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Interview with Tessa LaNeve, Director of ESPA at Primary Stages

Einhorn School of Performing Arts' Tessa LaNeve discusses the origin and vision of the school.

Tessa LaNeve
An actor's work is never complete—which is why a lot of us choose to stay in school, brushing up on our skills. Post graduation, I've taken numerous classes, which I've touched on in previous posts. When I thought about interviewing someone on the importance of continuous training, it seemed natural to call on Tessa LaNeve, Director of the Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA) and New Arts Programming at Primary Stages (PS). ESPA is recognized as one of the best programs of its type--and I've benefited greatly from the classes I've taken there.

When did you know you wanted a career that centered on theater?

Preschool. All the kids had to perform a two-second something, and my mom taped the whole thing. The camera caught me offstage, pushing kids onto the stage when it was their cue, and mouthing their lines. It was clear, even then, I was meant to be a stage manager. That was my first and only theatrical role as an actor.

There are lots of theater schools. What "gap" did PS want to fill by establishing ESPA?

ESPA's mission is to honor the playwright by creating safe spaces to scribble as creatively as they like and by providing the full play development process, from table reads to public presentations and performances. As ESPA grew, it became a hub of awesome playwrights and actors. In the interest of helping these rock stars build relationships, we created collaborative programs that highlight the importance of having a theatrical community and family.

You are the Director of ESPA and New Arts Programming at Primary Stages. How did that happen?

Casey Childs (executive producer and founder of Primary Stages) stopped by my desk one day and said, 'We should have a school, starting this September. You should do that.' I freaked and called some professional writer-friends, hoping they'd teach. I put an ad in Playbill. Suddenly, we had four writing classes and one acting class running with a total of 37 students. We're now verging on 2,000 students and over 100 faculty members. Had you asked me six years ago what I would be doing today, I certainly wouldn't have said anything in the realm of education. But here I am, and I couldn't be happier.

How have you built a sense of community at ESPA?

By bringing the writers, actors, and directors together – like in the real theater world. Theater doesn't thrive in a classroom. With programs like Detention, Honor Society, and ESPA*Drills, the goal was to speed-date the artists so they could find collaborative partners and make play babies. As tongue-in-cheek as that sounds, it really is the spirit of ESPA: be goofy, don't compete, take risks, fall down, get back up, meet people, support people, and have fun! It doesn't take a degree or certificate to prove you're an artist; it takes a family to encourage you to take risks and become stronger for doing so.

Were you conscious of creating an environment where everyone feels it's safe to let go and have fun?

I don't think it was a conscious choice as much as it felt like the ONLY choice. How can you feel comfortable to play and take risks when you're in a building that feels cold and competitive? Why would you want to jump head first into a brand new play if everyone around you is dark and twisty? We've had actors try out writing for the first time; I've seen playwrights scrap entire acts of their plays after hearing them aloud in class; hell, even faculty members have taken classes to sharpen their skills. Kelly AuCoin, who teaches 21st Century Texts, took our Singing For Non-Singers workshop, and now he won't stop humming in the halls.

How have you gone about developing a top-notch faculty?

First, we cultivated instructors from the Primary Stages Writers Group and staff. The faculty quickly felt that ESPA was an important new home base and encouraged their friends to teach. Tanya Barfield suggested Julian Sheppard and Francine Volpe; Cusi Cram suggested Keith Bunin; Betsy Aidem suggested Randy Graff… and so on. So in short, the faculty grew by a beautiful and organic desire to build a family.

And what about building careers? What role does ESPA play in doing that?

Gosh. Where do I begin? Certainly, our main role IS to train great theater artists – but we are a family that extends beyond the classes. Nothing warms our hearts more than when faculty casts/hires students for their productions – and vice versa! There are so, so many examples of this. Additionally, two students received major off-Broadway productions in the past year. Four students were accepted into Juilliard, another into Yale, and yet another into UT Austin. We've had acting students cast in touring productions; one of them, Michael Rose, was in the national tour of Wicked – and was just cast in the Broadway production. These kinds of big career steps happen ALL the time.

"Study; find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money. Do plays. It's not worth it if you are just in it for the money. You have to love it."
Philip Seymour Hoffman