Chris Abraham and Felicity Enas are setting the stage in Tyler for what could be considered a groundbreaking school in the area.
The result of more than a year's worth of planning, the Actors' Preparatory Exchange, APEX, has been built from the ground up as a place of perpetual learning.
Specializing in preparatory classes for students of all ages and skill levels who wish to better themselves, the school offers instruction ranging from storytelling skills to screen testing, as well as providing opportunities for acting, directing, writing and production.
It's fairly safe to say that APEX is one of the first of its kind for Tyler.
Its location is unique as well. The rather nondescript Energy Center Building on Front Street is likely the last place one might consider looking for an acting school.
But tucked inside its ground floor is Theatre 20 @ Potter Place (named after the street which runs parallel to the back of the building), where Abraham brainstorms and Mrs. Enas joins her junior instructors, Hannah Morris and Olivia Hardt.
The space once belonged to Stephen Self and his production company, N-Ventive TV, but has since been renovated and remodeled, outfitted with a small stage, proscenium lighting and seating for up to 50 audience members.
“We have students such as Judy Griffith. Judy's been acting out at Tyler Civic Theatre all her life. Her husband died a year ago, and now Judy has said, 'I want to be a professional actor,' at 70 years old. So we took some headshots and she's out trying to find an agent and we've got her taking some on-camera classes with us,” Abraham said.
“One of our students is a lawyer in town. He thinks that taking some stage classes will help him to be a better lawyer in front of the jury and wants to take on-camera classes so he can do better commercials.”
This sense of inclusion is essential, Mrs. Enas said, both toward accomplishing their shared goals as well as remaining true to the spirit of theatre.
“Theatre is all about acceptance. No matter who you are or what background you come from or how intelligent you are, we accept everybody in here. You never know whom you're going to touch. Anybody can be in live theatre, no matter your level of training,” she said.
What these classes will not be, however, is traditionally structured. There is no graduation; there are no levels, per se. No one will be penalized for missing a session.
“We were going to start out with level 1, level 2, level 3, but the problem is, you've got so many people at so many different levels. The class that I loved the most way back in the day in California was an all-levels class that everybody could come to. When you're a beginner going into a class it's terrifying, but it brings you up to the next level when you're acting with different and better people,” Abraham said.
“All of these classes (are) designed for people who have never done anything, as well as people who have been acting their entire life. The idea is that the fundamentals are the most important thing no matter who you are. If you're 500 years old, the fundamentals are still important, and if you're brand-new walking, you're going to have to start with the fundamentals,” Abraham said.
The instruction ranges from simple to more involved.
“We start with voice, breath, exercises, and then we talk about how to handle auditions. What do you look for? What do you need to prepare? But there are so many steps involved. You can't do everything in one session. It's continual. But it's evolving. We'll pick up from two weeks ago and we go on. If somebody new drops in, they can easily fit in. It's ongoing. There's no missing anything,” Mrs. Enas said.
If (students) want to just make sure they have enough on-hand audition speeches, definitely we have one-on-one and group classes so they can keep up-to-date on what they have. We will continue to do cold readings, because cold readings are what it is. No matter if it is theatre or film, you're going to be doing cold readings.”
All Their World's A Stage
She's a Harrogate, Yorkshire, native who first came to the United States to work as a nanny but stayed when she found the man she would eventually marry. Both have spent the majority of their lives in the pursuit of skills and projects that allow their inner thespian to shine forth.
APEX is the culmination of that ambition, focused into something unique and aimed at people and students with the same appetite for performance and expression that they have had.
“For me, I think (APEX) started with, I wanted to be able to teach people who wanted to go out and do bigger and better things, who wanted to take acting on at whatever level they wanted to take it on at,” Abraham said.
“I moved to California in 1986 and got my (Screen Actor's Guild) card in 1990. I've done some things. People back here should have that opportunity. If you want to do bigger and better, there is no place to get bigger and better around here. And I'm not saying anything bad about the high school training or anything that, they are giving them the best they can as much as they can do it. But that really was it. How can we get people to a professional level, or at least help them hone their chops?”
When it comes to both instruction and production, Mrs. Enas said her goal is to impart substance.
“I was born in the '50s. By the time the '70s came around, it was really experimental theatre that was going on, and that is what I was raised in and that's what I loved. … We were that generation of experimental theatre and pushing envelopes. Not just to get the 'Oh my god' factor out or anything, that's not what we were doing. We were seeing where we as actors and playwrights would be going in the future. That's why we did a lot of guerilla theatre. We'd just take to the streets and just start doing theatre,” she said.
“No matter what it is we're exploring, I want people to leave a show, no matter if it's for children or adults, I want them to go away and talk about it and discuss issues that maybe raised during that performance. Not just go, 'Oh that was fun!' and forget about it.”
Ms. Morris, an Emmy Award winner for her work on a 2001 public service announcement, said she aims to make physicality a central part of her instruction.
“I would like to focus on teaching children and adults how to remove tension from the body, because tension in the body will destroy your voice. A lot of what I want to do is physical work and getting voice and body to communicate together,” she said.
Ms. Morris said novice actors often mistake acting for simply being line recitation and body movement, but good acting is much more complex and involved.
“There is so much more to acting than reciting text with your voice and waving your arms. In Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' there's that great speech Hamlet delivers, 'Speak this speech, I pray you, as I pronounced to you, trippingly on the tongue.' He's telling them, 'Don't wave your arms around like an idiot. Don't ad-lib where you don't need it. Follow the script,'” she said. “And that's the approach I would be taking. To emote, you don't have to slam your fist to be angry. There are other things we do in anger and there are different approaches you can do to find that.”
When it comes to actual instruction, Ms. Morris said she loves teaching by example and going hands-on with her students, as well as making sure they see her just as unguarded and open as she expects them to be.
Ms. Hardt has spent the last decade navigating the Hollywood scene, landing roles in a variety of projects. She hopes her unique experiences and instruction can help provide a leg up to those wishing to make the leap to television and film. And given the rising availability of television and film projects that are both filmed and auditioned for in Dallas and Shreveport, Abraham and Mrs. Enas see this as a crucial part of what the school can offer.
“I have had so many acting coaches in the past who have never even really worked. And I've been working in this industry for the last 10 years, so I can not only bring my personal experience, but also so many lessons learned from acting coaches in Texas and (Los Angeles) in my past,” she said. “When I was young and when I went out there, no one knew to tell me what to do when I went into a room or even what to expect. That's just something you're not going to know unless you talk to someone who's been out there and done it.”
“I think that the cool thing about us is that, (in the past) a group would say, 'Oh, this will be best for the theater,' and then they all went home and (Felicity) had to do it. So, down here it's just me and her. So if she says, 'This will be good for the theater,' then we go do it,” Abraham said.
APEX, they agreed, will constantly evolve.
“The theatre is forever changing, and by the time this article gets written it will have changed again. And that's what I want to keep in the forefront: We're not stuck on one idea. … We attract the odd and the weird, who may have something to say,” Mrs. Enas said.
For additional information about available classes, as well as information on upcoming productions at Theatre 20 @ Potter Place, visit www.apextheatre20.com.