Currently Co-Artistic Director and an Acting Teacher at the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, Mr. Jensen was a member of the Core Faculty of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for over twelve years and served as the Third Year Academy Company Director. A graduate of AADA, he was the recipient of the Max Fisher Award. An alumnus of T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, he studied with Terry Schreiber, and had previously studied acting with Uta Hagen and Chuck Olsen at The Actors Studio. He has performed Off-Broadway and in film and television. His New York directing credits include “Incendiary Agents” (The Nylon Fusion Theatre Company), “The Glass Menagerie” (Sanford Meisner Theatre), “The Wild Guys,” (Miranda Theatre-NY premiere), “Home Free” and “Ludlow Fair,” “Lunchtime.” Productions with The Academy Company include “Lie of the Mind,” “Burn This,”“Creadeux Canvas,”“Biloxi Blues,”“Snakebit,”“Blood Wedding,”“The Wager,”“A Flea in Her Ear,”“Three Sisters,”and “Uncle Vanya.”His directing at T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre includes “Balm in Gilead” (2011 New York Innovative Theatre Award), “Joking Apart,”“Hurlyburly,”“A Taste of Honey,”“Marvin’s Room,”“You Can’t Take It with You,”“The Real Inspector Hound,” “The Actor’s Nightmare,”“Fifth of July,”and “Doubt.” www.peterjensen.nyc.com
How young were you when you were drawn to the theatre?
I was in the ninth grade in Miami at Shenandoah High School. My mom was an actress, and my stepbrother was going to take an acting class, at the last minute I signed up and suddenly found myself up there doing it. I felt like: “This is home.” I felt more comfortable playing a part than playing my part in life.
Why did you want to continue being an actor professionally?
People were giving me a lot of attention; I loved it. Over time I had struggles with acting. I found in acting that when I was lonely I could become attached to a sense of getting love from doing it. It became like there too much at stake. I felt like I was filling an empty hole and it just became too nerve wracking. I felt like I had to succeed instead doing it well. I was trying to win my mother’s love through acting.
I had come from a broken home which was quite devastating personally. Over time acting just became too difficult. The need was so difficult and it stopped being fun. It actually led me to direct the first production I did – “The Glass Menagerie” at the Sanford Meisner Theatre.
A friend of mine wanted me to direct it. Somehow I had a feel for directing. I started teaching part-time at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and then I received a lot of directing assignments. I learned directing through directing.
Had your acting training prepared you for being a director?
When I came to T. Schreiber Studio I would take months to prepare what I did. I love the period of researching.
When you and I were together at Gables High School in Florida, I remember after I would do a scene, Mr. Feldman (our drama teacher), saying once: “You might think about directing.”
And I also heard it from Mark Zeller when I studied with him. He told me the same thing, from the way I set up the space when I would do scenes for him.
Dealing with the environment, movement through theatrical situations, moving with purpose and being grounded, I learned from Uta Hagen when I studied with her over a period of two years.
How would you describe the way in which she worked?
Uta was very much interested in the work created by Stanislavsky. For her, everything was driven from being in the circumstances, from the character and their needs in the moment. She was the most specific person I ever encountered, demanding specificity, demanding you to personalize what you did.
I learned a lot about directing from her. How to draw from your own personal circumstances, how to immerse yourself in the imaginary world, how to transfer things out of your own life and use them to live in the imaginary world.
She was tough and a great actress, always out there acting and teaching and she would say: “I recognize the mistakes you’re making and still do myself. She was a real artist.”
When I was with her, I was only acting. I love working on Chekhov and it was though doing a scene as Treplev that something happened. It was like: “Oh my god, I really have to live, moment to moment. You cannot get ahead of yourself or it makes no sense. This moment leads to the next.
Chekhov’s humanity, his humor and the circumstances you find yourself in – they all feed you. You have to create the circumstances. As a writer, he can be so funny. so heartbreaking. He’s one of the great playwrights who can teach you how to live your life indirectly. There’s always so much talking about life. Life goes on, someone once said, at dinner and in his plays, these characters’ lives are coming together and falling apart. We become really interested in their real life and something profound may happen, but it happens while they’re simply eating. It’s the mundane mixed with the profound.
Who were your inspirations when you began acting?
