CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Corey Parker, Actor and Teacher/Coach – Part 3 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources


[Photo: Dana Patrick]

[Photo: Dana Patrick]

Here is the final installment of my three-part conversation with esteemed actor and acting teacher/coach Corey Parker.

To read the impressive details of Corey’s career, see Part 1, in which Corey talks about how he got tricked into becoming an acting teacher, how he does his own preparation as an actor, and when he’s most likely to experience the zone. In Part 2, Corey talks about his training, why actors need to find their own technique, and how he tries to get out of the way of his students’ creative problem-solving. 

In this installment, Corey talks about developing “the confidence of ability”; the difference between being critical and being judge-y; and how music influences his creative process.


How do you typically feel at the end of a coaching session? What state are you in?

It totally depends on who I’m working with, but the thing that I’m going for when I’m coaching is to bring about that shift. I don’t want the person I’m working with, and I don’t want me, to feel at the end of the session the way we felt in the beginning. I want it to feel like something happened, because I want there to be revelation to that. And so that depends on what state they’re in, and what they’re looking for, and what’s available from them.

But what I’m definitely trying to do is to go further in with them – maybe get them out of their comfort zone to some degree, maybe challenge what they’re doing all the rest of the time in their life. But in this session, let’s go in and play and ask the questions and pull this thing apart and see where this thing finds itself in you, where it lives in you. And suddenly, by the time we’re done with the session, then there’s an experience that, hopefully, I just earned my money. [laughs] Because there’s no one else in their life doing that. I’ve had that happen with a six-year-old – and at that age, the mothers are also present for a session – I’ve had it happen with teenagers, and I’ve had it happen with adults.

If someone is resisting or kind of shutdown, then I have to deal with that. I once had a student – you won’t believe it, but it’s true – she was a teenager, and she’d gotten into some kind of trouble, and her parents were very Christian, and she wanted to act. That’s all that they knew, and they didn’t like it, but they brought her because everything else was falling apart. And she refused to speak to me.

Oh, wow.

She came for months and would not speak to me. But what I did was, I got great plays from great writers, got two copies, and just started letting her read these characters. And when we would start to read the play, she would come to life as the character. She would express as the character, she would live as the character. And as soon as the play was over, as soon as we’d finish that session, still she would not talk to me. Now, as time passed, she talked to me [laughs], but it took months. It took months.


And so I knew back then, by the end of the session, even though she wasn’t personally interested in talking to me because of whatever she’d been through with grownups, and I understand that, through the work itself – the writings of Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard, the writing of these plays, these characters – she can start to learn just by reading them with me that she is not alone, that she is not the only one, that someone sat and wrote this play, that someone gets her, and that this world of acting and theater, this world is an infinite place full of possibility. And whatever she’s coming into the session with, whatever all that stuff is, there’s a whole new direction available to her if she wants it, and it’s creative.

If you’re going in a linear direction in your life, in every aspect of your life, then that hour that you work with me is not going to be linear. It’s going to be creative, it’s going to be pursuit, it’s going to be investigation, it’s going to be questioning, it’s going to be laughing, and it’s going to be utilizing the work of some great writer, some great piece, to get the ignition happening with you. So you can see, “Oh, there’s much more to my life, much more to my life, than just living with this linear path that society’s telling me I should have.”

So the work always, for me, does the work, and the work speaks for itself. I do feel like there’s a sense of purpose there. And time is short. As you know, people come into your life, they train with you, and then they’re gone and you don’t see them again, or sometimes you do. So when I’m in a session, I don’t know the future [laughs], I just know that time is short, and I’m here to gently and supportively work with them in igniting something that they can bring into wherever they want to go. And I’m not going to be like the other grownups – I can guarantee that.

What an amazing story.

Yeah, it’s true. A couple of years later, she called me out of the blue and apologized. But I understood. When I started training at 13 and 14, we had just moved back to New York City – I didn’t know anybody – and starting to train with these amazing teachers, they automatically brought this deep sense of value to my innards, to just me, to what was inside of me creatively. It was like they knew it, they saw it, and so they always approached the work that way. It wasn’t like there was something outside of me, that I was wrong until I got it right. They saw this valuable treasure inside, and that’s what the whole purpose was of drawing the work together with me, and drawing this stuff out of me.

And for me, that’s the only way. Every person I work with has their own treasure inside of them. I’m not bringing that – that’s theirs, that comes from them, who they are. Whether it’s a really straight housewife who just wants to try this, or whoever it is. Whatever you’ve been through, that treasure is in you.


With coaching client Sean Combs

It’s like what we were saying before. We go through stuff in life, sometimes, and we’re, like, “Well, that sucked.” But when you teach, you start realizing the stuff you went through that sucked is actually really valuable. And it can be healing to allow the work to mix with it, to some degree. And so that valuing of a person, I just think people don’t get that very often – not in any consistent way. And to have, then, the encouragement to bring that into action, and to be allowed to fail, and learn, and start to get the confidence of ability – that’s important for anybody, I think.

