SHANNON LUSTER: You teach acting at Playhouse West in Philadelphia. Do you have a certain teaching style?

TONY SAVANT:  That's a very good and important question.  I think I would refer to it as having a teaching philosophy rather than a style.  I definitely have a philosophy regarding teaching.

My primary philosophy is this: the less the teacher says the better off the student is.  It's the same with directing.  Many teachers, and directors too, think if they are not saying something to actors than they are not teaching or directing them.  It's not true.  It's much better to teach or direct by slight-of-hand, saying as little as possible, simply nudging this way or that.  And if there's a lot to correct or fix, select one, the one that is the most fundamental.  If the actor corrects that one thing, the other issues may correct themselves.  The best teachers or directors point an actor in the right direction and then allow them to work and figure things out themselves.  The best teachers know when to keep quiet and wait for just the right moment or opportunity to correct or criticize.  So, the less said the better.

Teaching Advanced Class at Playhouse West - LA
Another big part has to do with what it takes to learn something and learn it well.  I love this phrase, "Repetitio est mater studiorum." Repetition is the mother of learning.  Practice is all about repetition; doing it over and over until something is second nature.  So, I have several phrases which I constantly repeat to my students, knowing if I say them often enough the message will eventually sink in.  One is this: "You will never be better as an actor than your weakest acting habit."  This is true of anything.  A violinist, or a dancer, or basketball player...they will never be better in their fields than their weakest habits.   Actors cannot afford any bad acting habits.  Your fundamental acting habits must be perfect.  If they are, you will always be good, even on days when your talent stays home.  If you have any bad or weak habits, they will almost assuredly surface at the audition or on a set, which you just can't afford.  I also repeat this phrase often, "Every day you either get a little better or a little worse."  There's no such thing as staying the same.  On days you practice you get a little better.  Not a lot, just a little.  On days you don't practice you get a little worse.  It's up to you.  I have many others too, but I'll leave you with those few.

SL: Has someone inspired you to teach and if so, who?

TS: Sure.  Robert Carnegie, the founder of Playhouse West, was my teacher and mentor.  He's a brilliant teacher.  Without Bob I would know nothing about acting or how to teach it.  I studied with Bob for eleven years.  For eight of those years I sat next to him watching and taking notes.  I did this five to six classes per week, writing down everything he said, asking him questions and learning how to teach.  Jeff Goldblum also had an enormous influence on me.  He's a real artist and I owe him a great deal.  Sanford Meisner, of course.  The last few years he taught I used to teach a class twice a week right after his, so as often as I could, I'd come early and try to watch him. 
Teaching Advanced Class at Playhouse West - LA
He was a genius, incredibly economical and specific, which he had to be due to his physical difficulties with speaking at that point.  I never studied with Stella Adler, but her book "ON THE ART OF ACTING" has been a huge influence.  The way she articulated things was eloquent and genius.  Elia Kazan's books have influenced me more than any as a director.  Stella, Sandy, Kazan, these were enlightened people who understood what acting was and how to articulate it to others.  I've also been heavily influenced by the philosophies and teachings of many great athletic coaches, including Joe Paterno, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, to name a few.  These were great teachers, all of them.  I've read every book by and about them.

SHARON JORDAN: Part of the curriculum in advanced studies at Playhouse West is working through characters from the book, SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, by Edgar Lee Masters. Would you like to share with us a little about this process?

TS: The SPOON RIVER work is a major part of the advanced exercises we do and helps to really refine an actor's approach to a part.  Boy, we use it teach so many things.  First, it gives us a way to teach actors how to work on a speech, as that's what each story in the Masters book really is. 

