Greg Skura’s work as an actor and director has been seen across a variety of media, including theatre, television, film, interactive games, and radio. He apprenticed with The Dorset Theatre Festival and at The Jupiter Theatre before moving to New York City to embark on a career as a professional actor. While there Greg had the great fortune of assisting and learning from legendary theatre artist Joseph Chaikin, who deepened his knowledge of acting and directing and transformed his ideas around presence, on stage and in life.
Greg has also worked as a leadership coach and communications consultant for nearly ten years. Through his newly founded company Open Channel Coaching, Greg delivers one-to-one Executive/Leadership and Life Coaching services, as well as private coaching and public workshops in presence and public speaking.
Brent: Hi, Greg! Thanks for talking with me. Tell me, what’s the most challenging role you’ve ever had to prepare for in terms of memorization?
Greg: It’s good timing to get that question now, theoretically and practically. I have a monster of a part to learn for a play called There Is a Happiness that Morning Is by Mickle Maher. I just got cast. In the sixty-page script, 50 pages of the lines are in verse, rhyming couplets, actually. The play explores themes in the poetry of William Blake.
Brent: Cool! When and where does the play run?
Greg: It opens this September at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York.
Brent: And how will you tackle this “monster of a part”?
Greg: This won’t be a very sexy answer, but I learn my lines mostly by rote. I break down the lines into beats.
Brent: And do you define beats as a word? A phrase? A section?
Greg: Any and all. A beat is a shift in both attention and intention. It’s a momentary pause that relates to a change or decision.
Brent: So, whatever moves the action forward.
Greg: Exactly. With a ruler and a pencil, I mark out the beats on the page. They may change over the course of rehearsals. I bring my instincts and see how they evolve. For example, I may have a sentence like, “I got in the car to go to the store to buy bread.” I then ask myself, what kind of vehicle did I get into—my truck? No, my car. To go where? To the store. To buy what? A loaf of bread.
Brent: This must help you more deeply understand the character’s function and motivation.
Greg: It does. A teacher of mine used to liken it to stringing pearls. Or putting beads on a bracelet. Each bead represents a beat.
Brent: Do you ever use any visualization or association techniques?
Greg: If I have a list of items, I’ll make an acrostic. If I were going to the store to buy marbles, apples, cookies, and a knife. I’d think of the word MACK to remind me of the first letter of each item. Beyond that, I can’t say I have a formal system. I repeat my lines over and over again. It’s sort of like ironing.
Brent: Is there anything special you do when you run lines with your scene partner?
Greg: You want to run lines as fast as you can. It’s your chance to get your mouth around the words and know how they feel.
Brent: Right, if you can articulate them clearly at a high speed, you have probably internalized them. This must be different than rehearsing for television.
Greg: In the film process, there’s very little, if any, rehearsal—often just blocking for the cameras. You come in knowing your lines. Before that, you do your research and prep around the world of the film to bring the character to life. The theatre process is a different animal.
Brent: Has you mind ever gone blank on stage? If so, how did you recover?
Greg: In the interview you did with Michael Rhodes back in 2015, I was the one he mentioned who played Vladimir to his Estragon in Waiting for Godot down in New York City.
Brent: I remember that! It was just the two of you on stage, and Michael kept waiting for you to deliver your line.
Greg: It was the most terrifying and the best experience I’ve ever had.
Brent: I suppose it teaches you what you’re capable of. How resilient you are.
Greg: And you realize the world doesn’t end. What happened was, my mind went blank and then I made a crucial mistake: I visualized the physical script. That action took me out of the play and into my head. My impulse was to kind of hide. I turned upstage and had my back to the audience. Five or six seconds went by; it might as well have been an hour. You can’t run off stage. I told my self, “breathe, just breathe.”
Brent: What else was going through your mind?
