsivity that we had as children gets lost.
Terry K.: For me, what’s great about the work is that it’s foundational. It lays a foundation, and that word comes up a lot when I meet with students who are interested in work. They feel like they don’t have a foundation. They learned how to do Streetcar Named Desire, and they know how to do this, but they don’t actually know, say, “You give me a script and I have the actual tools,” which is what scales do for musicians or the equivalent of first position and second position and plie in ballet.
Mike Moreno: Sure, everything builds off of that.
Terry K.: Yes. No one goes to a concert to hear scales, but musicians who are good at making music do scales every day.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: The Meisner technique really gave me a set of scales, of tools and a process, a way of working, that went into my toolkit and have stayed there forever.
Mike Moreno: Right, and that’s why you’ve jumped onboard to choose this as the technique that you teach to actors, because you’ve seen that it gets the results, right?
Terry K.: Well, it wasn’t that I saw it got the results. I mean, I did see that. I had an amazing class and some really wonderful people who I’m still in touch with did exciting work, but it was more that it worked for me. No one cares. I’m not here to say that Meisner technique is better than Strasberg or better than Adler, because there have been wonderful actors who have come out of those traditions. It just worked better for me, and I find that it works more practically for more actors that I’m exposed to.
How do we transition from training to the Industry?
Mike Moreno: Yeah. So, let’s actually talk about that practicality because now there’s a transition coming from any training program, really. Myself in grad school or anybody else who even comes out to any program here in New York City or across the board. Once you have built your fundamentals, once you’ve started to understand what works for you as an actor, and like you say, you can be handed a script and know how to approach it, then comes the opportunity to do that in the real-world scenario where-
Terry K.: We hope.
Mike Moreno: Yeah. Right.
Terry K.: Yeah.
Mike Moreno: You’re running into auditions. You’re getting the chance to put your nose to the grindstone, essentially, and try to make all this work into something that you can hone over the course of time and to, hopefully, a career. First of all, are there any common mistakes to avoid in that transition as an actor, or are there elements that this particular training allows actors to take with them into those real-world auditions, into those scenarios, even rehearsals that allow better productivity?
Terry K.: Well, I think that it’s two things. I think it’s a great question. The name of your podcast is actually really smart because that has nothing to do with training. That has to do with, really, taking your career in hand and being in charge of that. As sensitive and as open and as vulnerable as we need to be as actors, you can’t have any of that when it comes to your career. You actually have to have the hide of an armadillo, I think, because you can’t take it personally when you don’t get the part.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Part of that has to do with just a real strategic approach to knowing who you are and knowing where the opportunities for you, knowing what you’re not so you don’t mess with that.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Right? Not everyone can play Stanley Kowalski, right?
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: That was one of the thing I used to think was, “If I’m a really good actor, I should be able to play everything,” but actually that’s so not true. One thing is just to really understand what kind of work you want to do and what kind of work you’re suited for, which sometimes our self image and how we’re seen in the world are quite different. You may have to kind of work to find your sweet spot. Then I think you have to go out for everything.
Terry K.: I think at first, you have to be willing to do just about anything, which means a lot of auditioning. That’s a wholly different skill than acting. Being able to go into a room with people you’ve never met and you don’t know what kind of people they’re going to be, and you don’t know whether they’re going to give you the time of day or cut you off after five lines, and just having the ability to lose with that and to stay playful, and to stay engaged, and then when it’s over, forget about it. Go somewhere else. Go to the park. Go to a movie. Go to another audition and not put all your eggs in that basket so that you’re dying to get that, and if you don’t, your day is ruined or your life is ruined.
Mike Moreno: Yes, yes, yes.
You won’t always know why you didn’t get the part
Terry K.: Audition for things that you’re not right for. I had this student years ago who was so beautifully naïve and enthusiastic. She got out and she started auditioning. She saw a thing in backstage for Waiting for Godot. Well, there are no female parts in Waiting for Godot, but she thought it sounded like a cool project, so she went in and brought her headshot, and they said, “Hi. What are you doing here?” Of course, Becket would never want a female to play that. He got very strict about these things. She says, “I don’t know. It just seemed like such a cool project, I thought I’d stop by.” They said, “Well, probably not, but did you bring a monologue?” “Yeah, I got six.” She ended up getting cast as Lucky.
Mike Moreno: Oh, wow. Wow.
