The Melbourne Actor’s lab is one of the most recent additions to Australia’s culture capital where thousands flock each year to gain training in the performing arts. But with so many schools already established is there room for one more? Australian Stage’s Dione Joseph caught up with owner Peter Kalos (Director, Actor and Teacher) to find out what was so special about MAL.
Dione Joseph: Peter, you’ve started something new here in Melbourne, a studio where actors don’t just get a quick fix but ongoing training. But let’s start on a personal note, how did your journey start to bring you to where you are today?
Peter Kalos: Storytelling! My father is a great storyteller, and that fed my imagination as a child. I remember sitting in the back of the car as he drove and I would look at people and wonder: ‘Who is this person? Where is he going? What is he doing? What’s his story?’ I would look for a reaction, behaviour or something in them that would feed the story in my mind. Then I wanted to keep that going, keep ‘living’ or imagining the other person’s story. I still have that today.
DJ: As a student how did theatre make its way into your life?
PK: I started skipping school at a young age, and I would go play pinball machines. After I ran out of money then only place that was free to hang out all day was the library in the city. It’s there that I would sit and read books on acting, plays etc. Somewhere I found a school called ‘Tate Theatre’ to this day I have no clue where in Melbourne it was, but I remember my father dropping me off and picking me up. I was around 12 and didn’t fit. All I remember was my teacher had a very clear English accent and was always trying to clean up my speech. I mumbled back then, I still do. I would then find ads in the paper about auditions and that’s how I got my first roles: I was in Brigadoon in Box Hill somewhere, I played a soldier or something, and then I was in Amadeus somewhere in Ringwood, but I never told my parents. I just told them it was a school project.
DJ: Originally from Melbourne what made you decide to go to LA, and stay there for 20 long years?
PK: While I was studying at P&M Studios based in Melbourne, Marion McKenzie (Peter Sardi’s wife at the time) told me I should try LA. And of course when you’re 20 it all sounds so exciting. But LA didn’t fulfil my expectations. Well, not all of them anyway. I didn’t win an academy award which is what we all dream about on the way there. It’s like gamblers flying to Vegas, they’re all excited and can’t wait to get there. And then you see the same people flying back, bitter, quiet, wounded.
DJ: What were some of your highlights in the USA?
PK: My artistic highlights included meeting Mark Marno (my teacher at Strasberg, who taught me about acting), Stella Adler (who taught me about script and character) and Barry Primus (who taught me about being a real artist). Through Barry I got to know all sorts of people on an intimate basis: Bob DeNiro, Marty Scorsese, Bette Midler, Marty Landau, Chris Walken, Mickey Rourke, Al Pacino. I met a bunch of others but they were just brief meetings. But the above, I still talk to every now and then, but they do warn you, if we become friends, we’re friends we don’t talk shop. It’s almost like the scene in the Matrix: you can have this pill and forget you were ever here, or take this one and go into another world. When people like these individuals invite you to be a friend that’s it, you don’t talk acting, you talk about gas stoves, kids, etc.
DJ: Twenty years later you decided to come back to Melbourne. What made you come back?
PK: I spent many years in Hollywood and I was always ‘close’ more as a writer than an actor. Because of all the plays I read, and partly due to Stella (Adler) I developed a knack for writing dialogue. I worked as a script doctor and came close many, many times to signing million dollar deals to selling a script. But then six months of negotiations and at the last moment something happened. People died, people got sick, people got fired etc. That constant high and low can really get to you after a while. And it did. I didn’t want to spend another year or so trying another shot at it. My kids were getting older (15 & 8) and I thought if I don’t leave now, then I’ll never leave. If I stay here say 5 more years my kids will have established themselves in LA and it would be unfair for me to leave. I didn’t want to die in LA so in my mind it was now or never.
DJ: Did you find you made the transition from actor to teacher quite easily or are they still both ongoing?
PK: I have worked with many, many acting teachers and I got to know their syllabus and how to teach. I also got to a point where sometime teachers would be out of town in New York and I would take over for them because at that stage I knew the work so well. So the transition was quite easy actually. Setting up the Lab was my first priority but I also have been cast in Six Lovers, directed by Laurent Boulanger and will be working with him next year as well in a new film called The Jerk Off. And as far as theatre goes I will be directing Angels in America at Chapel off Chapel early next year as well. So I have a lot going on, I just have to make time to get it all done.
DJ: What are some of the fundamental tenets you go by?
PK: If I think its shit, so will your audience!
