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Interview with Jeremy Whelan; Creator of the New School Acting System

What is the New School Acting System and what is different/better about it than all those approaches you call old school?
To make that comparison I think we first have to establish what old school means, define it. If we look at what I call old school, we would see that it is a cognitive, psycho-intellectually based system. No one will argue that Stanislavski brilliantly formed an acting system around psychoanalysis, but that was well over a hundred years ago. Stanislavski changed his mind in later life, those who subscribe to the Theory of Actions, I'll get to that in a bit.

I suppose the most startling difference between old school and new school acting is that old school is ego based, owing to the going inside to the past as an actor to find emotional stimulus, like we really want to see that again. NSA is an Empathy based acting system - owing to going out into the emotional flow between characters. NSAS also comes with a scientific pedigree, via Learning Styles and Brain Science research.

How did the Whelan Tape Technique come about?
Well, who knows where ideas like this come from, possibly from spending a lifetime of investigation into how to make myself a better actor lead to a better way for all actors.

As to the specifics, I had been hired to direct a play in LA. It had 14 characters and the story, while cute wasn't really anything to get hot about. So to spare myself some boredom, I started thinking real hard as to how to avoid that, how to make the rehearsal process itself interesting beyond anything the actors or I had ever done before. I was listening to some tapes as I prepared for my first rehearsal with the cast. All of a sudden, the tape ran out and the machine clicked off and my brain kicked on. When I sprung this on the cast they were shocked but excited, all but one and I fired him on the spot. He just kept saying, "but I never worked this way." I told him nobody had ever worked this way and if he couldn't do it, take a hike. He wasn't young, but other members of the cast were older. Everybody knew that something special was going on in that theatre that night and I wasn't going to let it get spoiled. I filled in and the next night he was replaced by a wonderful actor whose name I don't remember, but since that was 1984, it's ok.

Can you give a pocket description of the Whelan Tape Technique?
Yes, and anyone who wants the full version can get it at Let's see how quick I can do this and still be thorough. Basically, to try this, get two actors and a scene they have never worked on, three minutes is good. Let them read it once and then immediately read it again, this time audio taping it. As soon as that is done, rough out a set somehow, round up any props, which could conceivably be in the place. Tell the actors, you're going to start the tape, get in touch with the emotion you (character, always) were feeling just before the scene starts.

Tell them "When you here your own voice, as character, try to get in touch with the feeling that made those words come out. When they here the other characters voice, try to get in touch with how you're feeling about that persons saying that to you. Just go through the scene that way, from emotion to emotion, it's emotional surfing. Make sure the actors understand that Nothing Has To Happen, to wait for a feeling that is strong enough to move them, externally or internally. To go wherever that impulse takes them. In this way they ultimately block the scene in a very organic, fluid manner.

Tell them not to move their lips and when they are done, just tape it and do it again. Side coaching is directed at keeping actors in character and going deeper into the emotions their characters are feeling, and it should be very limited. There is much more to it, but that will get you started and seeing what happens from working this way, should drive you right to the web to get the rest.

How is the Whelan Tape Technique Learning Styles sympathetic.
Well, the basic idea supporting Learning Styles is that when teachers discover students preferred learning modality, they can then show the student how to use that tool to strengthen their ability to use the other learning modalities with equal facility. The student then becomes what is referred to as a whole brain learner. There are a lot of different theories about how many learning modalities there are, but the basic three, Seeing, Hearing and Tactile. I'll give one quote from the Academic side and one from a professional actor. This is part of what they said after discovering the WTT.

"I believe that Whelan's actor training method, as described, is excellent. It incorporates the three basic learning domains of all students, visual in reading scripts and watching the other learners and actors, auditory in hearing the recorded script, and most importantly kinesthetic in moving the body as a learning technique. Whelan's method actually gets the actor's bodies to learn the roles they are performing" -- Thomas Klocke, Arts In Education Coordinator, Kansas Arts Commission
"What is remarkable about this process (Tape Technique) is that by the time you come to do the lines you virtually know them. Quite often you find yourself not knowing what the text is but your body remembers to turn to look at someone at a certain point which prompts your memory. We use this technique for every scene in the play." -- Danny Scheinmann, The English Shakespeare Company, London, UK

The Pause Technique is a very powerful Technique. Can you describe it and explain why it has such a profound effect on actors?
Well the first part is easy, actors tape a scene as they would for WTT - Normal, but I take charge of the recorder and pause it at various points in the scene that I want them to explore more. They are told to stay in character regardless of how long I keep the tape paused. They are to use the extra time to go deeper into what they (character) are feeling from what the other character has just said to them or, what they are feeling from what they just said to the other character(s). I side coach, go deeper into that emotion, feel it in your back, feel it in your butt, feel it in your face etc. It works on a few levels, the first being that actors, through arrogance, laziness, stupidity, or conditioning, will settle on or be given by a director, a choice as to how something should be said or something should be done. They will then spend the remaining rehearsal time polishing those choices.

It's a ridiculous habit, but it is so ingrained that forcing the actors to take some time to truly experience the characters feelings at that moment produces some amazing results. The first thing that happens is that they play their first choice, but as they now find themselves with extra time in that moment, and they have been told to use it to penetrate deeper into the emotion, they do or are side coached to do just that. Without the pressure to get to the next line, they have time to settle into that emotion, invariably that penetration will find a much stronger, cleaner, more honest expression than anything they had experienced before.

Jeremy Whelan is the creator of the New School Acting technique. For more information, visit him at