Second, we use the speeches to teach about interpretation and how to read out from the text what the author is really trying to say, so an actor can get an accurate interpretation as to what the part is really about.  Of course, we also teach the various ways one could go about rehearsing
Teaching Advanced Class at Playhouse West - LA
and working on the part to gain a personal and deep understanding of the part.  We also point out the times when there is more than one possible interpretation and how that would change an actor's approach to the part.  My favorite part of the work involves teaching all the various ways one can do a part, even within one interpretation.  In other words, working on "how to do what you do".  For example, in a given speech I may be trying to set the record straight about some lie that has been told about me, but I can do it "as if" I'm speaking to an idiot, or as if I think it's hysterically funny what's been said about me.  Or as if that lie has broken my heart in a way that's unforgivable.  So, we use it to really help actors to use their imagination within the given circumstances, as well as to take direction and so forth.  This work also includes applying a characterization to a part.  The whole Spoon River work is very demanding and really separates the serious actors from the dilettants; the frauds from the fakers. 

SJ: When I was a student in your classes at Playhouse West in Los Angeles, I remember you telling us about the time you went over to Jeff Goldblum's house to read lines with him as he prepared for his upcoming role in the movie, JURASSIC PARK.  I was very impressed with how Jeff read with you and how he acted out his role. Can you tell us a little about that experience? How does Jeff's perspective on preparing for a role help other actors?

TS: It was the second JURASSIC PARK, THE LOST WORLD.  In fact I was fortunate enough to be able be involved with and watch Jeff as he prepared for several movies over the years.  Jeff is one of the hardest working actors you could ever meet.  He works on his acting every day.  When rehearsing he would start off just like we did in class.  We would sit around his dining room table and do readings.  But they weren't readings, they were acting rehearsals, the emphasis being on really talking and listening to each other, being connected, not so much on the actual words at first. 

Playhouse West Co-Founder Jeff Goldblum (Photo by Phil Guest)
We'd be close to them, but that's not what it was about.  Though Jeff would be fairly right on because he'd been reading the script over and over and over on his own.  And Jeff would really live out every situation.  What impressed me with THE LOST WORLD rehearsals, is how fully Jeff would live them out, right there at the table.  He gave himself over to the circumstances and made you believe he was running across a field while being chased by dinosaurs, or whatever it was.  No matter how physical the scene was, Jeff would live it out right there in the chair at the table.  And each time we'd go through it Jeff would experience it more fully and be more clear about what he was saying and doing.  You could tell he was working on being clear and specific.  Of course, he made it all look so effortless too.  It was an absolutely amazing experience.  I wish every actor could have seen that, to see how someone of Jeff Goldblum's caliber works on a role, how hard he works, how well he prepares.  Also, so many actors feel inhibited when they are at a table.  Watching Jeff taught me that as an actor I can live anything out, anything, while still sitting at a table.  I can achieve clarity in what I'm doing and saying, what my intention is, what it all means to me, and so forth, without having to get up and walk around.

SL: You are also an accomplished playwright. Are there any tips for aspiring writers that you would like to share?

TS: Number one tip, get the classic Lajos Egri book, THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, read and study it over and over.  And read great plays.  Read all of Arthur Miller's plays, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Lillian Hellman, Robert Anderson, Neil Simon, and the other great American playwrights.  Of course read Ibsen and Chekov and the great world playwrights too.  Also, read biographies of the great writers in order to understand why they wrote what they wrote.  Great writers and artists always express something very personal in their work, and every writer should understand that.  Study your craft by studying the best, not by watching television.  Learn the fundamental principles of dramatics and dramatic construction and understand what goes into a work of lasting value and importance, which is what all real artists yearn to create.  Then, do it.  Write, and write and write.  Start with one-acts, ten minute plays.  If you can write a well-constructed ten minute play you can write a full-length.  Mastering the one-act play form is a great start.

SJ: I remember acting with you in the play, WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER, you co-wrote with Robert Carnegie. It is a very moving and touching play. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to create this play?

