THE ACTING LESSON

The old woman writer sat at her keyboard sipping her steaming coffee, grateful for it since she was up so early that even in August the air was cool. She had set the sprinkler and would try to remember to change its location in a half hour. Her self-assigned task for the morning was to make a moment in the life of a “Method” acting coach come alive. The “Method” was a way designed by a Russian named Stanislavsky who somehow knew — before modern research had proved it — that memories are stored in humans by sensory information and that properly managed memory will cause the body to signal emotion that other people can recognize, which is what acting is all about. Well, some kinds of acting. She began.

The phone rang. It was a director who was working on a play — still early days but no one ever had enough rehearsal time. “This woman looks perfect for the part and she auditioned pretty well, but as we work it becomes clear that somehow she is guarding emotion. She seems willing, but she doesn’t appear to know how to get in touch with herself. Will you see if you can break through that glass shell?” She agreed and met the young woman mid-morning at the theatre. Carrying take-out coffee, she glanced around to make sure no one else was there in the dark auditorium.

The girl stood on the lighted stage, not knowing where to put her hands, just like all the rest of them. The coach slung her bag onto a seat, then went to sit in a row against the back wall to force the girl to project. She asked the usual questions: where did you grow up? What is your favorite play? All were answered in a clear, projected voice.

“What makes you feel like shit?” The girl froze. “Oh, nothing. That would be terrible!” She was very poised, very Miss America.

“Maybe you are shit as an actress?” Rigid, appalled, but no sign of resistance. No answer. “Walk upstage left. NO, that’s upstage right! All right, return. Your walk is stiff. Have you had dance lessons?”

Small voice. “Yes.”

“Show me some steps.” Ballet first position, graceful port d’bras, some turns. Irreproachable. Uninspired. The door creaked and the director slid into the seat next to hers. “You see? She’s supposed to be a captive in a war-torn city but she poses — there’s no reality to it. She signals compliance when she ought to be projecting resistance. She’s too damned NICE. She’s all presentation.”

“I’ll see what I can do. No guarantees.” The door creaked again as he left.

The young woman looked uncertain now. She didn’t know what the director’s visit meant.

“Do you see the mover’s packing quilt on that grand piano over to the side?”

“Yes.”

“Go get it.” She did.

“Now wrap yourself in it.” The girl put it on over her shoulders as though she were an Indian chief wearing a blanket. “Wrap your WHOLE self in it! Over your head, over your face.” She did. It was stiff but big, almost like wearing a yurt.

“How do you feel?”

From inside: “Safe.” The coach thought that over. Maybe the glass plate across access to her emotions was the product of fear. What would she be afraid of?

“Are you afraid of being replaced in this part?” Movement. A bit of a wait. Then, “No.”

“As a child, what were you afraid of?”

“Nothing.”

“Liar.”

Long wait. “Why are you being so mean to me? You are supposed to help me.”

“Go on. Say more.” There was no body language or facial expression to hide behind and now her voice began to sound more real, even muffled as it was. The coach went soundlessly up to the stage and stood behind the girl where, even if she weren’t wrapped up, she couldn’t be seen. In a soft voice she hissed, “You’re safe in your cocoon. No one can get you in there. You can be anyone, you can say anything, you can reveal who you really are because we can’t see you anyway. We can’t even throw things that will hit you, because you are completely padded. What do you want to do?”

Long pause. “Did you see ‘The Black Swan’?”

“That’s a movie. I don’t give a damn about movies. I want to know who YOU really are.” Activity under the quilt. What the hell was going on in there? “Are you sure you really WANT this part? Are you sure you want to be an actor at all?”

“Why can’t you just help me. Just tell me what to do.”

“The character you are playing tells you want to do. This is a woman resisting a force that could destroy her, kill her, torture her. We need to believe that you could face that.”

. . . . .

Oh, shit, thought the old woman writer. The sprinkler had overflowed onto the driveway and was running into the street. Someone was bound to report her for wasting water. This little ditty of a story wasn’t working. It takes YEARS to get really guarded people to find out they can reveal themselves without being specific. And these days everything goes to the sexual. All moral courage is reduced to finding some sexual partner who will have the power to transform them.

The short trip outside helped her think. “Just jump,” she thought.

. . . . . .

The young woman suddenly threw off the packing quilt. She had removed her clothes and stood there nude and defiant. She wasn’t that attractive nude. Needed work: toning, build some muscle. The defiance was useful. Then the coach saw the scars on her thighs and knew what the secret was.

“A cutter, eh?”

“Torture doesn’t scare me. I can stand pain. In fact, it feels good. I do it to myself.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m not impressed. What good does it do you or anyone else?”

“I’m an evil person. It’s my punishment.”

Suddenly the acting coach changed. She was impressive even at rest with her high-bridged nose and dead-black hair, raccoon eye makeup, long-fingered hands with one big ring — not a diamond, a citrine. She charged straight into the girl’s face: “You aren’t capable of anything worth punishing! Your sin is not what you think it is, it’s that you don’t fight back! You just accept what happens to you! You’re a lump. You’re ordinary. You refuse to grow up. You’re SMALL.”

“My mother says I’m evil.”

“Your mother knows nothing. She is manipulating you. She knows you hurt yourself and she is glad.”

Now the girl was weeping. “She doesn’t know. I hide it.”

“You hide everything. It’s easier. You’re taking the smooth way, pleasing everyone.”

“You’re not a therapist.” A weak little voice.

“No, I am not. So what are you going to do about it?”

There was a long pause, the girl standing in the middle of the fallen gray quilt so stiff that it stood up around her in peaks and ramparts. The coach gave her a few feet of breathing room and waited for her to process. It was a big thing to grasp so she waited a long time. The girl’s body began to change, straighten, grow taut and strong. Now she knew what to do with her hands. Her face gathered light from the scoop-floods clamped to the batten overhead.

“NOW say your lines!”

“. . .all that you can do, for all your crown and your trappings, and your guards—all that you can do is to have me killed.”

“NOW you are Antigone.”

. . . . . . .

The writer stood and stretched. Time to shut off the hose and get dressed. Where’s that cat?

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