How do you balance needing to be critical, in the sense of pulling something apart, versus being “judge-y”?

That’s been a journey for me. Because to be honest with you, with some of my teachers there was very intense language used of, really, almost right or wrong, of doing the “real work” or not doing the “real work”. Very intense judgement. That was really drilled into me.


So I think it’s been a journey to learn that the most important thing for me – and this goes, again, to that protectiveness that I feel, anyway – is that a note I gave is valueless if I caused personal harm.

When I was young, I was in a rehearsal in a theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. My mother [Rocky Parker] was in a play, and Charles Gordone, the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer, was directing one of his plays [The Last Chord] and she was in it. And I loved this guy. He was a great guy to me. And he got to this point in the play where they were rehearsing, and he only gave one note and he gave it a million times. And his one note was, “I don’t believe you.” And when he said, “I don’t believe you,” the actors had to go back to the beginning of the scene and start over. And he would say it again, “I don’t believe you,” to get them out of their head, to break that stuff they were holding onto, and allow them to find the syrup, the juice, that was waiting for them in his work. Perhaps if the actor stays focused on the work, they can grow from that.

But I tend to be a purist – that’s just the world that I come from, being a purist. And it’s taken me a lot of time and learning to let go – I’m still letting go of that sense of being a purist – because, to me, it’s false. It’s not really the most important thing. If I give a great acting note, or I point out something about the scene that’s some wonderful thing that I think is great or everyone thinks is great, but if I harm them or embarrass them – which I don’t do, but I’ve seen plenty of teachers do – if that’s what I do, then it’s valueless to me what I’m doing. And maybe that’s my purism. It’s valueless to me if I cause personal harm.

It doesn’t mean I can’t hurt your feelings sometimes. We’re working on something, we get frustrated, we might hurt each other’s feelings, I don’t know. But if I give notes that are just to rip you a new asshole or cause you harm…I mean, the only time I see people do that where I can understand it is where a student is holding onto their limitation, and nothing the teacher says will bring them to the point of letting go. They’re stuck in their limitation, and they’re going to hold onto the limitation, and they almost start acting stupid, like their intelligence level drops. Because there’s an avoidance – there’s something inside of them that they were trained, or taught, by their parents – they’re holding onto it, and there’s no way that scene’s going to work, and there’s no way they’re going to grow unless they acknowledge it, and they don’t want to.

So yes, I’ve seen teachers just yell to the point where the person cries and breaks down, and suddenly you can see it – the block is gone! They let go, and now they’re ready to work, and they’ve just grown. They’ve just grown up in front of you. Of course, some students will leave and head to the elevator before the growth happens. I’ve seen that, too. When you train, discomfort may happen – agitation, frustration – but these are different from personal harm, where you as a person are being attacked.

These things can happen. But it’s not something I’m really looking to do. If I appeal to your intelligence, if I appeal to your sense of who you are, of the importance of what it is you’re trying to do, and if you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone and move forward and fail – fall out of the sky and get up and try again – if you’re willing to do that work, then we will get there. But I don’t like going home and feeling like I just caused personal harm to someone. I just don’t like it, I’m not going to do it, and I don’t think it’s necessary on any creative level. Yes, you can get into conflict with each other. But if I, in the role of teacher, take advantage of it by zinging you so that everybody else laughs at you or whatever, I’m not interested in that.

That’s why I couldn’t make it through that stupid movie Whiplash – it was just so ridiculous, I could not bear it.

Yeah, I couldn’t see it.

I took it for about 10 minutes, and then I was, like, “No, I don’t need this in my brain.”


It seems like so much of being a coach is not just being able to see what could be adjusted, and not just being able to know how to make the adjustment, but how to communicate it.

Big time. It’s so true. It’s so true, and it’s so rare. I mean, there are some great teachers, and I think people like Ivana, she constantly impresses me with that. Every time I go to L.A., I’ll go and watch class, and I was there last month. I started working with Ivana Chubbuck in 1990 when I was on Thirtysomething.


Thirtysomething, with Melanie Mayron

So she’s been teaching a long time. And I’ve never seen her lose her patience because she’s saying something that she’s said a million other times in her classes. Maybe she does, but what I see is, she stays in with care, in trying to help you connect to this thing. And that’s how many tens of thousands of students? Of course, if you need breakthrough, she brings that, too!

And on the other hand, there are teachers who, you know, they’re just berating. They have low self-esteem or whatever, they’re taking advantage of their position, and that’s just the opposite. And so that ability to communicate, man, that’s so crucial.

