A Workout for the Working Actor – A Profile on Acting Teacher Fran Montano
Written by Chavonny Tillotson
In North Hollywood, CA, located where Lankershim Blvd meets Blix Street, rests a building with the name Actors Workout Studio on the front. You might have even noticed it before, and if you thought it was simply another acting studio, you’d be grossly ill informed.
It’s true, the Actors Workout Studio is the premier training facility in Los Angeles, where anyone– novice or seasoned professional, can get trained and developed in the various techniques and principles of pioneers like Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler and Uta Hagen. But the less obvious and most significant phenomenon that this training makes available to people is the transformation that occurs when an individual becomes present to who they really are as apposed to their default way of being.
“It’s not so much about results in terms of people showing up in movies and television shows, although, that does happen,” says Fran Montano, owner & artistic director of the Actors Workout Studio. “I’ve had people who have taken my class email me and write, ‘Hey, I just want to thank you. By taking your class, I’ve gotten in touch with who I am. And I’ve started my own business, and I’m very happy- and I never would have gotten in touch with that had it not been for your class.’ So the bottom line for me is that they become the person they were meant to be and that we help them discover that.”
Montano is able to achieve this through a series of small, intimate classes, including Scene Study, Cold Reading/Audition Technique, Improvisation, On-Camera Technique and a course that leans heavily towards the Meisner technique. But what really sets Montano’s training apart from everyone else’s is his ability to take away whatever the hidden roadblocks are that hold his students back, freeing them up to create something new, which may or may not include acting. In essence, his training is one part learning a skill and one part discovering yourself.
“90% of what I do is I look at the actor and determine their strengths, their weaknesses and what’s missing. And I fill the gap,” he says. “My classes tend to be aggressive and very confrontational, and that is what’s necessary to remove hurdles. People have to confront a lot of their demons and really open themselves up emotionally.”
And while Montano is confident that he and his school both operate with a high level of integrity, he also understands that the Actors Workout Studio is not for everybody, which is why every student is required to audit a class before they sign up. And even after they sign up, it’s on a month to month basis to ensure the student isn’t locked into something that isn’t working for them. And because of Montano’s organic, back-to-basics approach, it’s very possible that an actor may only need several months before they start seeing results. “Historically, my students tend to move quicker than those in a conventional class,” he says. “They’re going through what they need to go through in order to push through to the next level and book jobs.”
And even with 25 years worth of experience in the business as a working actor, appearing in numerous television shows and film, and another 20 years as an acting coach- the Emmy-award winner is probably learning more now than ever. “I’m a perpetual student, and I learn from every student and actor I work with,” he comments. “They teach me about humanity and how one person will respond to a specific set of circumstances completely different from another person. And as a teacher, I learn a lot because sometimes, I’ll think it’s supposed to be one way, and the students show me another way.”
One way Montano has always believed it should be is a way in which artistic expression is easily accessible to everyone, spurred on by the lack there of in his childhood.
Born and raised in Utica, New York, the people in Montano’s world mostly performed in sports and academics only, which would’ve been the case for him as well had it not been for the organ that his parents made him play. “My parents made me take lessons, and I quit after the first two; I hated it,” he remembers. “But I would sit at the organ and listen to the radio, and I would play the music back just from hearing it. So I learned to play by ear.”
Although a gifted musician in the making, Montano did what was conventional, like everyone else around him, and went off to college to study business and biology at State University of New York at Oswego. But metrics and physics never completely quieted the flame that music ignited, so he studied during the day and spent his nights writing and composing piano music. “But I never actually studied music,” he says. “And if you put sheet music in front of me now, I still can’t read it. That’s what made me think I might have something artistic in me that wanted to come out.”