DJ: Why do you think Melbourne needs an Actor's Lab and how is yours different from the dozens of other schools around?
PK: I spent close to 20 years in acting classes. I mean I really did. People don’t seem to understand that. What I teach will take you close to $100,000 in tuition to gather. And I did spend that much. It’s like chess, we can all learn the moves in ten minutes, but to really get the game it takes a lifetime. Acting is the same. Many other schools have teachers that studied, six months here, six months there, but like I tell my students: ‘Can we go to a school and study brain surgery by taking weekend courses, and brush up classes?’
People think acting is easy but it’s not – not good acting anyway. We can all learn our lines and fake it… but great acting takes many years to master. One plus one is always two in the accounting world, but with actors, it always varies, that's the tricky part - what you feel today you won’t feel tomorrow, so you constantly have to change and adapt your craft because the nature of the body and emotions. So what I teach cannot be compared to other schools here because it really is EXACTLY what they teach at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and at the Stella Adler Conservatory. Simply because I was there for so long. I’m not saying it’s better, I’m just saying that if you’re looking to study what they teach there, then my teaching is more refined than most other teachers here in Melbourne. And I’m not boasting about that, it just is what it is. When you’ve been in rehearsals with people like Pacino, DeNiro, Scorsese, then you get a much deeper understating of the work. I got that understanding but it took years.
DJ: And do you think Melbourne is ready for the skills and insights you have to offer?
PK: The work isn’t for everyone I’ll be the first to admit that. And many times I realize that what I teach is above some people’s level. See, people here are looking for a ‘quick fix’. They come to me and say ‘I have an audition in two days, can you make me Brando?’ Of course I say no. It doesn’t work that way because the body and mind take time to break from habits and to open up. I have many students that have been with me for six months and then come to me and say ‘Oh My God I just got it!!’ and in my mind I’m like ‘Wow… that’s only step three... wait a while see what else happens’!
But I do have a high rate of people coming to one class, and then leaving. They’re just not ready to commit, they want a quick fix, fast answer and that’s it. I can only teach what I’ve learned… the above people I mentioned work in exactly the same way that I teach. One other thing I found in Melbourne is that students get swayed by names, the latest trend is Meisner. In LA no one gives a shit who you work with because at the end of the day the only thing that matters is what happens when you’re on stage or when I say ‘action’? No one is going to ask you ‘Are you using Adler, Strasberg or Meisner?’ No one cares. Here in Melbourne they’ve become catch phrases. If I’m doing a love scene with Halle Berry, there’s no Adler, Strasberg or Meisner, I just need to do my job. Ultimately, that’s what I teach, we start by seeing what do you have first and then we go from there. Forget whose technique it is, no one cares.
DJ: Your latest course is a Director's course. Who is it for and why is it necessary?
PK: For directors! Many acting schools both here and in LA teach directors about lights, sets, etc. and then at the last minute call in the actors, do a run through and then shoot. Most directors have a ‘set’ product in their mind also and want to shoot that at the end of the day, there’s no room for the magic of creative collaboration. Directors tell actors ‘This is what I want just do it!’ See if they had an actor like DeNiro on the set I’d doubt they would work that way. Most likely they’d go up to Bob and say ‘Let’s see what you came up with’ and then they’d shoot around that or they would direct his ‘product’ to fit the bigger picture which is the director’s vision. But just to cut actors out like that closes the door to many possibilities. I blame the actors for that too because many actors turn up just having learned their lines and simply have a ‘generic’ option. They hope that the director shows them what to do, but it’s not the director’s job, he has a thousand other things on his mind. So with this workshop which Barry Primus used to teach in Los Angeles (I would take over when he was out of town) I hope to get the directors to understand what the actor goes through and then how to create an environment to help the actor open up and try to work in a collaborative effort. Then magic can occur. See it’s how DeNiro works with good directors, they get together, talk about the character, Bob will tell them I came up with this and that and then (on the day many times) the director will incorporate Bobs’ ideas into the day’s shoot. You can’t just tell an actor ‘Do it this way’ and end of story. You’ve got to be open to their ideas as well, but then the actor better do his work also and really, really come up with honest and original work. We need good directors and good actors to stay here in Melbourne and make magic in both the theatre and the film world.
DJ: Thank you Peter for taking the time to share your story and that of MAL. We wish you every success in engaging and encouraging Melbourne’s artistic talent.
Melbourne Actors lab runs courses for Adults, Teenagers and Children as well as for Directors and Script Writers.
Top Right - Rober DeNiro and Peter Kalos