One of the most renown acting schools in San Francisco is the Jean Shelton Actor's Lab. It has been the training ground for many in the theatrical arts. Celebrities like actor Danny Glover got their training at the JSAL, and for more than 40 years the JSAL has upheld "The Method" acting techniques and standards established and taught by the Actor's Studio of New York.
Much to the school's credit is the founder Jean Shelton herself who is part of that original generation of Actor's Studio alumni that have maintained the tradition of ground-breaking theatrical technique and excellence of which the Actor's Studio is famous for. The exact details and history of such, this reporter would much rather leave to someone like Jean (who liked to be addressed by her first name when in class with her students) to explain.
Yet of what I (this reporter) can recall when attending JSAL back in 1996 to 1998, Jean was inspired by the Tennessee Williams' play "Streetcar Named Desire" to go off to New York City and study acting. As she once mentioned in class and subsequently was published in a SF Chronicle article, Jean was 19 married with two small children in 1947.
Basically as I recall, she said she saw the play in Atlanta (Jean was originally from the South) and from that moment on it changed her life, she said. She eventually left her husband, took her two kids and left for NYC finding her way to The Actor's Studio and the rest is history. Of which as I said before is better told by Jean than by me.
I must say though, that the premise of seeing a live stage play and having one's life completely changed is something worthy of a novel or screen-play itself. And, I like to think that at some point some one will write about her fascinating journey.
But for the sake of this article, back to my experience. It was 1996, I was making small efforts at establishing work in journalism after leaving my job in social work, when an acquaintance literally brought me to the JSAL.
It is really odd now that I think of it, because Kevin McCann entered into my life briefly and then disappeared so perhaps that was the purpose to bring me to the JSAL and to have a wonderful experience of acting school and theater? It is something I ponder, because he was often difficult and had little interest in making friends.
Since he went out of his way to bring me there to sit in on a class and then at one point to see a play there, I figured "well, why not! one class will not hurt."
Ha! One class turned into another class and then another. Starting with beginning acting technique level 1, I then went to level 2 and so forth. Until, I finally got the chance to study with Jean herself and be invited to enroll in her "scene study" classes.
It was all a great experience far beyond what I had ever had in high school in college. Up until that time most of my experiences in theater in high school and college were dreadful. Beastly, tyrannical directors, temperamental, egotistical actors, it was very unpleasant.
Yet being at the JSAL and studying with Jean, there was none of that. In fact, the only time there was yelling and screaming was when a scene from a play required it. And, most important of all, while we worked hard at putting up scenes as part of our assignment, we all had so much fun.
Those years from 1996 to 1998 at the JSAL were some of the best in my entire life. There were moments when I would just stop and realize, "wow! This is really a blessing and a treasure to be here."
The JSAL is on Sutter Street only blocks from Union Square, the City's shopping, art gallery and theater district. At times in class, especially in the smaller group session, the sound of the Cable Car and it's bell could be heard faintly in the background. And it was such a thrill to realize "how many people get to study acting in a spot like this? What a wonderful San Francisco treat."
There are other schools and "acting labs" in the City. After I left the JSAL I went on to The Phillip Bennett Actor's lab now gone. Yet remnants of his classes live on through teachers and acting coaches like Marcia Kimmell.
Bennett taught the "European" aspect of method acting with its focus on the writing's of Stanislavsky who he believed was a very spiritual man. We had to meditate each class session as Bennett was a practicing Buddhist. I did not think meditation and Buddhist customs was what acting was about, so I left Bennett and went back to Jean.
She often would say, "the big topic, (anything having to do with the subject of God) that's everything, you can't get any subject on stage more larger than that." (Or, something to that effect). When a teacher like Bennett had to stop class each time so we could "get spiritual" I knew it was time to go.
Jean noted that everything an actor does is spiritual in a sense and it is something that is open to everyone. And, it was this sense of openness that was amazing at the JSAL. No subject was too difficult or heavy to discuss or examine within the context of acting while in class. Many plays and dialogues cover very deep subjects in life and often they get around to talking about God or something related to God in one way or another.
What was so fascinating and affirming to me was the fact that at the JSAL and places like it, a person could grow in away that no other school or training would allow.
Also, what impressed me most about all the teachers and coaches at JSAL and especially about Jean was down-to-earth attitude. If ever we had difficulty with a scene, Jean would simply jump up on stage and say, in her Southern drawl, "here darling, let me show you."
No yelling or having a fit, like so many directors I had dealt with in high school and college. She showed us how to do a scene. She was always patient and emphasized that acting was "organic" be natural, be yourself as you approach the role," she would say.
I like many students had the privilege of experiencing The Actor's Studio through Jean, even if more in a San Francisco sort of way. It was a lot of fun and yes, it took work. Classes were mostly held in the evening and there were many Scene Study classes that did not let out until after Midnight.
Yet the time we spent went by so fast that it did not seem as if it was late. The City at night takes on an entire different mood and while I would not recommend walking around Union Square after midnight, being at the theater has its own particular magic.
Last week or so, when I was covering the conference at the Marines Memorial Club and Hotel just one block from the JSAL, I stopped for a moment to recollect on those years back in 1996 which seem like only yesterday. But hard to believe, it has been more than 15 years ago. If anyone asks, "where is a good acting school in the City?" I tell them to check out the JSAL. Yet I also tell them just go to any good acting school. Formal school is okay, to get one's college credits, etc. But acting school or an actor's lab is much different.
In high school and college there was a lot of "attitude" and routine that at an acting school does not go on. We were up and acting the very first day at JSAL which was amazing to me. And, one thing that our teacher from Tech 1 told us, when he encouraged us to "go out on auditions" was to "be wary of becoming a professional acting student."
Jean and her teaching staff always encouraged us to go out on auditions no mater what. And as Jean would say, "this is how you learn more about acting, getting into productions."
Did I get into any productions? Well, no but I certainly had a great time trying to get a part in a play and of course having the opportunity to study acting with Jean Shelton. For more information about the JSAL check out the web site.