Acting Class, Ohana Style: Sherilyn Robertson Teaches More than the Basics
Hawaii Five-O, LOST, The Descendants, Fifty First Dates, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are just a few movies filmed in Hawaii. Sherilyn Robertson of the Film Actor's Studio teaches ohana (family) to help actors cope in an increasingly competitive industry.
Hawaii-born, Los Angeles-trained actor Sherilyn Robertson understands the need for both talent and drive in order to be successful in the acting profession. She also recognizes the importance of being supportive of others, no matter where they are on the career ladder, a lesson learned first-hand by working with Paul McCartney. One of her favorite memories (so far) as an actor is of making a Visa commercial with the music legend. She remembers the former Beatle as “so sharp and fun to work with.”
Back home in Oahu at the Film Actor’s Studio, she passes on "the knowledge I have been given, inspiring creativity in both children and adults. There is too much focus on math, science, and politics these days in our country and less on the arts. I choose to contribute to the world creatively.” For Robertson, an important part of the curriculum involves building a sense of community among students of all ages and to help them “unleash new potential for personal growth and self-expression.”
Robertson, who has worked in theater, film, and television, has been a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) member for more than a decade. “Gremlins 2, with the fantastic Joe Dante, was my first speaking role,” she recalls. A high point on that movie occurred when “the gremlins were attacking a broken elevator in the Trump Towers and sliming Kate" (Phoebe Cates). Working with "that kind of action and the wild gremlin puppets” was thrilling. From this intriguing beginning, she has sought roles to stretch her as an actor. A recent “challenging and exciting” role in an upcoming film is playing Sable, “both a prostitute and an unfit mother.” Back in hometown Honolulu, Robertson references these and other on-the-set jobs as she helps her students prepare for their careers.
“I'm able to pass on personal experience and knowledge from my mentors, which give up-and-coming actors assurances of what to expect in the industry. Because she “was a professional as a child and has since worked behind as well as in front of the camera, Robertson is confident that “I understand what it's like to be out there studying the craft very seriously, preparing for auditions, [learning] the business side of acting, and doing plays, showcases, and on-set work.”
She also has seen the acting profession change a great deal in the past decade. A significant trend is the “swiftness of casting. It's just wonderful what the internet has done for this industry. Casting directors receive head shots and resumes in the blink of an eye, actors can upload reels, and directors can click on an actor's demos.”
Greater accessibility to an actor’s work, however, can also have an important downside for the unaware, because “actors often too readily place their film work on YouTube and showcase themselves in a poor light.” Therefore, when Robertson presents her "business of acting" seminars to her students, she emphasizes “the importance of getting feedback from industry mentors” so they can improve their performances and present casting agents or directors with the best online samples of their work.
Reality shows are another factor that can hamper especially a novice actor’s ability to find work on television. Robertson complains that “reality shows have stolen air time from strong television dramas [and] sit-coms. Many actors have seen their opportunities wither. I look forward to the masses getting burned out on the manipulated ‘real people’ programs and become satiated with high-quality acting on television again.”
To prepare for that day, Robertson’s students start with learning the basics and build their skills on a firm foundation, an approach that not all acting teachers take. “Beginning actors... often think they do not need to study and practice different exercises to help bring out genuine behavior and reactions from moment to moment within a scene. Instead they go straight to scene study classes that, I admit, can definitely be more fun. But once actors develop the foundation and the ability to operate with self-sufficiency, then they are able to understand and make use of these wonderful techniques and [can] advance to scene study work.”
This acting teacher believes it is crucial for students to “work on emotion and build subtext based on the truth of the action and on the other characters around them, rather than simply playing the action or playing the emotion.” Finding the truth in a scene and being able to convey honest emotion help new actors to work more effectively with cast mates. “We also work on sense memory, improvisation, on-camera work, and TV commercials. I do not believe in just one technique.” The beginning class provides instruction and practice on everything from overcoming fear in acting in front of others, to audition techniques, to blocking a scene, to working on set.
Surprisingly, Robertson encourages budding thespians of all ages to take a class, even if they do not envision having a professional acting career. She believes that creativity can help shape anyone’s life and emphasizes that, especially as adults age, “the mental and emotional stretch [of acting] keeps them flexible, curious, and growing, rather than being stuck in a particular pattern of response.” Older adults also discover that they “can let the social masks fall away. The older you grow, the less you have to pretend you're somebody you're not.”
A good example is a senior who never “really expressed anger much. It was hard and threatening for him.” To help him act out this emotion, “we really pulled apart a challenging monologue” that allowed this student actor to work “on repetition and sense memory exercises. He had a complete breakthrough, which gave him a solid performance for a show we did as well as another resource in his life for expressing anger.”
Despite living in a tropical paradise, Robertson’s methods are far from laid back, and she expects her students to be highly disciplined. Her enthusiasm for the acting profession is only matched by her interest in seeing her students implement what they learn in workshops into their professional and personal lives. “I love the students. They inspire me, and I hope to inspire them,” she explains. “It’s one feel-good ohana here.”