Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Hard Act to Follow

Your career as an actor began when you were in junior high school.  Even though you had considerable career-related thoughts, none of these focused on the stage.  You wondered instead what sorts of things you would need to write in order to forge some kind of career as a result of things you wrote being published.

To say that you were in any way cast in your career-beginning venture is to put an undeserved emphasis on the matter.  You were in effect shanghaied to appear in a play which at the time seemed to you one of the dumbest possible reasons for writing a play.  Your role consisted of two lines.  The play, you were later informed, was a one-act, with two scenes.

The purpose of the play was to inform its intended audience, ninth graders about to graduate, what courses to take in high school in order to insure a smooth transition into college after high school.  Nothing wrong with that.  Your issue was more or less with the parallel processes of junior high school, puberty, and the class room curriculum, which in many ways reminded you of the soggy mashed potatoes available in the school cafeteria.

The play, itself, was written by a classmate of yours, someone you would ultimately, but not then, have an enormous crush on, someone you would see perhaps twenty years later, in your editorial office with a book publisher. One of your two lines, which gave you, the author, and the director the most trouble had nothing to do with the theme.  The fact of your ability to remember the line after all these years is dramatic evidence of the quirky nature of your memory.

"We just raided the ice box, and boy, were those drumsticks great."

For the weeks of rehearsal, your brother and sister cast members were wont to tease you with that line, and of the director pleading with you to get some more color in it.

At another time, when you were writing equally dumb lines for a weekly television program of mind boggling, you on a number of occasions, and for the sake of what you then considered your sanity, you tried to include that line as a kind of karmic joke, but the director this time did not plead with you for more color.  In fact, he asked you, "What the fuck are you trying to do to my show, go literary on me?"

Some years later, when you had run up a considerable bar tab at a pub directly across the street from CBS Television City on Fairfax Avenue, an assistant director chum of yours thought to put you to work as an extra on such live TV dramas as Studio One, and Playhouse 90.  You had no lines.  You were merely to be in elevators or barroom scenes or places where the principal characters engaged in their performances.  At one point in such a so-called walk-on part, where you didn't even make it to the script as a distinct piece of business (for which you'd be paid seventy more dollars), you forgot your cue and in consequence tipped your hat at the wrong time.

This was live drama; there could be no retakes.  But instead of being chastised, as you'd expected, the director said he rather appreciated your "bit," took your name, and indeed cast you in a subsequent drama.

This was effectively it for your acting career until you teamed up with Leonard Tourney, who'd had his fill of teaching at Tulsa, gave up his tenure to come back to UCSB as a visiting professor for three years, then until his retirement as a non-senate lecturer.  Leonard was involved in a busy schedule of performing dinner theater mysteries.  He needed an assistant.  During the next ten or so years, you performed in dozens of dinner theater mysteries in roles varying from a fake swami, a shyster lawyer, a detective, a used-car salesman, a minister, a diplomat from a bogus Balkan country, a disgruntled brother-in-law, and an Australian pretending to be an Englishman.

When Leonard left Santa Barbara, such ventures stopped, and you were left to tell students in writing classes and workshops from time to time to "imagine you are the actor cast to portray your role.  How are you going to project authenticity and presence?"

Of course by that time, you'd met your second mentor, the actor, Virginia Gilmore, and you began to step into the vision that has, in fact, become your most current writing project, in which you conflate characters and their actions in books and stories with actors preparing themselves to portray their assigned character.

Starting a new project, in particular one of intended book length, is the equivalent of shaking out a beach towel or picnic blanket; all manner of small, seemingly disparate items go airborne, some being projected considerable distances.  You'd forgotten all about the junior high school play and about the times you'd actually wanted to put more of yourself into acting.  You'd even begun to enhance your enjoyment of plays, certainly Shakespeare's, by imagining yourself such diverse characters as Lear, Feste, the jester from Twelfth Night,and a shot at Falstaff.

Reading for your classes got you imagining yourself as yet other characters, followed by watching filmed dramas more for the purpose of watching the actors "working" than for experiencing the story.

Not many days ago, the awareness came to you that you have, indeed, been an actor, ever since you'd completed your first story.  You were every character in every story you wrote, a fact that was of no small importance to you in revising and tweaking the twelve stories for your latest collection, due in a few weeks.  True enough, the stories had been written and published before, but you were in essence able to consider those as rehearsals, bringing your new profession as actor to a higher plateau than before.

You've not had more than half an hour in an acting workshop, but you make up for this by having spent hours, in fact years in writing workshops and the solitude of your composing self, trying to hone in on and occupy characters who are as unlike you as you can make them.  The more unlike you they are, you reckon, the greater their chances of helping you see beyond the limitations cast upon you by remaining yourself.

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