hat, exactly, makes a “master teacher?” Is it time spent teaching? Is it successful students? Respect in one’s field of expertise? Pedigree? Protégés? Legacy? Can “master teacher” even be defined? Does the term really mean anything at all?
In a small space deluged in books overlooking the lobby of his namesake Manhattan studio, Bill Esper shifts his rangy frame behind his desk and leans back, thinking. “Yes, it means something to me,” he says, finally. “Anybody who’s mastered anything: the violin, ballet, how to fix a broken television, or repair a car. There’s something that’s very attractive about that. A cab driver… I take the same trip every morning. I live on 20th St., and sometimes it can take you forty minutes and sometimes it can take you five. I had a really good driver today. He was smart; he caught all the possibilities. It’s nice to observe that.
“Or a carpenter. One ‘whack!’ and the nail is in. Or Japan — have you seen those Bunraku puppets? Amazing. They have a twenty-year apprenticeship. They spend twelve years just moving the feet around. Twenty years, you become a master puppeteer and then you get an apprentice. They have a designation for these master people: ‘Living treasure of the Japanese people.’ That’s a lovely thing. I’d rather get that than an Academy Award.
“So, it’s nice,” Esper concludes. “But I hope they don’t proliferate like — as MFA programs have. It’s the trouble with being a teacher. The craft is not admired the right sort of way.”
This question, about master teachers, was the first I posed to Bill Esper in our three conversations together. Looking back, I’m struck by how much of the man himself is contained in his response: the thoughtfulness; the easy leaps from the craft of teaching to working-class occupations to Asian puppetry; the mixture of humility and pride in assessing his own work; the wariness about academic training programs; the concern about craft. And by “craft,” he means both the craft of acting and the craft of teaching, “because they are separate talents in a way. There are a lot of wonderful actors who couldn’t teach anyone anything because they can’t communicate it.”
By all accounts, Esper can communicate it. Just ask Jeff Goldblum, or Tonya Pinkins, or David Morse, or Kim Basinger, or Sam Rockwell, or Gretchen Mol, or Larry David — or Amy Schumer, who hired 35 or so Esper graduates throughout production of her series, Inside Amy Schumer — or any of the many Esper alumni working on Broadway, in Hollywood, around the globe and across all mediums since Esper first hung out his shingle in 1965. If part of what defines master teachers is the success of their students, Esper certainly qualifies. And while he admits to allowing himself a “twinge” of pride in this, Esper credits much of his own success to the work of his mentor, the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner: “That’s one of those things that’s kept me with Meisner for so long. It’s what his work does. It’ll take you to Shakespeare. It’ll take you to Restoration. It’ll take you to avant-garde stuff like Wooster group — I’ve got students in the Wooster group. I’ve got students in the Elevator Repair Service. I’ve got Paul Lazar from Big Dance. The work prepares the student to be any kind of actor. They can go anywhere with it. Because truth is truth, and an impulse is an impulse,” he says, adding, “I think that anybody is improved by the study of acting in the way we teach it. Lots and lots of people say ‘it changed my life.’”
sper’s path to changing lives started in the Midwest. Born in 1932, he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the Depression-era son of a fraught second marriage between his Italian birth mother and his adoptive Syrian father, both of whom had left school at sixteen. “My mother was always leaving my father — they were always on the brink of divorce,” Esper says. “My father was a cab driver. His biggest problem was gambling. He was always losing — coming home without his paycheck, shooting craps, whatever. We’d rent a house for a month and have to leave it. There wasn’t a lot of security. Finally, they worked it out that he would have two jobs. He worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, delivering papers, collecting money from the kids that put it onto your porch — he had a crew of them. The Plain Dealer check he would give to my mom and he would gamble with the other one.”
