About Maura Vaughn

Maura Vaughn on teaching acting: “I have the best job in the world”

I have been a professional actor and teacher of acting for over twenty-five years. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, I trained at Circle in the Square, and became a member of Actor’s Equity, AFTRA and SAG in 1981. As a performer, I have been fortunate enough to have performed on professional stages in New York, across the United States and in Europe, including American Conservatory Theatre, Vienna’s English Theatre, Equity Library Theatre, and at several Off-Broadway theaters. I have appeared on television and radio and in films, and have been a voice-over and looping artist.

I have been teaching actors for nearly as long as I have been an actor. All of my experiences as a performer have brought me to realize how personal a creative process acting is, and how essential it is for each actor to train and study in order to discover his or her own rehearsal and performance process.

For the past fourteen years, I have been the Director of Theatre at The Branson School in Ross, California.

When I began teaching acting at Branson, the students were used to focusing almost entirely on performance rather than process—that is, they were used to making decisions about their characters based on the adrenaline-fueled demands of the show rather than any kind of organic exploration. That didn’t sit well with me. There’s a reason, after all, that Constantin Stanislavski called his first and most important book An Actor Prepares! So I set out to shift the emphasis of the program and to explore with the students the most essential skills that go into creating a role and preparing for a performance: the basic principals of an actor’s craft.

Early on, we spent a great deal of time discussing just how an actor goes about making specific choices—those indivisible elements that, strung together, make up a particular performer’s approach to a role.

One day, I pulled out a huge piece of paper and asked the students to throw out their ideas about what went into making any single choice.

“What’s just happened,” said one student, and I wrote that down.

“What I want to happen,” said another. I wrote that down too.

The answers began to tumble out:

“What happens at the end of the scene.”

“The way I go about solving problems.”

“What I had for lunch.”

And so it went. After a bit more than half of the class time, we had filled the paper with the things that they felt were the most important to help them define a choice.

Then I said, “These are great—what you had for lunch maybe a little less than some of the others, but still, this is a good starting point. The next question is, in what order do you need to explore these? Do some of these factors depend on others? Is the order the same for every character? For every show?”

We spent the rest of the time drawing arrows from one element to another, creating a kind of flow chart for making acting choices. As the class ended, I wrote across the top of the paper THE ANATOMY OF A CHOICE. And we spent the rest of that year—and a number of subsequent years—refining that chart.

After some time, I realized that the students were still relying too much on me to define the process for them.

Now, I love my students, and I love talking to them about the art and craft of acting, but I also like to be able to eat lunch, and when I realized that I was spending every free moment helping young actors break down scenes, I realized that I needed to find a better approach. I began to look for a text that they could use as a guide to breaking down a script and making all of those choices that each play—each scene—required them to make.

As I searched, I realized that most acting books either were written with experienced actors in mind and discussed the process of breaking down a script abstractly or in passing, or were everything-but-the-kitchen-sink textbooks that touched on everything from theater history to instructions on how to apply stage makeup or how to use different colored gels on the lights to create a more dramatic stage picture. All wonderful—but I wouldn’t have found any of them helpful when I was a young actor in learning how to break down a script, to prepare for rehearsal or class, and to begin to find my own approach to creating a character.

When I tried to get my students to use some of my favorite acting books—by masters such as Stanislavski, Hagen, Adler or Meisner—they ended up having even more questions than they’d started with, and my lunchtimes kept getting harder and harder to protect.

Sure that someone must have written the guide that I was looking for, I asked all of my friends and colleagues in both academic and professional theatre whether they knew of such a book; the silence I received in response was positively Pinter-esque.

Finally, desperate, I turned to a friend who, in addition to being a professional director, taught acting to college students, and asked if he knew of any clear, practical guides to help actors analyze a script. He answered, “No. But wow, that would be useful!” When I suggested—very reasonably, I thought—that he write the book, he laughed and said, “No! You’re the one who’s been doing the research. You write it!”

And so I did.

With the help of a grant from the Wood Family Foundation, I set out to take the process for breaking down a script that my students and I had developed and to create a guide that any actor could use to find his or her way to making a string of the strongest, most organic choices possible on the way to creating a unique, vibrant performance.

There you have it: The Anatomy of a Choice.

I live in Mill Valley, California with my husband, David Kudler, and our daughters, Sasha and Julia.