Under the master’s baton

Austin Pendleton

Act One’s lights are shining brighter this week for having snared the distinguished actor, director and playwright Austin Pendleton for an exclusive Shakespearean workshop.

He will conduct the high-level April 25-27 workshop at Act One studios for only 10 participants. They were personally selected by Act One director Steve Merle from among the 35-40 actors who applied.

“We’re thrilled to have him,” says Merle, a Pendleton admirer since he first saw the actor 25 years ago in a Broadway musical, but had never met him before.

The connection with Act One was made by instructor Annabelle Armour personally knew and worked with Pendleton. Knowing he would be in Chicago this week on Steppenwolf business (he’s been a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble since 1987), she invited him to conduct the workshop and he readily accepted.

Pendleton also will share many secrets of success in the tough creative arts business – including the importance of finding just the right agent.

Early in his professional life, Pendleton says he had the good fortune to meet agent Deborah Coleman, who connected him with many powerful parts in film and theatre.

Coleman represented Pendleton for some 35 years, he says, and was instrumental in getting an audition for the star-making role of Motel the tailor in the New York stage production of “Fiddler on the Roof”(1964).

“She forced me to do things I didn’t want to do, like Shakespeare. She thought it would be good for me, good for my acting, which it always is, and good for my spirit,” he remarks.

Pendleton has been acting for 40 years and has appeared in more than 70 movies and TV shows. Among them: “A Beautiful Mind,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” one of his favorites, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and many comedies, costarring in “Catch-22,” “What’s Up Doc?” “The Muppet Movie, ” “My Cousin Vinny” and “Guarding Tess.”

Act One’s Steve Merle

His passion for theatre grew from watching his actress mother, Frances Manchester, rehearse her many roles. He worked at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre while attending Yale and headed for New York after graduating in 1961.

What is important for an actor is to enjoy the parts he plays, Pendleton says, “and not necessarily to accept a part because he’s good for one’s career.” Although, he concedes, actors also have to think in those terms.

His play, “Uncle Bob,” that’s currently enjoying an Off-Broadway run at the Soho Rep in New York, adds yet another notch to his reputation as one of the most diversified talents in the world of theatre.

Being involved in screen and stage early in his career challenged Pendleton, but films have brought him great acclaim as a busy supporting actor. “Because I started theatre first, film was really hard for me,” he admits. His debut was “an important role” in Otto Preminger’s gangster comedy, “Skiddo” (1968). “Otto took the time to sort of teach me. Of course, he understood film acting very well.

“Essentially, film is the same as theatre acting. But you don’t have to be that ‘big’ on the screen. A performance that is too theatrical and empty on film would probably look that same way on stage,” he says.

Pendleton rarely finds it difficult to shake off the persona adopted for a role, unless, perhaps, it’s an intense and highly dramatic character in a long-playing theatrical production.

“No matter how deep you go, you are usually able to work yourself back out of roles that aren’t long,” he notes. “But when it’s a long, long role with many scenes and a lot of things to deal with in the role, then sometimes it is hard.”

Pendleton is no stranger to Chicago. Last fall, the Ohio native brought his revised production of “Orson’s Shadow” to the Chicago Center for Performing Arts to rave reviews. (“Orson’s Shadow” won the L.A. Drama Critics Award for best writing.)

He’s been a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble since 1987 and hopes to return this summer to teach at Steppenwolf this summer. “Chicago is the best theatre town,” he says.—-By Louise Brass