About Rip Claassen
BEYOND THE BIO: TnT Artistic Director Rip Claassen discusses his teaching philosophy, the “Mount Rushmore of Acting Teachers,” and how TnT is different.
Question: What is your background, and where did you receive your own theatrical training?
Rip: I’m the grandchild of vaudevillians, and grew up surrounded by my grandparents’ vaudeville cronies, hearing their stories. As a military kid, I lived all over the world but spent many summers and holidays with my grandparents on Long Island. The vaudevillians were always bemoaning the fact that young artists don’t have anyplace to make their mistakes and learn their craft. For them, vaudeville had been that place. So I started thinking about theatrical training early on. I also developed a lifelong passion for the American theatre forms, but as my family traveled around I took classes and workshops everywhere, and was exposed to many different forms of theatre.
For a while I went to high school in El Paso, Texas. My drama teacher, James Lawler, had been a Western movie star but was blacklisted and ended up teaching high school. He really encouraged me to study everywhere I went, and I did so all over Europe. In various countries I studied Commedia dell’Arte, Mime, British Music Hall and Pantomime. Back in the US, I studied the methods of Ute Hagen, Constantin Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler – I like to call them the “Mount Rushmore of acting teachers.” These are names all my students hear again and again.
I completed high school in Europe in 1981, and spent a year or so bumming around taking classes, then returned stateside. I already had a dream of running a theatre company, but at that time there were no college programs I could find on how to do that. So I took a different approach, I was ‘school jumping,’ going to one university to study with someone who wrote one textbook, then off to another university to study with someone who wrote another textbook. I was tending bar, waiting tables, and spending every penny I earned on acting classes. Acting, directing, any other class I could find. I took seminars with anyone in the theatre world who was giving seminars.
I ended up at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts here in DC. It’s a small school that has produced some of the area’s finest actors. I studied with people like Davy Marlon Jones; Janet Stanford, who is now artistic director of Imagination Stage; Wayne Roussell; and Tom Ribbink, who had been involved in over 300 Broadway musicals – which means a lot of flops – talk about learning from your mistakes!
During the 1990s I worked on a lot of professional shows, mostly as an actor, though I ended up costuming as well. I have no degree in costuming, but I’ve costumed as many shows as I’ve acted in. That came about completely by accident! My grandfather had been a costumier as part of his long career. We shared a name – I’m Walter E. Claassen III, and I wasn’t yet using my nickname, Rip, professionally. I had auditioned for a show and got a call that they wanted to hire me, but when I showed up it turned out they were hiring me for the costume department because they were familiar with my grandfather’s reputation. I had to think about that for a minute, but it was a paying job and I was essentially living off Campbell’s soup at the time, so I said yes, that I’d be right back, and went across the street to People's Drug and bought a tape measure!
I worked in children’s theatre, directed Christian plays in churches, and did private acting coaching. I occasionally left the area to do a show, but DC became my home base. It was nice to have one, for the first time.
Question: How did you get into teaching?
Rip: I first started doing acting coaching to help out fellow actors who were preparing for auditions. That led to more and more private coaching. During that time I developed my “layered” approach to acting, taking the techniques of the four “Mount Rushmore” acting teachers and layering them on to create a multidimensional character. That is the approach I still use today.
I have developed a passion for how theatre training should, and should not, be done.
As I looked at DC’s theatre history, I realized that although it was the second biggest theatre district in the country, it wasn’t good enough. In most countries, the capital city is the major theatre city, but that’s not the case here. And looking around at the local actors, I felt that a lot of them didn’t have enough training. My fervent belief is that actor’s training must start young. But not too young. I don’t believe in beginning any of the “method” systems until about age 13 or 14. Optimal is between 15 and 24, because of the way the brain develops. According to medical science, early adolescents are just starting to be capable of abstract thought. There are a lot of abstracts involved with acting, and if you start serious acting training too early, you can do damage to the naturalness of the actor. Younger children will try to force, to give you what you want, but at that age acting should be more like play.
Question: How do you train students at Teens and Theatre?
Rip: At TnT, our program is about youth empowerment, focused on the accomplishments of the students. Many drama programs don’t let the kids do the tech work, don’t let them design and build the sets. When the adults step in and do most of the work for the kids, it takes away from the learning process.
In the old days of theatre, you were not just an actor. You were a company member. You helped build and paint the sets, sell tickets, market the show. Unionization of theatre has led to specialization, where everyone wants to occupy his own little nook, but I believe a well-trained actor knows what is going on in all five essential areas:
Artistic: Actors, director, designer
Technicians: Build what the designer wants, keep the show running
House: Ushers, concessions, box office
Marketing: Letting people know the shows are out there
Production: Management that makes the other departments work together
At TnT, our kids get opportunities to work in the five different areas. Which I get criticized a lot on. “It’s too much work!” So’s life. Theatre isn’t easy. Plus, you can’t beat the accomplishment of working as a team and knowing what everyone else is doing, and why.
I don’t believe in “tear them down, build them up.” You don’t have to be abusive to train an actor. I try to be nurturing, I have a strong emphasis on developing the skills. These skills translate into real life. Not only acting, but marketing, set-building, painting, sewing – all these skills are valuable. I believe in developing a “whole theatre” person who can use these skills in real situations. Our community service project, the medical acting, ties in with the philosophy of the Citizen-Actor – using one’s skills to help society in general.
Question: What other skills do you teach?
Rip: I encourage my students to all do their own makeup. We do a workshop to learn these skills. I have trained in theatrical makeup, including classes and tutorials with Bob Kelly and Dana Nye.
My parents gave me my first theatrical makeup kit for my 15th birthday. I took to theatrical makeup like a puppy to his first rawhide! I loved the idea of being able to make wounds, sci-fi makeup, knowing how makeup relates to creating these illusions.
Actors doing their own makeup is a tradition going back to the days of vaudeville. It was in film where the makeup specialist became commonplace. It saved the studios time and money to have the actors studying their lines while sitting in the makeup chair. In the theatre, everyone’s getting ready at the same time so they have to know how to do makeup.
Question: What reading do you recommend for your students?
Rip: I read every new acting book that comes out, and I read, as I recommend to my students, at least two plays a week. Because theatre is a literary art form.
FOR A LIST OF RIP'S FAVORITE ON-LINE RESOURCES FOR THEATRE STUDENTS, click here.