Terry K.: Then one time, I was directing a show, and my best friend from class I wanted to play this part. It was a Mary Irene Fornes part. He did an amazing audition. I was locked into having him, but then I couldn’t find the woman, and I ended up casting Alma Cuervo, who went to Yale with Meryl Streep, who was an older, larger Latina woman, and their chemistry, when I did callbacks, they were playing a couple, was more like mother and son, and I didn’t have someone else to play her part, so I had to cast older, even though I was getting not the actor I wanted. Now, you never know why you don’t get the part. Because this friend was a friend of mine, I could say, “You were perfect for the part, but not with this woman.”
Mike Moreno: Yeah. Right.
Terry K.: You never know why you don’t get the part, so you can’t take it personally. I think, first of all, you need to have that go get her attitude, not taking it personally, knowing who you are, do it all the time, get known, do lots of readings. It takes a while to establish yourself in New York in this business.
Mike Moreno: Sure.
How will being a Meisner trained actor help me in the audition room?
Terry K.: Then in terms of the skills from the technique, to sort of answer your original question, I think listening is very important. I think a lot of actors go and they read. If you haven’t memorized the sides because you just got them the day before, so they’re not expected them memorized … Memorize them if you can, but if you can’t, don’t have your nose in the text, because we won’t be able to see you. The camera won’t be able to see you, so that skill of putting your attention on the other person is very key, I think, for us to see you and really responding.
Terry K.: I think you can also use what we call emotional preparation if it’s a scene that you have to start with your engine running, that ability that we have as a skillset in Meisner, which all techniques have, of “How do you get something going inside you emotionally before the scene starts?”
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: The ability to do that out in the lobby is something that we can do through daydreaming.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Then if there are any key … Obviously, you can’t carve out the whole script in an audition, but if there are key moments, key discoveries, key character issues, or if the character’s drunk, you can suggest some of those things so that you’ve made a few choices that show that you have an interpretation for this script and you’re not just flying blind.
Mike Moreno: I think that’s one of the wonderful things I’ve seen in my brief experience with Meisner technique myself, but also just working with other people who are more familiar with it than I am, the technique allows for a lot of the availability and freedom to jump in on something very new, which an audition scenario gives you all the time is new material and new circumstances and allow yourself to, within those confines, be very free, as much as you can be under that scenario. That makes you a better auditioning performer and it allows you more control, and I say this on the podcast all the time, control, you can control and forget about the rest, but that allows you to control what you can in the room in a scenario where you actually don’t have a lot of control.
Terry K.: Absolutely.
Mike Moreno: You’re in control of what you do as a performer. You’re in control of bringing your best performance to that audition, and that’s what’s going to be memorable because it’s not about living on getting this job or not. It’s about building that relationship with the casting people, because if you come in and really do a solid audition because you were able to be free and allow yourself to listen and allow yourself to respond honestly as much as you can in that scenario and with those character choices, then they’re going to see that this is a solid performer who can deliver, and next time there’s something that comes down the way that this person lines up for, I want to bring them in.
Terry K.: Absolutely. That happens all the time, and you just nailed it. The purpose of auditions is not to get jobs. I think Kevin Spacey says this. The purpose of auditions is to make relationships.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: If you do that, they will remember you. Sam Rockwell auditioned for a movie that Duncan Jones was directing, David Bowie’s son, and didn’t get the part, and he made such an impression on Duncan, that Duncan wrote the part of Moon for him two years later. You never know when the bread you cast upon the water is going to come back to you.
Mike Moreno: Well said. Having that long-term perspective, I think, is very important in this business.
Terry K.: Absolutely. I find that even as a teacher. I had someone come in who I had as a student at NYU like four years ago. He fought me like crazy because sometimes a lot of resistance comes up in this training, and he wants to come and study. I’m like, “Where did that come from?” He said, “Well, you were the only one I could trust,” but I would’ve never predicted that with this fellow. That sort of thing happens all the time. It’s very important what your brand is, which is basically how you show up in this business with everyone you know.
Mike Moreno: Listening to that is very important, too, because it changes over time. Who you are as a person five years ago is different than who you are as a person now, and will be different in another five or ten years, so your type, your brand, the true self that you’re bringing to your creative work into these auditions is going to change. You can’t be trying to play the cool guy that you were five, ten years ago when that’s not really who you are … That’s not who the industry is seeing you as right now. That’s not the type. That’s not the vibe you’re bringing in the room. You have to be open to that.
Terry K.: Absolutely.
Mike Moreno: I think this training allows for a lot of constantly touching base with as much of your honest self as possible, which is great, which hopefully keeps tabs on that.
Terry K.: When you asked me what was great about the technique, I think the thing I omitted was, besides all these skills which you get and tools and a process, I know of no better way to really discover who you are, because the whole first year, the Meisner technique is so much about you under all these imaginary circumstances, you really get to learn a lot about yourself and you change as a person because of that.