It was a blue-collar upbringing in a blue-collar town. “And yet,” Esper points out, “Cleveland had a lot of culture. It still does. A lovely museum — small, but terrific stuff in it. A world-class symphony orchestra.” Esper’s mother was unable to work (“She was sick a lot,” he says) but she painted watercolors and, even though the family was poor, exposed her son to the arts. “I remember we went on a long automobile journey to a town down the lake, Cedar Lake, to Toledo. Because when the war ended they had all the cache they discovered in the salt mines. In the thousands, I think, of art that Nazis had stolen and put there for storage. It took a tour of America before it went on permanent view. The Cleveland museum was too small, so they put it in Toledo. It was an adventure.” Esper’s mother also brought him to the theatre. “It started when I was really small. My mother took me to a traveling production [of Porgy & Bess]. A road production and I was entranced. My mother was always late leaving the house, so we were about two minutes late and we were going up the stairs to the balcony and the soprano was singing ‘Summertime.’ In that moment with that marvelous voice…. It was incredible.”
“I wanted to know more about the world. If you can instill that in the students, you do them a tremendous service.”
While Esper’s lifelong love affair with the stage may have been sparked in that moment, “I fell in love with acting in high school,” he says. “There was a show on WGAR every Sunday morning called ‘The Fairy Tale Theatre,’ and Esther Mullin [the former director of the Children’s Theatre at the Cleveland Playhouse] used high school students to read fairytale plays. I saw some little thing in the paper that said they were auditioning people and I said. ‘Eh, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll go and audition.’ I was the last person. And she says, ‘Well you’re the last cookie on the plate,’ but I got hired. I got five, maybe ten dollars a week and a free breakfast at Clark’s restaurant, which was the sponsor. It was delightful,” he says, eyes glinting at the memory. “They had the organ — ‘dum de dum’…. Esther Mullen, dear Esther Mullen… it all started there. In the public library at that time one wall was all books about the theatre, different aspects of the theatre. I started with ‘A’ and in the course of that summer I read every one of those books. I was hungry. I had to find out. I had to know. I was stuck there in Cleveland. I wanted to know more about the world. If you can instill that in the students, you do them a tremendous service.”
Unable to afford Kent State and its dormitory fees, Esper commuted to Case Western Reserve, majoring in English Literature with a minor in Classical Art Appreciation. “The Theatre department there was a crazy, crazy place,” he says. “Twenty-five or thirty students, only three faculty. It was a great non-program. They had a little studio theatre and a little proscenium theatre. Small, but nice. Equipped nicely. You could do anything. If you had an idea and you wanted to do a T.S. Eliot play, you could do it. Why not? I did umpteen plays there. It was good because it taught you your calling. It was invaluable. And then I had an offer from the Cleveland Playhouse to be, I don’t know, an apprentice or something. But I also got a call to go into the army and into the Korean War. I was so lucky — we were tagged to be shipped out and damn if they didn’t sign a cease-fire. So instead, we were posted down in Georgia, to the Okefenokee Swamp. We had this big semi-trailer that we would take through the woods, through the forest, hacking it down to get this big truck through that housed the command post or anti-aircraft battalion. Then I got lucky again. We got moved up — they had this thing of missiles defending America’s cities. One of those cities was, of course, New York, so we get posted out on the island to defend the entrance to New York harbor, looking out for Russian bombers, guided missiles, defending America from air attack… I did a fantastic job,” he says, chuckling. “And then I got accepted at the Neighborhood Playhouse.”
he Neighborhood Playhouse was not a random choice. “I did a lot of research,” Esper says. “I wanted so much to be in the theatre.” He also collared Eli Wallach after a performance of The Rose Tattoo in Cleveland “and he told me about the Playhouse. So I was clear about what school I wanted to go to.” Still in the army when the Playhouse accepted him, Esper got lucky yet again. “I was drafted in the beginning of November. And that’s when I was gonna be discharged. But if you were going to school, you could get out two months early if you had good time and you didn’t get thrown in the brig or anything. So I talked to my — I was working for this major at the time, intelligence, you know. He was a good guy, and he said, ‘Well, I hope you’re ready, we’ll set it up. You’ll qualify. You’re going to school.’ It was denied because the Playhouse wasn’t degree-granting; it had to be a degree-granting university. He said, ‘Well, listen, I’m gonna write a letter.’ It came back ‘denied.’ So I went to the full colonel, West Point guy, and he heard the story and he said, ‘I’m gonna write a letter.’ And they denied that. So he brought me in and he said, ‘This is wrong. This is not the spirit. You’ve been a good soldier and you want to go to this school, you should be able to go. How many days of leave do you have?’ I counted them up and I was short about a week and he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you a “class A” pass. That means you’ll be able to come and go off-post. You have to be on post at night, but you’ll be able to go to school.’ Just because that was the right thing to do. No other reason.”
