A Conversation With Stephen Hamilton

Stephen Hamilton with Alec Baldwin and Laurie Metcalf during a rehearsal of Arthur Miller’s "All My Sons" at Guild Hall in May of 2015.

The first time Stephen Hamilton picks up a text — any text — he breathes.

He picks up the thoughts from the page, very slowly at first, without any spin, without trying to act them, or any preconceptions. This is his first contact, deconstructing the words and, in a way, deconstructing the actor, too.

“You get a sense of an actor — when you’re trying to make something up, when you’re trying to bullshit something, and when you’re not,” Hamilton said. “When you start feeling the difference between those two things, and realize that your real power as an actor comes from telling the truth — obvious, but one of the hardest things in the world to do — then you’re more inclined to always lean into that, as opposed to try to make something up, to create an emotion or to create an attitude. It’s a great way to start working on a piece.”

It is a method he learned from revered acting coach Harold Guskin’s book “How to Stop Acting,” which he has taught to his own students for the past three decades — one from within his home studio in Sag Harbor, not far from the local Bay Street Theater he co-founded with his wife, Emma Walton Hamilton, and the late Sybil Christopher.

Hamilton recently caught up with the newspaper to talk all things theater, writing and public speaking, the nerves that go along with them, his advice to burgeoning creatives, and the future of Sag Harbor as a cultural district.

The Sag Harbor Express: When did you begin your coaching career?

Stephen Hamilton: I’ve been teaching for about, gosh, over 30 years. I was an actor in New York and I was a teacher with the Ensemble Studio Theater, which is an Off-Broadway theater on West 52nd Street. Em and I started teaching together with their institute there.

When we moved out here to start Bay Street Theater, once we got things up and going, Emma and I started having weekly classes there — classes and technique and scene study. I’ve been teaching since we left Bay Street here, in my studio in Sag Harbor, for about 10 years.

Since we’ve been on faculty at Stony Brook University, I’ve been working with writers there, to help them in presenting their work — poets, novelists, memoirists. Even before they’re published, they need to get up and be able to present their work. I’ve been finding a lot of the skills I use with actors really transfer well to writers who are presenting.

Why do you think that is?

 Hamilton: Let’s say you’re a novelist and you’re reading a section from your book, there’s a relationship that you need to establish with your audience, with your listeners. Oftentimes, the same sort of relationship that I promote with my writers is the same kind of relationship that I promote with my actors, between them and their colleagues on stage. Relationships are everything on stage in the theater, and

I’ve been able to use some of those same techniques to help establish a relationship between the writer and his audience, where he’s presenting work.

There’s also intention. Any actor on stage, his primary goal is his intention. What he does in order to get that goal are the things that propel him through the action of the scene. There are some of those techniques that you can also transfer to a writer. Basically, the question is, ‘What is it that you want, by saying this? By reciting this poem to the audience? By attempting to communicate?” A lot of the time, there is an attempt to communicate, basically and simply. It’s interesting that a lot of writers just don’t get that until they feel it for the first time. And then they understand.

What do you personally get out of working with beginning writers and actors? Does it inspire you, or light any fire for you?

Hamilton: When I teach, I’m constantly reminded of the basics as an actor myself. It’s always those basic techniques that really turn me on, because I’m reminded of their bedrock truth and their effectiveness. So yes, working with writers especially, when I see them come alive with their own work, and I see actors come alive in a scene in my studio or on stage, to see that is concretization of my belief in those basics. If you keep distilling it down and down and down, it’s all just a quest for the truth. The true impulses of an actor are the true impulses of the character.

What do your students struggle with the most?

Hamilton: The first big thing is breath. A lot of times when people start to work, they forget to breathe. And, in fact, the breath is one of those functions of the body that both exists consciously and subconsciously. You can choose to take a breath — I’m breathing right now — or if you’re asleep, or pass out unconscious, you continue to breathe. I imagine breath as being this link between the conscious world and the subconscious world inside of us.

I try to get the actors to use the breath not only as a calming exercise, and a relaxation exercise, but to also explore the possibility that something could bubble up from a place that you’re not in control of. A place where your imagination lives. A place where you wouldn’t necessarily have thought it through with your pre-frontal cortex. So, looking for the breath, that’s one thing.

In working with writers and with public speakers, it’s developing techniques for making eye contact with your audience. And that can be some of the most terrifying things to do. But once you’ve mastered it, it becomes this anchor for you to really make your points.

Looking around the East End’s arts scene, what are you seeing right now? What is the climate like for the arts in Sag Harbor?

Hamilton: I think it’s a pretty exciting time, actually. If you think back 27 years, when we started Bay Street, it was really a very different scene on the East End in general, but especially in Sag Harbor.

In those past years, we’ve had Bay Street thriving now, the new library coming online, the new energy at the Whaling Museum, and now with the cinema rebirth, there’s a real feeling that Sag Harbor could create a cultural district, to be known even more as a place to go — an arts and culture destination, much like Western Massachusetts. It takes a long time, but we’ve seen it really come to a head right now. The East End can become more than just a beach. It can also be a place where people come for arts and culture.

For more information, visit stevehamiltoncoaching.com.