TS: Well, it was inspired by events leading up to the first Gulf War in 1991 when Iraq had invaded Kuwait.  Near the end of 1990 actually, by November of that year, the U.S. was sending troops over to the Persian Gulf and war there looked inevitable.  The anti-war crowd in Hollywood started getting vocal about conducting war protests and students at our school were talking about going out and joining the movement.  Robert Carnegie was of age during the Vietnam era and remembered the devastating effect the protestors had on the Vietnam vets when they returned home to the states.  So, he didn't want to preach to the students and tell them not to go protest, but he wanted them to be informed about the consequences of their actions.  So, he enlisted me to do research on this subject and told me to work on something, a kind of class project really, that we'd do for the school.  I think he just envisioned it being like a night of Spoon Rivers, or speeches, by Vietnam Veterans.  He gave me a book titled, HOMECOMING, by Bob Greene, as a place to start. 

So, along with two other classmates, Derek Rydall and Michael Pettygrove, we did research and then I wrote a first draft for a play by the end of January.   I visited Vet Centers and tried to speak to people over at the VA Hospital. Most
people were not that helpful, I think because we were actors in Hollywood and they probably figured any play about Vietnam vets would be negative.  There was one place that let us watch some videos and one guy who spoke a little about his experiences coming home.  Anyway, along the way I came up with a kind of non-linear structure to give us a reason or platform to tell the stories of Vietnam vets coming home. I didn't want it to be like a big therapy session or bitch session.  I thought the subject matter and the material so powerful, and doing it that way would not do it justice.  And so, we had a kind of script, then we cast it with a bunch of advanced students and began rehearsing it under my direction.  We rehearsed almost every night we didn't have class and also every Saturday and Sunday, refining and reworking it as we went. 

Well, to make a long story short, the Gulf War invasion happened and the war ended before the play was ready to be presented.  At first I thought we wouldn't even end up doing it, but Robert said, go ahead since we put so much work into it.  We ended up presenting it in April of 1991, on a Wednesday night, for just the students of Playhouse West.  Again, at the time, all of us actually all thought we would do it that one time only. Little did we know...  Anyway, there was one Vietnam Vet in the audience that night, the husband of one of our students.  And he was blown away by the play.  So were the students and so was Robert Carnegie.  It was Robert who saw the potential for this to be a hit play that could touch lives and teach people, as if now has for all these years.  So, he got involved with it then, helped re-write it and add material to it.  Then, on the first Saturday of June, 1991, we opened for the public and the rest is history, as the say.

SL: I enjoyed watching you as well as the rest of the cast perform WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER in Los Angeles awhile back. Do you have any favorite moments during the play that you would like to share with us?

WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER cast (including Mark Pellegrino) at the end, 1991
TS: Again, naming a favorite moment would be impossible, as to name one I feel might diminish so many others.  I did the play for 22 years, so there are so many wonderful moments.  The best moments came not from actually acting in the play, though I enjoyed acting with so many people over the years, especially when we'd have reunion shows with original members coming back to reprise roles.  But the best moments came from seeing how it helped Vietnam vets and getting to know so many vets over the years.  We sent vets to visit The Wall in Washington, D.C. 

Then, there was Glenn King, who had been a homeless vet, an alcoholic and drug addict when he first began coming to the play...I wrote a song called "HEROES AND WARRIORS", the lyrics at least.  I sang it to Glenn, and he wrote the music. Glenn, a country singer, performed it at the end of the play one night.  Ashley Judd was in the cast back then and she arranged for Glenn to go to Nashville and record the song with The Judd Boys Band, her mother's band and her producer, Don Potter.  Amazing.  Later, we got in touch with Glenn's high school sweetheart from Beaumont, Texas and sent her a cassette of the song.  It was their first contact since he had come back from Vietnam.  A few months later the cast pitched in to bring Wanda to the play and surprise Glenn.  It was beautiful and very touching.  The two reunited and ended up getting married.  They live in Beaumont today and Glenn is an employed productive citizen.  To think that a play can do that.  Amazing. 