Acceptance into the Playhouse (“This is in ’56 or ’58,” Esper says) was by interview, not audition, and Esper’s initially hit a bump. “I’d had the date for a while, I walked around the block for a time. I had a letter of recommendation from the woman who did the modest acting program at Western Reserve, Nadine Miles. Then Professor [Agnes] Morgan comes in and says I’m too old. I’ve been in the Army, so what was I, twenty-six? I think twenty-six. And that was too old. But Sandy [Meisner] said, ‘We’re taking you.’ Nadine Miles — that letter was very passionate. She wrote it to Sandy. She was in New York on the fringes of the Group Theatre. She and Sandy were both extras in a play by Eugene O’Neill [Marco’s Millions]. It’s not revived very often. Sandy read it and he said, ‘Nadine Miles is certainly crazy about you.’”
“With Sandy, we had to go through the whole two-year curriculum. Do every exercise and everything. He would come in once a week and see you run it straight through. For five years I did that.”
Esper’s research into acting schools paid off, providing him with the kind of faculty of which we can now only dream. “One of the things I’m truly grateful for is that I worked with wonderful, wonderful teachers,” he says, “Martha Graham being one of them, and she taught at the Playhouse. I was really clumsy — I felt so bad for Martha Graham, she was this great artist and she had to teach me. Robert F. Williams, who eventually left and was the speech person at Juilliard. Dancers from Martha’s company that came and taught at the school. Ted Shawn — he knew everything about art. I used to sit with him when I was waiting to go up to his class, talk to him. I felt so privileged — to this day I do.” The legendary choreographer Louis Horst — “they used to say that Louis Horst was the wall that Martha Graham grew against as an artist” — was also there. “It was an awful class,” Esper says, laughing. “Everybody hated it. Except me. I liked it. Sidney Pollack liked it. Said he used it in his movies the way you break down dance form — AA, AB, AA, that kind of thing. Then you would have to do a solo dance, utilizing the vocabulary that you got from Martha’s classes. If you weren’t a dancer, if you were like me, a klutz, it could be pretty humiliating. And Louis was quite elderly at that time and he had this big stick and he’d bang it on the floor and say, ‘NO! NO! That’s not your theme! Where’s your theme? You can do this, and you can do this! There are your themes! This is not in your theme!’”
And then, of course, there was Meisner. He was, says Esper, “a complicated man. He was difficult, boy. If he thought you were not telling the truth about something… especially at the Playhouse. But you know he was very good to me. We were doing a play. The guy I was playing needed a suit. I had never had a suit in my life. He asked me if I had ever had a suit. I said, ‘No, Sandy, I’ve never had a suit.’ He said, ‘Well, come on with me.’ He took me by the hand and started asking people if they had a suit. And he got one. A very nice one. There was something very warm about him. And he was very aware of talent. He didn’t care if they had a Romanian dialect you could cut with a bread knife or if they could hobble around in movement. He would listen to anything. But if they were talented, they stayed. Some people were really crazy, but he said that the more talented they are, the crazier they are. I found that to be very true.”
