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I first went to Ecuador in the 90s. I’d had a beard in college and kept the mustache after entering the work world. People frequently compared my looks to Sam Elliot (in Mask) or Chuck Norris. I’ve written a number of times about my experience in South America – streets lined with walls topped with glass and barbed wire, armed guards on stools in front of almost every residence, “watchimen” who collected small change for keeping an eye on your automobile while you parked, auto exhaust, heat, the sun as a physical presence with a weight like gravity. Additionally, in NY, I’d been a person who was able to put everything into a quantifiable box: this look means x, that word means y. There was no reason to react emotionally- I could very logically and unfeelingly assess and put away almost every encounter. In Ecuador, the boxes were taken away. I understood the words (Spanish), but not necessarily the meanings. The classic example: one afternoon, I was sitting around in a t-shirt when a student came by to ask me a question. After a few minutes, he stated “Me encanta su camisa.” Translates: “I love your shirt.” I had no idea if the student was being snide, making a cultural comment, or if the words were literally true. I only had the words and I could not put them into the appropriate box.

Without my boxes, I began to react to everything emotionally. There was an episode of Star Trek where Spock started to have feelings. That was exactly how I felt. I had emotional reactions to everything — people burning trash in public parks, a bank teller who sent me to see the manager at closing — and I could not formulate any significant meaning out of the events in which I found myself engaged. In retrospect, it was a remarkable learning experience. At the time, I felt confused and exhausted. When I returned to the U.S., my hair had turned 85% white. Snow white. I won’t attribute the entire transition to culture shock or third world living – there is a genetic component as well. My mother went grey at a very young age. Still, it was a shock. I’d previously had a scalp of hair that denied no color- strands of black, red, blond, brown and variant shades of each had filled my head (my body, mustache and beard retained those colors even after my scalp went white).

I was dating a woman who was eight years younger than me and she felt the white hair made me look far too old. I was not the type to dye my hair, so she bought some Clairol and offered to treat me salon style. Having always been a sucker for hands on my scalp, I caved. We dated for four years and during that time I got used to having my hair dyed, although after a time or two I had to learn to do it myself. Oddly, the white hair took the dye at different depths of tone, so it rather mimicked the hair on my eyebrows, arms and face.

It was around this time that I began to study acting and eventually audition in the New York market. My first NYC role was as G. Gordon Liddy (yes, the mustache helped). It began a string of roles in which I played “the heavy” (the antagonist, the villain). When my relationship went South (literally-she moved back to South America), I took a chance at letting my hair return to its natural color. Oddly now, instead of being seen as “the villain” I was more often called in for “the father.” Also, now that I was back in the dating world, my ex had planted in my brain the consideration that my hair color made me look “too old” (her words). After six months of not being cast, I dyed my hair. Buona Fortuna. I was back in the casting mix within weeks.

I never thought much of the dying. It was part of my job. However, it sometimes confused matters. I was doing extra work on some episodic (it was a funeral scene). I went onto the set, looked about the room and spent some time deciding on what my relationship was with various people, the deceased, etc. I’d decided that he was my cousin, that we’d known each other intimately when we were young and then hadn’t seen each other for the last fifteen years. There was a moment in the eulogy where one of the main characters spoke about distances and I let it affect me. It made me somber and sad. After the scene, I noticed one of the producers walking around – he’d noticed my face and seemed to make a mental note. A few days later, I got a call from the casting agency. “Are you blonde?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “My hair is a medium hazelnut brown, why?” There was no reply. She hung up.   It only occurred to me later that perhaps the man who noticed me on set had seen me as blond. (I was convinced my hair color was what it said on the bottle).

The hair dye was trickier when it came to dating. Was I lying about my appearance? My age? Did it mean anything at all? I had some easy answers (to myself) – either I would say it was part of my trade or that the point of hair dye, like any other appearance altering (or enhancing) item -jewelry, clothing, tattoos, etc. — was that it more closely approximated how one feels about the self. Of course, when you see the 80 year old who dresses like the 18 year old, those sort of comparisons get strained.

I never considered the expense – since my hair was short, I would split one bottle of hair dye into thirds and that would last me for six weeks. Due to the white roots, I had to dye pretty much every 10-14 days. Once I had a child, it became much harder to keep up with the procedure. Working a day job for rent, going on auditions, taking care of my son (doing homework, making school pick-ups and drop offs, cooking dinner), I would sometimes go until my roots almost rivaled my dyed-hair in length.

I admit, when I showed up at auditions and saw the other actors who had obvious dye jobs, I began to reconsider. I generally did a good job on my hair, but the doubt creeps in that one lies to the self if the truth hurts. There weren’t too many role models out of Hollywood. Steve Martin was a young white-headed dude who let the hair come in as it was. Terrence Stamp – but that came with time. And forget rockers – do you really think Steven Tyler has long dark hair at 67? In pop culture, there is no such thing as aging gracefully and therefore any sign of what is seen as “aging” is shunned – even if it comes a bit early.

