The Miami Herald
Sunday April 18, 1999
Story by Lori Teresa Yearwood

I was going to get discovered. I just knew. Or so I firmly believed when I called Gloria Estefan's acting coach to enroll in his classes.

I was deluded, of course. But I didn't know that then.

"People tell me I'm very dramatic," I told Stewart Solomon, owner of Creative Workshops in Aventura. He listened. Intently,
I thought.

My whole life I've believed I have this talent. It just needed tapping into, this talent. So it could, you know, flourish. You know that feeling, right?

I have already been on stage, I told him.

"When I danced in ballets."

Fantastic, he said, and recommended the Wednesday night, six week, beginner class. Cost: $195. A mere pittance, I thought, considering the People Magazine possibilities.

"I'm in," I said.

Little did I know what, exactly, I was getting into.

OK, so I like to analyze things. OK, I thought I would get to analyze myself and all the characters I was about to bring so fully to life.

I told you I was deluding myself.

"This ain't therapy," Stewart told us that first night." "This is acting. Please do not go back to your childhood and try to remember your most painful moment so that you can feel sad. You don't have to suffer here. And besides, I think that school of acting, that fetus-position-recall stuff, is some pretty sick s____."


  Get outside yourself, he kept saying. React to what is in front of you. I tried. But I was so busy wondering whether the other students thought I was talented I monitored their facial expressions that being in the moment was impossible.

Do it anyway, Stewart said.

Fine, I thought. You, sir are Gloria Estefan's acting coach. You got her through her big motion-picture debut, a role as a second-grade schoolteacher in Miramax's Music of the Heart co-starring two intimidatingly renowned veterans Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett.

So, you, sir, know what you are talking about.

Unfortunately, Stewart made us play games. Like making us walk across the classroom, pretending we were holding some kind of object. We were supposed to be so involved in this object that everyone would know what it was by the way we looked at it, held it, reacted to it.

I, of course, froze. I tried to conjure an object, but all that came to mind was an amorphous blob. I wondered whether Gloria blobbed.

"Don't worry about trying to think of something," Stewart shouted. "Just go into action. I promise you I will have an idea."

Our first assignment was to find a scene we liked and to memorize a few lines so we could practice it for the second class.

Wow, I thought this class is deep.

My friend Lynn and I wound up as partners in Stewart's class. Lynn is 48, a beautiful, tall red-head, an executive secretary who, like me, harbors the secret desire of being discovered.

She thinks she'd be great in commercials. While she was in the hospital recovering from plastic surgery, a nurse who had been in a couple of commercials told her she looked like a natural.

"I think I might be able to act," Lynn told me the next day.

"Oh! Do you think I could do it, too?" I asked.

She gave the only answer a friend could: "Of course!" And said it so enthusiastically that at that very instant I envisioned strolling down the cosmetics aisle at Walgreens and being discovered, too.

So as you can imagine, we took picking a scene very seriously.

"Let's really go for something we can stink our teeth into," Lynn said.

We selected a scene featuring a homeless schizophrenic and a waitress. Our meeting place: a swank, New York restaurant where she would try to throw me out for my unsavory behavior.

We got together at her house in Hialeah Gardens that weekend, but not simply to "go over our lines." No.

We dressed up to get in touch with our characters. We hunted for props. (She wore an apron, tied her hair back with a black clip bow, got a table, a vase, a glass, and a pamphlet that looked like a menu. I put on some grungy sweat pants and a ripped shirt, and then teased my already big hair to the point where it looked like a clown's frizzy Afro.) We laughed hysterically. Partly because of how dumb we looked. Partly because we knew we were going to be good. Really good.

I am not, generally, soft-spoken. However I can be extremely self-conscious, and it is a big stretch for me to get up on stage, spew obscenities, flap my arms and generally act like a lunatic on a medication holiday in front of 14 people sitting primly in their chairs. I mean, come on, the real Lori talks like a Valley Girl yes, I grew up in California in the '80s. But, hey, you " "create" yourself in show business, right?

That Wednesday night, Lynn and I showed up for class 30 minutes early for another rehearsal. We were positively giddy, the first team to volunteer to go on stage.

We smiled conspiratorially at each other. Then we acted like we had never acted before which unbeknownst to us, was about to become extremely, embarrassingly obvious.

  I wailed like a banshee.

Gyrated like a maniac.