Getting to see John Allgood stand up after a performance and read a poem about the play where he stated that the play gave him back his pride.  Or getting to know and become friends with men of great character,
vets like John Pagel, who had dedicated his life helping family members of POW's and MIA's.  Or getting to know families like the Hastings, Time and Deanne, and Brian and the rest of them, whose brother was shot down in Vietnam.  Their father, Gene, came faithfully to the play for years and became a surrogate grandfather to the cast.  When he died he requested to have cast members be his pallbearers.  It has been such an honor getting to know these folks, and so many more I didn't mention.  These people and these moments, and so many more like them over the's been the honor of my life.  I will probably never do anything as artistically meaningful, personal or powerful in my life as WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER

Directing students at Playhouse West - LA
SL: Do you have a favorite play? And if so, would you like to share that with us and whether that play has that inspired you to write such great plays like WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER?

TS: Oh, boy.  I have many favorite plays it would be too hard to pick one.  Plays are like food, sometimes you have an appetite for one kind over another.  But I'll tell you some of my favorites.  Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE and Chekov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD are two favorites. I love Eugene O'Neill's plays, especially BEYOND THE HORIZON, and of course LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.  I love Arthur Miller, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, a classic of course.  But ALL MY SONS and A VIEW FROM A BRIDGE...powerful stuff.  Anything by Tennessee Williams...but especially THE GLASS MENAGERIE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE...And William Inge, one of my favorites, a master craftsman and his plays really speak to me, THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, COME BACK, LITTLE SHEEBA, also many of his one-act plays.  I adore Robert Anderson's TEA AND SYMPATHY, one of the best American plays, I believe.  I'll just name a few other playwrights, like Lillian Hellman, Lorraine Hansberry...I love Neil Simon too.  Can we just say I love reading plays.  I'm quite obsessed with them, read them all the time, including contemporary plays.

SL: Developing different types of characters in a play or screenplay like the protagonist, antagonist or helper character is important, as most writers know. Do you have any tips on what makes a good protagonist? How about an antagonist? Or a helper character?

Directing students at Playhouse West - LA
TS: What makes for any good character is the same thing: they need to be a full, three-dimensional human being with a full physiology, sociology, and psychology.  And they have to have this very important ingredient: what they want in life, deep down, has to have become uncompromising.  We call it the character's spine.  Without this ingredient the character is not going to make for good dramatic material because they won't have the will to try to get what they want no matter what the obstacle or conflict is.  Good characters with strong, clear spine will take action and create their own conflict organically.  A good antagonist must share the same qualities and be an equal force, as strong as the protagonist.  And you need to create the antagonist in a way where conflict with the protagonist is in inevitable.  You do this by making sure there is a unity of opposites between them, so as one character takes action, it inevitably creates conflict for the other and force them to take counter action.  Then you have a real, organic, cause and effect story that will lead to an inevitable climax and resolution.  And all supporting characters should in some way be antagonists for the protagonist, so there's conflict in every scene that moves the story forward.  Conflict doesn't always mean banging heads, but a scene without conflict is a boring scene.  There should be conflict, even in a love scene between people who are crazy about each other.

SL: Sometimes, when I sit down to write a screenplay, the events seem to unfold so fast it is almost like I am not typing it (strange as that sounds.) And sometimes, I just stare at an empty page hoping something will come to me (i.e. the dreaded writer’s block). Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, would you like to share some tips on how you combat that?

Directing students at Playhouse West - LA
TS: My opinion on writer's block is, that most of the time it's probably the result of not having a solid process or approach to your writing.  When a writer has practical steps they can take in the process of working on the development of a story, the designing of the characters, creating outlines, and doing all the preparatory work one must do prior to writing the script, there is much less of a chance of writer's block will occur. This is especially true when actually writing the script. 

