Inspiring Actors

Jonathan Higgins offers Toronto actors unique ways to improve their craft.

By Anastasiya Ivanova | Featured image courtesy of Pexels | April 24, 2019

Jonathan Higgins presses his forearms into his chair’s armrests, supporting his body forward.  His face is inches away from a 20-inch TV, unflinching, studying. Inside the classroom of his Actor’s Imagination Studio (AIS), located in the heart of Little Italy in Toronto, he and his students study Amanda Cordner’s performance, displayed on camera. Cordner is a local, successful theatre actress and producer, known for her hit one-woman stage show, Body So Fluorescent. Tonight, she has stepped into the movie role of prosecutor Kate Whitney from the 1997 political thriller Absolute Power.

It is 9:20 p.m., on Sunday, in late May 2018. Forty minutes remain in the four-hour studio class, called Creating Full Life on Camera. Four more students still have to perform their assigned pieces, and 54-year-old Higgins will coach each for 20 to 45 minutes. It is not unusual for Higgins’s classes to run late, but all nine students, even the ones who have already performed, remain there to observe.

After Cordner has delivered her final line, Higgins keeps the camera rolling as if willing the reality created by the 29-year-old actress’s performance to linger a little longer. With a sharp “Cut,” he commands the end of the scene. The whole room takes a loud breath, making the hot air in the room shift. Higgins leaps off the chair and lunges towards Cordner, who is still in front of the camera. He stops at arm’s distance from her, his six-foot frame looming over her.

“How is this one feeling?” he asks.

“Strong. Connected. Clear,” she says.

“What will you take away from this?”

“My takeaway…” she says, pausing. Her brown eyes burn into Higgins and her face is still like a portrait: full lips, pinched nose, mocha-coloured skin, accented by her halo-like black afro. It is a moment longer before she relieves, “It’s just so easy when I am with you, Jonathan. I feel very free. This is the freest I’ve felt. I need to take this into an audition.”

Higgins is a unique coach. It is hard to articulate how he differs from other acting coaches. But the actors who have undergone his training begin by describing the freedom they experience when acting at AIS. For some, Higgins’s guidance is the reason they continue on their career path.

“In my classes, I offer my students situations where their talent emerges and where they recognize the barriers to their full expression and are able to push them off to the side,” says Higgins.

But how he does this and what makes him a unique coach is rooted in the way he was raised, the path he took to founding AIS and his life-long devotion to the art of acting in an industry that often dissects actors’ same devotion.

“Higgins announces the end of Belkin’s scene and bolts out of his chair with excitement.”

Higgins’s aquamarine eyes trace every gesture of Zoë Belkin’s face that’s shown on the TV in the studio. The 25-year-old film actress has the typical Hollywood look: classically feminine and eye-catching. She has pulled her dark chocolate hair into a high ponytail, revealing her almond-shaped eyes that give her face an eagle look. Her ivory skin accents a dark oval freckle on her right cheekbone. She sways with eagerness in the small mock audition space.

Belkin plays the role of a bookseller, Annie Black, in a scene from the 2000 comedy, State and Main. It is Belkin’s first stab at the part. In the scene, Black has run into screenwriter Joseph Turner White, whom she has been helping battle his writer’s block. They enter a long and intimate discussion about life, centered around the film’s script that White has been re-working, before they are interrupted by Doug Mackenzie, Black’s fiancé.

Minutes later, Higgins announces the end of Belkin’s scene and bolts out of his chair with excitement. He paces long steps between Belkin and the rest of the nine students who sit behind the TV. He begins discussing the scene with Belkin. His typical gestures during such moments—his hands pulling and tugging his wristwatch, then his palms tracing his salt-and-pepper hair, or his arms positioned in a thinker’s pose, pinching his nose—become more emotive.

“I think the scene is about the escape from the small town and her engagement, which she’s not happy with,” says Belkin.

“I don’t think it’s an escape. There’s this poem that goes like this: ‘For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been,’” says Higgins, quoting John Greenleaf Whittier, the 19th century American Quaker poet. “I’d like you to play with this idea: it is about that possibility for a different life.”

A smile begins to lift the corners of Belkin’s lips. A moment of silent understanding passes between them before Higgins marches back to his chair for the second take.

“Have fun with it, Zoë,” he says. “And…action!”

“When I was in elementary school, my two brothers and my sister created our own repertory theatre.”

Poetry and classical literature have always been a major part of Higgins’s life, shaping his acting experiences and teaching practices. The actor, who was born and raised in Boston, identifies his mother and siblings as the reason he loves literature and acting. He remembers his mother reading on the front porch in the summer afternoons and often taking him and his siblings to theatre productions.

