Karen Kohlhaas is one of those people in the New York theater world that everyone seems to know. And why not? She's a founding member of the world-renowned Atlantic Theater Company, an esteemed teacher at the Atlantic Acting School and of her own monologue and directing workshops, a well-respected stage director, and author of The Monologue Audition: A Practical Guide for Actors. Her latest book, How to Choose a Monologue For Any Audition, is an indispensable guide for the working actor. Outside of being an industry role model, I happen to know that Karen is also one of the most genuine people you will ever meet, both in and out of this business, and it's my absolute pleasure to have her share her experiences with all of you. Let's get to it!
1) What inspired you to start teaching?
I was inspired by my teachers David Mamet and William H. Macy. They emphasized building practical skills, developing your will, not waiting for someone to hire you, and to create your own work, and as a result we still have a company — Atlantic Theater Company and Acting School — 26 years later!
2) What are the most common mistakes you see actors make in the audition room?
Focusing on themselves vs. going in to tell a story. Not enjoying the experience because they are worried about themselves. An audition is a time to have an experience, meet some people, and plant some seeds. You are living your dream NOW. Does your audition look like it, or does it look like you are not quite ready? What do you need to do to BE ready? Find that and bring it into the room.
3) What do you love about working with actors?
As a teacher, I love it when I see people doing their BEST, being generous to those they are working with, and being willing to fail in order to learn something new. Those values can take someone very far. As a director I love it when everyone decides to work together to give birth to the story; when that becomes more important than anything else.
4) What are your thoughts on choosing to pursue a life in the arts?
I sort of jokingly sometimes say, "We've already ruined our lives by going into show business so we MUST have a good time." I actually mean it. We are doing something that most people don't have the guts to even try. So if you have made the choice, are you owning that? Or are you torturing yourself? If you are torturing yourself or skimping on what you put into this until you think it will "work out," you are not going all the way. You are not owning the very important choice you have made about what to do with your life. The things that make acting (directing, writing) thrilling also make them very difficult sometimes. There can be huge reversals in a career. That is part of the life, not something that will stop happening when you have reached a certain place.
5) You are also an accomplished director, how do you balance working as a director and a teacher?
I literally balance them by teaching mostly on my own scene study, monologues, cold reading, and directing so that I can build my schedule around the projects I want to do the most!
6) What are you currently working on?
I just did a very enjoyable reading of a new Wendy MacLeod play called Find and Sign at Naked Angels. We have done previous readings and it is a very fun play to work on.
Otherwise, right now I am concentrating on some documentary projects; I have fallen in love with documentary since first taking the Barefoot Workshops documentary intensive in the Mississippi Delta a few years ago. They are amazing; you learn everything and make a film in 12 days. Our first one played at festivals and even won an award.
7) Anything else you feel like sharing?
Yes — you can become good at acting and find ways to share that with people. I believe that acting, directing, and writing are service professions. I think many times people speculate and don't quite commit enough to find out what they are capable of. Or their choice to do this is fraught with drama and second-guessing. But if you are sincere, and truly and patiently work to build your skills, you can use them to have a fulfilling life. I think you also have to pay attention to and not neglect your finances, health, family, and personal goals. Each person can find their own unique, individual balance, and discover what their contribution can be.