Monday, July 28, 2008

Ramblings About Actors and Acting -- COMMITMENT

Allegory of the Five Senses

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Gérard de Lairesse

At the WTC I studied improvisation, scene preparation and performance, fencing (which I soon quit because I was afraid of being poked, since my eyes were so weak -- I had not yet read J. D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction, or I might have realized that I did not need to look so hard), dance (oh, if I had only had then what I have since gained by taking so many aptitude tests: a sense of spatial relationships!) and something else which is hard to name and even harder, it seems, for most people to accept is true. We called it "sending"; if we had another name for it, I don't remember it, but it is related to sense memory.

The WTC was not an acting school but a small repertory theatre which, in order to support itself, regularly took on a limited number of students, most of us in our mid-teens. We were instructed, or trained, if you will, not by professional acting teachers, but by professional working actors. (One of them, Arlen Dean Snyder, with whom I did not study, played the sheriff in the "Quantum Leap" episode "Promised Land"; another WTC performer of that time was John Hillerman, a regular on "Magnum, P.I.") I don't remember hearing the word "method," though I think what we studied was the technique, or collection of techniques or attitudes toward acting which is commonly called "method." What every one of our instructors emphasized again and again was honesty.

Our improvisation instructor, Bob Darnell, who shows up in series television now and again, was relentless in his insistence on our commitment to the honesty of the moment. We had to be in the reality, totally, or else.

In our improvisational exercises generally two students were given common information about a scene -- who they were, the location, the general situation -- and then each was given other details privately. Perhaps both neophytes would be told that the setting (in truth a grubby room with a few ratty-looking pieces of furniture in it) was a park, that today was Monday and that they were strangers to one another. Then one would be drawn aside and told that she was hungry and that her goal was the get some money from the other; the other would be told that he was a lonely man looking for a lover. (This is not a real example, but, off the top of my head, the type of thing that would set up enough of a conflict to force both actors to think on their feet and to avoid making facile assumptions and cliched decisions; it would also leave enough latitude for a story to happen.) Once my friends Amy and Jane were in an improvisational scene in which they had been told in common that they were coming home from somewhere, walking into their own apartment. I don't know what they were told privately to create the conflict but they certainly were not told that Big Bob (as we called him to distinguish him from the WTC's other resident Robert, the less strapping and therefore "Little" Bob Spencer) would be sitting there on the sofa when they walked in. When they did walk in, together, they saw him sitting there and began to giggle. Big Bob was furious. If they came home to find a total stranger sitting on their sofa, he demanded to know, would they giggle? Could that possibly be an honest reaction? He sent them out to make their entrance again. This time he stood up on the sofa and draped himself over the doorway; as Amy (I think) happened to walk in first, he immediately grabbed her, threw her against the wall and screamed, "Now do you believe me? Now do you believe me?" She believed him, she believed him!

A few years later, in college, my best friend, Erik, and I prepared for our final acting exam. We had selected a scene from "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett (no relation to the fictional time-traveling physicist). Being young and confident (I hesitate to add foolish), we chose not to block the scene but rather to memorize the lines together and work on our characters without regard for our physical movements on the stage, which we felt sure we could work out a mere half-hour before performance. I don't know whether our idea was mainly to keep it fresh or to keep ourselves from working any harder than we had to, but the scene involved no props, no scenery and no fancy footwork so we weren't worried; we trusted that our movements would come from within our characters and our motivations, and in fact we had no trouble blocking out the scene in the time we had. That was no problem. What was a problem was that from the moment we started, the whole thing felt terrible. We didn't miss our lines, we didn't wander about the stage, but we were as lost as if we never had found the stage. Then came the moment when Erik had to remove his boots and I had to comment upon the smell of his feet. Erik had a little difficulty getting the boot off and I didn't have a line to say.... Suddenly I was hit by what should have been my driving force all along: I had no idea, after all, that Erik was going to remove his boot or have stinky feet. I was just waiting for Godot! So I waited for Godot. Godot never showed, but eventually Erik got the boot off and I smelled his feet and commented, and we proceeded. Everything was just fine.

Our teacher looked at us afterwards and shook his head. He said it was our finest work ever, except he couldn't understand what the hell we'd been up to at first. From the time of the boot, though, it'd been superb.

"Waiting for Godot"


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