Sunday, April 17, 2011
"We're actors - we're the opposite of people."
I'm not an actor, but on a few occasions I have pretended to be one.
In high school, I was put in charge of producing our senior class play, Oklahoma! Somehow, in addition to hiring the director and choreographer, overseeing set construction, props, costumes and lighting, arranging rehearsals, scheduling the performances, preparing the program, and building a 30-foot-wide stage extension, I was also persuaded to take a small role in the production.
I played Ike, one of the local hayseeds. Ike is basically part of the chorus, which meant a lot of loping around (i.e. 'dancing') and singing back-up parts. I did get a short solo in one song, about a half a verse, which was terrifying. But I managed to get through it without bringing the whole production to a halt.
All in all in was a lot of fun, plus I ended up taking one of the dancers to the prom, so I'd have to say it was success.
Several years later, I was living at my parents house in Connecticut, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Deep into my folk-singer phase, I was looking in the local paper for open mike nights, and I saw a notice for auditions for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Puppet House Theater in Stony Creek. As a kid I had memorized every word to every song on the Joseph album, so I thought I would give it a try.
I went to the audition and sang one of my original folk tunes and somehow was selected for the part of Levi, Joseph's 'cowboy' brother. As Levi, I got to sing a whole song by myself. Which was cool, except that the song, One More Angel in Heaven, was not included on the record I had memorized as a kid -- so I had to learn it from scratch.
In addition to my solo turn, I was also part of the chorus, which meant a lot of floundering around (i.e., 'dancing') and singing back-up parts.
The show ran for three weeks. Each night, about midway through the show, I would saunter out on stage with my guitar and launch into my solo lament -- just trying to get through it without screwing up. The next day, the director would give the cast his notes. He always gave me the same one: "You need to go bigger." I had no idea what that meant and was basically too dumb to ask.
Finally, on the night of the last performance, I decided to stretch out a little. During the climactic verse, I walked almost all the way across the stage and paused dramatically before delivering the song's punchline: "It takes a man who knows not fear, to wrassle with a goat."
Instead of the usual smattering of chuckles from the audience, this time I got a big laugh. Afterward, the director came up to me and said, "That's what I've been trying to tell you all along!"
When I lived in Brooklyn, my roommate, Jon, was serious trained actor as well as an acting teacher. I learned a lot about acting just by being around him. I was very impressed with all of the preparation he would go through while learning a new role. He put a lot more thought into the character than I ever did as a writer. Made me think I needed to do a little more homework.
Around the same time, I was dating a lovely aspiring actress. Ever supportive, I went to see every one of her performances. It always amazed me how she could transform herself into a completely different person onstage. Oh sure, I knew about the various techniques involved, I even read Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares, but knowing about it and actually doing it were worlds apart for me. I just wasn't that kind of animal.
I have enough trouble just being me.
These days, I belong to a group of screenwriters that meets every week to hold staged readings of our works-in-progress. I have become a kind of go-to narrator for the group, which means I read all of the descriptive parts of the screenplay -- but none of the dialog. We have trained actors for that. It's fun and makes me feel important, but it's not acting.
The other day, though, I was involved in a small production organized by some of the members of the group. They were shooting a short film to help promote a feature they want to produce, and they asked me to play a small, non-speaking role. I was flattered, but confused. Everyone else they had cast was a bona-fide actor. What was I doing in their company?
The short was about a wedding that goes awry. I was cast as the father of the bride, no doubt because I am so distinguished looking. I wore a tuxedo and got to parade around with a beautiful young actress on my arm. In my big scene, I walked her down the aisle, whereupon I was required to kiss her on the cheek and take my seat. What? Kiss her? For real? I felt like a total goofball, trying not to giggle. Fortunately, everything went smoothly. Then they had us do it again. And again. And again.
Acting is fun!
I thought was getting the hang of it. Just walk down the aisle, kiss the pretty girl and sit down. I can handle that. Well, almost. At one point the Director of Photography scolded: "Don't look at the camera!" Oops. That's probably one of the first things you learn in acting class. And it was a lot harder than you might think. I mean, where are you supposed to look? Apparently you look at your fellow actors. You know, like this is a real wedding and she's your real daughter, and there isn't a big movie camera pointed right at you.
Eventually, I began to feel a little less fraudulent. It wasn't really that different from an actual wedding -- you get all dressed up and pretend like you know what you're doing. Besides, I had a little secret to help me play my part. I had just learned the night before that my niece Annie is pregnant. I was so excited and happy for her that I couldn't help looking like a very proud father of the bride.
No acting necessary.