T.J. Cusack participated in his high school’s honors chorus and men’s choir, but he never pursued his favorite hobby until taking Honors Art of Acting at Temple.
“I was always interested in Broadway,” Cusack, a 2013 Fox School of Business graduate, said. “But I never really broke out of my shell that way in high school. When I came to college, I wanted to immerse myself into a whole new set of things and branch out a bit.”
Unsure of what to expect, Cusack recalled walking into veteran actress Cheryl Williams’ class and being surprised at the location.
“The first class took place on the third floor of 1300,” Cusack said. “There were pillars and desks in the classroom and by the end of the class, we had a group consensus that we didn’t like the space. [Williams] knew we would need another space to optimize our acting and make best use of props, so she suggested the basement of Tomlinson Theater.”
The course teaches students basic acting strategies and aims to develop their confidence in speaking and performing in front of others.
After eight years at Temple, Williams has relished her role as the “pick-me-up” for stressed out honors students.
“They’re all very driven and want to be successful, so I try to give them this safe place to shake it up and get in touch with their feelings,” Williams said. “Of course I teach them the basics and the terminology, but it’s really important to me that they have a safe haven to throw away everything that they’re going through. I want them to learn how to be present.”
With only a broad syllabus to refer to, Cusack said he enjoyed the spontaneity.
“We started each class with warm-up exercises and relaxation methods,” Cusack said. “Some deep breathing and stretching rids the body of stress within five minutes. We worked with improvisation and role playing and sometimes would popcorn to another actor. Our goal was to determine the needs of our characters and partners by communicating through body language.”
Since honors Art of Acting is a general education course, Williams said she reserves advice about the industry for her classes consisting of solely theater majors. However, she said she’s happy to detail career tips if students seek her knowledge.
“That’s not my purpose for the class, but the students want to know because I’ve been in the business for 35 years,” Williams said. “I may be not as financially stable as others are, but it’s a gamble. Just because you work hard, just because you’re talented, doesn’t mean you’re going to make a lot of money. If you don’t love acting, you should really find something else to do because it can bring you a lot of heartache.”
Cusack was so inspired by the class that his long-term aspirations came into question.
“I did consider picking up a minor in some sort of arts,” Cusack said. “I thought maybe supporting my business degree with an arts background would be a wise choice if I wanted to pursue the entertainment industry. Obviously my concern was having the ability to study such different disciplines and then graduating on time.”
While the rest of the world caught a glimpse of Williams as Tiffany’s mom in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Cusack and his classmates had the chance to experience their professor’s acting live.
“We took a class trip on a weekend to see [Williams] perform and then we analyzed the show in a paper,” Cusack said. “She has been able to take that [“Silver Linings Playbook”] experience and apply what she learned from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro to her course. That’s not only awesome for Temple and herself, but also for her students.”
Williams said her experience on the big screen was immensely rewarding and believes she took away key traits of the other actors involved.
“Discipline,” Williams said. “They did whatever it took to get the magic to happen in that moment. You’re there, you’re present, you’re open, you’re vulnerable, you’re plain and objective. You may be incredibly tired and ill, but nobody is going to know it because you’re playing that scene as that character and you’re 150 percent dedicated.”
Even though Cusack said he never expanded on his performing arts passion following the class, he gained skills for navigating through college and post-graduation.
“The course challenges you to reach into your inner self and express yourself,” Cusack said. “I’m very analytical, maybe over-analytical. I’m not someone who can create things out of my head quickly. So this class helps you to channel things you normally wouldn’t in your everyday life.”
John Corrigan can be reached at email@example.com.