Upper Iowa University adjunct instructor for public speaking and humanities at UIU-New Orleans Mike Kimmel recently published “Scenes for Teens: 50 Original Comedy and Drama Scenes for Teenage Actors.” Kimmel has starred in several shows including Treme on HBO, Breakout Kings on A&E, Memphis Beat on TNT, In Plain Sight on USA, Cold Case on CBS, as well as appeared on The Tonight Show 45 times!
Kimmel chatted with us recently to talk about acting, writing and teaching:
What/who sparked your passion for acting?
I was the type of kid who could watch TV and read books, comics, and monster magazines all day. I’ve known since childhood that I wanted to act on television and film and write scripts and books. There were no arts programs or after school centers with acting classes for kids in my area when I was growing up. My family didn’t know anyone in that field, either, and it seemed very far outside our normal circle. I would have really benefitted from the book I just wrote – a book of beginner scenes for young actors.
What inspired you to teach?
I consider myself a lifelong learner and believe that our education doesn’t start or end on a school schedule. Ideally, I think it should always be a continuous process.
I grew up in a very modest neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. We didn’t have a lot of money or luxuries, but my parents instilled a very strong appreciation for learning, study, and education in my three older sisters and me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Bronx, but I can promise you there were plenty of negative influences all around us. I learned at a very early age that a negative influence can be just as beneficial to a person as a positive influence. You can look at a person or circumstance in your environment and say to yourself: “I don’t want to be like that.” Because of the positive example set by our parents, we never even considered dropping out of school or getting into any kind of serious trouble. It was never an option. I can always remember my parents, who were immigrants to this country, bringing books home with them. There were always books around our house. And when an encyclopedia salesman came knocking door to door one day, my dad was the only one on the block who gave him a sale. I think my mom probably fed the guy too. She was the kindest, friendliest lady you ever met. She fed everyone.
As an actor, it’s very important to maintain some flexibility in your daytime schedule so that you can be available for auditions. For years, I worked the night shift at jobs that kept me going – waiter, catering, night watchman – the usual actor cliches. I really wanted to be able to use my education, though. I started teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to foreign born adults – and other night school classes – while auditioning and continuing to build my resume during the day. I found that I enjoyed teaching nearly as much I did writing and performing.
I would write short dialogue scenes for my ESL classes just to introduce slang words and help students practice pronunciation too. Over the years, I’ve also taught acting classes for adults privately. A few years ago, I was asked to teach acting for kids and teens – and found it a real challenge coming up with solid material each week. Of course, I had plenty to draw upon for adult actors, but found there’s not nearly as much good scene material available for younger performers.
How long have you been working for Upper Iowa University?
I’ve been at Upper Iowa University for almost two years. I love the flexibility of working at UIU. The accelerated program and once-weekly schedule works as well for our faculty as for our working adult students.
I’ve also always had tremendous respect for our nation’s military and police and a great appreciation for the often thankless jobs they perform. In fact, my one major regret in life is that I didn’t go into the military for at least two years between high school and college. I graduated high school a year early and went away to college at seventeen. Looking back, I think a little dose of military discipline would have done me a world of good at that age. Fast forward to the present day, though, and it’s nice to be able to work with our military, police, and civilian students and assist them in achieving their educational goals. I teach courses in the communications and humanities areas, and am well aware that these are outside of our students’ areas of interest, expertise, and major subject work. I get it. These are distribution requirements that our students need to move them one step closer to graduation. Therefore, I try my best to make the courses applicable and relevant to their present and future careers to keep them motivated, interested, and engaged.
In your new book, you created 50 scenes that can be acted out right away, without props or stage directions. What was the most challenging part about the writing process?
I think the most challenging aspect of working with actors of any age is to get them to understand how they fit into the overall plan of a film, television show, or play. When I perform a role on film, TV, or stage, I always remind myself: “This is not the Mike Kimmel Show.” The character I’m playing was created out of a writer’s imagination and is designed to move the storyline forward in some specific way. A lot of acting students are drawn towards dark, heavy material containing lots of conflict, physical action, and bad language. Acting teachers regularly give their students scenes to perform from popular movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” because they know how much the students want to act out in those kinds of roles. Those are great films, brilliant films, and I definitely understand the attraction to that kind of material. However, the students end up having a lot of fun in class, but being ultimately unprepared for the real world. The reality in show business will normally find newcomers playing more generic roles – waiters, clerks, store managers, ER doctors, and the like. It takes time, skill, and patience to learn to play those roles convincingly (and memorably) without diverting attention from the stars of the show. This is particularly important for teens and kids. They need to learn how to play the roles in which they’re most likely to be cast – high school students, sons, daughters, fast food workers, babysitters, student athletes, and brothers and sisters. A lot of acting coaches even give their students material that’s wildly inappropriate for their age. It’s extremely important for teens to learn how to deliver dialogue naturally and realistically. I wanted to write a practical workbook that focuses on realistic conversation. With this book, the only stage direction needed is whether to read the scenes sitting or standing.
Would you consider using your book or part of it in your classrooms?
Absolutely! I’ve used a couple of the scenes in my Public Speaking Class, COMM 105, as warm-up material to help students feel comfortable and confident in front of a group. The process of performing a script is very different from presenting a speech, but still somewhat related. Very often, reading a two-character dialogue helps students focus on someone other than themselves when standing up in front of the class. This can be particularly effective for students who are a little more shy and withdrawn than most. Horace Greeley said: “The way to do anything is to begin.”
What makes it especially relevant to teens?
All actors, regardless of age, need to work on developing naturalistic speaking and active listening skills for the camera. This only comes with time, focus, and discipline. Teenage roles, however, tend to be a little shorter than those written for adults, and are usually cluttered up with entrances, exits, costumes, props, and confusing stage directions. More than anything, I wanted to create a book that would simplify the process as much as possible for young actors, their parents, and teachers. I also wanted to create a book with clean language and family friendly material.
I think it’s sad that kids have so many negative influences around them today. I wanted to find genuine opportunities to teach and inspire young people with this book. I’ve tried to weave teachable moments, a little bit of history, and some valuable life lessons into the scripts too. I knew it was important to accomplish that in a way that would seem natural and not forced – so that teenagers would not feel the need to resist the teachings.
What are your future projects?
I’m working on another book of acting scenes – this time for younger kids – and plan to have it finished by the summer. I think this will be a very good companion piece to the first book. Like Scenes for Teens, though, some of the two-character dialogues will also be useful for adult actors. One of the scenes, for example, is set in a cafeteria. When kids play the role, it’s an elementary school cafeteria. When teenagers perform it, it’s a high school cafeteria. Give the same scene to adult actors, and it becomes a work site cafeteria. I’ve tested a lot of my scripts with actors of different ages and, with a little careful planning, many can be applicable across a very wide age range.
I’m also polishing up a short collection of essays on old films of the 1920s through 1970s. I think some of the best movies ever made came out of the 1920s and 1970s, in particular. I’ve also been piecing together ideas for a book on public speaking. There’s already a ton of great material out there on public speaking, but it still remains a sticking point for many people. I’m trying to find ways to simplify that process too.
As an actor, I shot a nice supporting role in the feature film “Convergence,” playing opposite Mykelti Williamson, who is best known as Bubba, Tom Hanks’ army buddy from Forrest Gump. It’s a terrific, very smart, psychological thriller. Mr. Williamson’s character and my own team up in a gunfight against a band of terrorists. We end up sacrificing ourselves to save the hero, played by Clayne Crawford, who people should remember from the TV series”24″ and “Rectify.”