In 2013, I had the good fortune to work on Birdman. It was an small part as a stage hand at the theatre where “What We Talk About” was being staged (part of the film). It was fifteen days work and I went through a battery of auditions to get the part, even though it was technically background. The turning event for me was watching Michael Keaton. He is in the decade ahead of me now, but while he was in decent shape, he didn’t buff up for the part knowing he’d be in his underwear. In fact, there was something akin to raw courage in the way he confronted the role of an actor trying to make a comeback and all of his physical changes were on display- his hair had largely left him, his skin wore his age, though his body sported almost no extra weight. He legs were thinner-the legs of an older man. There was no effort at pretense- he went for raw truth. I felt it in the studio, but it was even more evident in the movie theatre where the large screen magnifies all our human blemishes and stands them before audiences like neon signs. There was truth on his side, and it overpowered anything else you might think about his physical being. Truth. Isn’t that what we’re after? As actors? As human beings?

So the performance stayed with me. And I began to think again about the purpose of hair dye. Is it, like fiction, a lie that tells the truth? Or does it cover something even more frightening because it’s true – age. Mortality. You are not 18 any longer. Satchel Paige is credited with saying “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” In the U.S., if you look at the behavior of most of us, we are teenagers. We loathe aging and we make old people go away to Florida (only half joking; the other half go to Arizona).

I had a few projects lined up, so changing my hair color was not an immediate possibility. I had also spent hundreds of dollars on my headshots and business cards. Replacing those would be unnecessarily expensive. And yet the voice grated at my ear. Truth. And finally, this past summer, when I had several months between jobs, I let it grow out.

It took me a long time to get used to my reflection in the mirror (I can’t say I’m still 100% adjusted). As soon as my hair was more white than dye, people started offering me their seat on the bus, even though I might be wearing a NYC Marathon jacket. They were clearly not looking at my frame, my clothes or my face -the hair alone had determined for them how old I must be. At first I found this daunting: “do I really want the white of my hair to be the only thing that people see?” “Will it be the same in the casting session?” “Will people suddenly add 20 years to my age?” “What about women? Have I just surrendered the possibility of dating anyone under 70?”

So far, the hair hasn’t made a difference in the casting. I played a Vietnam vet in a comedy and an organ harvesting doctor in another short film within months of letting my hair return to truth. I have two more projects coming up early this year, as a dying man who asks for a heart and as a prison guard who runs a gang inside the jail. I no longer have to worry about matching my hair dye for continuity if we shoot for more than two weeks or if the roots are growing out enough for the camera to see. And the look is growing on me.  But the biggest change has been the willingness to let the raw truth be on my side.

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Christmas eve, I walked to the post office. On the way back, I saw a woman crossing the street toward me. I only noticed her briefly from the corner of my eye. But I felt her come up alongside of me. As she passed, I felt this pulse of energy – crazy, swirling energy. I had planned to walk back to work through the passageway between Seventh and Sixth Avenues, but I felt compelled to follow her down Eighth Avenue. She was a few inches shorter than me, wore leather pants and a loop-knit sweater (the kind that looks like it is more air than sweater and skin is vaguely visible beneath).

At the corner, waiting for the light (as I was catching up), she flicked her dark hair from the right side, revealing the pale, light skin of her neck. There was a kind of madness in me – I wanted to grab her from behind and kiss that neck. The light changed and I started to feel like a stalker. She wore low-cut boots and she seemed to walk on the side of the left boot (more than on the sole). Her clothes were not sloppy, but at the same time were not fastidiously groomed — they had the look of clothes that were put on after a dance class or that had been worn during a short nap. Everything about the woman felt intimate and familiar to me.

At 44th Street, I forced myself to turn away, to walk across Eighth Avenue toward Times Square (toward where I work). I was almost hyper-ventilating with crazy energy. Once I was away from the woman, I realized I was chasing a ghost- she was a doppelganger for someone I’d dated. Now, some fifteen years later, one tries to make sense of things, if it is possible to make sense of that dramatic pull of energy that comes through the senses.

Mystical writing from many cultures indicates that what draws or repulses us in others is mostly a form of our own character — we are often drawn to those who are like us or seek to complete ourselves in those who are of an entirely different mold. These kinds of relationships highlight our own personality. Thus in reviewing the effect of a relationship, we may actually come to understand ourselves better. Krishnamurti insists that the mirror in which we see ourselves in the mirror of relationship.

I met L when she was auditing a voice class. I didn’t expect to meet her- or anyone like her. Some years earlier I’d come to the conclusion that most “love” is simply a form of convenience or addiction. I’d been in a long term relationship when I came to that conclusion. I wrote a short story about a man watching a woman sleep and being unable to come to terms with the fact that she was not the one he’d anticipated, hoped for or imagined. She was the one he’d found. And despite the fact that she was allergic to his sperm – a cosmic warning if there was one -they were trying to make it work. I’d come to believe that people formed alliances or treaties when they wed and the other thing, “infatuation” or “lust” if you will, was the central ingredient in “falling in love.” I didn’t see much room or evidence of anything much else.

So, yes, I was already in a relationship that was “practical,” for lack of a better word. I was helping her get a green card; she was helping me …do something. I haven’t figured out yet what that was. I kept thinking I would grow into the relationship, even if it was awkward at every turn. I would be patient. I chided myself- I’d never lived with anyone before. I just needed to adjust. Besides, there was no such thing as “love.”

