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HOLLYWOOD'S THETAN OF THE THEATER

Renowned acting teacher Milton Katselas has a devoted following. But is it because of Scientology, or in spite of it?

Giovanni Ribisi called me. Burt Reynolds asked me to call him at home. The director Joel Schumacher called me from Romania between takes for his next movie. Anne Archer and I played phone tag for two weeks. A-list, B-list, stars of stage, stars of screen, they were all eager to talk. Tony winners John Glover and Tyne Daly. Edie McClurg, the dippy secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. David Carradine.

Put the word on the street that you're writing about Milton Katselas, and every student he has ever had will want to tell you about the best acting teacher in the world, the man who took them from fresh-faced, straight-off-the-plane-at-LAX ingenues looking for work - commercials; God willing, someday a sitcom - to being real artists.

They'll tell you about how he saved them from the failings of the artist's personality, like narcissism and drug addiction. They were born with the talent, but he gave them careers.

But there are dissenters too. Students have left Katselas' school, the Beverly Hills Playhouse, because of unspoken pressure they felt to join the Church of Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard.

Nobody ever told them to join, but they could not ignore how many of their classmates and teachers were Scientologists. Or the fact that Milton Katselas, the master himself, credits Hubbard for much of his success. And the assorted weirdness: One of Katselas' students works at the Scientology Celebrity Centre, where Tom Cruise and John Travolta study, and one television star left because she said Katselas wasn't committed enough to Scientology.

Before trying to metabolize this strange cocktail of Hollywood and Scientology, consider the very sincere professions of faith in a bearded, baritone septuagenarian with a Mediterranean temper who began as a student of Lee Strasberg and became the teacher of Ribisi, Daly and Carradine; of Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Selleck, Tony Danza, Patrick Swayze, Cheryl Ladd and hundreds more.

Most people in the Los Angeles acting community believe that the Beverly Hills Playhouse is a serious conservatory where actors train with a master teacher, while others think it's a recruitment center for Scientology. I wondered if it might be both. What if it was a serious conservatory, and Katselas a master teacher, not in spite of Scientology but because of it?

I took my seat in his small theater in Beverly Hills before the 9:30 start time, when the class promptly rose to its feet in ovation. Katselas had entered, and was proceeding slowly to his chair, with the shuffle of a man vigorous but in his 70s, offering small, regal waves as he went. Nobody sat until he did.

And one thing very quickly became clear: Milton Katselas is an uncommonly good teacher.

In the first scene, Jack Betts played the actor John Barrymore, from the one-man show Barrymore. After the scene, when Betts sat at the edge of the stage to receive his critique, Katselas made clear how much better the performance could have been.

A Katselas critique is a respectful dialogue; he is never mean, but he is challenging.

In many ways Katselas embodies what we expect from the acting pedagogue. He has a sexual, dangerous edge. He looks unkempt, but deliberately so. He swears a lot, as if perpetually burdened by his inability to wring better performances from his students. But although he believes in sex and danger and anger, Katselas never sounds Freudian in search of those emotions.

The great American acting teachers, like Strasberg and Stella Adler, have typically insisted that there is a role for an actor's emotional history in his or her performance. In various versions of Strasberg's "Method," the actor uses "sense memory" or "affective memory" to relive actual experiences - the death of a parent, an episode of violence, the birth of a child - to summon tears, horror, elation or some other emotion for the character. Acting classes can resemble talk therapy, as actors, lost in the moment, weep, scream or cackle.

But Katselas is adamant that he doesn't care what his students have been through. Digging into the past might work for some students, and as an avowed pragmatist Katselas tells actors to use whatever works.

He mostly gives actors bits of physical direction rather than asking probing questions about their motivation. In one scene, he had two lovers touch their foreheads together, injecting a note of true intimacy into what had been pure farce; in another, he told an angry junkie to clench his hair in his fists and yank, and all of a sudden the actor found the rage that had been missing.

"The purpose of the acting art is not to bring about therapy," Katselas told me later. "One taps their own experience of love or violence and tries to pull from it whatever is possible in terms of an association or understanding, but there is also the imagination and the character and the writing. The personal thing is always very strong and can be created, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you go into the traumas of your life in order to get it."

Is this teaching Scientology? Not at all. But it happens to be consonant with Scientology, which is famous for its opposition to psychiatry and psychotherapy.

The only time I heard Katselas quote Hubbard in class, he was oblique about it. Four students had just performed a scene in which two college students, about to have a one-night stand, are interrupted by lawyers who want them to agree in advance how far their petting may go.

In his critique of the scene, Katselas railed against the legal profession: He wanted the actors to understand that this was more than a funny scene; it was also an indictment of how litigiousness, as well as the fear of it, separates us from our desires. "A cat that I study says you are responsible for the condition you are in," Katselas told the room. "Period."

That "cat" is Hubbard. But Katselas never says so, and it's not clear that he ought to. In the context of the scene critique, Hubbard's seems a germane aphorism, one that might help the actors get a better feel for the shifting alliances onstage. In other arts, it's easy to gauge proficiency, if not genius. We know what technically correct music sounds like, and writers have rules of grammar and syntax to follow or to tactfully violate.

But what makes a good acting performance? In addition to being the most ineffable of arts, acting depends on extraneous accidents of fate, like the right look. With all those uncertainties, a fine performance, let alone a paycheck, can seem terrifyingly elusive. It must be the rare actor who can dismiss supernatural aids, whether Scientology or superstitious incantations like "Break a leg," without a slight loss of nerve.

