A legendary acting studio is all hustle-bustle, with a diverse group ofaspiring actors rushing around a funky old Bank Street building for thestart of the winter term. A new 10-week class is under way, but there’ssomething different about this course that hadn’t been seen at GreenwichVillage’s HB Studio in its seven-decade history: It is entirely inSpanish.
“This is an historic moment for the studio,” says instructor PabloAndrade. “HB has always welcomed and supported foreign actors, but thisis the first time there’s a whole class in a language other thanEnglish. This represents the opening of a new space for Hispanic actorsto experiment, connect and grow.”
About a dozen people are taking part, many of whom came to New York topursue 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, isteaching the course with Maria Fontanals, 43, a Barcelona native now inMorningside 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 studioin Los Angeles. So we thought, why not in New York? The Hispaniccommunity 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 intheir native tongue and felt there was a need and an opportunity forthis in New York City’s rich cultural mix,” Meeks says.
Indeed, almost a quarter of the city’s residents speak primarily Spanishat home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We know our non-native English speakers often end up having to splittheir focus between developing their diction in English and the processof acting itself — finding freedom and connection in the role,” Meekssays.
HB Studio was founded in 1945 by Broadway actor and director HerbertBerghof. 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,” explainsFontanals, who has been nominated for awards both locally and in theDominican Republic.
HB’s alumni have long been among the red carpet walkers at stage andscreen awards shows: Anne Bancroft, Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro, AlPacino, Sarah Jessica Parker, Barbra Streisand and Sigourney Weaver arejust a few names on its roster.
All involved with the new course, taught in two-and-a-half-hoursessions, believe they may find a diamond in the rough.
“We want to give our Spanish-speaking students a broader opportunity tothrive on their own terms,” Meeks says.
“I have met many fellow actors who don’t feel comfortable performing inSpanish even though it is their first language,” says Andrade, who iscurrently playing Santiago Nasar in Chronicle of a Death Foretold andMario in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter at Repertorio Español on East27th Street.
One student, Olivia Leyva, 29, a Chicago native living in ProspectLefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, says she feels a connection to theinstructors and their personal stories and journeys.
“I believe the class will allow a community of new talent and culturaldiversity to emerge,” says Leyva, who works as a scheduling coordinatorat HB and has done behind-the-scenes work for local theater productions.“Experiencing the voices speaking in their native tongue allows for adeeply personal experience.”