I went to class and I heard L sing. There was a lot of passion in her singing, though I didn’t pay that much attention to her otherwise. Later, in the hallway outside of class, we started to talk. Quickly it appeared as if I’d known her for a thousand years or more. There was this ease and comfort of dialogue. We walked together to the subway with some other classmates. I played an impromptu joke on one of the singers who’d gone into the supermarket, banging on the window as in “Mrs. Robinson.” L joined right in. All of us laughed to the subway and at one point I swear I heard her say, “you’d better be single.” (She later denied having every said such a thing).

When I got home that night, R, the woman with whom I was in a relationship said, “what happened?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

“You seem joyful. That’s not an emotion I’ve seen in you before…”

At this point I could spill all of my journals – the self-recriminations, the mistakes, the roads not taken – but what I want to recount is not necessarily the personal journey through these relationships, but the discovery of my character on those axes — the poles between “practical” and “passion.”

What is it that Pascal says in the Pensees – “the heart hath reasons that reason doth not know.” If reason is the tool of the practical, passion and love incite in us the irrational. I have infinite gratitude for L, as I have often said, “she woke up my heart.” I had stopped believing love was possible until I met her. What I experienced was sexual – I’m not going to deny that aspect of things – but it was more too. There was this uncanny sensation of having spent multiple life-times with L, as well as a unique energy exchange. I can distinctly recall more than one occasion on which L simply placed her hand on my back and a charge of electricity shocked through my body (and no, it wasn’t static electricity). I always felt like I could tell her anything and I made honesty my number one commitment- Of course, this was merely my perception -there were times we talked (after we broke up) and she intimated that I should never have told her x or y. “How did I think that would make her feel?” she asked. I always assumed honesty trumped smaller concerns.

The primary effect of L’s entrance was that I understood I would never be happy focused only on a practical life. I am an actor and I’ve had the same struggle through the years with work as during the time I tried to balance what I owed to my practical relationship versus what I owed to passion.  While ultimately passion may not be love, it is not lust either.

When I first came to NYC, my primary focus was to study acting. I’d come to the game late and was fortunate enough to have friends who’d studied at NYU and Monclair- they opened to door for me to terminology, various teaching methods, etc. When I began studying, I continued to teach writing at a Community College. It surprised me a little how quickly I picked up technique, but beyond that, how my years of meditation actually gave me a distinct advantage-the ability to focus and the ability to be in the moment (and yes, I’d heartily recommend meditation to anyone who considers acting simply for those two benefits). I was still dating the woman about whom I’d written my short story- she was thrilled by the idea that I might turn into someone famous; however, she disliked that I left on weekends to take classes, to rehearse with acting partners and all the work involved in learning a craft.

I made acting important and tried to balance it with the demands of my job (grading papers, preparing classes) and my relationship, what you might call the practical aspects of living. Had I been passionately in love with either -the woman or the teaching -who knows how I would have felt. As it was, I continually felt that time away from acting was time lost. After a year of technique and a year of basic and advanced scene study, I went to my first audition. I was cast as a lead. The play was “American Success” – a musical about the inter-twined careers of Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. It probably helped matters that at that time I sported a mustache and looked like Clint Eastwood’s younger brother (or Sam Elliot in Mask, as people often told me). The play debuted at the American Living Room series at HERE. On opening night, after my family left, I was incredibly aware that my girlfriend of the last four years had gone abroad. I stood in the triangle facing Sixth Avenue and loneliness welled up within me.(1)

My immediate thought was to blame acting. “I put acting ahead of people – and when the play was over all that I was left with was myself.” I raced off and tried to resurrect my relationship – it would involve moving to South America, giving up acting, but hell – people were more important! Even if it wasn’t what I thought of as love, I was incredibly attached to the woman.

I flew to South America, proposed, and was offered a job by my fiancé’s father. I finished the year teaching while training in Manhattan to become an import / export sales executive. And I was bored out of my mind. I kept thinking – this is a job a monkey could do. The prices are on a chart- there’s no negotiation – all I do is answer the phone (“How much does it cost to send a container of — ?”) and I’d look at the chart and read off the price. But the money would be more than I’d ever made. I struggled – could I be content with money? And a family? And what about acting?

I don’t want to get into much more personal history, but this is the lesson I’ve relived for most of my life — being forced to try and balance what I am passionate about with the more practical demands of survival in a capitalist society. In my pre-acting career, when I began writing and assumed I’d make my living as a poet (delusions of youth), I’d work for six to eight months and save enough money that I could spend the next four to six months writing. As a result, my work history has more entries than Burke’s Peerage. So this challenge has been present since I graduated from college. I understand now, however, that passion and love are not as synonymous as I once thought.