Robert De Niro, Al Pacino (when he was a young actor). They are simple great actors; I just wanted to be like that. Uta Hagen and Terry Schreiber, Mark Zeller, and Chuck Olsen.
How would you describe your strongest skills as a director?
I think my greatest strengths have to do with character work. I use exercises with actors during the pre-rehearsal process. I use improvisation. When there’s a lot of text, like during “Lobby Hero,” you can help the actors work on the text without always going to the lines.
There’s always a juggling between exercise work and working on the scenes. You have to work on the text, exploring on your feet.
I’m looking for actors who are instinctive, who trust their impulses and in their bodies. You can see it in their audition, if they have a sense to move with the role. If they’re willing to reveal things and affect the physical world. Each play is different. Some plays demand a great verbal life and language from the actor. One of the things I loved about Shelley Winters was how she was able to bring a script to life.
I’ve worked with actors who are great with exercises, but they can’t make the connection to the play. They need to make the text sound like conversation, with intent and connection. That’s one of the hardest things to teach.
What are some of the most important lessons you try to share with your students?
I mostly focus on the relentless pursuit of the truth of your self. Who are you? Are you opening up and learning to appreciate all sides of yourself, and that’s part of living and acting. They’re the same things John Patrick Shanley writes about in his plays. Directing is acting is living.
Has the way in which you teach changed over the years?
Yeah, I think what I’m better at what I do. Now I believe I can work in the moment with the actor so they’re coming up with something, to help them improve or gain an insight through doing something.
I still make notes for myself. It’s most satisfying to see them think of something in the moment. It takes time to do the work. You might be afraid it won’t work, but I tell them: “Take the risk, let’s try it.”
There are still some times when you’re stumped what to do. One of the best things to do is to ask them: “What are you feeling?”
There was a moment when I didn’t know what to say after a scene. I knew they weren’t listening during the scene and the scene could be improved a hundred percent just by that. It can be something as simple as that or it can be much more complex. It can come out of simply doing a Meisner repetition exercise. I really use a mixture of Hagen and Meisner and Strasberg and my own variations of that.
What have you learned from your students?
Every actor is different and approaches the work in a different way and I think we try to feel out what that is and work within that rather than fight it. For example, there was an actor in “Lobby Hero,” he was playing one of the lead roles. And I was worried he wouldn’t be grounded in the physical life. I pushed him to find it, but he wasn’t ready to do what he had to do with the physical life yet. So once that began to happen, I eased off and then once he got comfortable enough with the lines, he was very physical, present and totally involved.
What do you consider your responsibilities in serving the playwright as a director?
I really think the text is everything. It’s who we’re serving – the playwright and the ideas of the play, the characters, and their relationships. It’s unearthing the truth of what will bring the play to life.
I love the exploration of human behavior. I have a great curiosity of what people are thinking, doing and feeling and why there’s a contradictory nature in things. What is it that motivates us unconsciously and how can we unearth that; it’s endlessly interesting.
Finding the right music to use during the play is very important to me. I probably spend way too much time in trying to find music that inspires me. So after I’ve read the play a couple of times I spend a lot of time doing research. For example, with “Lobby Hero,” I started hanging out in apartment and hotel lobbies to watch what can people did and I would watch the security guards. I talked a little bit with Ken (Lonergan) on the phone. He did a talk-back at the end of one of the performances. He was really helpful.
I love working with designers prior to the actual set dressing. I also think about which music to use for the scene changes. Some plays have more scene breaks than others. When I directed “Balm and Gilead,” I had original music, and I used music by Sam Cooke to underscore everything. I loved the way it turned out.
What are your expectations in training actors?
When I was teaching at the American Academy I had an insight which led me to wonder: Where am I sending these people?
I take great interest and care in the art of acting, and I want them to also know how to handle the art of acting itself. Certainly in a practically speaking way – working with scripts for stage or film or TV. I want them to learn how to work on a great or a good script and that’s always the best way to learn acting.
Good acting is the same wherever it’s done. There’s always things to learn about truly experiencing and inhabiting a character, really living through a real relationship and listening. It can get harder when you have to keep repeating it over and over in front of a camera or going through the experience night after night for months in front of an audience. Acting is a very difficult skill.