Katselas was introduced to Scientology in 1965 and has been studying it, off and on, ever since. He has achieved the state of clear, and gone well beyond it; he is, he says, an Operating Thetan, Level 5, or O.T.V. According to What Is Scientology? published by the church, being an Operating Thetan means that you "can handle things and exist without physical support and assistance. ... It doesn't mean one becomes God. It means one becomes wholly oneself."

But despite his advanced level of Scientology training, only "on five or six occasions," Katselas says, has he urged a student to explore Scientology.

Others confirmed that Katselas does not proselytize. "I didn't know he was a Scientologist until four days ago," says Burt Reynolds, who has been a guest teacher at the playhouse. "The Scientologists I know, the actors I know, practically want to drag me there. He's never brought it up."

Katselas' devotion to Hubbard notwithstanding, he makes rather modest claims for Scientology.

"It certainly helped me," he says. "It helped me as a painter. It opened up my visual sense. And it helped me in communication, endlessly, and that's a vital thing in teaching or directing."

It was in precisely those two areas, painting and communication, in which I thought I could divine Scientology's influence. Katselas thinks highly of himself as a visual artist and maintains his own studio.

Katselas has no reputation among critics of painting. But he seems to have a strong belief in the multifarious nature of his genius and that is typical of Scientologists, who are taught to think of their potential as limitless.

As for communication, Katselas is, like Hubbard, fairly obsessed with the idea that if only people communicated better, the world's problems would disappear. Katselas told me that if he sat down the warring parties in Israel, he could broker a truce - a comment that nicely marries Scientology's human-potential hubris and its faith in communication as the greatest virtue.

Katselas also shares Scientologists' habit of looking words up in dictionaries. Every teacher at the playhouse has a dictionary handy and has actors learn words they don't know, and Katselas uses numerous dictionary definitions in Dreams Into Action, the self-help book he published in 1996. The book acknowledges Hubbard "for his wisdom, writings and inspiration."

It might seem odd, then, that Katselas and the Scientologists have been somewhat at odds. Katselas' stubbornness, and his sheer ego, are the keys to understanding his relationship to Scientology. He takes what he can from the teachings, but he can be rather contemptuous of the church.

"(Hubbard) made a statement that Scientology is not the people in it," Katselas said. "Scientology is a technology that he's developed that is really powerful, and these artists respond to it because it cleans up certain things that they're looking to or that they're dealing with, and that helps them in their quest or in their way, and there's no doubt of that."

But, he added: "I don't go to parties, I don't go to Scientology events. And they're not enthralled with me because of that."

Katselas was born with the ego and the talent, but Adam Donshik wasn't. Donshik, who first told me about Katselas three summers ago, is a high-school classmate of mine. He had a lovely voice and was always cast in the musicals, but he was an indifferent actor.

We hadn't spoken for more than 10 years when in 2003 I flipped to the ABC drama Threat Matrix and saw him playing a terrorist. Eight months later, I was in Beverly Hills on an assignment, and we met for a drink. The career was going great, he said. Life was going great. "You want to know why?" he asked. "Scientology. I've become a Scientologist!"

He smiled as if to acknowledge the improbability of this Jewish kid from New England finding Scientology. He had gotten involved through friends at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, where he studied.

There's a widespread perception in Hollywood that Scientology is a networking tool. People notice that, say, two stars of My Name Is Earl, Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee, are Scientologists; that Kirstie Alley did a guest appearance on Dharma and Greg, starring fellow Scientologist Jenna Elfman.

All religious communities can be networks for business contacts, but Scientology makes a special pitch to celebrities, and church literature is filled with testimonials from Cruise, Travolta and other stars.

As a very successful hack sci-fi writer, Hubbard was something of a junior-varsity celebrity himself, and he had great esteem for his betters. "Hollywood makes a picture which strikes the public fancy, and tomorrow we have girls made up like a star walking along the streets of the small towns of America," Hubbard once wrote. "A culture is only as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by artists."

But if some students appreciate the playhouse for its connections to Scientology, others have left alienated. Terrell Clayton, who had a recurring role on Six Feet Under and studied at the playhouse for five years, says that the pressure to study Scientology is subtle. "It's not like while you're being critiqued they say you need to join Scientology," he says. "It's small conversations you might have with colleagues or fellow students."

He now studies with Ivana Chubbuck, a highly regarded teacher who wrote The Power of the Actor. Chubbuck has kind words for Katselas. "It seems when people come from his studio to work with me, they seem to be pretty good actors, so he must be doing something right," she says. "In terms of how he operates as a Scientologist or a human being, I would be remiss in saying something based on rumor or hearsay."

Katselas is adamant that he does not want a cult around himself. "It worries me," he said. But he collects disciples. His personal chef, art assistant and longtime girlfriend are all students or former students (the latter two have studied Scientology). According to one Scientology text, man "is not only able to solve his own problems, accomplish his goals and gain lasting happiness, but also to achieve new states of awareness he may never have dreamed possible." Katselas seems to have achieved such a state - what student could be blamed for wanting to drink his elixir?

On my last day in Los Angeles, I saw Adam Donshik play Hamlet in class. It was the scene in which he kills Polonius and fights with his mother. Katselas wasn't impressed - his critique was barbed - but Adam was worlds better than in high school.

Even accounting for age and maturity, something else had intervened. An unusual teacher had given Adam both a religion and a talent for acting. If the two were somehow inseparable, it might not pay to try to pull them apart. I could mock Adam for following the man or for following the faith. But perhaps it would be wiser to simply watch him act.

Mark Oppenheimer is a senior book critic for The Forward. He last wrote for the magazine about evangelical Christians and dancing.

"These artists respond to (Scientology) because it cleans up certain things ... and that helps them in their quest or in their way."

Milton Katselas, acting teacher in Beverly Hills.

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