Monday, April 16, 2012

My First Acting Class.

His name is Andy Gale and if you live in New York City and you're looking for an acting teacher who will bring out the very best in what you do, run, don't walk to Andy's class. If you can get in.

There. I said it and I mean it.

But, be on notice. He doesn't advertise -- he only takes people on referral or recommendation -- and he doesn't accept everyone who wants in. As he put it, life is too short to work with people who don't want to learn or who are unpleasant to be around.

When I first went to one of his classes, it was really just because Mark Janas was playing piano and the class was aimed at singers who wanted to learn how to better audition, and given the fact that I've never had an acting class, I thought it might be fun.

Called "Acting the Song," the format is simple. First, he pulls a song out of his satchel -- usually some number or standard from days of yore -- and we just pass the song around, verse by verse, and warm up. Then, we perform a number, usually something we want to audition with, and Andy directs you with commentary.

Pretty easy, huh?

I did a few of these with new songs, but finally performing "Save Me A Seat" along with the opening monologue from The Last Session. Since I've done this scene/song a thousand times -- and since it's the only actual monologue I know -- I figured I was pretty safe.

And I was.

Except that Andy drew things from me, during that scene that I didn't know were in me. But mostly,  he solidified what I inherently already kinda "knew" but weren't sure about. Enforcement. Security. That's what he gave me.

So, when I heard about his "scene study" class -- same format, no songs -- I thought it'd be a hoot to get out from behind the piano and actually do a scene from something that was not either written by me, or based on me -- both of Jim's and my musicals are autobiographical.

He asked me if I had any monologues and I said, "No. I've never seen the inside of an acting class."

"Okay," he said. "I'll choose something for you."

Scary.

I said, "Do I need  to memorize it? Are you going to send it to me?"

"No," he responded. "We'll just have you read it. I don't want you to start acting. I'd prefer to start with a blank slate. Too often, I spend most of my time erasing what other bad acting teachers have taught."

Now, I've always admired great acting. The cliche that you hear is that great acting is no acting. But all I could think of was, "Right. Like, how do those great actors cry on cue?" Is there a button they push inside? I could never just cry on cue. I would be terrified for someone to yell, "Action" and suddenly, I have to start crying.

I walked into the room, with Jake (!) who's also in the class (whew), and the first actor got up and did a monologue. He was good, but Andy stopped him immediately because there was something artificial about what he was doing. It wasn't that he didn't have presence and poise. It just felt like, well, acting. As, in one moment, he was standing there saying howdy to everyone, and in the next instance, he was ACTING.

So,  Andy stopped him and pulled a little trick on him that I won't reveal here. But, suddenly the ACTING felt like actual TALK. It was suddenly bursting with LIFE. It made us laugh and feel. The difference was remarkable. Like a wall had been torn down and instead of watching someone emote, I was emoting along with him, being drawn into the scene as if I were a part of it.

Then, he had me go second.

Arrrgh.

Okay. I can do this.

"The scene I've chosen for you is one I think you'll relate to," he said. "It's from the play 'As Is.'"

I've not seen this play, but I knew about it. It's one of the first plays about AIDS.

He continued, "It's the final scene, and it's a monologue by a hospice worker."

I said, "I've sung for hospice workers before."

He said, "I know that. I thought you should start with something you won't have trouble relating to. And don't rush. Just read."

Well, I looked down at the paper and started reading: "We have a new AIDS patient, Richard."

And I immediately burst into tears.

Really? In front of all these people, on the spot, with everyone watching, I was six words in, and already I was a mess. The monologue was, really, about how this worker felt burned out and angry, at God, at unfeeling families, at nurses afraid to approach AIDS patients, etc.

As I coursed through the monologue, I found myself raging, crying, holding back tears, and just living inside that text. Even the words "Where would I go but St. Vincent's?" had me devastated, as I remembered walking by the now shut-down facility, for a time one of the only hospitals in New York that would even take AIDS patients.

As I finished, Andy said, "Well, no one would ever guess that you've never done this before."

He gave me some notes, telling me that I don't have to hold back, that I can let all the emotions fly.

He said, "When you read this, what situation would you possibly find yourself in, saying these word?"

I said, "The first thought that comes to me is maybe a training course for other hospice workers. Like I'm telling them about my experience. To prepare them."

"Let's go with that. I trust first thoughts."

And I did it again. And this time, it was even more emotional. More connected.

I know I probably have a long way to go before anyone would call me a great or even good actor. But I learned a great lesson that day, watching the others, doing it myself. That the job isn't to PERFORM. The point isn't to show off. The idea is to be present and honest, and to relate to whomever is in the scene with you.

And I knew this. I have known it all along.

But, since acting begins with an artifice, standing in front of people saying words already written, you have to find ways of breaking the artifice and making it real.

In reflection, I realize that, sitting around that table, I was still acting. I had trouble looking into the eyes of the other participants. I was still putting on a little show. So, I have work to do. More to learn.

But, more than anything else, I realized something to myself, "I can do this. I really can do this."
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