The same year Esper completed his two-year training at the Playhouse, Meisner left. “Sandy had a big fight [with Neighborhood Playhouse co-founder Rita Morgenthau] because they had an offer from Lincoln Center for the Playhouse to be the training for the Lincoln Center training company. [Morgenthau] thought, ‘They’re taking my school away from me.’ And Sandy got so pissed off, he went to LA and got a job at 20th Century-Fox, and he set up a studio there to try to attract players. So they hired me at the Playhouse. Money! $125 a week.” When Meisner returned to New York two years later, Esper approached him. “I said, ‘I think I could teach, maybe.’ And I said that because I had been directing, coaching, not any big shows, I was working on a lot of bad things, but I got good results.” Meisner agreed and set about teaching Esper to teach. “At that time he did some serious training. I remember there were two of us. The other guy went on to be the president of the American Academy. With Sandy, we had to go through the whole two-year curriculum. Do every exercise and everything. He would come in once a week and see you run it straight through. For five years I did that. So I had that advantage.”
Esper never returned to acting. He knew immediately he had found his calling — teaching was where he belonged. “I had a very clear vision. I loved it because teaching is all rehearsal. To me what I loved about acting was rehearsing. That’s when you’re working things out. It’s exciting. Then you gotta, even if it’s four weekends that the thing runs, you’re still hanging around your ears — ‘let’s get on to the next thing.’” In 1965, while still at the Playhouse, Esper opened his own studio, and he’s been running it ever since as a standalone establishment — an increasing rarity in the 21st century economy. Esper is quick to point out that when the William Esper Studio recently appeared on the Hollywood Reporter’s list of the 25 Best Drama Schools (along with Rutgers’ BFA program, which he also created), his was the only one not connected to a major institution. This is, no doubt, by design; at his Studio, Esper teaches what he wants to teach. And what he wants to teach is Meisner.
he backbone of the Esper Studio is its two-year full-time program, about twenty-two contact hours a week. “People sometimes ask: ‘Why two years?’ Because it takes that long,” Esper says firmly. “Most actors are poorly trained. It’s two years because that’s how long it takes to cover the basic things that a professional working actor needs to know, and it comes in two parts as Meisner taught them. Opportunists, they jump on — six weeks they can do that. A well-known actor, a star for a good time, he put up a big sign that said: ‘Meisner in three weeks.’ His ego is such that he feels that he can do it in that time. He ended up getting only two or three students, thank God — now he’s looking at restaurants.
“The first year is all about building an acting instrument — a truthful acting instrument. And the beginning of that process is listening. How to hear what the other person is saying. Not just listening but really hearing it. That’s what the guy said, but what did he mean? A great deal of sensitivity training. Awareness training. Let them see what their real impulses are, who they really are. Everything we do in the first year is about pushing the actor into spontaneity, being off-balance and spontaneous. That’s the first year of Meisner. All about spontaneity.”
“Whenever you’re dealing with training an actor, you have the problem with what to do about the text, because the text can be very concealing.”
At the core of this first-year work is “repetition,” the exercise for which Meisner is best known. Meisner developed it when he returned from California, and Esper learned it when he was undergoing Meisner’s teaching training. Not surprisingly, Esper has strong feelings about it. “It’s a great exercise, a terrific exercise,” he says, but “it’s poorly taught — by people who don’t know anything about acting, let alone repetition. Sandy once said to me, ‘You know, it’s very dangerous, because anybody can do it. Anybody can teach it. And that’s very dangerous.’ And that’s true. He was really misunderstood. I think Strasberg makes it a lot easier than he did. I never thought of that. But you know, [with Strasberg] you don’t need a partner. A lot of the work is solo. That’s good practice on your own in New York. They do exercises that involve just one person, themselves. They cry, and then when they cry they say a piece of text and everyone thinks that’s wonderful.