Mike Moreno: Right.
Terry K.: Self awareness, because you are the instrument, just like Eric Clapton needs to understand every fret and every string on his guitar, you are the instrument. A good technique is going to fully release the personality of the performer, and I think that’s what this technique does beautifully.
Daily Practice of being a Working Actor
Mike Moreno: Let’s talk about daily practice along the lines of what we’ve been discussing earlier outside of the just the technique, which the technique offers a lot of opportunity for daily practice, things that you can do to help keep yourself on point. Outside of just what the technique offers, have you seen anything else work, or are there any other suggestions that you have for actors in terms of keeping themselves grounded, in terms of keeping themselves focused, in terms of keeping themselves on point as a creative artist that they can use as daily practice?
Terry K.: Yeah. I think therapy of some kind is crucial.
Mike Moreno: I hear that mentioned a lot. I certainly haven’t taken anybody up on it, and I probably should, but it’s often dropped a lot in these interviews that I do. I think more people should be open to that idea, open to that exploration.
Terry K.: Yeah, and it takes a while, maybe, to find the right person because there are a lot of bad therapists, just like there are a lot of bad acting teachers, but if you can find that right person and it doesn’t have to be so expensive, although it can be, but there are a lot of great training institutes in New York that have sliding scale and low-fee therapy, but just that place to go in and have someone understand who you are and clarify, because you’re going to be wondering, “Why …” and there are things you can’t talk about in acting class, like, “Why did I hate that person and why did I go late to that appointment?” and really un-peeling the onion because that’s how you’re going to get deeper and deeper into your resources. I think that’s huge.
Terry K.: I think some kind of tuning-in, which would be sort of like maybe meditation or mindfulness practice is also useful. I think some kind of regular physical practice, whether it’s running or lifting weights or yoga or kickboxing or ballet, but something that gets you going. Good nutrition is important. Really understanding what kind of body you have and what works well for you, and sleep is important, and community. It can become a very lonely road sometimes as an actor, and it’s very important to make sure you have a community of people that you touch base with who are sort of on your team.
Terry K.: I think the final thing would be, be an art junky. You’ve really got to understand, and it doesn’t just mean acting, but yeah, we want to go to as much theater as we can, and that doesn’t even have to cost money because you can second act shows. Go to movies. If you’re a member of SAG, you get a lot of free movies, obviously, and if you’re not, just go where they’re cheaper or rent Netflix. There’s a wealth of things to do that, but also go to museums, go to ballet, go to concerts, go to poetry readings. New York is such an amazing Mecca for art.
Terry K.: One of my students today was just telling me about this amazing new exhibit of Cate Blanchett’s at the armory where she collaborated with this cinematographer, and I think there are 15 different characters that she does with 15 different manifestos. Thank God we’re in New York, because it’s one of the great cities of the world, and it’s a place where artists come to do their stuff, and it doesn’t have to cost anything, but seeing that becomes real food for your creativity.
Terry K.: I’d say journaling is useful, so that you really consider yourself an artist. This podcast is about your career, which I’m all for. You’ve got to do that, but who’s having a career? It’s an artist.
Mike Moreno: Right. Yeah, exactly. It’s all building off of that creative individual, that creative fuel that you have that lights this whole fire and allows you to have something to take out there in the world, effectively.
Terry K.: I would agree, yes.
Mike Moreno: Building off of that, are there any books or films or other resources that you would highly recommend actors keep in their toolkit?
Terry K.: Well, Meisner loved a couple books that I always recommend. One is a book by German poet named Rilke, R-I-L-K-E, called “Letters to a Young Poet.”
Mike Moreno: Ah yes.
Terry K.: It’s a beautiful slim but full of nuggets set of correspondences between a master poet and a young poet who is sort of asking all the questions that come up when you’re a young artist in training. It’s very inspirational. Another is a book called “Zen and the Art of Archery.”
Mike Moreno: Yep. I know it.
Terry K.: Which is a book about how to get results. Archery is all about results, a bullseye. It’s about an archer who reached a plateau and was sent to Japan to train with someone because he just wasn’t getting as far as he would, and the guy just went all the way back to the beginning and wasn’t even shooting arrows. It was just holding the bow for a while, and then it took years to do that as they often do in Japanese training, until he got bullseye after bullseye after bullseye. It’s all about the idea of process, how to get results by not focusing on results.
