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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Actor brings creative ways to Honolulu for workshops

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Alan Arkin starred in "13 Conversations about One Thing" in 2001. "My days of being challenged are over," he says of his present career plan. "Now I want to be in things where the scripts are good and I can have fun and enjoy myself."

Sony Pictures Classics

'Bridging the Chasm from Theater to Life' with Alan Arkin

Two-day workshop: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 7-8, Room 12 (Yukiyoshi Room), Krauss Hall, University of Hawai'i-Manoa. $250. Registration: 956-8400, fax 956-3752.

An Evening with Alan Arkin: 7 p.m. Feb. 6, UH-Manoa Art Auditorium. $5 at the door.

Alan Arkin isn't the guru type — too much grandstanding involved, he'd probably say — but he does have a secret of life he's eager to share.

"The human condition," he says, "is to be creative. Creativity is who we are, in any area of our human endeavor. And you don't have to be a writer or an artist to be creative. Creativity is not the task, it's the approach.

"You can be a creative housewife, a creative mother, a creative dentist," he says.

Arkin, who will be in Honolulu next week to conduct workshops, did indeed find a creative way to be a dentist in his 1979 film, "The In-Laws." He's also drawn on his creative energies to portray, among many things, a stranded Russian lieutenant ("The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming"), a conflicted real-estate salesman (Glengarry Glen Ross), and an iconic anti-hero ("Catch-22").

In a career spanning six decades, Arkin has acted in 74 films, and written, directed or produced a dozen more. He's been a folk singer, a stage actor, even an author (who can resist a children's book about lemmings?)

Arkin's workshop, "Bridging the Chasm from Theater to Life," which he has taught for five years at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, is based in part on improvisational exercises developed by Arkin and other founding members of the Second City improvisational troupe.

Though originally intended for actors, the workshop has proved valuable for a wide range of people looking to tap into their creativity in natural, spontaneous ways, Arkin says.

As part of the interactive exercises, Arkin give participants specific tasks to do on stage, thus alleviating much potential performance anxiety.

"We try to instill a sense of teamwork and cooperation, not the endless one-upmanship you usually associate with improv," Arkin says.

It's a spirit and approach Arkin has tried to foster in his work. The sheer number of projects Arkin has been involved in is testament not only to his talent — he's twice been nominated for Oscars and last year won his first Emmy Award — but to the ease of his personality backstage and offscreen.

"People have said that they enjoy working with me because I'm a team player," he says. "That's a huge compliment, and I hope it's true."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Russian and German immigrants, Arkin began his career first as a folk singer, then a founding member of Second City, and then a Broadway actor.

Arkin's first screen role came in 1966 as the sympathetic Lt. Rozanov in "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," which earned him an Oscar nomination. That sparked an impressive run of films, including "Wait Until Dark" (1967), "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" (1968), and "Popi" (1969). In 1970, he took on one of his most memorable firm roles as bombardier John Yossarian in Mike Nichols' film adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel, "Catch-22."

Arkin recently completed work on a new film, "Noel," which he describes as a film comprised of intertwining stories, similar in structure but lighter in tone than his 2001 film, "13 Conversations About One Thing."

"I had a wonderful time doing that," he said. "My character is wonderfully crazy and offbeat."

Arkin faces no dearth of film work, but his motivations for accepting jobs has changed a bit.

"It depends on how much money I have in the bank," he says.

Seriously, though ...

"I'm not looking for new challenges," he says. "My days of being challenged are over. Now I want to be in things where the scripts are good and I can have fun and enjoy myself."

Arkin is also the rare accomplished actor who embraces television work.

"Some of my favorite performances by people have been on TV," he says. "I thought 'The Moon and Sixpence' was the best I've seen (Laurence) Olivier do. As long as the scripts are good, I really enjoy doing television."

Arkin earned an Emmy for last year's "Pentagon Papers," but says he is prouder of his work on the HBO film "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself," or "100 Centre Street," which allowed him to work with director Sidney Lumet.

Appreciative as he is of the crafts of acting and directing, Arkin bemoans the state of Hollywood filmmaking today.

"I can't even watch the big blockbusters," he says. "I find them boring."

While he liked Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" ("I found it oddly moving") and Ang Lee's "The Hulk" ("It was trying to do something mythical, something different than a lot of superhero movies"), Arkin was even more impressed with a pair of recent Iranian movies — "Children of Heaven" and "White Balloon."

"What I liked is that they weren't showing off," he says. "Almost all American movies show off how much money they spent. They're trying to get awards. I don't feel like I'm watching a real experience. It's more the telling of experience than the creating of one."

Arkin is also disturbed by the recent trend of big movie studios producing their own versions of independent film.

"It's a way for them to spend less money for movies and then call them independents," he says. "They're cashing in on the indie movement.

"What I'd like to see is more small movie houses popping up all over that are set up to show digital movies," he says. "Then you'd see the real independent films."

Reach Michael Tsai at 535-2461 or mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.