“Sandy wanted an exercise that didn’t involve anything intellectual. Anything that would put the actor in his head. Whenever you’re dealing with training an actor, you have the problem with what to do about the text, because the text can be very concealing. Actors can be speaking to each other, and you almost might think they were acting, when they’re not doing any acting at all, they’re just talking to each other. You’ve got to remove every trace of intellect, because emotion and intellect, they don’t work out together. If you take someone who’s having a breakdown or something, who’s really out of it and hysterical, you start asking them questions, and the moment you start asking them questions and they have to think, they start calming down. Michael Chekhov said, ‘Intelligence is in the actor’s brain, like an assassin, ready to just kill any honest thing that happens.’ Dostoevsky said, ‘Be simple and rediscover the world.’ Sandy was looking for this perfect exercise that was not intellectual. Acting was ‘emotional emotional emotional.’ At the same time, you had to be very careful that you’re not pushing the student toward holding on to some idea that if it’s emotional it’s good. It could be emotional and terrible.
“It’s very carefully laid out. Step by step, so that you can easily measure the student’s progress. First, you start just from an observation about the other person. Simple objectives, everything’s simple. Can you hear? Can you repeat what you hear? Keep them on one thing. In seven, eight weeks, not every single person in the class, but a good many, will have come to real life. It’s observable. It’s clear. The students feel it — they know they’re getting somewhere, and when they’re not. So we spend about eight weeks all told taking repetition to a point where the actor can carry it over into a very simple text, a brief scene, a short scene — five, ten page scenes are chosen because they fit the exercise — which they memorize and then do the exercise. But instead of answering with a repetition, they answer from their own place of truth. And it works beautifully. The life that’s going on in the exercises starts to get very deep, very alive. I’ve seen some tremendous things happen. We put a lot of stress on tasks that they have to justify, and always, how do you feel about that, what does that mean to you, and always being encouraging. Making an environment that’s safe, that always very important. Some people get shut down by teachers. It’s awful.” At the same time, Esper adds, “We’re very serious here. If you don’t rehearse with your partner, you come in you haven’t done your work a couple times, we’ll show you the door. Serious artists need that. I don’t think much is created from chaos.”
If you haven’t been shown the door, the second year of Acting Technique moves students into character work. “In reality, there’s a lot of jobs that people can get commercially just off the first year, but to do anything important they need the second year, for the most part. It’s complex, character. If acting is doing, then character acting is how you do what you’re doing. Any kind of adjustment that changes your straight behavior is character. It’s a very difficult jump,” Esper says. They need craft — as Stella Adler said, ‘There is no art without craft.’ You can have a vision of something, but unless you have the craft to do it… Craft is very important.”
Esper’s acting technique classes meet twice a week “for three, three-and-a-half hours at a time. You’ve got to have air between the meeting of the classes,” he says. “Artists need time off so stuff can move around.” They also need to be prepared to concentrate on the work. “That’s why before my class starts, I have the room open. Ten minutes before class people arrive, and the room has to be silent. No one is allowed to speak, talk.” This no doubt contributes to what Bruce McCarty, who completed the two-year program and later began teaching at the Studio under Esper’s watchful eye, refers to as the “zen” aspect of Esper’s classes. Before studying with Esper, McCarty picked up a copy of Zen and the Art of Archery after having been told by a fellow actor that the book was on Esper’s recommended reading list. “I remember putting the book down on the table and saying to myself, ‘If this is what this man teaches, this is what I want to learn,’” McCarty says, “Because if it’s true, it’s self-eradicating, this technique.”
At base, McCarty believes, acting is about “giving up the self”; it’s about humility, a Buddhist virtue he sees as central both in Esper’s character and in Esper’s contribution to the work. “I see Bill as part of this train that goes back to Stanislavski. Sandy spent sixty years concretizing this ephemeral art, and Bill has continued it. But what Bill has done… I mean, Bill’s so modest. He’s so humble. And I think that’s part of what Bill has brought to the training, specifically, in terms of that issue of how much in a sense you have to give up of yourself to be an actor. The essential necessity of humility, in really being able to do this work. To get out of the way, and let the circumstances guide you, without your ego involved in it. The thing that gets me the most when I read [Eva la Gallienne’s The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonore Duse, another book on the Esper reading list] is the length that this great artist went to, in recognition of how huge her own ego was, to create a daily practice for herself so that she could free herself of her ego enough to have a shot at doing what she called impossible. And Bill — he just has deep humility, and love of the work, which is what I think it comes out of. He loves it. And he’s sort of awestruck by the beauty of it. I think that’s what the humility comes from — almost like, ‘in the face of that, who are we?’ We’re like servants. And I think — it’s hard to know, but I think that’s the thing that Bill has really brought to the training.” Perhaps, but it is indeed hard to know, as Esper himself is characteristically quiet about his own contributions: When McCarty, trying to suss them out, once asked if him if Meisner knew about this “zen aspect” of the work, Esper responded simply, “Sandy? ‘Zen, schmen.’”