Greg: An acting teacher once told us, “look for your lines in the set. Trust that you’ll find them there.” The problem with Godot is that there really isn’t much of a set, just a tree and a rock. There are no lines there. Fifteen seconds must have gone by. There was one more prop, though: a fedora, which belongs to another character named Lucky. And I remembered at that moment that I had a line referring to Lucky’s hat. So I pointed and said the line “Lucky’s hat!” The problem was that that line occurs three pages later in the play. But Michael stayed with me; he said the line that followed “Lucky’s hat.” We were enough in sync that we performed another three pages’ worth of material, then jumped back six pages, filled in the three we had skipped, and then leapt forward to pick up after the three pages we had done out of order.
Brent: That is a testament to excellent on-stage chemistry!
Greg: And it does make for a good story. The best advice I can offer anyone in this situation is to get curious.
Brent: Elaborate on that.
Greg: Curiosity stops anxiety. Place the attention outside of yourself. It decreases the release of stress hormones associated with anxiety. It’s impossible to be curious and anxious at the same time. That’s what led me to look around the set for my lines.
Brent: That is the best advice for anyone in any anxiety-producing situation! This may be a good time to ask about your executive coaching. How does your acting tie into that?
Greg: Coaching and acting feed each other. I practice something I call open-channel coaching. The goal is to let things flow and let go of judgment. Be open to exploring, not being told what to do. The idea is that we can choose our “performance” in any scene in our life, on stage or off. We must ask ourselves the question, “how do we choose to show up?”
Brent: Being acutely aware of one’s surroundings is something people don’t do enough. When I worked at an improv theater company, we were always mindful about noticing more and reading the room—essentially, being present.
Greg: Exactly. What I do comes from a tradition of “presence-based” coaching. As humans we want more of what feels good and less of what feels bad. If it feels good, we keep doing it. If it feels bad, we are tempted to avoid it, or to take a pill to make it go away. We don’t listen enough to the internal and external signals to learn from them so that we can make a wise, productive change on our own.
Brent: Taking responsibility for one’s actions is a big thing for me. Thanks in large part to technology, it can be tempting to give up a lot of control, let our devices make decisions for us, and not feel accountable for the consequences. How does your presence-based coaching apply in a situation like helping someone prepare for a job interview?
Greg: People go into a job interview thinking, “Like me, like me, like me!” or “Hire me, hire me, hire me!” Is that really the best way to show up? I recommend making the choice to impress upon the interviewers that I’m here to build a relationship, one on one with each potential colleague. As an actor, I build that relationship with my fellow actors, and with an audience. Be curious. Prepare. Know who’s in the audience and what the hot button issues are.
Brent: Or prepare for the hot button issues if you’re going for a communications role. I remember being encouraged to come up with five questions you hope they don’t ask you and have the answers ready—because those are the questions you will get. And it’s okay to say you’ve considered the issue and don’t have an answer—yet.
Greg: When you prepare for your interview, it’s important to simplify, to distill key word phrases. Put them into buckets. And if you are doing a PowerPoint presentation, remember that bullet points are cue cards, not billboards.
Brent: Right, it’s counterproductive in PowerPoint when presenters throw dense blocks of text up on the screen. There should just be a few words to trigger and summarize the point.
Greg: And, again, you can use acrostics to remember your points so that you’re looking at the audience, not at the screen.
Brent: Anything else?
Greg: There’s also the angle of a “growth” mindset vs. a “fixed” one. They’ve done experiments on this. If you tell a group of people that they’re naturally smart and performed well on a task, they’re unlikely to take on the challenge of going to the next level. If you tell them that it’s obvious they put a lot of effort into succeeding, it motivates them to reach for more.
Brent: That’s an excellent recommendation for managers who want to keep their employees motivated. Well, thanks, Greg. You’ve made a compelling case for the value of the performing arts for personal and social transformation.
Greg: I credit one of my mentors, Joseph Chaikin, who directed the Open Theater in the 1960s, and wrote the seminal book The Presence of the Actor. He focused on communal playmaking and the sound, movement, and form of others like Martha Graham. The positive effects on both self and the external world can’t be overstated.
Brent: I look forward to seeing you on stage in September for the Mickle Maher play in Catskill.
Greg: Thank you for your time! It’s been great talking with you as well.