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The line wrapped around the block at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Friday afternoon as friends, family and students gathered to celebrate the life of acting teacher William Esper, who died in January at the age of 86 from complications from Lewy body disease.
Esper was a student of Sanford Meisner and was famous for imparting the Meisner technique to his students, who include Amy Schumer, Tracee Ellis Ross, Larry David, Aaron Eckhart, Dule Hill, Paul Sorvino and many more.
Esper Studio teacher and actor Bruce McCarty hosted the service, and when Esper’s photo was projected onstage, the entire audience jumped to their feet and erupted in applause.
Some of his students spoke about their work with him. Richard Schiff gave the first tribute by talking about how he found Esper’s studio when he was directing plays and all the best actors had the teacher’s name on their résumés. Schiff sought him out, and when Esper encouraged him to take the class, Schiff responded that he was not an actor. He ended up taking it anyway, stubborn at first and then loving it, and the rest is history.
“Bill, I am a person living in the present in this world without fear because of you,” Schiff said, tearing up. “I am a husband and a father and a good one because of you. I am an actor because of you. I am an artist because of you. I am just one of thousands that are grateful because of you.”
When Patricia Heaton wasn’t finding an acting teacher she liked in New York, her friends recommended Esper. His classes were full, but she relentlessly called and snagged an alternate spot to observe the class for one year before joining the two-year program the next.
“He made it possible for me to have the career I have today,” Heaton said. She took Esper’s advice to bring life experience into her work. He also told her that the rejected jobs mean just as much as the accepted ones.
Calista Flockhart sent a video message about how Esper provided her the acting tools she needed for her career when she was a student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember to feel grateful. I feel incredibly grateful and feel so blessed,” Flockhart said, calling Esper “magic.” “The time that I spent with Bill was transformative for me, and it’s my foundation. And it’s such a huge part of who I am.”
Playwright and actor Stephen Adly Guirgis spoke about discovering Esper’s class in his late 20s and being hesitant to commit to two years of instruction. Esper encouraged him to invest in a craft that would last a lifetime. Guirgis said he had no idea what he was doing in his 20s before he met Esper. The training enhanced his work with the Labyrinth Theatre Company and helped him as a playwright.
“I didn’t study playwriting,” Guirgis said. “I studied with William Esper.”
David Morse left his repertory company to move to New York and take Esper’s class at the recommendation of a friend, and he credits the training with his career.
“I’ve always felt that Bill was out there somewhere watching when I did my work, and I always want him to be proud of me,” Morse said. “And that hasn’t changed. It’s not going to change.”
Christine Lahti shared a story about how a series of men in the industry had put her down over the years, telling her that she didn’t have what it took to make it in the industry, but Esper changed that narrative for her.
“What Bill Esper taught me — and I so desperately needed to learn, and it was something that never ever occurred to me — was that I was enough,” Lahti said, holding back tears. “This person, this human being, this woman was special enough. That actually, in fact, good acting was all about our own unique voices, our individual experiences and perspectives.”
Tonya Pinkins performed “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” before Suzanne Esper, his wife (and former student), took the stage. The crowd stood, applauding. She spoke about meeting her husband when she came to New York and how he radically changed her life.
“He’s with me in every breath I breathe. But he’s with you, he’s with you too,” she said. “He said that he loved to think of the saying ‘Louis Horst was the wall against which Martha Graham grew as an artist.’ He loved that. He felt that Sandy Meisner was the wall against which Bill grew as an artist. And I would say that he is the wall against which we grew as artists.”
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