Zen aside, and for all his dedication to Meisner, Esper is adamant that it takes more than acting technique to make an actor. Full-time students are required throughout the course of the two-year program to take Voice & Speech, Movement, Alexander, and Stage Combat classes; year one adds Mask and Dance; year two, Acting On-Camera, Script Analysis, Improvisation, and Cold Reading. It’s much the same sequence that Esper instituted at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1977 when he created the school’s Professional Acting Training Program essentially from scratch.
he offer at Rutgers came along at the right time, Esper says. “The fact is, I was ready to leave The Neighborhood Playhouse, and there it was. And the Dean [at Rutgers] really loved the theatre, loved actors, loved what I did. I had my own way with everything. My vision. I had to do it myself because there really wasn’t one. No program. They wouldn’t — some places are just awful. During this period I went out and did some on-site study investigations. It really was about consumers getting their money’s worth and seeing if schools were really doing what they said they were doing. It made schools very uncomfortable. I remember one university — you could not get the entire theatre faculty in the same room. They wouldn’t sit down with each other in the same room. Because of that, they had a separate school for set design.”
In building the program at Rutgers, Esper says, he could have coasted on his pedigree alone: “Just the name Meisner could attract students that don’t know Meisner from their elbow; you’re also dealing with academia that doesn’t mix with artists very much at all.” But Esper wanted something more, and, at least in the beginning, “I had a dean that understood and backed me up — that’s the way we’re going to go. And indeed I wanted to — Laurence Olivier once said the best acting existed in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. That’s what I wanted to make: a school that could exist in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, excellent training in speech and excellent training in working with the emotional part of themselves, and so you have the ideal actor.”
At Rutgers, Esper had the chance to implement something he didn’t have the luxury of doing in his own studio: a third year devoted to Period & Style. “I insisted on it,” he says. “Even that’s not enough. It takes two years to make a decent actor for contemporary works, but that language and all of that is another thing. It all comes back to ‘the reality of doing’ which is Meisner’s mantra and mine. A lot of people out there think that Meisner means one thing, and that’s repetition. That’s very small and putting a pin in it. That’s the beginning of forcing the actor’s attention off himself and making real contact, non-intellectual contact. If they’re in their heads, it gets them out of their heads in about thirty-five seconds. So it’s quite a wonderful exercise, but you can’t do Chekhov, you can’t do Shakespeare.”
With the considerable resources of a major university behind him, Esper took the work even further, complementing the training with full productions. “We had all those facilities and theaters and set design and shops and it was terrific. We did a lot of Shakespeare, I did a lot of style. I had all these resources, the costumes, the lights. We got to work.” And Esper worked with the people he wanted to work with: He was able to hire the faculty he wanted, “like John Jensen, the head of scene design for a long time before he retired. He’d been at the Guthrie for a number of years. Lovely man, lovely artist. A lot of people like that. You know, it takes a lot of people to build an actor.”
