Industry: TALK BACK. John Ruskin of the Ruskin School on Training, Dedication, and Other Ingredients to Success

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Today we’re speaking with John Ruskin, head of the Ruskin School and Theater Group, and former apprentice to legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, on training, dedication, and what it takes to make it in this industry.

StarCast: Tell us about the Ruskin School and Ruskin Group Theatre in general, how it came into being.

John: In 1983, I studied with acting teacher Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. I was sent there by (Academy Award winning) film director Sydney Pollack. Pollack was how I got to know [StarCast CEO and founding Sundance CEO] Gary Beer, at Sundance. I loved studying Meisner’s work with him and it was a life changing experience for me. After being Meisner’s student he asked me to become his apprentice at the Neighborhood Playhouse and learn to teach his acting technique. That invitation changed my life once again. It was truly the most revelatory experience I’ve ever had in studying. I spent years in New York, teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I’d gone back and forth to California and decided to stay out here in LA and started my own school. And that developed into a bigger studio. That was 20 years ago. 10 years ago, we took over a larger space

to make a non-profit theater. So it has now been 25 years running my school and 10 years running the professional theater company.
StarCast: Tell us a little bit about the philosophy behind your teaching method.

John: We teach Meisner’s technique and his technique was designed to train an actor to “ live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” . He wanted to train actors to be as authentic and believable as they could be. Meisner was trying to take acting from the intellectual to the emotional and that is what the technique is based on. Get you out of your head and into your heart. Meisner believed that someone was either born with talent or they were not, but there was a way to cultivate it and bring it out of someone and strengthen it. He developed exercises that are exactly the same today as they were when he began teaching them over 75 years ago. All of Meisner’s exercises were designed to strengthen all the qualities that make a great actor great. He trained an actor to get their attention off themselves and onto their partner in the scene and to what they are doing in each scene whether on film or stage. He was very much against the intellect and thought it was the enemy of all great art. He developed an exercise called the repetition exercise and that will slow down your thinking and force you to put all of your focus on your partner rather than on yourself. Most actors who aren’t trained or aren’t trained properly remain in their heads thinking about their lines, their nerves, or how to look like a good actor.

StarCast: Do you feel like enough people study the craft of acting before trying to jump into a career?

John: A lot of actors come to Hollywood and get a head shot and sit around a coffee shop and wonder why they’re not working . If you’re going to be a doctor, you go to under grad and then grad school, then an internship then a residency and you specialize in a field study till hopefully someone trusts you to be their doctor. It could be 12-14 years before you’re even practicing. Why should an actor be any different? Meisner believed it takes 20 years before the training naturally becomes a part of how you work. Most actors in this town want it yesterday. Meryl Streep was in her late 20s before she started working in film. She tried to get into theatre school mutiple times before being accepted and spent years training as an actress. Most actors think it’s just supposed to happen, but don’t put in the time to prepare.

StarCast: How can joining a theater group or taking acting classes aid an aspiring actor’s career?

John: It’s the greatest source of community that you can have. It all begins with your training. No matter how talented you are, Meisner’s training will take you to a deeper level. All of our students who come to us start from day one because it’s a new way of working, even if they are professional actors or brand new to it. No matter how talented they are, it’s a place they can continue to grow into the highest level of their work. We help actors build the house from the ground up. When you see those beautiful old homes in Europe or the castles in the Loire Valley of France you realize that some of them took 50 years to build and they have lasted for thousands of years through every flood and storm over the years, but pre-fabbed houses in Florida that get thrown together in a few weeks get blow down in the first hurricane. It’s like that with acting. The longer you train, the longer you’ll last. As fast as you go up, you’ll come down. You train how to be on stage and to be in front of an audience or camera. To grow into your craft before you’re thrown into it and work your way up the ladder where there’s no room for mistakes to be made. Out in the professional world, they need to know how to do it the right way the first time. There is no time for trial and error. Training properly and deeply is the greatest gift to give yourself as an artist.

StarCast: Do you have any advice on how actors should choose which classes are right for them?

