"The History of Drama" is sort of an on-line memoir I'm writing about how I oddly became an actor and writer. See previous chapter links in the right hand side bar.
Last night, I sat and watched the students in my acting class do some very good work. I’ve been blessed with a very gifted and unique group this time out and for me, there’s no more pleasant way to spend an evening than working with talented artists. As I walked home, I couldn’t help but flash back on my days as an acting student. It seems impossible that it's now been over twenty-five years since I first studied, but it has. From an emotional standpoint, it still feels like yesterday.
I had only been in New York for about a year when I first got wind of the legendary acting teacher William Esper. Bill was the heir apparent to the even more legendary Sanford Meiser and getting into one of his classes was no easy feat. There was no audition process. Instead you had to interview with him and even getting the interview was tricky. I started calling his studio and leaving numerous messages until finally a somewhat unfriendly assistant returned my call. To say this guy had an attitude would be an understatement. Apparently not just anybody got in to see his majesty. Only the “serious” need apply.
In those days, I tended to meet attitude with more attitude, so I made it plain that my intention was to schedule an interview with Mr. Bill Esper, not to be quizzed on my seriousness by some loser-assistant. However sensing I was about to be hung up on, I finally knuckled-under and did a little song and dance about how dedicated I was to the craft of acting. Blah, blah, blah. Three days, later I got a rather condescending message from the assistant informing me that I'd been granted an audience with the Pope -- and to be on time.
Up until this point, I had been operating on sheer ego. All I knew was there was some kind distinction between me and this class of “elite” acting students and I wanted to crash through it. I was a spunky kid, but my track record for finishing the things I started was sort of spotty. The other problem was that I was working at a rather low wage job and didn’t even know how much the classes would cost. However like Scarlett O’Hara, I decided I’d worry about that tomorrow. First things first.
When the day of my interview arrived, I wanted to make a good impression, so I carefully dressed in the worst looking T-shirt I owned and jeans that had paint stains on them. This was part of my tortured, young, “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” persona and I felt it would make me look more “serious” in the eyes of Mr. Esper. I had also heard on the grapevine that he didn’t take students under the age of 25 and I was only 22 at the time. So to get things off to a great start, when I arrived and was handed an application to fill-out, I lied about my date of birth, inching my age up to 24. In hindsight, I doubt I was fooling anybody. At the time, I was six feet tall, weighed about 140 pounds and looked like I might be a junior in high school. (see photo to the right!)
When my name was called, I was suddenly swept over with a case of nerves. Acting teachers in New York are almost required to have guru status so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. As it turned out, the great Esper was a chunky, 50ish man with a slight New Jersey accent. Seated behind his battered desk, he seemed more like a working class regular Joe; a gentle soul who sort of reminded me of my father. I instantly relaxed when I discovered that the interview had nothing to do with the lofty art of acting. Instead, it merely consisted of a series of easy-to-answer questions like where I was from? How long had I lived in New York? How did I like the city? etc. In fact, it all seemed too easy. I began to get suspicious.
Feeling I needed to make a stronger impression, I started steering the conversation toward my lofty goals as an artist and how badly I wanted to get into this class. Bill smiled patiently and instead of addressing any of my concerns, got down to brass tacks. The class met twice a week. I would be expected to put in rehearsal time with my scene partner and the class would cost $160.00 a month. Would I be able to afford that? A small knot formed in my stomach as it occurred to me that I barely had the subway fare to get home from this interview. I smiled weakly. “Yes,” I lied. “Sure. No problem.”
Then the great one shifted his weight back into his chair and looked directly into my eyes. It was the first time I would experience the legendary Esper “gaze.” Hard to describe, I can only say that Bill had a unique gift for conveying the non-verbal message "Let’s cut the bullshit here.” “Why do you want to be an actor?” he asked. Out of all the questions he could have asked me, this was the one I was least prepared to answer. Fear swept over me. A lump formed in my throat. I was getting my first taste of why Bill was such a tremendous teacher. It wasn’t so much what he had asked me, but “how” he had said it. Suddenly, the question had weight. Here I was, asking for admission into the world of being “a serious artist” and I’d never been serious about anything in my life. Now, I was being asked the big question; the one that would determine everything. I felt like I was on an elevator that was plunging to the bottom of my 22 year-old soul – a place I would later learn, where all truth is stored. I cleared my throat and a completely unexpected answer came out of my mouth. “Because I don’t like being myself.”
A small, almost imperceptible smile curled up the side of the great one’s mouth. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or bemused by my answer. Turning his eyes back to my application, he scribbled a note in the margin and mumbled something about how his assistant would be contacting people later in the week regarding who would be admitted into the class. Clearly, my interview was over, but I couldn’t move. For the first time in my life, I’d revealed myself, but had no idea whether it had helped or hurt my cause. Unable to take the suspense, I asked, “Did I get in?” Bill gave me a fatherly, non-committal smile and stood up. “We’ll see,” he said and shook my hand. The walk from his desk to the office door felt like an eternity. I had never been so relieved to hear a door "click" shut behind me.
Two days later, I received a call from the now less-haughty assistant. I had been accepted into Bill’s class and would start my training as a professional actor the following week. I felt like I had won the Lotto! – That is until the assistant reminded me that in this particular sweepstakes, I would be the one paying them. A check for $160.00 would be due on the first day of class. I called everyone I knew and bragged about my victory. That night I celebrated with Top Ramen noodles and a beer. I had separated myself from the pack. I was “serious” now.
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/