A few years ago, I re-connected with a woman who seemed to span both ends of the scale. She was a responsible young mother but also an artist. I could mention Sophocles or a minor character from Shakespeare without having to explain. I could pull out my Oedipus (ex-Rex) joke without the footnote. While it didn’t feel like I’d known her a thousand years, I could spend the afternoon walking with her and not feel compelled to invent conversation. Dialogue came and went and there was a gentle ease simply in her presence. I was patient- perhaps too patient – but I recall having walked her to her apartment. Her son was asleep in his stroller and I thought “Do I kiss her?” I leaned in close, and maybe it was the result of the stroller or my own expectations, there was suddenly no burning passion. In some strange moment of crisis, I felt that I should at least feel the compulsion of passion if I was going to kiss her. And so we hugged and that moment passed. Over time, I realized that was my one opportunity – though we’d later spent some time together and I grew more entranced each time, the kiss remained unshared.  When I was full of passion, I found myself without the opportunity.  I had yet to learn that passion comes and goes, but something else endures.

My son is now twelve and one of the great lessons I’ve learned is that I always love him. There are days I want him to be quiet, or to leave me in peace while I work, but it is never without love. The idea of a scale balanced between passion and practicality was simply something in my brain when it came to love. While love can begin at any intensity, it grows over time. It’s not really a feeling, it’s a connection, or a commitment — many times, it’s simply putting the good of the others ahead of yourself. Or at least putting yourself out for the good of the other.

While I work a great deal as an actor and a writer these days, I’ve also gone back to a “day” job. It’s hard to raise a kid without a steady income. And maybe it isn’t so opposite – maybe the work I do gives me the leisure to make films when I so desire. And at this time, it’s all about the work – doing the work, serving the script, living the process.  Passion for scripts comes and goes, but the love of the work is constant.  This is something I have only learned with time.  Still, I dream of the day I can quit and devote myself entirely to what I love… 😉

(1) One of the things I learned after years of acting is that the sensation of “being in the moment”- one of the requisites for good acting – is that when you return to the quotidian, there is a sense of being unplugged. In my case, I’ve learned over time that this post-acting phase manifests itself as a minor depression, a deep feeling of sadness coupled with loneliness. However, at the time of this show, it was my first such experience and I did not have the wherewithal to consider that it might be something related to acting and not my life.

 

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Before I get into it, I think I have to say a little something about “art.”  Maybe I should make that a capital letter A — writing, music, acting…for me, these have never been “entertainments.”  It would be like calling air or water entertainment.  No, when I was a confused teenager who had no idea how to cope with acne, lust, Catholicism, ridicule, lack of self-esteem and the whole jumble of tangled wires in my stomach that were more or less my unlabeled emotions, my salvation was music.  I listened to “Close to the Edge” or “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” and the vibrations of the music felt more like my own blood than anything else I encountered.  Somewhere in the depths of Baltimore I added Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, the darker episodes of Tchaikovsky.  And I learned to play “angry Mozart.”  I used the piano to let my emotions out.  I was adept with words, wrote a lot of poems, but they were mind games.  Music was the heart.  I would not have survived my teenage years without the piano.  Or Yes.

To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, men die every day for lack of what is found in the poem. Agreed.  Art, for me, is a sacrament.  It is the recognition and reminder of the holy in us, in life.  Comedy is not unholy — in fact, A Fish Called Wanda (for one example) celebrates our foibles, our desires, our self-image and it is fall-down funny.  Holy does not equal serious. But to celebrate what we are, as a race, the holy does have to embrace humanity.

I have to ask myself now, as if I were my own reader, “what does that mean, to embrace humanity?”  I recently watched (again) The Last Samurai. (Note of bias, Tom Cruise is not one of my favorite actors although I’ve loved his work in Magnolia, Tropic Thunder and Rain Man). I don’t remember the character’s name, though I watched the film less than a week ago (I remember Ratso Rizzo and I haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy in a decade).  It was decidedly a comic book film, a super-hero film, where the hero can face a Gatling gun that kills every Japanese samurai and leaves only Tom Cruise standing (well, kneeling).  Oh, he has flaws — he drinks, but only because he’s trying to push aside the memories of the cavalry abusing Native Americans (he carries a Native American man purse with him and draws pictures of the quiet Indian tribes).  He refuses to send unpolished troops into battle, and to prove his point, he asks one of them to fire at him.  He learns martial arts over the course of a few months.  And in the end, he sways the emperor to stand up and be his own man.  Right.  I understand that in the world of the film, we are dealing with a limited amount of time (maybe two hours), but very little in this film embraced what it means to be human, to have foibles, to be mortal.

I want to contrast this film to Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho Daiyo, but first I want to place it in my own chronology.  I came to acting late.  Oh, I piddled with it in college, got drawn into community theatre, dinner theatre and finally a better community theatre that ran out of Ocean County College.  I was in graduate school for my Master’s Degree in English when I had the dream.  No, not of being on stage.  It was January, I would graduate in May, and I suddenly knew, deep in my soul that I could care less about getting my Ph.D.  While my classmates were going crazy filling out applications, getting letters of recommendation, I needed to find another path.  I prayed.  Not to the Catholic god of my youth, or to Buddha, or any god in particular really.  Simply vocalizing to the universe — “I don’t want to do this (academics) anymore.  But I don’t know what I want to do instead. Show me.”