My opinion is that a writer should never even begin to attempt to write the actual script until a detailed, scene-by-scene outline has been completed.  Many writers and producers might refer to this as the "story bible".  This detailed, scene-by-scene outline is the final step before a writer actually begins to put it all down in screenplay form, but it contains every scene and all the details of that scene.  Each scene has been thought through. 
A writer knows the specific purpose of the scenes, why it must be there, it's function, how it moves the story forward, the conflict, any potential foreshadowing in the scene, what it reveals about the characters, how it's wedded to and serves the theme or premise, and so forth.  And before you work on the detailed outline you've already completed a shorter outline with all the major crisis points for each act.  In other words, the whole story has been thought out in great detail prior to writing the actual script.  If you do this, when you go to write the script you are just basically following the outline, so you should not get writer's block. 

Now, that doesn't mean you won't still labor and fuss over exactly the right collection of words you'll use to get it down on paper.  That may still happen, and it's sometimes a frustrating and tedious task.  I tell writers, the first time through just get the story down.  The magic is in the re-writes.  But, most writer's block is a product of not having practical steps to take toward the writing of a story, or knowing where you are in a process.  When I teach screenwriting, I give writers a practical, step-by-step approach, so on any given day during the writing process you know exactly what work needs to be done.  Writers should never sit staring at a blank screen saying, "I don't know what to do today."
(Please check out Tony Savant's online screenwriting course at:

SJ: After being the Artistic Director at Playhouse West in Los Angeles for a number of years, you recently opened a new branch of the school in Philadelphia. What motivated you to move and open this new branch?

TS: I'll try to make this a short one, because it's more personal.  First off, after more than twenty-two years of teaching at Playhouse West in Los Angeles, if anyone would have told me last year that right now I'd be back in Pennsylvania teaching acting I'd have said they were nuts.  But now here I am and I am enjoying this new challenge immensely.  But, to answer the
Scene Night at Playhouse West
question, it all happened last spring and it happened fast.  Basically, my wife has been suffering from several difficult health issues for the past few years.  Stress has been one of the factors.  Los Angeles can be a stressful place to live, plus the stress of not having any family close to us when we needed help constantly added to the stress.  Basically, one of her doctors in L.A. told us that unless we lowered my wife's stress level, she may never regain her health.  Well, she's still so young so I knew we had to do something.  After weighing our options, we decided that moving closer to where all my family lives seemed like the best solution.  The decision was not easy, but in the end it was the right thing to do. 

And I'm happy to say it seems to working, and that she has made great progress health wise.
As far as what motivated me to open the branch of the school out here.  At first I didn't even conceive of opening a branch of Playhouse West in Philly I thought I might try to find a way to teach out here, but honestly, I didn't know if that would work out or if I would just end up selling cars or something.  The only thing that mattered to me was to get my wife healthy again.  But when I told Robert Carnegie we were moving back east, and would I have his blessing to teach somewhere, he just said, "You'll open a branch of the school there.  We'll call it "Playhouse West - Philadelphia."  He was confident I could do it, and I'm eternally grateful to him for allowing me to continue to be associated with the school I feel like I've helped to build and make what it is.  I am still working on the Playhouse West Film Festival, I still oversee the website and stuff, and so I am still very involved with the school in Los Angeles.

SJ: We noticed that Jim Parrack (TRUE BLOOD, BATTLE LOS ANGELES) has been out to the new Playhouse West Branch in Philadelphia. What is Jim's involvement in the school and does he have future plans for Philadelphia?

Q&A with Jim Parrack at Playhouse West - Philadelphia
TS: Jim Parrack has been a wonderful supporter and friend through this whole process of moving and opening the new school.  He promised me once I had things started he'd come to visit and help stir up some enthusiasm.  His first visit was back in October.  We did a Q&A with him in the studio located in West Chester one night, and he guest taught some classes in the Philadelphia studio.  Jim seemed immediately hit it off with the students, and I guess they inspired him to want to come back and do something with them.  Shortly after he returned to L.A. he told me he wanted to come back and do some kind of film project with all the students here.  I was thrilled, of course, and so were the students. 