John: Very slowly and very carefully. It’s one of the most important relationships they may have besides who they marry. Bad training is worse than no training. You check the background of a potential teacher/coach and where they come from, who were their teachers, were they authorized to teach by their teachers/mentors . There are probably hundreds of people who say they’re Meisner teachers out here in LA and there are only three of us here who actually taught for Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York which was the one school where he taught and developed his work since 1936.There are an incredible amount of people who are out of work and calling themselves teachers and taking people’s money. Hollywood is worse than New York in that way. An acting teacher in LA may have no background, but they have good publicists or good advertising. You need to do your research. Students come to us because they know of our reputation or have been sent to us . They also may have called the Neighborhood Playhouse in NY and been referred to come to us and learn. We are the representative for them in LA.

StarCast: Any advice for actors who are trying to move from a theater background into a film/TV one? Is the acting the same?

John: Completely the same. We don’t distinguish. A good actor is a good actor. You need to speak up on a stage and on a film you don’t. You need to learn blocking, etc., and other specifics to film and TV, but our actors go straight from here into film or TV as well as professional theatre. At first, we keep the camera out of the class room because we don’t want people self conscious as the work begins. We want them focused on becoming the greatest artists they can be. In film and tv you pretty much need to be in LA or NY. It’s not really possible to make a living as a professional actor in film or tv and not be in one of those two cities. I have some friends/colleagues though that do make a living doing regional theatre around the country. LA is the center of film and tv in this country and NY has Broadway and many wonderful off Broadway theatres as well as certain film and tv series that shoot there. Train yourself to the highest degree to become the best actor you can be based on your innate talent. Nothing ever compared to the Meisner technique for me. Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Diane Keaton, Sydney Pollack, Dylan McDermott , and thousands of others, these people all trained for 2 years and came from the Meisner method. We’re the only technique where the actors who have studied speak about it all the time. There are famous people who always mention Meisner and his technique . I think it’s because for most of us who studied Meisner’s technique, it’s was a life changing experience rather than just a class.

StarCast: Do you recognize any patterns in your most successful students?
John: The thing I would say consistently among successful actors is that they do train with great concentration. They show great dedication to acting from their training to their performances. They all have equaled passion to act whether on film or stage. They ‘re always on time. They build a commitment and work ethic that’s very strong. They love acting, not for the sake of when can I get rich and famous, but they just love it. Whether it’s community theater or a Broadway house they want to work today. They’re always acting, always in plays or in a movie. And they’re true to themselves. I have a student ,who was recently in a major motion picture. Before she took that role, a soap opera offered her a big part that would have paid her millions of dollars. She was torn with what to do. Most people said “take it, take it!” She said I can’t do four years on a soap opera. She said I’ll do 2 years. And they said no, four years or nothing. She said “nothing.” Within 2 months of that no, she got to be in a big hit movie with Morgan Freeman. If she hadn’t had the confidence and courage of who she was, she wouldn’t have been able to say no. I am certain that if you asked her she would say that her training is what gave her that confidence and strength of knowing. The best part of the story is, shortly after she booked the movie, that soap opera got cancelled. She would have lost the money anyway. She does film and TV but comes back all the time to perform for free onstage with us in the theatre. That’s the kind of person who is successful in the long term. People who are in it for money and fame never seem to make it in the long run. The ones who seem to make it do it for the love of acting. I’ve seen students of mine sleeping in their car because they don’t want to be late for rehearsal. That person has something that others don’t. Others walk in late and say there was traffic. Others miss rehearsal or class because they were sick, but in the professional world of acting, actors don’t get sick. There’s no choice. You can’t hold up a production that could be $5-10 thousand per minute. There’s no grace period. Most people don’t have that. They’re not that committed.

StarCast: What, if anything, in a student makes you think to yourself, “wow, this person could really go somewhere?”