Frothed at the mouth.

And Lynn, I thought, was every bit the stuffy, frustrated waitress.

The adrenaline coursing through me told me were on a roll. Never mind the woman in the front row ignoring us as she read her script. Or the guy in the back row who seemed to be enjoying the best daydream of his life. We let it all hang out.

Then we waited for the applause, the praise from the stunned students who couldn't believe this was our first acting class. Then we waited some more.

"Well," Stewart asked from his spot against the back wall after what seemed like 30 minutes of a root canal. "How do you think you did?"

"Uh," I said, trying not to sound crushed, "I guess we needed work."

"You sound really disappointed," Stewart said.

"Yeah," I said, staring at the stage floor.

"Well it's your first time," he said.

"Yeah," I said.

"Awww, I know What's wrong," he said lightly. "You won an Oscar on your way over here in the car didn't you?"

I laughed my best performance all night.

At first, I had a love-hate relationship with Stewart. I thought he was so funny, so obviously well trained in his craft. I also thought he was shallow.

Every time we sat down to talk about his life for this story, he seemed so closed. It took a while for me to realize it was me...not Stewart...who was really swimming in the shallow end.

"Tell me about your parents," I would say.

"They were great," he would say. "My father was very funny."

"Can you give me an example of how he was funny?"

"Honey, I can't go back that far."

Or I would ask him about his life in New York.

"Gawd, that was a long time ago," Stewart would say.

"I know, but I'd love to hear a story about what it was like for you to become as actor."

"I really can't remember," Stewart repeated. "Let's talk about now."

  This man is hiding something, I thought. Or just so full of ego. It took 12 weeks for Stewart to give me someone's phone number who knew him in New York he'd lost contact with him, he insisted.

Finally, he surrendered a number for David Brunoehler, an old acting pal. Finally, things began to click.

"The first time I saw Stewart he was performing," David said. "I thought, 'God, I wish I could do what he does.'"

David began taking classes form Stewart, who helped found the National Improvisational Theater and its workshops. Soon after, Stewart invited David to join the company, in which nine actors would create entire plays and operas in front of audience. "We would show the audience a play and the next night you could buy the script we'd created."

It was classic theater-by-the-seat of-the-pants. In other words, pure Stewart.

"Because he doesn't need or want or allow a critical eye to get in front of what is in front of him." David said inscrutably. "He's not evaluating everything he sees."

In other words, a man who: "has no rear-view mirrors. But he's got flood lights on his dashboard, I can tell you that."

A light began to shine in my head. Maybe I had been looking in the wrong direction. Maybe real actors don't analyze as much as I do. Maybe they do just what Stewart keeps telling me they simply "go into action."

In the eight years they worked together, "I never saw him put any attention on his past or anyone else's," David said. "He was too busy looking at things that were in front of us. So if he says he doesn't remember something it's just because his switchboard is loaded."

I ask Stewart what it was like to be a fledgling actor in New York.

"Well, I remember standing on a street corner in an overcoat in the freezing cold eating a grilled cheese sandwich because I couldn't afford anything else and the wind was blowing up my a__."

I ask for more details.

Stewart rolls his eyes dramatically.

"Well, I was so poor I didn't have the money to pay for a bus token so I would walk in the snow to classes and I would think to myself: 'Who made this s____ up, that you have to suffer for your art?'"

Wow, I say. What gave you the strength to persevere?

Well, he says: "One day I just decided I was going to New York. I had a job working as a salesman in my father's business. I had a brand new Buick Skylark. I had an apartment in Coconut Grove. And I had an internal, compelling feeling that, that if I was ever going to do anything in acting, I needed to do it now."

Never mind that his parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. (Stewart's family lived in North Miami Beach. His father headed a firm that represented 20 companies that sold everything from Eastern imports to luggage and shoes. Stewart's mother was a homemaker.) Anyway, from "my first conscious memory," Stewart declares, "I have wanted to be an actor."

His sister, Andrea Solomon in New Jersey, vouched for her big brother: "When anything theatrical came to town he was always begging to go: road shows, Broadway show, whatever. It was always, "come on, let's go, come with me, will you go for me?' So I said, 'OK, OK, I'll go.' And Stewart would sit there and watch the actors, transfixed, gazing at the stage and loving every minute of it."