The reason I didn’t study with Stella Adler when I was 17 was because I was afraid! [laughs] I mean, everybody talked about how she communicated and I was, like, “I don’t know that I can handle that!” [laughs] I grew up in a household where there was some yelling. I just didn’t know that I wanted to get into a class where that could be happening, that intensity that she had. Now I kind of wish I’d taken the damn class. [laughs]

But the communication is important to me. That’s why I like to watch teachers, and audit teachers – I like to hear how people communicate the work. And if it comes from the heart, then we are all doing something. I think we’re all equal. I’m not better than anybody else. I might work with someone who’s just a beginner, and in a couple of years they might be on hit show. Like, who’s to say? You know, we’re all in this together, we’re all equal. And my whole approach is, sometimes I talk like the teacher, and sometimes I talk like the actor. So as the actor I can say, “Ok, what I see here is…” And they’re, like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!” We’re in the same boat. That’s the only way I’m interested in doing it. That’s the only way that feels right to me.

When you’re watching a performance – not in a teaching setting, but just watching a performance – do you find yourself thinking about how you might make adjustments to the performance?

Yeah, it’s all the time. If the performance is really good, I forget, and that’s what I like – those performances that just pull you in and you’re, like, “Oh, yay, I loved it, I had fun!” But then things slow down and suddenly I’m, like, “Ooh, I would’ve adjusted that…!” [laughs]

I know!

You can do that stuff, but it’s just having to be off-duty. I try not to say anything, but sometimes I’ll be watching something with my son and my wife, and sometimes it’s, like, “Oh, do you see there? See that he’s…?” [laughs] I really don’t want to do it, but I do get passionate about it.

I love watching old movies. I love watching Turner Classic, I love watching actors from all different eras. Especially starting with the ‘20s where the Broadway actors were coming to L.A. and figuring out how to adjust for camera. There were just so many different phases of learning that actors have gone through, and I just love watching them solve things creatively. I just love their solutions.

I think acting is magic, and I think actors can create magic, and I do think that alchemy is involved in an energetic way. Because you’re just a person who walks in the room and you start doing this work, and suddenly, when you’re on the screen or onstage, energy is transmitted to everyone, to the entire audience. And this is not minimizing the play, but the play itself can’t do it. You need the actors that take this energy from the writer, through the play, do this work and suddenly fill the audience. That kind of transmission, I don’t know many other things that can do that. I mean, obviously, music is incredibly powerful, and music doesn’t require words. [laughs] But actors getting up and acting out the stories of being human – I love it.


With Debra Messing in Will & Grace

And I do think even instrumental music has to have a story that you need to have in mind when you’re performing it. Are you musician? Do you play any instruments or are you musical in any way?

I love music. When I was young, I took piano lessons and guitar lessons, and I have some guitars in the house, we have a piano, but I’m not a musician, per se. I’m not “in the band”. [laughs] But I do love music, I have a lot of music, I like using music with the work, with exercises.

That’s what I was going to ask you.

Yeah, it’s really powerful. I’m definitely into the power of the music in helping storytelling. I think that it can help actors to drop out of their head, to find ways to use the music. I remember seeing Steppenwolf [Theatre Company]’s production of [Lyle Kessler’s] Orphans [directed by Gary Sinise] which Terry Kinney and Kevin Anderson and John Mahoney were in. [Note: readers will be interested to know that Corey actually took over the role of Phillip when Kevin Anderson left the show – read Corey’s story about that experience on his blog here.]


With Gary Cole in Orphans

That production was the first time I had ever seen what was called “rock and roll theater”, where they just had huge JBL speakers and they had this incredible Pat Metheny soundtrack, and everything was choreographed. And it was an incredible experience, that these things can all come together to form something that’s even more heightened than simply the performances. So I think it all works together. And that’s part of, if it helps the actor, then use it – a song, a playlist, whatever way you can find what turns you on and helps you.

And thinking in terms of rhythm and beats and dynamics and all that.

Yeah. We’ve got to connect the dots somehow, and the left brain is not going to do that. The way that it does it is just dull. So it’s the creativity that we’re searching for, that’s what we’re looking for – what turns you on creatively, what allows you to go further creatively, what allows you to step into the unknown and to discover the unknown – anything that inspires.

And I think that’s kind of the bottom line for actors – find what inspires you. I don’t care who you’re studying with or not studying with, or where your career is at or it’s not at. Stay inspired. That’s been my experience, and it’s so crucial. Then it doesn’t always matter so much everything that’s happening in the business to you, or not happening. Just stay inspired. Who turns you on creatively? Who do you look up to? Look at them doing it, and just stay feeding yourself.

That’s kind of the crucial thing that I was talking to Ivana about in the interview – how do we take care of ourselves? And that’s ultimately more important to me than technique, it’s more important to me than actors trying to do everything they think they’re supposed to do. We’ve got to take care of ourselves. Nowhere else in the industry is going to do that for you.

[Many thanks to Corey for generously spending so much time with me in this conversation! Readers are encouraged to check out Corey’s amazing blog, The Actors Work, which is full of resources and insights for performers and educators of all stripes. –VG]