So Montano channeled his artistic expression through his music, a necessary outlet that empowered him all the way to the university finish line, graduating from State University of New York at Oswego in 1977. But it wasn’t until after obtaining a reasonable amount of success in the business world that he turned his attention to another outlet- and in 1980, traded in the four seasons of the East Coast for the palm trees and perpetual sunshine of California. “I literally sold everything, packed up and moved to Los Angeles,” he recalls. “I wanted to see if there was an artist in me. So I started studying acting, and I really connected with it. It got me in touch with my feelings and with who I really was.”
Montano fell in love with acting, but he didn’t necessarily fall in love with the process of training. His real challenge was finding a place where he could study consistently, as he would often have luck with an acting class only to out-grow it weeks later.
“I did background research and studied at a lot of places, but after I got to a certain point- I’d always end up having to leave and find another place because I wanted to learn basic exercises, or scene study, or cold readings or auditioning, and no one place offered all of that,” he remembers. “And then I wanted to actually get work, so I went out and auditioned and joined different theater companies. And I just found myself constantly wandering around.”
Eventually, Montano’s unyielding disposition gained some traction when he found himself in the presence of the late acting coach Edward Kaye Martin, whose curriculum and coaching style satiated Montano’s cravings. Edward noticed the effortlessness with which Montano applied his coaching, and eventually invited him to take on being his apprentice. “And I thought, ‘Well, this will be better than tending bar or painting houses,’” he remembers. “So I mentored with Edward for two years. And I absolutely fell in love with teaching.”
Montano’s affinity for teaching grew so strong that in 1989, he branched off and founded the Actors Workout Studio, a school that would have all the elements he spent much of his time wandering around in search of when he first arrived in Los Angeles. “I wanted to create a place where everything was here and where any actor could come to explore the process of acting,” he recalls. “So if they’ve never acted before and don’t know what it’s about, they can discover it here without feeling embarrassed or intimidated. And experienced actors need a place where they can train and work out too, and they can do that here as well- hence the name ‘Actors Workout Studio.’”
Montano spent much of his time developing his curriculum, which included a mixture of Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler and Uta Hagen techniques; although, he leaned more towards Meisner being that that specific technique better accented his own teaching style. And while perfecting his approach to coaching, he was simultaneously developing himself as a performer, booking roles on some of the hottest shows of the 90’s, like E/R, Melrose Place, The Nanny and Married With Children to name a few. And those weren’t the only performances that garnered him attention.
In 1993, Montano put some of those hours of writing and composing music in his college dorm room to good use when he created a one-man show, showcasing his piano-playing skills. “I played my music, accompanied by a little storytelling, and I would address where the music came from and the inspiration behind it,” he remembers. “And I toured around the country, and I even made a few CD’s. But when I play, I don’t take credit for it; the music really just flows through me.” Montano doesn’t tour much these days, choosing to focus more closely on his family and on his coaching business.
Today, the Actors Workout Studio is thriving, even getting into the business of developing their own material with Montano having taken on finding and empowering writers to develop plays, short films, web series’ and television pilots for his team of talented actors. “That’s what we’re creating in order to raise the stakes for our more advanced actors and writers,” he says. “And it’s a way for me to play bigger and expand our community. And the reason I have the name ‘Actors Workout Studio’ is because it’s really like a studio the way that Universal Studios is a studio. They develop and make projects. We’re the Actors Workout Studio; we’re a community of people who are also building, selling and creating projects.”
And all of these new developments couldn’t come at a better time, with the Actors Workout Studio celebrating 25 years this year. Yes, Fran Montano has been a staple in the NoHo Arts District before there was a district, transforming careers and lives since the very beginning. He’s even writing his first book on acting to chronicle what he’s learned thus far. And with this new expansion in the form of web, TV and film projects, Montano’s insights, knowledge and competencies will reach more people than he could train in a lifetime. And what a time that would be.
“Every person is a unique soul. They have something unique inside them, and as a teacher, I get to discover what’s unique about humanity every time I teach a class. And it’s made me a better director, a better producer and a better actor because I’m learning as I go. And I think it’s made me a better husband and father too. And overall, just a better human being.”