That night, I had a dream.  When I woke, I found myself face down in my pillow — an anomaly as I have a terror of suffocation — I even drive in mid-Winter with the window cracked.  I fold the pillow under my face when I sleep on my side.  No, you will not find me willingly face down in a pillow.  And yet, there I was.  In front of my face, there were two guys talking.  And it was funny.  So I got up, walked to the breakfast bar in the lodge where I roomed, and wrote it down.  In the end there was seven pages and I went to bed.  The next day, I expected nothing.  I’d done the basement thing where guys were hanging out partying and jammin’ — we recorded it, thinking it was the next incarnation of music, only to find out it was out of tune garbage the next day.  Only this time on the next day, those seven pages were funny.  So I put them in a folder and went back to finishing my Master’s Degree.

It never occurred to me at the time that the dream might be an answer to my call, the voice of “what’s next?” that I whispered to the universe.  But I spent the summer at the shore writing.  I did community theatre productions of “Cabaret” and “Educating Rita” — one as Cliff Bradshaw and the other as Frank (“Educating Rita” is a two-hander).   And I wrote.

I wrote into the Fall.  I recall one specific episode where I’d been writing for some twelve days straight without seeing anyone. I didn’t leave the house.  I got up, made coffee, lit a cigarette and started writing. (Yeah, I was still smoking in those days — no one who sees me running marathons can believe it).  By the way, despite the craze for Macs at grad school, I had still been working on the Mainframe.  So at the shore, I had a battered 1950s Smith Corona for my play.  Change one line, you had to re-type the page.  At one point, after those 12 days, I realized I had the jitters.  I drove to the Ocean County Mall, bought a coffee and sat on a planter bench for an hour watching people.  Once I knew that there were still people in the world, it was okay to go back to work. I wanted to re-write scenes along the way, but I made myself complete the draft first.  Once I was done and I read the meeting scene — between the ex-girlfriend/boyfriend — I thought, “she would never tell him that.”  So I rewrote it.  Then I read it again.  “God, would he really let on that he was that hurt?”  Version 3.  I rewrote that scene nine times before I thought it was anywhere near what two people would reveal about themselves in that vulnerable a position — and still reveal enough for the play to continue.

It took two years to write.  During that time, I went to work with my father in Virginia on the Catoctin Stud project.  I wrote for Berkley Books (promotional material).  I painted houses and worked construction.  All the while wondering what I was doing next.  And I continued to write.  When the play was done, I had some friends over to read it out loud.  They cracked up.  I told them it wasn’t a comedy.  They told me I wrote in a spit-take.  I told them that it was a serious play, but that every time I felt it was getting too heavy, I lightened it up a bit.  They laughed at me.

I bought a copy of the Dramatists Sourcebook and started submitting the play.  It was the finalist in quite a few competitions.  I remember getting an envelope back from New Dramatists.  I threw it on a shelf and crossed them off the list.  A week or so later, I decided to send that copy to another theatre, so I opened the envelope.  Someone else’s play was inside.  At first I thought, okay, they sent him mine and I got his — envelope mix up.  I’ll keep it and read.  It was pretty miserable — something about Jim Morrison, the Devil and Armageddon.  I called New Dramatists — I’d rather have my own play back — only to discover I’d made it onto the next round.  Short-listed for the L. Arnold Weissberger Award.  Yes, it was still open to the public in those days (now it’s strictly open to members).

Then I hedged my bets — I thought — what if I don’t win?  How can I parlay being on the list into an advantage?  And I started to apply to graduate schools — for playwriting.  However, there was a serious problem.  Every grad school I looked at required a minimum of two plays.  I had one.  I’d had an idea for a large scale production, so I started to slap scenes together.  I got the brochure from Yale and I read that all students would be required to take an “acting for non-actors” class.  And I felt the antenna on the back of my head rise up.  It was something I wanted to do.

Long and short — I didn’t win the L.Arnold Weissberger Award nor did I make it into grad school.  I had hoped to apply to seven, I applied to three.  Still, I remembered the antenna on my neck — and I thought — taking an acting class is something I can do for myself.  I contacted the Rita of my production of “Educating Rita” (she took acting classes in NYC) and asked her how to begin.  (to be continued)

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Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………

…b…iiiiiiii…..ng

[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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I became a playwright as the result of an odd night sleeping (that’s a blog for another day).  I became an actor, at first, to learn the mechanics of how a play works: I went on stage to become a better writer.  It turned out I became pretty adept at acting as well. I believe everyone who attempts to write for stage or screen should spend some time on stage or in front of the camera.  There are things one learns about dialogue that I’ve rarely seen learned any other way.  I’ll try to catalog a few of them here.

Shortly after the turn of the millennia, I was cast in the NY premiere of a work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.  The translation was a collaboration: the producer rendered the words in English and a Columbia University graduate playwright crafted them into a verse play (the original was in verse).  The story follows the journey of a woman and her child as they seek shelter in the world as refugees. I played the captain of a refugee ship (one who charged high prices and drank extensively). The woman could only pay for one passage on my ship, so I let her work off the other passage as my mistress. When we arrive at the next port, it is morning some weeks later.  As she goes to depart, as an actor, I chose to give her a lingering look, as if in the time she was on board, she had awoken some passion or compassion within me and I was going to miss her.  There were no words.  This was rehearsal.