“I had a very imaginative and lively upbringing,” he says. “When I was in elementary school, my two brothers and my sister created our own repertory theatre that we ran first out of the dining room and then from the stage we built in our large old garage (built 1912). We adapted musicals and books and would eventually have over 100 people from the neighbourhood spilling down the whole driveway out to the street to watch our summer shows.”

Higgins completed a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 1988. In 1992, he received his MFA in acting from Temple University in Philadelphia where he first began teaching acting. In 1996, at age 31, Higgins relocated to Toronto with his wife, where he continued to act on stage and screen and coach privately.

In the summer of 2007, Higgins interested Daniel Kash, a Canadian actor and director, in directing John Kolvenbach’s comedy play, Fabuloso, which officially premiered in 2008, for the Toronto’s Summerworks Theatre Festival. In this four-person play, Higgins played the role of Teddy, a man trapped in a dull eight-year-long marriage, alongside Gemini Award-winning actors Angela Asher, Linda Kash and Nicholas Campbell. This play was the first one Higgins did after five years of him focusing solely on his film and television work.

“I remember summer, because of scheduling, our rehearsals were split by a hiatus that lasted for more than a couple of weeks. But Nick offered to me that we continue with rehearsals. We had the set already set up in Downtown Toronto. So for the next couple of weeks, Nick and I did just that. We would go to the set every morning and we would just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. We had time off, but we didn’t take that time off.”

Higgins defines that rehearsal period as a reawakening one. He says the regiment he and Campbell established during the hiatus reawakened in him creative freedom that carried into his film auditions, making them better than ever.

“You can only get this kind of creative freedom through similar regimen and discipline, which is missing in the on-camera acting industry. The fast-paced and high-turnout nature of that industry deprives actors of the chance to train continuously. So it is hard for them to find the time and structure to fully and creatively explore a role in their film and TV work. I realized, we need a space where actors can have that regimen, repetition and artistic exploration, so they can get their work to be as full as it can be,” Higgins says.

After that summer, Higgins became passionate about creating a class where actors could experience the kind of work he did that summer. He believed that such classes could help actors produce better work and learn more. So in 2008, he discussed the idea with his Chicago-born colleague Michael Hanrahan, one of the founding members of Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit professional theatre company. At the time, Hanrahan coached at Big Voice Studios in Toronto, a voice-training studio run by celebrity vocal coach Elaine Overholt.

In January 2009, Higgins and Hanrahan opened Actor’s Imagination Studio with Overholt’s support, who marketed the classes and provided them with her studio’s space to begin the first sessions. Similar to other acting studios, the studio began running several six-week-long sessions a year with a class size of up to 10 students. Higgins or Hanrahan recorded all the students’ on-camera performances. After a session was completed, the coach helped students select their best scenes to add to their professional portfolios.

At AIS, Higgins could once again combine literature and acting. During classes, Higgins often refers his students to literature to help them envision the specificity of the circumstances in a scene, whether that is emotional, physical or psychological. He believes when acting, there has to be an ongoing imaginative narrative unfolding underneath the spoken lines.

“Acting is not a literary experience by any means,” says John Bourgeois, program director of the Film and Television program at Humber College. “It is very visceral, very emotional, and very instinctual impulsive experience. But novelists delve into the internal life of the character, which is what actors do, as well.”

He says Higgins uses literature as a tool to help AIS actors improve their work.

“Higgins is a very nurturing and supportive teacher who recognizes and understands the challenges actors face. He can put his finger on the problem and identify pathways to overcome them. Literature is one pathway that he uses to stimulate his students’ imagination.”

Samuel Volkov, one of Higgins’s newest students at AIS, presses his elbows against his thighs, leaning forward in the baby-blue metal chair that looks like it belongs at a garden party. It is noontime at a storage-sized café that is located just a couple of blocks away from AIS. But the reality of the café escapes the 29-year-old New-Jersey-born actor. He has concentrated his gaze on the ground, thinking, revisiting and reflecting on his training as an actor.

In 2011, when Volkov lived in Edmonton with his family, he was accepted into one of the most prestigious acting programs in North America: SUNY’s four-year BFA Acting Conservatory in New York. After graduating in 2015, he got an agent in California, where he relocated. But after nine trying months, he returned to Canada.

Volkov’s California agent connected the actor with Paul Hemrend, senior on-camera agent at Edna Talent Management in Toronto. At the beginning of 2018, Hemrend recommended three acting schools to Volkov where he could work on his craft, including AIS. The actor picked AIS.

“I knew Jon was a working actor. I’d done my research,” says Volkov. “As soon as I knew he was combining his professional side with his own humanity—to actually be fully present in the room with his students no matter who they are, no matter their background, to actually listen to them, appreciate them and give them all the time they needed no matter how lost they might be—I knew it was going to be great. It is really easy to see that quickly.”