John: Talent is hard to describe. It’s something magical you see in someone and they respond to things differently than regular people. There’s something clear and real called talent and you see many definitions of it. When someone has that talent, you know it. I used to wonder if there’s a James Dean somewhere in Kentucky, working on a farm. I believe that talent has a gene in it that gets them on the bus and gets them to LA or NY. I don’t think there are a lot of Van Gogh’s sitting on a farm somewhere not painting. I think talented artists are drawn toward where they will get to do their art, whether that is acting, painting, dancing, or whichever form one is inspired by. I think that’s the case, but I’m not sure. We always ask our Master Class teachers….have you ever seen anyone with real talent not get their chance? 80-90% say no. Most say that if someone is willing to persevere and has the talent, at some point they’ll get that chance. But most people don’t have that perseverance. Some know how to be charismatic and work the business and others don’t. Sometimes the ones who know how to work the business can do better than some of the ones with greater talent. You have to have both. You‘ve got to get into that room and dazzle them, but you’ve got to have the talent to back it up or it doesn’t last. When you’ve got Academy Award winners taking guest spots on TV shows now…what does that leave for the new actor? That’s why I think StarCast has a special power. The hardest part is how to get in the room and get seen. If you can’t get a manager or agent, how can you get in a room with casting directors and others who can hire you to work? With StarCast, they can be in on a farm in Kentucky and actually get seen. That’s a gift. There’s no map. How do you get into Hollywood? There’s no key. Dylan McDermott teaches Master Class here and he jokes sometimes by saying “I’m going to put you all outside the door and lock it…how are you going to get in the room?” That’s Hollywood. How do you get in? “ You have to get someone to see you, to get a manager or agent , to try to get you in front of casting director, to try to get you the role. StarCast is the great equalizer of giving everyone a chance, without contacts, without knowing anyone , to actually be seen. How long does it take before someone recognizes your talent? It’s geographically impossible unless you’re in LA. How do you get a reservation in a restaurant with only two tables?
StarCast: What’s your advice for getting the best performance out of yourself possible?

John: Training. Then once you’re consistent, it’s your talent that will give you your career and acclaim. Acting is no less difficult than being a doctor, an engineer, or a car mechanic, but for some reason with acting, people think anyone can do it. Just get a headshot and go on an audition. If you look at a dancer’s legs you know they’re a dancer, if a singer sings a bar of music, you know they are a singer. Acting is a little trickier. You have people out there making millions of dollars who aren’t actors. Many people think it’s so simple, so easy that anyone can do it well. They don’t know what goes into becoming a real actor.

StarCast: Any tips for the stage or camera shy actors out there?

John: Pick a different profession. If you’re not comfortable now, just wait until it’s Scorsese waiting to direct you in a difficult scene . You’re going to poop your pants. Laurence Olivier used to want to throw up every time he performed. He used to say while another person would run home, I step out. onto the stage. He did it anyway. There is a quote I love that says “ Do the thing you fear the most and the death of fear is certain” At some point , you have to want to go out there more than the fear of doing it. The first thing we do is put people under a spotlight in front of everyone and ask how does that feel and do you want to be seen, really be seen. My other teacher besides Meisner was Richard Pinter. Richard said “acting should feel like you are standing on a stage, naked, in front of a thousand people with a spotlight on you and you are turning around slowly .” Anthony Hopkins taught at our school and one day he said, “if you embrace your dark shadow, you will have greatness, and if you don’t, it will destroy you.” That’s Anthony Hopkins, he is of the greatest actors that has ever lived. How many people are willing to show the darkest part of themselves in public? Not many I think.

StarCast: Any general career advice you give your students that you’d like to share with our readers?

John: Build the foundation of your instrument through training and gaining wisdom of your craft before worrying about fame and fortune. The more solid you build your foundation, the longer you’ll be around. Find out if you really love acting whether it is in a classroom, on a little local theatre stage, or on the set of the biggest film of the decade. If you find out that you really do love it, then you must do it and nothing else should matter or take you away from your passion to perform, nothing! If you feel that way, I look forward to meeting you and I look forward to seeing you work because chances are you will.

You can follow the Ruskin School on Twitter @RuskinSchool, or check out their website at The opinions expressed in the interview herein are John’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of StarCast. StarCast assumes and shall have no legal responsibility pertaining to the accuracy of advice given by those interviewed.

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