When I arrived at the next rehearsal, the playwright/translator — who had the liberty to do so — had added two pages of dialogue (mostly monologue) to express in words, what I’d been exploring in a glance.  I’d worked with Kelly before and had loved her original work.  Now, I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful that my glance meant so much to her that she wanted to add two pages to solidify it; secondly and sadly, the words added nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Everything had been said in the glance. I tried the words, but it truly belabored the point and if anything now made a spontaneous moment of recognition seem overworked and trite.  Now — how do you tell that to someone who’s just written the pages for you?

I’m convinced that underwriting dialogue is the first lesson any playwright/screenwriter learns when they go on stage.  Actors do so much more with a short phrase than any writer can add in a paragraph — if the situation is spot on, if the intention behind the phrase is subtle and correct. This is the relationship to subtext — the characters are rarely talking about what they mean anyway — the meaning is underneath.

Breaking up long passages is usually not necessary: writing “What?” “When?” “How?” “Yes?” simply because one character has been talking a long time and the writer wants to break it up kills the momentum and the actors.  There is no more difficult stage situation for an actor than trying to decipher where that one word comes from: am I really curious?  Is there some special information there that I want to confirm? It is usually very obvious when those words are inserted simply to break up a long passage. I love that Yasmina Reza will write a characters name (as if for dialogue) and then insert (silence) as the dialogue line.  It shows that the attention has gone to that character and the character chooses not to reply.

Stage directions on how to speak a line (line readings given by the writer instead of the director): Actors know their craft.  A great deal of it comes from a place that is not scientific (even if it is sometimes called Method). Most directors with whom I’ve worked insist on cutting stage directions before we begin. (This is less true of film).  Assume the writer adds the direction: TED (sarcastically) “Yeah, I’m racist.” What happens?  The possibilities of the actor can become limited.  They may start thinking of ways to make that line sarcastic.  In rehearsal, the actor is free to explore — try it as truth, try it as a questioning moment.  But the reality is the subtext — to whom is Ted speaking?  what do they want from them?  Why would they use a line like that?  Is Ted joking?  Actors need to discover what the action of a phrase is — not what the manner of speaking it is.  Therefore, to an actor, the phrase (sarcastically) shouldn’t mean anything.  It’s not an action.  Ted can be tweaking his listener to get x result.  That’s an action. Unfortunately, too many actors get screwed up by paying attention to the manner of speaking and forgoing actually focusing on taking an action.

More on subtext: In a film I wrote, a very Goth fringe theatre director — a Korean woman who is perceived to be lesbian — happens upon her lead actor standing near the piers along the Hudson River.  Out on the pier, gay couples are twined about one another.  She asks him, “Do you come here often?” I like to use this as an example when discussing subtext: what is she really asking him?  Does she actually want to know if he spends a lot of time at the river? No.  In my mind (the actor can make other choices), she’s asking him if he’s gay.  It is also the first revelation in the script that she may actually not be lesbian (why else would she ask him? Would it matter to her in any other way?).

Actors constantly look for subtext.  They break scenes apart and try to determine what is going on in the relationship?  What’s at stake? What am I trying to achieve?  This information should rarely be on the surface.

Not everything is subtext.  There will be times when a character will ask “which way is the train station” and really want to know.  But there are layers of other information there as well — why don’t they know?  Are they in a foreign city?  Are they confused? Lost? Delayed?  At no time in a film should precious seconds be wasted simply ascertaining the direction to the train station.  The situation has to have further significance.  This is subtext as well.

Knowing the Whole: A good actor takes a script apart, creates timelines, biographies, backstories.  The actor will likely curse any writer who does not consider the whole story.  I remember working on two plays, almost back to back.  The first was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, where I played Doc.  In the opening scene, Doc tells Lenny that he’s dropped off his child at the dentist.  Naturally, as the actor playing Doc, I need to know how old the child is.  So I do the math.  Meggie left 5 years ago.  I was injured for a year.  I went up North, met my wife.  Even if we conceived a child on the first day we met, given the 9 month pregnancy, the kid can only be 3 years old and change.  Now I have to make a decision — did I just drop off my three year old at the dentist?  By himself?  What the hell kind of father am I?  What kind of three year old needs a dentist? Does it mean that Meggie is so much more important to me than my own family?  Am I really a rogue? Possibly.  But Doc in the rest of the play does not jibe with a man who leaves a three-year old at the dentist.  It was infuriating trying to resolve my character to the text. How do you feel telling someone that you just left your three year old at the dentist? Does it mean anything?

In the next month or so, I was playing George Deever in “All My Sons.”  There is a bit of dialogue between Joe Keller, his wife and George, where George catches the family in a lie — the wife says “he’s never been sick a day in his life” — but Joe called in sick the day there were flaws in the manufacturing, giving George’s father the instructions to “ship them out.”  George is a lawyer, so naturally he’s used to listening to stories for the flaws.  Naturally he picks up on the lie and pursues it.  Additionally, in a brilliant bit of writing form, Miller has Joe cross-examine George in the sequence just before the information comes out (as George is about to accept their insistence that Joe is innocent). Having worked on both pieces back to back, I found a distinct comfort in making choices based on the text with the Miller play that I did not have with Crimes of the Heart.