“Jonathan’s approach is different because it gives me freedom.”

When in California, Volkov says he felt out of place and anxious because he got lost in the business side of the acting industry and the struggles that came with it. Even with an agent, he wasn’t getting enough auditions (only two for the nine months he was there). Volkov began doubting everything, including himself. That changed when he met Higgins. 

“Since I moved from California I have been feeling like I’ve been floating,” he says. “Acting for me in an exercise in compassion and empathy. It opens up both the actor and the audience to the shared experience of their humanity. When I started going to Jonathan’s class, I felt at last I was on my feet again and actually doing [precisely that]. He reminded me why I got into [acting] because he got me back into a place where I was working again.”

Since joining AIS, Volkov is not the only actor who has found strength to overcome the acting industry’s challenges and to continue to believe in his work and path. Higgins says that many of his AIS students are graduates from university and college acting programs. Many return to his studio year after year, like Belkin and Cordner.

Belkin has been acting professionally and studying acting since she was 13 years old.

“Acting is my passion, but it is also my therapy,” she says.

In August 2015, Belkin sought a school that would introduce her to different approaches to acting and help her expand her professional skills. A colleague referred her to AIS.

“I have studied at many acting studios and with different coaches. But Jonathan’s approach is different because it gives me freedom,” Belkin says. “That’s when I do my best work.”

After completing two movie projects in 2016—the American horror film, The Wanting, and the Canadian sci-fi, Darken—Belkin once again returned to the studio. In March 2018, she signed up for Higgins’s classes for the third time. After that, she also took several private coaching classes with Higgins to help her prepare for the lead roles she landed in the upcoming US feature films, Hotwired in Suburbia and Undying, as well as her role in the 2017 internationally co-produced drama television series, Ransom. She believes that when not working, professional actors always have to continue improving their craft. She does this under Higgins’s guidance.

Students at AIS say it is also their coach’s devotion to each of his students that evokes this shared feeling of freedom when acting and helps them produce their best work.  

“There is no pressure. I feel I can play,” says Cordner, who attended her first session with Higgins in 2014, while enrolled at another acting studio.

In 2015, she did her first web series, The Village Green, and, in 2016, she co-created Body So Fluorescent, a solo stage performance, which she has been touring across Canada ever since. But in March 2018, she returned once again to AIS.

“I really wanted to get back into training. During auditions, you have seconds to make scenes happen. I remembered the great time I had with Jonathan in 2014,” she says. “Whatever I prepare or bring to class, he helps me bring it out even further. He really pays attention to you as a person. He has a way of looking at me when I am not looking at me, and his love for [acting] inspires me.”

Higgins says that when working with his students, his priority is to get to know them as performers: their unique abilities, qualities (mannerism, voice, accent, etc.) and fears. He then helps them overcome these fears and bring their abilities and qualities into their work, making their acting stand out and noticeable.  

For example, Cordner says he tends to assign her highly emotional scenes. She finds such scenes challenging, but they often become examples of her best work and remind her why she has chosen this career path.

“I had this amazing class last week,” she says. Higgins had assigned her to play the role of a young woman who sees her father for the first time in three years. But her father is in a coma. “It’s a challenge to sit in these heavy emotions and tell a story clearly and authentically. But at the end of my performance, one of the students was crying. I knew this is it. Jonathan helps me continue to believe in myself because I want to quit every day. He finds how you shine and rubs you the right way.”

“Just make it your story. I know it sounds like a trope. But it’s the thing I’ve seen activating over and over again.”

Inside the studio, silence stretches between Cordner and Higgins. She awaits his advice to the challenge she faces: how does she mirror her experiences in studio, where she produces such strong work, during her auditions?

“What I would say is…” says Higgins and pauses again without breaking his posture. After a beat, he finds movement in his body that compels to whole room to begin shifting. “What I would say is just tell your story. Tell your body’s story. Don’t think about the strangers watching you or casting you. Not anybody in the world is equally capable of getting inside us and affecting us the way you individually can do. Just make it your story. I know it sounds like a trope. But it’s the thing I’ve seen activating over and over again.”

His words drown the room. Cordner beams at him. Higgins nods, as if they have just finally reached an agreement, and heads back to his chair.

“Nicely done. On we go,” he says.

He relaxes his body into his chair, looking around the studio and at the remaining students. They know it is going to be a late class. But they are in sync with Higgins, because he is there, inside the small classroom, with and for them. He believes that inside the Actor’s Imagination Studio, everyone is an actor, and that what matters the most is the devotion to acting. But AIS students believe Higgins is more than that: he is the actor who inspires their dreams.

Anastasiya Ivanova is a Toronto-based freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at anastasiya.ivanova@hotmail.com.

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