Guest Blogger: Tom Oppenheim on Acting, Addiction, and Finding a Voice

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Photo by Deborah Lopez


Tom Oppenheim is the Artistic Director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. We talked to him about the Studio’s Outreach Program and their acting classes for our clients at the Phoenix House Career Academy in Brooklyn.

Phoenix House: How did the Stella Adler Studio program at Phoenix House start?

Tom Oppenheim: We have a deep commitment to bringing free acting training to people who maybe wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it; we work primarily with teens but are starting to work with adults as well. Our Director of Outreach Programming was working at Phoenix House prior to coming on board with the Studio, so he suggested the Career Academy as an outreach location and this sort of naturally unfolded. We also do outreach on-site in our Adler Youth Program and with various at-risk teens in middle schools and high schools around the neighborhood.

PH: How do acting classes benefit at-risk demographics?

Tom Oppenheim: These are such beneficial skills, particularly for teens. I mean, art in general is great for recovery and wellness, but acting in particular gives them a lot; they find a voice, a way to communicate big ideas. Acting connects them with each other, produces a sense of being alive that isn’t related to drugs. They begin to breathe deeply. They begin to feel like they matter as individuals, they begin to feel powerful, they begin to feel heard. There’s a physical aspect as well; acting helps the body become aligned, rooted, and centered. So many of the skills required by the art and craft of acting are right on the money—they’re exactly what people in recovery need.

PH: And there’s an aspect of teamwork, too, right?

Tom Oppenheim: Absolutely. You have to work together; acting only works if you’re connecting with other people—both your colleagues onstage and also the audience. It demands that of you. You have to be very respectful of yourself and others, and that skill is so valuable in the “real world.”

PH: Have you always wanted to work in this field?

Tom Oppenheim: Well, Stella Adler was my grandmother so I was born into this. I’ve worked as an actor and a teacher and I took over as the Studio’s Artistic Director in 1995. I’ve devoted my life to building this place, trying to make sure that it remains a relevant organization with the same kind of impact that it had when my grandmother was around. It’s grown enormously, and the outreach is a very important part—bringing theater to people who might have never known it otherwise. That aspect uplifts and edifies communities the way that Stella would have wanted.

PH: How does acting affect recovery, and vice versa?

Tom Oppenheim: It’s just a realization of enormous untapped talent. Drug addiction thins out someone’s talent enormously; the drugs just take over. There’s no space for anything else. So learning acting in recovery is about realizing the potential that was there all along, just masked by the drugs. I went through drug addiction myself as a young person; I was a heroin addict and went through halfway houses and got arrested, so I have a special understanding of that struggle. I was using drugs at age 15 but I was able to study with Stella and do a conservatory program before my addiction really took over and I had to get help. Today I’m devoted to my sobriety, and I understand the relationship between the craft of acting and the “craft” of recovery.

PH: Do you notice a change in the program participants as they progress in class?

Tom Oppenheim: It’s an amazing transformation that I’ve seen over and over again: people come in here scared, hunkered down, with a “game face” on and a very reduced sense of self. They don’t know who they are. And in class, they just start to blossom. They soften and become engaged in the world. I’ve seen so many kids who were living in shelters when they started our program, and after two years they’re enrolling in college. A number have gone on to get scholarships to universities. That’s what it’s about—one of the greatest gifts of acting is self-esteem. When you achieve that, then you want to raise yourself up and reach your potential.

If you or a loved one needs help for substance abuse, call us today at 1 888 671 9392 or send us an email. 


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