A legendary acting studio is all hustle-bustle, with a diverse group of aspiring actors rushing around a funky old Bank Street building for the start of the winter term. A new 10-week class is under way, but there’s something different about this course that hadn’t been seen at Greenwich Village’s HB Studio in its seven-decade history: It is entirely in Spanish.
“This is an historic moment for the studio,” says instructor Pablo Andrade. “HB has always welcomed and supported foreign actors, but this is the first time there’s a whole class in a language other than English. This represents the opening of a new space for Hispanic actors to experiment, connect and grow.”
About a dozen people are taking part, many of whom came to New York to pursue their dreams. They are learning to solve acting challenges, unlock the rehearsal process, and apply those concepts to monologues and scenes from contemporary Hispanic plays.
Andrade, 32, who is from Venezuela and lives in Washington Heights, is teaching the course with Maria Fontanals, 43, a Barcelona native now in Morningside Heights. Both have been practicing at HB since 2011.
“Pablo and I were talking one day about a year ago,” Fontanals says, “and he said there was a Spanish acting class at the Stella Adler studio in Los Angeles. So we thought, why not in New York? The Hispanic community in the States is huge, and it is growing.”
They met with Edith Meeks, executive and artistic director of HB Studio, who immediately loved the idea.
“They were eager to translate their experience at HB to other actors in their native tongue and felt there was a need and an opportunity for this in New York City’s rich cultural mix,” Meeks says.
Indeed, almost a quarter of the city’s residents speak primarily Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We know our non-native English speakers often end up having to split their focus between developing their diction in English and the process of acting itself — finding freedom and connection in the role,” Meeks says.
HB Studio was founded in 1945 by Broadway actor and director Herbert Berghof. Its philosophy is based on the methods of his wife, Uta Hagen, a Tony-winning actress and noteworthy acting teacher.
“Empathy is what you need to understand a character,” explains Fontanals, who has been nominated for awards both locally and in the Dominican Republic.
HB’s alumni have long been among the red carpet walkers at stage and screen awards shows: Anne Bancroft, Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sarah Jessica Parker, Barbra Streisand and Sigourney Weaver are just a few names on its roster.
All involved with the new course, taught in two-and-a-half-hour sessions, believe they may find a diamond in the rough.
“We want to give our Spanish-speaking students a broader opportunity to thrive on their own terms,” Meeks says.
“I have met many fellow actors who don’t feel comfortable performing in Spanish even though it is their first language,” says Andrade, who is currently playing Santiago Nasar in Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Mario in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter at Repertorio Español on East 27th Street.
One student, Olivia Leyva, 29, a Chicago native living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, says she feels a connection to the instructors and their personal stories and journeys.
“I believe the class will allow a community of new talent and cultural diversity to emerge,” says Leyva, who works as a scheduling coordinator at HB and has done behind-the-scenes work for local theater productions. “Experiencing the voices speaking in their native tongue allows for a deeply personal experience.”