But alas, this is not a fairy tale Stewart was to face many rejections, and it was to begin as soon as he tried out for his elementary school's rendition of Peter Pan.

"I wanted to be a Lost Boy," he said. "But I didn't get in. I felt worthless, really I did."

Luckily, by high school, acting began to look like something he might excel at, after all. "The first time I ever saw Stewart do anything, he was in high school in a play called Father of the Bride and I remember watching him, my mouth hanging open," his sister says.

His parents weren't thrilled about his career choice. Though they weren't totally hostile, either. Fine, go to New York, they said, get it out of your system. Suitcases and a couple thousand dollars in hand his father bankrolled him Stewart hopped a plane to New York.

Like any serious acting student, he took acting lessons. Three to four times a week. "I was a kid in a candy store," Stewart remembers. "I was home."

"Look, honey, acting is a business," Stewart says. "It's more attainable for an actor to be a working actor than a star. The grim statistics say so. Only so many people can be a star.

"It's as if as soon as people cross this country's shores or are born here, people think they're entitled to be a movie star. And the truth is that you work and work and work and then take a number and get in line."

Stewart acted whenever and wherever he could. Sometimes in elegant theaters, like the Lincoln Center and The Waldorf-Astoria and the Chelsea Westside Theatre. Sometimes on the streets in community festivals or grimy little pubs.

And as the years sped by, and he wasn't getting the kind of parts he wanted, Stewart took matters into his own hand and became a founding member of the National Improvisational Theater's premiere award-winning ensemble, Interplay. 

Stewart had some heady, magical times in New York. Times when he was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.

There was only one problem.

"I realized I was always going to be poor," he says. "And I didn't like it."

Somewhere in the distance, Stewart heard a robust lady singing.

"So I said that's it," Stewart says simply. "And I left. Not because I was a failure, but because it was time to move on."

Still, that must have been sad for you, I say hoping to dig up some artist angst.

"Look, you move on with your life, honey," he says. "Otherwise, you go psycho."

Two weeks after my debut performance, I began to hear a voice, too. Only it wasn't distant. And it wasn't singing.

"Boy, were you kidding yourself," it yelled. "Get out now. Before it's too late."

I told Stewart I was frustrated.

"You've had three classes," he said. "What do you expect?"

"I don't know," I said.

I was lying. I wanted to be as good as the others in the class, the ones who cried when they rehearsed. And OK, I admit it, the ones who got applause.

"It's just acting," Stewart kept telling us. Something that's not about talent, but hard work. "It's a craft," he kept saying. "Anyone who is willing to work can dot it."

Well, I was willing to work. Or was I? Our next class was a movement class. I raised my hand in protest: "I've been taking ballet for practically my entire life," I said. "I know how to move."

"Ballet is linear, movement on stage is not," Stewart said. "It's the people who think they can move who usually need the class the most," he added.

So I shut up and I went. But I did not like it we spent 40 minutes turning on our heels and pretending to answer a phone. "Pivot turns," the guest teacher called them. Acting began to look more and more like work. Work that maybe I wasn't so eager to do, after all.

The fat lady's voice was now inside my ear, singing: "Lori, you do not belong here. . .

So two weeks short of completing the six-week course, I quit.

One never knows how one might be discovered. Today, three months after crashing and burning in Stewart's class, I have the story to prove it.

So it wasn't in a Walgreens. So I was on the phone with Joyce Glusman, casting agent at Martin and Donald's Talent Agency in Hollywood. Joyce, who it turns out lives in the same building I do says Stewart is absolutely terrific.

"He brings out the best in each person, no question about it," she says. "I went to watch his classes, you know. And there was one student, who started out average. And by the time she finished her monologue she was fabulous. Stewart is amazing." We keep talking.

I tell her how I had come to truly appreciate Stewart's ability to be in the moment. And that, to be honest, I was sorry I had dropped out. Like, OK, acting wasn't for the faint of heart, you know? And like, OK, I admit it, I want something easier, a quick fix.

Anyway, I have this way of stretching "like" into three syllables: Liiiikeee.

Suddenly, Joyce ask me if I had ever considered doing valley girl voice-overs. "Liiiikeee, yeah. I say, all totally excited and everything."

"That sounded so authentic," Joyce says. "You should do a demo tape."

Oh. My. Gawwwwd!

So like, I have been discovered after all.

Reprinted with permission of the Miami Herald.


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