Suzanne Esper, who trained under both Sanford Meisner and her husband at the Playhouse and is now a highly respected acting teacher in her own right, remembers the Rutgers time as an exceedingly rare opportunity, one of which Esper made the most. “He was able to be in a very unique position of establishing and creating a program,” she tells me over the phone. “He’s a workaholic, so he could chairman at the same time. So he was able to really get who he wanted and do what he wanted. It’s not easy to pull off. And what it allowed him to do as an artist was to expand something that he was deeply interested in, to take the work of Meisner — which you can — and further evolve it into style and language work. That, for him, was heaven. He loved it. And he has a wicked sense of humor, so the work in Restoration, and even in Shakespeare — I’ve never seen a production of Taming of the Shrew that I’ve ever liked as well. I don’t think I ever will.”
The program at Rutgers was an unqualified success, but, in the wake of a number of administrative changes, “I became somewhat disillusioned,” laments Esper. “Disgusted at the politics. It was a killer because I had wonderful faculty there… I loved that faculty.” After almost a quarter century (“Too long. I had a daughter to get through college,” Esper says) he left, returning to his Manhattan studio full-time. Just as he had continued teaching at the Playhouse when he opened his own studio, Esper held on to the studio while running the Rutgers program. Growing up poor, he says, “I was very wary of having one job. I put it in my agreement with Rutgers — I was there three days a week. Period. Who had ever heard of Rutgers as a training center? We’ve always been a very successful studio and I didn’t want to get too entwined.”
ince Esper left Rutgers, his studio has continued to flourish and, though Esper has tutored protégés of his own to continue the training, he shows no signs of stepping away from the work. “It’s when he’s happiest and healthiest,” Suzanne Esper says. Esper himself agrees: “I love the work. And I love this school. It’s interesting work that we do. It’s always interesting. Fascinating. You get to know people in such a personal way.” With five decades of teaching behind him, Esper remains firm in his convictions about what constitutes good actor training — Meisner, yes, but much, much more. “One of the things that acting teachers should be doing is mentoring their students and making sure they have their speech fixed,” he says. “That they are going to speech class. That they’ve seen a play. You know, it’s important that someone’s who’s a teacher — you have to teach them a little about life. You have to have a lot of attributes. A teacher has to have an enormous amount of humanity, a teacher has to understand a tremendous amount about life, about psychology, about art.
“There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant, but there’s something wrong if you stay that way.”
“Louis Horst used to say, ‘An artist doesn’t have to be educated in the formal sense; an artist doesn’t have to go to college; an artist doesn’t even have to be smart. But an artist needs to be cultured,’” Esper states. “There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant, but there’s something wrong if you stay that way. I’m amazed that students who want to be actors have no idea that there are different kinds of schools, different kinds of acting. So when you start talking to them about the British approach to acting, the Russian approach, the American approach, it’s like all news to them. They think acting’s acting. I’ve always done this thing — we give them a list of people that any literate person in the theatre would recognize and know. People like Elia Kazan, you know, and going back to 18th century actors, and having students bring in reports. Tommaso Salvini… even contemporary people. Peter Brook. ‘I never heard of Peter Brook’ — it makes you want to pull your hair out. I make a joke out of it: ‘How many people here have heard of George-Bernard Shaw? How can I have a conversation with you?’”
While Esper has long been a “passionate, passionate reader”, reading itself was a hard-won skill for the adopted son of a Syrian taxi driver. “I had trouble with my eyes. Out of alignment. I saw things double. My parents eventually took me to the children’s hospital, my grandmother worked with me with flashcards, and then the city of Cleveland set up this wonderful thing, a special ed class for very high IQ students” into which Esper was enrolled. Finally able to read, Esper never stopped — a fact to which the books that cover the walls of his office, crowd his desk, and pile in ever-growing stacks on the floor readily testify.
“My father only read one book, I think. It was a book about cab driving. It’s called ‘My Flag Is Up.’ He read that about six times,” says Esper. “I tell my students: ‘My father read one book — but that doesn’t mean you have to only read one book.’ You really have to hammer it home, but most of them get it. They’re excited by it because it gives them a sense of community that includes not only them, but these wonderful people. They love finding out and knowing and that there’s a history that comes down the river,” Esper says, smiling. “You know, once the person’s eyes are open, they’re not going to close them again.”