Acting Class Helps Bolster Feelings,
Confidence in Those Who Don't Act

by Carol E. Vaughn, Houston Chronicle,
October 10, 2002.

At an office park in west Houston, an unlikely bunch is gathered for a beginning acting class. In the room are a computer consultant, a lawyer, an apartment leasing agent, a yoga instructor, a research scientist, an assistant purchasing agent and their teacher, Dennis Gallagher. Although they have nothing in common career-wise, they are connected by a desire to express themselves better.

The class they are taking is called Acting for Non -Actors. The participants are being exposed to an exercise that pairs them chair-to-chair, face-to-face in situational confrontations. Each pair has plenty of time to practice the scene and may read straight from a script. "You're being forced to open up," says Sabra Yarbrough, 26, a University of Houston graduate, yoga instructor and daughter of Peggy Yarbrough, 58, an apartment locator who is also taking the class. "It's also an environment where both people are equally vulnerable." Sabra is not really nervous about her lines, she says, but she is a bit uncomfortable bearing her deeper emotions in public. "I think it could help us be more assertive with other people," she said.

Her mother, Peggy, is taking the course because she always wanted to act as a child but never had the opportunity. "It's kind of like group therapy when you find out that you don't have to be afraid because everyone else is afraid, too," she said.

Meyerland resident Shola Kehinde, 23, considers herself reserved. She said that she is taking the course to further her career. The assistant purchasing agent said she used to sit in the boardroom listening to the ideas of others. Lately, she has used her new communication skills to offer ideas. Her partner for the day is Craig Hocker, 41, a research scientist who is taking the course in the hope of becoming a better speaker. Hocker said he would like to become the kind of teacher who instantly connects with his students - a natural communicator. "This sounded like an interesting class where you could explore," he said.

Seated in the middle of the room are Hocker and Kehinde. In the script, she is visiting his home as a former co-worker breaking the news that she used to be in love with him. Kehinde seems confident and cool, smiling all the while. "How did you do?" teacher Gallagher asks. The smiles mean that Kehinde is nervous, she admits. Everyone else thinks the grinning meant she was at ease with the role. Gallagher explains that smiling is often a device used to keep emotions at bay. All-in-all, the performance has gone well, and the classmates clap and issue words of good will.

Gallagher is quick to issue accolades to his performers because he has been there himself. He took the course from Sandra Zimmer, founder and director of the Self-Expression Center, about three years ago while he was a geophysicist. "I kind of always wanted to be a ham, but never did any acting," he said. "I had a blast doing it and took several classes." Several years later he teaches acting and has landed parts in a commercial, play, music video and an independent movie. "I see a lot of people come in and feel self-conscious and afraid, but I also see them grow in self confidence and expression," said Gallagher, who lives near the center near Richmond and Wilcrest. "For me it's therapeutic. We try to make it real and open, not forcing people to do things a certain way, but allowing people to take their own journey."

Zimmer, who opened the center in 1976, has traveled many career paths in life before finding a niche in teaching acting and public speaking. She has a master's degree in theater from the University of Houston, a bachelor's in psychology from the University of Texas and has more than 23 years of experience with mediation, personal growth and self-awareness systems. In addition she is an accredited voice and speech trainer.

The brainchild for the Self-Expression Center came as Zimmer merged her talents of teaching and acting with some unconventional notions. After years of trying to be authentic and genuine in her roles on stage, Zimmer had looked within herself for answers. She wanted to piece together her experiences with psychology, teaching and acting to create something valuable to both actors and people in all walks of life.

After all, acting is not about faking or pretending, she says. It's about being genuine in the moment. "One of the greatest gifts is the ability to make strong, genuine connections with people," she says of the strengths of good performers. Attributes gained from the course, Zimmer said, are spontaneity, listening skills, a sense of presence and stretching of emotional expression. Plus, she added, it's just plain fun.

Typically students are curious about dabbling into the arts, becoming a career actor or learning to become a better speaker. Occasionally students are overcoming a phobia of stage fright or fear of people. "Although that is a natural outcome of the process we teach here, we don't deal with that phobia directly," Zimmer said. "What I've done in all the classes is develop a slow, step-by-step process. The nature of the process allows the stage fright issues to dissolve." From stage fright to magnetic presence, the series of acting courses progress from beginning, intermediate and advanced. Zimmer's following includes corporate executives who take speech and leadership courses in private and group sessions.

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