The local regional theater has an education wing. I cast the last play I directed from the students in the class, and that worked well. Essentially, they auditioned for me for the length of the class. They worked hard and well, and I learned a lot about directing a play. Later, I made a good friendship out of the experience. All in all, time and money well spent.
After weighing whether this class would be a diversion from more important work --like, y'know, making a short film -- or a good strategic way to learn and build skills, I decided in favor of the class. I can still work on short films, anyway.
So I found myself in a studio with high ceilings, a wood floor, chairs and a few stray pieces of stage furniture. A fake fireplace stood against one wall. My fellow students milled around, a little awkwardly. An older man with fantastic thick salt and pepper hair introduced himself to me. The Teacher came in. She's middle aged, looking, I have to say, older than her headshot and a little tired, hazel eyes shadowed. An impression of softness in her body, but sharpness in her eyes and face.
We drew our chairs into a circle and made. A Berliner who's earning a masters in geophysics, but who loves acting and is currently performing in a Williams play. A black girl who just graduated from high school. The older fellow's a retried psychiatrist who's a class junkie, he said. Another grad student in geophysics, and two guys in their twenties, one who's very much an Actor. The Actor is effeminate, but not extremely so. S is taking the class for fun.
I wondered what the hell I got myself into. I recalled that I need to challenge myself, to stretch, to get back in touch with acting by actually acting. To make myself uncomfortable. I want to loosen up and relearn what it is actors deal with -- from the inside, as an actor. Part of me ridiculed the whole scene and found it pathetic. Amateurs. Knitters. Hobbyists. This, I thought, was the price I must pay for not working harder, earlier. I recognized this chatter as mere static. I reminded myself I have a lot to learn, and that merely performing scenes would educate my nerves and sinews in a way I could deeply profit from. That it was up to me what I learned, and that I would learn.
Mamet . . . Mamet? . . . Mamet
Next we performed warm ups -- basic stretches and few vocal exercises. The Teacher asked us if we'd heard of David Mamet, and I put in my two cents, ever the eager beaver, then shut myself up. She breaks us up into groups, and hands out scripts from different Mamet plays. She paired me with the psych.
She assinged us a scene from Glengarry, Glen Ross by David Mamet. In our scene Shelly, a real estate hustler past his prime, tries to cadge some good leads from Williamson the office manager. These leads, Shelly thinks, will help him get back in his game and save his ass from getting fired. I haven't read the play, but I saw the movie about eight years ago. I try to remember who the hell played Williamson in the movie? Ed Harris? Alec Baldwin? After a few run throughs, I remember. Kevin Spacey.
Once we've worked on the scene a bit, my partner and I have a basic question -- what do all those ellipses mean? What are you supposed to do with them? At the end of the speech, you know you're supposed to interrupt, but in the middle . . . what? I feel stupid for not knowing, but I've vowed to put the need to look smart aside. I still feel stupid. The Teacher explained that the ellipsis, the three dots, signals a shift. What kind of shift is up to us to figure out, but it doesn't mean a pause. Oh. That makes sense.
A million things happening all at once
The group reassembled in the main studio. Everyone was more comfortable with each other, conversations spilling over from the read-throughs. The teacher asked who wanted to go first, and my new partner and I nod at each other and hit the stage.
The old guy nailed it, or hit it as well as you can in a reading. His age, his slight hoarse voice, the way he leaned into me, hunched over and the text, of course, the text itself sold it.
I haven't read many good descriptions of what it feels like to act. Stanislavski, in his memoirs and his instructional books comes pretty close. When it's bad, or only half-baked, it feels like hundreds of things happening at once. You have the unfamiliar sensation of being on stage, the bright lights, the sense of watchers, and a particularly intent person, the teacher. Added to this is the desire to do well, the hope not to look stupid, and the wish to be better than the other guy. So I start clutching at things that will make it better. I listen, hard. That's supposed to help, right?
I listen. But then I'm aware of myself listening, which isn't right -- because then you're not hearing what the other person is saying, and nobody can be aware of listening, people don't do that in real life. My legs feel large and ungainly. I worry about missing my cue, so keep sneaking glances at my book. This interferes with reacting to my partner, and I feel that, too, that lack. I imagine a Chinese restaurant, and notice that my imagination's a little thin and that I lost track of what my partner was saying.
He got laughs. I figured out bits of supercilious business, little gestures, where to put my glances, and that helps. I kept going back to focus on him. A certain malice creeps in the corners of myself, and that groove feels right, the room falls away for a few seconds. I'm stuck with this whiny . . . loser. Then I'm out of it -- again, dammit! -- thinking I must be repeating stuff, and that would be boring.
I sucked. We finished. The Teacher complimented us, but especially the Psych, my partner. I felt a twinge of jealousy.
Then she asked me some simple questions: "Why are you eating lunch with him?" What does your character want?" "How does your character want the other person to feel?" Lightbulbs went off. Oh. Oh. Yeah, I want to fuck with him, to bleed him, to toy with the fucker, to bring him down, to show him. I'm dining on him, not just on Kung Pao chicken.
Now, these are obvious questions -- questions I knew myself. Questions nearly anyone knows. But when I was acting, groping around for a solution, I didn't put it together. When the Teacher asked them, they focused everything.
Then I felt a sudden greed for the experience. I wanted to hop back up and do the scene again, right away. My only comfort was that I have generally sucked early on, and that I improved. But it was time for the other team to have their turns.
The other scenes followed, with bits from Oleanna and Speed the Plow. They read well, mostly. S was particularly fluid. The Teacher reminded the other students to let the words carry the meaning, and not to act the words. To play the objective, not the emotion. To pay attention to their partner. These adjustments always worked to improve the level of the scenes.
When we finished, it still seemed early. The three hours had passed unbelievably fast.
What I Learned (and relearned)
No revelations here -- you'll read about these in any good book. But experiencing them in action drives the lesson home. It's as different as reading about kissing is from kissing itself.
- Actors need simple, clear specific questions to ground their circumstances.
- Let the writer do his job. Speak the lines; don't put them on steroids or Act Them. Just say them.
- It helps to remind actors of who they are, why they're in the scene and what they're trying to do.
- Actors need strong, emotionally rooted objectives for the scene.
You cannot over emphasize this. It's the golden key, the magic carpet, the fundamental building block.
- Phrasing direction as questions is an effective way to help the actor to a solution.