Actor Eric Sheffer Stevens (who played gay neurosurgeon Reid Oliver on the soap opera As the World Turns talks about his acting training in college. That training continued with private coaching, off-Broadway roles, graduate studies and even with his recurring role in the soap opera, where he exercised different acting muscles.
Susan Dansby: Were you interested in acting as a kid?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Yes. I’m not sure if it was more than most people’s interest, but I was very interested. And in high school, they did musicals; And that was not something they asked me to do. Or anyone would ask me to do it. So, I never looked for it until I was in college, auditioned for the theater program at Wheaton, and got in.
But I kept a major in literature. That was my title. And then I moved to New York to chase him. To see where it went. So, I did a lot of little things here, just through the business docs [i.e., Backstage and Show Business Weekly] The one I would audition for, on the Lower East Side, in the Village, and in church basements.
Susan Dansby: The Off-Off-Broadway route?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Oh yeah. And there is a lot of value in those things.
Susan Dansby: I definitely agree.
Eric Sheffer Stevens: But it can also drive you crazy. And I studied here [in New York City], with Michael Howard, who also changed the way I approach everything and changed the way I work. He really kicked my ass on a lot of different things.
Then I went to graduate school in ’98 in Alabama. It is mainly classical; but they do new plays and contemporary plays. It’s not all Shakespeare, despite the name.
Susan Dansby: So the Alabama Shakespeare Festival isn’t just a theater? It’s a school?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Well, they are affiliated with the University of Alabama, which is why I am a huge Crimson Tide fan. So you are credentialed and you do your actual class work through the University of Alabama; but you are a resident of the company as a non-shareholder member of the company.
And so you are gaining professional experience and rehearsing with people that you really admire a lot. By far the most important part of the training was rehearsing and being around people who knew how to do it.
Susan Dansby: That sounds like heaven on earth for an actor.
Eric Sheffer Stevens: You are taking voice, and you were taking movement, and also text, and a lot of history. Specifically, the history of the theater. But other than that, he was just immersed in rehearsal and doing shows.
Susan Dansby: And you mentioned Michael Howard. Are you an acting teacher?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Yes, and it has been for 50 years, here in the city. He has a studio here and is still teaching. He is fantastic, he has been a mentor and a great teacher to many people. So, I was lucky enough to participate in that for a couple of years in the late 90s.
Susan Dansby: Well that’s one of the things that really impresses me, because soaps are so fast. They move very fast. And the writers call it a “first draft” medium. Whatever the acting term for that, it’s probably the same. Where do you go more with your instincts than having a lot of time to delve into the text.
So classical training, and certainly working with an acting teacher, really serves you well, which a lot of people don’t really think about.
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Yes, it is also funny; but it is a unique experience, which I found to be a fantastic exercise. Train a completely different set of muscles. So, you can’t get too much in your head. You do as much homework as you can on memorization, then make instant decisions.
And since we don’t really rehearse on soap operas, you don’t have much time with the script; You’ve only had it a couple of days before you start filming it, then they just put you’re down there, on the ground, in front of the camera, and you do it. And so it was, I liked doing that.
Are you kidding? Instead of spending a lot of time wondering how to approach it, you just do it.
And that’s very helpful too – to balance your thinking side or your “background study” side.