While there are a few things I can try to pass on, nothing replaces the experience of actually being in front of people or a camera speaking words.  I recall being in the theatre a few days after Heat was released.  There were places where the dialogue was so bad that the audience was laughing  at the writing, not the situation or because the line was finny.  Despite the fact that credit belongs to Michael Mann, as a writer I cringed.  I don’t want to copy any of the dialogue for fear of copyright infringement, but you can read some of the sequences here.  Say the lines out loud — try it.  See how they feel in your mouth.  I cannot believe that lines such as those could have come from anyone who’d possibly spent a few minutes acting (even if he did write for TV).  In all fairness, Michael Mann wrote The Insider, an amazing film whose dialogue is three miles from this work.  So it’s possible that the writer was trying a stylized language.  But when the audience laughs at the language  — when it sticks out so badly that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cannot make it sound any better than dinner theatre fare — the words did not succeed.

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–There are two nuns walking….
–So, there’s these two nuns, right?
–A couple of penguins is hoofing it down the street….
–Yo, check it out, right, there’s these two nuns
–Two sacred vessels of God shining in glory
–Ha ha, nuns, look! Where they think they’re goin’?

I had the good fortune when I first began to study acting to take classes with Michael Beckett. His approach was always very individual, but one of the lessons that resonated in my mind was a class in which he insisted that “words don’t mean anything.” There were mutterings about the class — “that’s not true,” “How can you know anything about a play if the words don’t mean anything…” etc.

Michael then proceeded to scream “I love you” at someone, then he said the words again as if he were mocking the person to whom he was speaking and then again as if the idea that he would love the person at whom he’d directed the phrase was the most ludicrous thing in the world (the subtext was along the lines of “yeah, right, like anybody would love you”). It was suddenly clear that the phrase “I love you” could mean multiple things and that much of it depended on context. He went on through several more variations, but not one of them meant “I love you.”

In other words, something that David Mamet made me think of:  People never say what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.

I was also lucky enough a few years after that to translate Fabio Rubio’s Mosca from Spanish into English for a production that included a Spanish director and several Spanish speaking performers. One of the trickier elements was finding English language equivalents — not just for the words that were spoken, but for the manner in which each character spoke. The play is an retelling of Titus Andronicus and each character is very distinct: Aaron the Moor is blunt and brutal, Chiron comes across as the idiot son of Tamara while the elder son, Demetrius is aristocratic and dainty. Tito has the aura of a no-nonsense woodsman and his daughter Lavinia has been very affected by her years of illness (there are traces of it in her speech).

One of the items I exploited in translation was the multiple meanings of various verbs (one of the things that translators begrudge is lost in translation). For example, the verb espantar can be translated as “to astonish” or “to frighten.”  Might one character mean “to frighten” and another to “astonish”?  Next,  one tries to add multiple layers in English to words that are written the same in Spanish, i.e. the phrase “Por fin, llegamos” could simply be translated “At last, we’re here.” For Demetrius, however, I would translate “Finally, we’ve arrived.” For each character, I tried to find a distinct way of speaking so that the actors would have more room to create variety (and to feel what was in the original).  Oddly, the Spanish speaking actors were the most demonstrative against such liberties (“It simply means ‘we’re here!”).  However, the director backed me on this.

If one looks at the list with which I began, it is clear that each line is a repetition of the same phrase said — not just in a different manner, but by a different sort of character. One of the more difficult things for a writer to do is to hear voices other than his or her own. I love East of Eden — one of my top ten books simply for its wisdom and compassion — however, most of the main characters sound like they’re the same person speaking through the mouth of a differently named character. I’m not saying every writer  has to imitate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the varieties of dialects and phonetic spellings, but there is an advantage to paying attention to things like rhythm, word choice and sub-text when writing dialogue:

Rhythm: people speak in different rhythms. I knew a man once who kept winding one story into the next. I wanted to move on to another conversation at the party, but he seemed to begin each new story without taking a normal break. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that he would break for breath mid-sentence. I had been anticipating a story would end with a breath-pause; it never happened. I had an “American Renaissance” professor who spoke like train — wheels running down a track at medium speed. Clack-e-ta-clack-e-ta, he never broke stride, never hurried, never slowed, never paused. There were no emphatics, no points of humor. My notes from his class would leave a long streak that trailed off the bottom of the paper; I’d fallen asleep mid sentence and the pen slid down the page. There is no way to write rhythms without hearing them. If one lives in a city, it is easier — one can hang out in a part of town with a different ethnicity. The rhythms there are always different — and more easily heard. Sometimes I sit in a crowded place and simply try to hear voices like music — as sound only, so that the rhythmic quality of the voices comes through.

Word choice: I had a classmate in high school who, while everyone else was saying “that’s cool,” coined the phrase “that’s casual.” Someone I knew in college called women either “beauteous” or “hideous.” There was nothing in between. He also would walk into my room, pick up a cup (or pen or anything, really) and say, “what have you got here? A little cup-de dup?” He’d rub his hand on his belly while expelling air between his lips and add, “I seen betta in Maine.” My son and his classmates are now in the habit of calling anything excellent “o.p.” (over-powering). I had another friend who continually modified one description by a second — “She’s cute, in a big nose kind of way.”  “It’s good, in a stinky kind of way.” There are people who always phrase things as questions.  I acted with a model who always attributed her ideas to someone else (“I read in a book that….”; I also used this in a play).  When you add to the mix people who speak English as a second language, it gets more interesting.  Spanish speaking people frequently mix up “to make” and “to do” — thus the phrase “I have to make my homework.” (In Spanish, it’s the same verb, hacer.) A Japanese student once explained to me that “a dream has a lot of wish.”

