Charles E. Conrad
Charles Erich Conrad (May 23, 1925 – October 29, 2009) was an American actor, best known for his work as a film acting coach.
Born in New York City, the only child of German immigrants, Charles Conrad spent his early years growing up in New York City’s upper east side. At age of 17, he escaped the tenements that lined 89th street and joined the Navy; where he served as an armed guard on Merchant ships during World War II. Shortly after his discharge from the service, he returned to high school, earned his diploma and was immediately accepted to Adelphi college where he majored in English. His education continued at the Carnegie Institute of Technology where he studied theater Directing, graduating with a Master’s Degree. It was his directorial thesis of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that earned him a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. As he once relayed to a good friend, “I didn’t have the money to get to London so I just turned it down. It was a decision I came to regret many times over.” In 1952, he began studying the craft of acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. After seeing Conrad direct a series of several short stories, Meisner recognized his talent and prospects as a future acting teacher and promptly made him his senior assistant. It was during this time that Charles Conrad would be given the opportunity to instruct such future acting greats as: Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon and Joanne Woodward.
In the early 1960s, Meisner commissioned Charles Conrad with the task of training contract players at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. But the excitement of moving from New York to the West Coast and from a salary of $95.00 a week at the Neighborhood Playhouse to $45,000 a year at Fox was short lived when studio’s proposed acting program fell through. However, Mr. Conrad’s tenure as Meisner’s longtime assistant earned him a reputation as a gifted teacher that paved the way for the opening his own studio where he would define and redefine the Meisner Technique. It was at the CEC Studio in Burbank that Charles Conrad would emerge as one of the film industry’s most distinguished acting teachers.
The Conrad technique
Like Meisner, Conrad relied on the Repetition Exercise of learning scripts (fast repetition of the words until they are memorized). Without memorizing any actions or feelings. So that when it became time to perform an actual scene or exercise, each actor would depend on the other for his or her source of acting. But the most noticeable difference between the two men (other than their personalities), was that Charles implemented the text into the exercise of actual scripts. Stripped of any direction or pre-disposed feelings. That unlike most exercises or performances, the words were simply memorized and were not meant to come to life, until your attention was on the other actor in the exercise. This rather than relying strictly on improvisation in order to bring in "Here and Now" moments was the difference. This brought his exercises to life, just as in real life moments in time.
The exercise was always carried out w/ two cameras (one focused on each actor) with a table and 2 chairs the only props and without the 2 actors doing any kind of rehearsal together, whatsoever. His teachings were primarily for use in film and the intimacy of the naked truth that is only revealed through the eye of the camera, in the "Close Up" shot!
The simplicity of the Conrad's message was that the technique would allow the creative process to kick in resulting in each actor living moment to moment in a highly intuitive state. The work required that the actor stay out of his or her own way, to allow their partner to create the circumstance in which true feelings would be engendered. In other words, Conrad’s students were trained viscerally rather than cerebrally, which meant their work was usually spontaneous and natural. Succinctly, the source of acting for each actor was his or her partner, thus the process of Re-Acting, not Acting.
Charles believed that the characters in scripts were in fact real in some time, place and existence in the Universe. That once put down on paper, that they did indeed exist. That it was the object of the actor (in getting out of the way), to allow the character to come to life through him/her in this here and now existence. That the character knows better than anyone how to behave and react in order to create the essence of each moment, in any given scene.
Some of his methods (teachings) revolved around the disciplines of Zen in the Arts, teachings! That like "Zen in the Art of Archery", the objective of the archer, was not so much to hit the target, as it was to hit one's self in the target! Thus opening the door to that which could not be seen or even exist in an over rehearsed (manufactured or artificial reality) scene. But rather only come to life in that moment, whereby the actor is no longer in himself. But in the eyes of his partner across the table. As with the archer, his actual target is in each and every moment the target is struck. Finding ones self in the eyes of your partner, then succinctly leads to the actor being displaced by the character in the script of the scene!
Although no cameras were used in the first early years of The Charles Conrad Studio, magical moments were later thus captured on camera for that actor to use as an audition tape. Captured with professional quality cameras (and tapes) revealing the myriad of nuances and innuendo that we are all inherently unaware of. Except in the subconscious mind of each moment!
Thus Charles E. Conrad's students carried his super real techniques for acting, into their own real lives, as shining eye to eye examples of the man (great teacher) he was himself. As his students (whether Academy Award Winners like Dee Wallace (Stone) or the ones that never performed beyond his classes, each took with them lessons for a lifetime!
End of an era
In 1993, the much revered teacher decided to gradually retire and moved to Sedona, Arizona where he’d commute on a once a week basis to his studio in Burbank. By early 1994 was fully retired and lived in a secluded area on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state with his wife Pam and their 12 barking disciples.
Conrad-trained actors and coaches
Charles Conrad not only succeeded in helping his students learn valuable life lessons, but also paved the way for dozens of young actors to reach stardom in film and television. The list includes: Ed Begley, Jr., Kim Basinger, Corbin Bernsen, Susan Blakely, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, Lynda Carter, Joanna Cassidy, Damian Chapa, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tyne Daly, Kevin Dobson, Michael Dorn, Greg Evigan, Teri Garr, Linda Gray, Veronica Hamel, Mark Harmon, Penny Marshall, Ali MacGraw, Chuck Norris, Joe Penny, Michelle Pfeiffer, Valerie Perrine, Victoria Principal, Dennis Quaid, Diana Ross, Talia Shire, Suzanne Somers, Philip Michael Thomas, Karen Valentine and dozens of others. There is also a myriad of well-known gifted acting coaches who've emerged as the result of Conrad’s tutelage including: R. J. Adams, Scott-Arthur Allen, Brian Cutler, Michele Condrey, Steve Eastin, Shea Hampton, Sally Johnson, Jen Krater, Judy Kerr, Alan Landers, David Lehman, Judy Lewis, Dee Wallace and Robert Wald.
“Concentration away from yourself is the creative source of acting for film & television.”
“I’ve worked with so many actors with great looks who can easily describe a bowl of fruit, but don’t know how to let the audience taste it.”
“I really hate the word scene because it denotes and encourages fake acting.”
“Learning film acting without cameras is like trying to give horseback riding lessons without a horse.”
"Sharon Tate, such a beautiful girl, you would have thought she would have all the confidence in the world. But she had none."
“If you don’t know who you are you’ll never be an actor.”
“Rather than giving a non-confident actor a one hundred pound bar bell and asking him to lift over his head so it’ll crush him, you simply give him a helium filled Balloon with the words, 100 pounds written on it until and gradually substitute one for the other.”
- Judy Kerr. (2006) "Acting Is Everything: An Actor's Guidebook for a Successful Career in Los Angeles" (11th ed.). September Publishing. ISBN 0-9629496-6-3