Joanne Eichel first met actress Mihaela Mihut at a 2015 benefit for the Island’s Main Street Theater & Dance Alliance (MST&DA). In addition to her day job teaching acting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Mihut, an Island resident, teaches an evening adult acting class at the Island’s theater program.
“I could never do that,” Eichel adamantly told her. “I could never get up in front of a group.”
“Perhaps that’s why you should,” responded Mihut.
Today, Eichel is a devoted member of Mihut’s acting class and a vocal advocate for the empowering role that theater can have on anyone. A health-care professional, Eichel says she regularly uses the skills she’s learned at the class in other parts of her life.
“The other day I had to go into a meeting that was a little bit scary,” Eichel recounts, “I took a moment beforehand to change my posture so I’d feel strong. You can learn how to project confidence even when you’re not feeling it. I’m more aware of that now.”
Stranger in a Strange Land
Born in Romania, Mihut began acting fresh out of college. After finding success in the National Theater in Bucharest, Mihut decided to try her luck in America.
“I told everyone I was moving to New York to become a movie star,” she says, chagrined. “I was very naïve.”
Alone in New York with no connections, Mihut says she struggled to find her footing. “I didn’t leave my apartment in Astoria for months. I was completely terrified ... Thank God I found Roosevelt Island.” Mihut moved to the Island in 2000 and says the slower pace and less crowded surroundings offered her a much needed sense of security.
Eventually she found her way to the Actor’s Studio, an invitation-only theater organization that provides professional actors, directors, and playwrights, opportunities to hone their craft and receive feedback from their peers. Currently run by Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, and Harvey Keitel, the studio focuses on method acting, a technique that promotes the development of sincere emotional connection to characters.
“Getting into the Actors Studio saved my life.” says Mihut. She credits her time there with helping her break through her own insecurities and fear to launch a successful acting career as well as building an international reputation as an acting coach.
Mihut believes the method acting technique is something everyone can benefit from, regardless of whether they are interested in pursuing acting or just want to feel more secure in social situations. In addition to teaching classes at the School of Visual Arts and MST&DA, Mihut says she travels internationally to provide private coaching to not just professional actors, but also musicians, lawyers, and executives looking to have “a stronger presence.”
She says that her years of teaching have shown her the transformative power the technique has on people.
“The method technique gives you permission to be a human being without having to apologize for it,” says Mihut. She likens it to taking off a public mask in a safe space where you can be angry or sexy or dangerous to see what it feels like. “By allowing yourself to explore those emotions you might be ashamed of, you will be a master of who you are, and you will be able to have all of your emotions and potential at your fingertips. It’s the freedom to be all that we can be.”
Eichel agrees. “I don’t want to be an actor, but I love the process of the class. It really centers you and gives you permission to explore feelings that aren’t always considered acceptable. You can raise your voice and cry. It’s a wonderful experience.”
On Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m., adults from all walks of life gather in MST&DA’s main theater for Mihut’s Acting for Adults The students run through movement exercises, which Mihut says help them become more aware of their bodies. They then practice monologues and work through scenes in a play with other students. “I try to find plays that will make them break out of their comfort zone and challenge them.” The class is currently working on Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Although there is no public performance at the end of the season, the class does perform a showcase for themselves.
“Mihut really creates a safe space,” says Eichel. “You feel very supported in the class. At first you think, ‘I can’t. I’m going to look stupid.’ And then you get through that and find you can. You learn a lot about yourself.”
“We have so much fun,” Mihut adds. “We are like a little family.”
A new session of Mihut’s Acting for Adults class will start February 2. Enrollment is open at mstda.org.