Acting is Believing…and Really Doing! – The Passing of Dr. Larry Clark
In 2009, when I established the Larry Clark Actors Workshop at the University of Missouri, I sat down to chat with Dr. Larry Clark about his career. I wanted to include his brief biography on the webpage for the Workshop. Larry was a grand raconteur. About forty pages later, our wonderful chat became a forty-page interview that I published in the Journal of the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri.
On Wednesday, December 24, 2014, the University of Missouri at Columbia, lost its beloved theatre professor, Dr. Larry Dale Clark. He had also served as Department Chair, and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Actors everywhere will recognize his name as the author of Acting is Believing, now in its 11th edition, the book that he authored with Charles McGraw and now, Kenneth Stillson, one of his former Mizzou students.
Above: David Crespy
Below: Dr. Larry Clark
Larry was the last of a generation, and affected a generation of actors. He taught some of our finest living American actors, including Mary Beth Hurt, Chris Cooper, Tom Berenger, Jon Hamm, and many others. Larry’s students also included incredible directors, writers, and theatre educators. Some of his students went on to become professors and deans themselves. But Larry himself was as down to earth. A generous human being with an incredible ability to teach by telling stories. A native Missourian, he began his career at Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State University).
Larry Dale Clark joined the Missouri of University faculty in 1966, and taught acting, directing, and theatre history. He was present at the founding of such important organizations as the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. He had been president of both of those organizations at their earliest beginnings. He was named a Fellow of the American Theatre by the Kennedy Center in 1985, and received the Kennedy Center Gold Medallion for his dedication to theater education.
But Larry actually never formally studied acting himself. Acting wasn’t really taught as a stand-alone course. At SMSC it was offered as a one-semester course entitled “Acting and Directing,” taught by Leslie Irene Coger, a speech and drama professor at Missouri State University from 1943 to 1981.
For Larry, acting wasn’t something you taught in multi-semester courses devoted to different stages of training. Larry taught acting on the Rhynsburger Theatre stage, pointing out that “the time when you could really get down to brass tacks with acting students was when you were rehearsing them in a play.”
Long before the phrase “Acting is doing” became popular, Larry’s actors were doing on a stage, in front of an audience. It was his goal as an educator to teach his fellow academics that theatrical production was the classroom as well as being a place of research. He created the Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri as the home of the artist/scholar because he felt actors should take a considered approach to acting, to treat it like a professional craft and art form.
He was instrumental in establishing theatre as a legitimate field of study in the academy. He was also a busy working scholar, publishing many articles on theatre history and pedagogy, long before most universities were even considering theatre as a legitimate field of study.
Larry spent four years in the U.S. Air Force. After his discharge, he started teaching speech, theatre and college prep English at West Plains High School, Missouri in 1955. After he finished his work for a Master’s degree during the summers, he came to the University of Missouri to study with Donovan Rhynsburger, and graduated in 1961.
Rhynsburger represented the ‘Yale tradition,’ where he had been a protégé of Alexander Dean. Rhynsburger was part of the ‘second line’ of educators who had spread the ideas of the first wave of theatre educators across the nation. Very few institutions offered a degree in theatre prior to 1950. Until then they “piggy-backed” on English degrees with a focus on drama. Advanced degree programs in speech were also late to bloom, and when they did, many theatre degree programs sheltered themselves under that rubric.
Larry graduated in 1963, receiving his Ph.D. in the History of American Theatre with Bernard Hewitt and Charles Shattuck at the University of Illinois. He was hired at the University of Iowa, teaching acting and directing. It was there he began to formulate many of the ideas that would become Acting is Believing. He immersed himself in Constantin Stanislavsky’s three basic books: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.
But Larry resisted the popular incarnation of Stanislavsky’s ideas, pointing out: “A thoughtful reading of basic Stanislavsky may show you where Strasberg’s excesses came from, but you realize they are a misinterpretation of Stanislavski’s focus. For instance, you can see how it’s possible to get all tied up in emotional memory, but Stanislavski wasn’t tied up in emotional memory. Stanislavsky explains it, makes reference to it, then goes on to something else. Stanislavsky says in Building a Character, for example, that if you’re performing a role and you do all those things he talks about in An Actor Prepares, the character should appear, but if it doesn’t, you’ll have to have to put it on from the outside as if you’re putting on a costume. People who encountered Stanislavski first through Strasberg are often surprised to find such ideas in Stanislavski’s writings.”
Through these studies, he recognized the value of the classroom experience, and much of the lasting effect he would have on actors would come from directing them, rather than working with them in the studio. His most famous pupil from his years at the University of Iowa was Mary Beth Hurt, whom he directed in “The Glass Menagerie.”
It was during this time that he added some ideas and exercises from other systems to his version of the Stanislavsky technique. He became attracted to some practices Viola Spolin recommended in her book on improvisation for the actor. This led him to create a series of exercises for my Iowa students that were tied to animal characters.
Larry went on to become the Managing Director, University of Iowa Repertory, the Chair of the University of Missouri Department of Theatre, the founder of MU’s Summer Repertory Theatre, and later, Associate Provost and Dean.
Ultimately, he was still always – a director and a teacher of acting – with an abiding love for the history of the American Theatre. He believed that great stage performances are the products of collaboration, supported by a sense of mutual trust and respect, between the director/teacher and the actor. He always thought of himself as a teacher while rehearsing a production, because the panoply of teachable moments that arise during the course of directing a play renders ideal circumstances for demonstrating the viability of your approach to directing and acting.
Finally, like any artist, Larry believed if you want to be great or even good at what you do, you must constantly seek to develop your instrument and hone your skill. But the important next step is to learn how to work off of the other actor, trying to get them to alter their intentions, and to take advantage of the impulses that rise between you. To understand that acting is a transaction, and the quality of the work you do, depends on your willingness to work off another actor.
At the Larry Clark Actors Workshop at the University of Missouri, it is all about actors getting together, like athletes at workout sessions in a gym – in order to learn how to recognize and use the transactional technique – in the scenes, monologues, performance pieces from acting classes, your auditions, or your productions.
Larry reaffirmed it’s always about being bold, making strong choices, opening your mind and emotions to the possibilities that arise, never fearing to be vulnerable, alert and engaged. Larry wanted you to believe, and even more importantly, he wanted you to do. •2015
Published in the Journal of the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
DAVID CRESPY is Professor of Playwriting, Acting, Dramatic Literature at the University of Missouri. He founded MU's Writing for Performance program, serving as its co-director, and he is the Founding Artistic Director of MU's Missouri Playwrights Workshop. Mr. Crespy’s plays have been produced across America, including at the Cherry Lane Theatre, River Union Stage, New Jersey Dramatists, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Primary Stages, The Cherry Lane Theatre, The Playwrights Center, HB Playwrights Foundation, Austin Melodrama, Jewish Repertory Theatre, Stages St. Louis, St. Louis’ First Run, and at Creative Theatre Unlimited. His articles have appeared in “Theatre History Studies,” “New England Theatre Journal,” “Latin American Theatre Review,” “The Journal of American Drama and Theatre,” “The Dramatist,” “The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism,” “Slavic and East European Performance,” and “The Soul of the American Actor.” Mr. Crespy’s books include The Off-Off Broadway Explosion, with a foreword by Edward Albee; and Richard Barr: The Playwrights’ Producer, with a foreword and afterword by Edward Albee. web.missouri.edu/~crespyd