Actor Eric Sheffer Stevens (who played the 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-Off Broadway roles, grad school, and even with his recurring role in the soap – where he exercised different acting muscles.
Susan Dansby: Were you interested in acting when you were a kid?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Yeah. 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 wasn’t something they would ever ask me to do. Or anybody would ask me to do. So, I never pursued it until I was in college, and I auditioned for the theater program at Wheaton and got in.
But I maintained a literature major. That’s what my degree was in. And afterwards, I moved to New York to pursue it. To sort of see where it went. So, I did a bunch of small stuff here — just through the trade papers [i.e., Backstage and Show Business Weekly] that I would audition for, on the lower East side, and down in the Village, and in church basements.
Susan Dansby: The Off-Off- Broadway route?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Oh yeah. And there’s a lot of value in that stuff.
Susan Dansby: I absolutely agree.
Eric Sheffer Stevens: But it can drive you mad, also. And I studied here [in New York City], with Michael Howard, which also kind of changed the way I approach everything, and changed the way I work. He really kicked my butt on a lot of different things.
Then I went to grad school in ’98 in Alabama. It is primarily classical; but they do new work, and contemporary plays. It’s not all Shakespeare, despite the name.
Susan Dansby: So the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is not just a theater? It’s a school?
Eric Sheffer Stevens:
Well, they’re affiliated with the University of Alabama, which is why I’m such a huge Crimson Tide fan. So you’re accredited, and you do your actual class work through University of Alabama; but you’re a resident of the company as a non-Equity member of the company.
And so you’re getting professional experience, and in rehearsal with people that you really admire a lot. By far the more important part of the training was actually 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, theater history. But other than that, it was just being immersed in rehearsal, and doing shows.
Susan Dansby: And you mentioned Michael Howard. He’s an acting teacher?
Eric Sheffer Stevens: Yeah, and has been for 50 years, here in the City. He has a studio here, and is still teaching. He’s fantastic, and has been mentor and just a great teacher, to numerous people. So, I was lucky to get in on that for like 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 so quickly. And the writers call it a “first draft” medium. Whatever the acting term would be for that, it’s probably kind of the same thing. Where you are more going with your instincts than having a lot of time to delve into the text.
So, the 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: Yeah, it’s funny, too; but it’s its own very unique experience — which I thought was fantastic exercise. It trains a whole different set of muscles. So, you can’t be in your head too much. You do as much preparation as you can memorization wise, then you sort of make instant choices.
And because we don’t really rehearse in the soaps, a you don’t have a lot of time with the script — you’ve only had it for a couple of days before you go in to actually shoot it — then they just put you down there, on the floor, 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 kind of do it.
And that is also very helpful — to balance your thinking side or your “background study” side.