Terry K.: Those are two inspirational things, and then I love poetry. Emily Dickinson and all kinds of just wonderful poets, Maya Angelou, and fiction. JD Salinger, Dickens. I mean, there’s no better writer for character than Dickens. To me, The Godfather is the best movie ever made. I think it’s an acting lesson. I’ve watched it at least 50 times, and everyone in that movie just about is an amazing actor, and Pacino and Brando and Keaton and all these incredible people.
Terry K.: I love the movies from the ’70s: Kramer vs. Kramer, Midnight Cowboy, Being There with Peter Sellers, and then going a little bit later, anything that Daniel Day-Lewis did, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet. Watch good work.
Any Advice Terry?
Mike Moreno: Yes, all good advice. All good tips. Terry, again, jumping off this springboard that training gives you and then out into the world where you’re bringing this craft that you’ve now learned to cultivate, is there any advice that you’ve heard that has stuck with you or that you tend to pass onto your students or that you found that have worked for others in terms of approaching the business, the best advice about the acting business that you’ve heard?
Terry K.: First of all, it’s okay to say no. Just because you get a job, actors sometimes have the attitude that they’re beggars, and if someone gives them a part, how can they say no to it? But if it doesn’t feel right, if there’s anything about it that doesn’t feel right, walk away, either before you start working on it or while you start working on it. That doesn’t mean being a diva, because I think you should say yes to as much as you can, but if something just in your heart of hearts says, “This isn’t right for me. I’m not being treated well or I don’t think I can do this part and I’ve really tried,” don’t be afraid to say no.
Terry K.: A sense of humor is very important, right? I directed a show at the Hangar Theater once. Robert Moss, who founded Playwrights Horizons was the producer. It was The Normal Heart. Beautiful Larry Kramer play. I was so serious about it, and I went home after the first weekend and I came back for the second weekend after they’d run it for a while without me, and I noticed in the first act that there were a lot of cues that were being missed.
Terry K.: For me, it had gotten a little bit sloppy, and I went up to Robert and I was very concerned, and he got furious at me. He said, “Can’t you just enjoy the show? These actors are working so hard. It’s going pretty well. Yeah, you can take notes, but how about relaxing?” I thought that was good advice.
Terry K.: I think it’s okay to get back into class so often, too. Like a gym, like a master class. For me, once I did the Meisner technique, I didn’t have any more “How To” classes, but to go into a master class with a good teacher and just work on some material, even while you’re working, because some of the jobs you’re going to get, when you start out, are going to be under fives or a featured player in “Law & Order”, and you’re not going to really have a full workout like you would with a Tony Kushner or August Wilson or Tennessee Williams.
Mike Moreno: Very true, very true.
Terry K.: You have to work on good material.
Mike Moreno: Absolutely.
Terry K.: Go on vacations, travel.
Mike Moreno: Yes.
Terry K.: I think that’s really important.
Mike Moreno: Also true. Work on yourself that is outside of the business, outside of just being this contract of creative art.
Terry K.: Also see the world. See what kinds of other people are out there. We people in America think that we’re it, but go to India. You’ll see a lot of different things.
Mike Moreno: Yes. Yes. Great advice. Terry, tell us about what’s going on with the school. What can people look forward to with what’s happening at the institution?
Terry K.: Great. Well, we’ve been in business a little over a year, about a year and a half. We’re doing a full two-year Meisner technique. I’m in the middle of classes that stated in the Fall, but we’re also intervening for our January class, which is a way to do the two-year program in a year and a half, and we still have a few spots for that. We have full movement program, voice and speech. We just actually added a space down the hall, so we have a beautiful big room for movement, and we’re in Brooklyn.
Terry K.: We’re at this incredible place called Industry City, which is in Sunset Park. It’s very easy to get to from Manhattan. It’s two express spots on the D or the N train. We’ve got lots of light and there’s lots of good food around here, and a wonderful community of really committed actors who work here. I’ve got great faculty and great staff, and we’ve got a good thing. It’s going well.
Mike Moreno: Yes, yes. Yeah, I can speak to the space. It’s excellent space. I think it’s really going to do a lot of great good for the people that come into it and for the business as a whole. It’s fantastic.
Mike Moreno: Terry, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast and sharing your insight and your experience. I think it’s done me a lot of good. I think a lot of people are really going to enjoy it, so thank you.
Terry K.: Oh, Mike, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure, and thanks very much for the opportunity to talk about some of my favorite topics.
Mike Moreno: Find all the resources mentioned in this episode in the show notes at ActorCEO.com/25.
Speaker 2: Thanks for listening. Subscribe to the Actor CEO Podcast on iTunes and at ActorCEO.com.