He returned again in November and December to work on developing the script and see how he'd cast it.  Then his original idea began to grow, I guess.  What started out as a probably an idea for a short, experimental class film project eventually turned into an idea for a feature film.  He came out again in January for more rehearsal and location scouting, then he returned in February and began principle photography on the 18th for a three week shoot, which just wrapped up.  And he's coming back in April to finish shooting the rest of it.  The entire student body of Playhouse West - Philadelphia is involved and the entire cast is comprised of my students.  I also have a small role in it.  I'm happy to say that Jim has been thrilled with how good everyone is and how well it's gone.  The whole thing has brought enormous enthusiasm.  Plus, the students are getting a tremendous opportunity to directly apply what they are learning in the classes to a real professional situation on a film set.  In some ways they are getting spoiled because Jim's just a fantastic director and works so well with actors.  Anyway, it's just been phenomenal.  I will never be able to thank Jim enough for all he's done for me and for what he's meant to Playhouse West - Philadelphia

SJ: What do you envision for this school?

Playhouse West Film Festival
with Heather Morris star of Glee and student at Playhouse West - LA
TS: What I envision for Playhouse West -Philadelphia is just a smaller, similar model of what is going out in L.A.  I know that there are not going to be thousands of actors moving to Philly to pursue acting like there is in Los Angeles, so the pool of serious actors is always going to be much smaller here.  But, there are many serious actors in and around the city, and on the east coast, who want serious, professional training without moving to Los Angeles.  In fact I've found the folks who are now training with me to be very dedicated and teachable, and many are learning the work at a very fast pace.  But I also know that many of the truly talented people who want careers in this business are going to eventually migrate out to Los Angeles.  In fact a few already have, which is fine with me.  So, the model of the school will be smaller out here, but I want us to do everything the school in L.A. does in terms of the training, performing plays, doing film projects, scene nights, and even our own east coast Playhouse West Film FestivalMany of these things are already happening.  Our first Scene Night was March 23rd, many film projects are going on in addition to Jim Parrack's, I have plans to direct several one-act plays for this summer.  So, we are doing it. 

What we don't have right now is a studio or theaters of our own yet.  We rent a space above the Heery Casting office in Philadelphia two days per week and  we also rent a space in West Chester at a performing arts charter school.  But eventually I want a space that is all ours.  I will also continue to look for innovative ways to improve the program and the school, as I've always done.  If you don't think you can get better or do things better than you become stagnant and eventually even the things you did do well begin to erode.  I'm not one to rest on my laurels.  Next year I want to be better than this year.

SL: What's next for Tony Savant?

TS: What's next?  Hmmm...?  I guess I'm already doing what's next.  Right now I'm concentrated on building up this new branch of Playhouse West and training these actors out here in Philadelphia to be the best actors in the country.  Philadelphia, as I learned only after moving out here, has never really had a serious, reputable acting school with ongoing training.  I had no idea.  So, I definitely want to change that.  This is a great city for the arts, and when actors anywhere in the country are searching for a school to get serious training, I want Playhouse West - Philadelphia to be one of the ones they consider.  I want this program and school here to be the envy of any program anywhere.  I think that's the only way to approach anything.  You have to want to be the best you can possibly be, which is exactly what I constantly tell my students.  So, we are off to a great start, we have achieved a great deal in a short period of time, but I am also not taking anything about it for granted.  I will keep working hard.  You know, I had gained a certain status after all those years in L.A.   There was great security for me there and it was very hard to leave that and feel like I'm starting all over.  But now I am really enjoying this challenge and in many ways I know it's already made me a better teacher.  I've love teaching, but honestly, right now I'm enjoying teaching more than I ever have.  I will also continue to write and direct and be creative, and feel like being out here in the east is providing me with a whole new palette to work with.  It's been a blessing and a real treat so far. 

Playhouse West - Philadelphia