A few weeks ago, I got a call from an acting teacher asking if I would be willing to sit in on his class and offer a little feedback to the students. I was hesitant. Actors are sensitive people. I know this because I am one. This particular teacher encourages his students to use improvisations to create new characters and from what I could glean; they were right in the middle of that process. I begged off, agreeing instead to stop by in a few weeks when the work had gelled a bit more. Talking about someone else’s acting is a bit like talking about their genetalia. It pays to choose your adjectives carefully and keep your poker face on.
I still remember when I first moved to Manhattan to study acting. I was very young and totally intimidated by the whole idea of “New York” actors. My biggest fear was that every class would be jammed with newly minted Streeps and DeNiros and I would be found out for the talentless hillbilly that I was. Having survived a couple of college acting courses where I had been asked to imitate bacon frying (or send an imaginary ball of white light bouncing around the room), I was ready for something a little more practical. What I needed was a friendly, affordable class for budding, insecure geniuses.
One of the first classes I audited was held in a dank little theatre just west of Times Square. I arrived early and found a dozen or so tense-looking people huddled in the seats. The source of their anxiety (a.k.a. their teacher) arrived a few minutes later. Her name was Ellen and she radiated an imperious, bitter energy that instantly swept the room. Slouched in the first row with her coat over her shoulders, she would slowly stroke her lap dog while scowling at her student’s work. One by one, they would mount the stage as if they were headed for the gallows. After performing their monologues they would turn to Ellen who would then proceed to cruelly rip them to shreds using highly personal information they had apparently volunteered in some previous class. “What the hell’s the matter with you, Melissa? Your father isn’t molesting you now, is he?” “When I look at you, Martin, why do I still see that sad little fat boy who shat in his pants?” Having pinpointed the most delicate area in each of her students’ psyches, she would repeatedly stab them in that spot until they seemed near the brink of suicide or insanity. Then she would yell, “Now, goddamn it! Act! The frantic student would then launch into their monologue, choking with sobs or screaming with rage. It was a psychiatric horror show. If they managed to get through it, Ellen would nod appreciatively and say “That’s the level you should be at every time you begin that monologue.”
Even though I was just a beginner, something about this didn’t seem right. Assuming any of Ellen’s students could even get a job, who were they going to ask to stand backstage and say shitty, horrible things to them every night before the curtain went up? Sensing I needed to get out of there, I leaned over to the pale, trembling girl next to me and asked what time the class usually took a break. “There is no break,” she whispered. About an hour later, as some poor Asian girl was on stage weeping and wailing her way through a Neil Simon monologue, Ellen’s dog hopped off her lap, wandered to a spot near the front of the stage and proceeded to hock-up a small pile of pink vomit. Maybe it was a reaction to all the tension in the room, but this struck me as incredibly funny. I tried to suppress it, but I couldn’t. It was like laughing in church. When Ellen’s brow-beaten students started fighting each other for the privilege of cleaning it up, I became hysterical. Suddenly, all eyes were on me. I picked up my coat and apologized for disrupting the class. Then, realizing that I would probably never see any of these people again, I turned to the girl who was still on stage and said, “Seriously. It wasn’t that bad.”
My search for the perfect class went on for about another year until I managed to weasel my way in the studio of a guy named Bill Esper. A protégée of the great Sanford Meisner, he was the most talked-about teacher in town and there was no shortage of people wanting into his class. Somehow I got through the interview and was accepted. His initial set of exercises struck me as corny and pointless, but a few weeks in, when a neurotic student stopped class to discuss how her critical mother had damaged her artistic process, Bill stopped her mid-sentence. “I have no interest whatsoever in your personal life. This is acting class.” My shoulders dropped. I knew I was in the right place. From that point on I did whatever he told me without question. I learned how to listen, how to make use of my imagination and how to always look for some sense of personal truth in every scene (three things that translated very handily into my later work as a writer).
A very close friend of mine is a highly-respected acting teacher here in L.A. and I’ve never heard her talk about any of her students (even the nutty ones) with anything but love. I know she can be tough on them, but I also know she sends them to the set with skills they can actually use when the camera rolls. There is a small theatre lab near my office in Hollywood with the unbelievable name of “The Actors’ Playpen.” I can’t imagine being asked about where I studied acting and having to say “I received my training at the Actors’ Playpen.” I don’t know what exactly goes on inside the Playpen, but I doubt it’s good. In a profession that struggles to maintain its dignity, this we don’t need.
A couple of years ago, I was visiting New York and decided to drop in on my old acting teacher’s class. He had definitely mellowed a bit with the years, but he was no less sharp in his observations. It was bizarre to be a non-student sitting in that room. I had forgotten how high the anxiety level runs in your average acting class. The nervous laughter. The desire for validation. The herculean effort to conquer your nerves. If you’ve never been in an acting class before, imagine sitting in a room for three hours with a group of 12 to 20 people, none of whom are wearing any skin. The dedication and vulnerability of actors is astounding and the way they are treated by the industry can sometimes be heartbreaking. On the rare occasion that I’m asked for my two cents about being an actor, I usually say it amounts to offering up the very best of yourself -- and trying not to take it personally when nobody wants it. Granted, that’s easier said than done. But on the days when you do get picked, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being unabashedly middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/