Training Benefits Off-Stage Roles, Too

As Shakespeare put it, the world is a stage, and we are the cast of thousands. That's the idea behind Jessica Stuart's acting classes at the Grove Theatre Company. She wants to help non-actors perform on the stage of everyday life.

Most of the students who take her acting classes are not actors, nor do they wish to be. They want to learn acting techniques to enhance their lives and perhaps learn a thing or two about their personalities.

Real estate brokers, doctors, salespeople and secretaries attend the Tuesday night classes, where exercises help them shed inhibitions and teach them how to concentrate and behave calmly. The students are taught how to use these tools both at home and on the job.

According to Stuart--who has taught acting for more than a decade and is married to Jerry Yudelson, who ran against Rep. Robert K. Dornan for Congress last year--her methods are "kinder and gentler" than most taught today.

"I've taken many acting classes in Method and other techniques and found it all a little depressing," she says. "You had to dig deep inside for depressing moments to bring to the surface for acting."

Her method relies more on positive thinking and spiritual enlightenment. She calls it the "inner-focus technique," which involves a meditative-like concentration on a peaceful state of mind, which she calls the "acting state."

"I find it impossible to teach acting without touching on the spiritual," she says. "All creative artists must dip into their spiritual center for inspiration, and I teach people how to have access to that center."

Class exercises include improvisation and quiet self-assessment.

"They bring the person to a very quiet state inside himself. They clear his mind of anxiety and fear, and from that state he can act, or in the case of someone on the job, he can work more efficiently," she says.

The two main aspects of Stuart's teachings are:

Concentration exercises, or inner-focus techniques. For example, a student concentrates on his breath to free his mind from troubling thoughts.

Improvisations, in which students are asked to "become" someone or something and then told to switch to something else, promoting flexibility and composure.

Stuart adds that the inner-focus techniques help people to remain calm during crises and to think clearly.

"One of the main things I'm trying to do is break patterns," she says. "To learn how to change in an instant is wonderful for salespeople who have to adapt to different things quickly.

"It really helps (a person) get over shyness because you step outside yourself, you really have to know yourself. That's why I got into (acting) to begin with, to overcome shyness."

According to participants, Stuart's classes are full of bonding and personal discovery. Students who start as perfect strangers end up linked with a thread of personal growth and, they say, subtle personality changes.

For longtime student Leslie Wise, the classes have helped in everything from his medical practice to his piano playing.

"I have much more poise now, and it's easier to relate to people," the 50-year-old emergency-room physician says. "I feel more confident as a jazz pianist too. I've improved . . . as a result of being able to more fully conceptualize the musical progressions because I can concentrate better."

Wise, who says he "is contantly seeking self-improvement," plans to continue taking Stuart's classes as long as they are offered. He has been studying with Stuart for 2 years.

Paulette Vanton, who has always held an interest in acting, says she started taking Stuart's classes for a creative outlet but found them affecting all parts of her life.

Stuart "helps you gain a knowledge of your own self," the 40-year-old court reporter says. "It has helped me in dealing with my own thoughts and problems and socializing with other people."

Vanton, who has attended the classes for 4 months, says they have helped at home and work.

"They've help me in relating to my son, for instance, and get me in touch with myself, so I don't explode . . . but instead realize the anger is my own anger and not about my son, and not take it out on him. And that of course helps me in my work or dealing with, say, a sales clerk who is obnoxious.

"I don't let things upset me and ruin my peace of mind."

For information on Stuart's classes, which are ongoing and can be started at any time, call (714) 972-9951 or the Grove Theatre Company at (714) 636-7213.

Stuart also offers classes for children.

Other acting classes in the county are offered by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and the Laguna Beach Playhouse. In addition, some community recreation or adult education departments offer acting classes from time to time, as do community colleges.

The Laguna Beach Playhouse sessions run 8 weeks on Saturdays and cost $90. Children's classes are also offered. For more information, call the Playhouse at (714) 494-0743.

South Coast Repertory offers varied theater classes for children and adults. Call the conservatory office at (714) 957-2602 for information.

Pola Productions Inc. in Irvine offers evening classes concentrating on films and TV. For information, call (714) 752-5700.

And the Fullerton Children's Repertory Theater offers children "on-the-job training" while featuring them in the group's two yearly shows. For information, call director Vicki Schindele at (714) 870-6911.

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