Screenwriters who work in cityscapes have many choices to diversify their character content, not just in stereotypical ways (i.e. Pakistani cab driver) but in power-broker circles as well: club owners, grad students, library researchers, etc. can be given extravagant rhythms of speech by thinking about word choice and rhythm.

Sub-text: This goes back to my Mamet inspired statement about people not saying what they mean.  Most of us are dishonest.  We make allowances for people who can advance our careers that we’d never make for family.  We bypass honesty to be expedient.  But we still try to get what we want! Couples break up over the minor issues, never the major ones — if one is a profligate spender, the confrontation with the spouse is about some stupid six dollar object, not the repeated pattern of spending. How many times does a spouse say “You could have called me!”  But what is she or he really saying?  Possible answers: you don’t respect me. I think you’re cheating on me. I want out of this stinking marriage.  It’s important that the screenwriter never employ those last three sentences in such a context unless the character who speaks them is ready to step off a cliff.  We never say those things, not because they’re true, but because they seem irrevocable.  Once we’ve crossed into that turf, there’s no going back.  No, we much prefer to blame things on the other person, push them to leave or stay, push them to make any decision.  Right now, we’re too emotional to think clearly at all.

I was engaged many years ago to a woman in Ecuador from a very wealthy family.  Naturally, she didn’t want to leave Ecuador and insisted I go there to live.  I told her that I wanted to be sure that if I wasn’t happy in Ecuador, we could look at other places to live — i.e., I wanted to marry her, not Ecuador.  She cancelled the wedding.  I had already surrendered my apartment and my assistant professorship (tenured) and spent several days trying to get each back.  I succeeded.  In my summer job, I received a call from the young woman who had rented my apartment and had it taken back (via a real estate agent).  She told me she wanted to bring her mother by the place, as co-signer, to give the mother some idea of the places the woman was looking at.  I told her I needed to run, but she could come by around 8 p.m.

At this point, I was still numb.  It had only been a couple of days and I had been in constant motion to repair my life.  I hadn’t cried or even thought about the loss all that much.  It truly was just numbness.  I got back at 6, went for a run, and beat the woman back to the apartment by 10 minutes.  I was still breathing a little heavy from running up the stairs when they buzzed.  I let them look around.  The girl asked a few questions, showed her mother.  We made some small chat.  She was in her early twenties, dark-haired, willowy and simply dressed in jeans and a flowing blouse.

“I really just wanted to make sure the real-estate agent wasn’t pulling  a fast one.”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re really going to stay?”

I don’t know whether it was the innocence of the question, the long run, the possibility that I’d let down my guard because these people had nothing to do with my life, my lost fiance…. Suddenly I was bawling. Full out, body convulsively bawling.  The women felt awful.  They backed away, apologizing — “oh my god, I’m so sorry.  So sorry.”  They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As a writer and actor, I always remember — that is truth.  It is the emotion that seeps out when we least expect it — and it almost never comes from the words you would expect.  Sub-text is emotion.  It is truth.  It is what we really mean or feel when we’re busy saying something else.

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A few years back, there was a huge uproar over the Connecticut casting of The Motherf*er in the Hat. The director, a relatively recent graduate of an NYU directing program, cast two actors who were part of this graduate thesis project. The problem was — they were white.

A dramaturg who graduated from Columbia Univ. with whom I’m familiar posted “that’s not the point of colorblind casting: to give more jobs to white actors.”  I simply replied — “I’m glad someone is hiring the actors who worked for them, for free, when the director was getting his/her degree.”  But I was being disingenuous — I never expected working for student productions to lead to anything further.

The truth is there are countless opportunities in NYC for actors to work, to learn the craft, to stay sharp and to keep themselves focused.  Both NYU and Columbia have graduate directing programs in Theatre and Film.  These programs have carte blanche from the acting unions to use professional actors — dues-paying union actors — without pay (it gets a little bit dicy when you’re working with a student who will drop thousands of buck on their film production, but considers it okay not to pay the actor even transportation).  Additionally, there are film programs at NY Film Academy, Brooklyn College, SVA, Digital Film Academy, et al.  All require actors.

I had something of a conflict with my then acting teacher in 1996.  I had left my steady job and was working free-lance, so funds were a bit tight as well.  Instead of searching out and paying for a new acting class, I decided I would spend a year learning how different directors work.  I sent in my picture and resume for the Columbia Graduate Directors program and auditioned.

The space was a large black box in the basement of a dorm building.  I chose to do a Shakespearean monologue as they’d asked for “classical.”  In the dimly lit space, there were seven directors huddled together in the middle of two hard white plastic fold-out tables.  I was working with the Richard of Gloucester monologue from the end of Henry VI, seconds after he’s laid poor old Harry to rest at the end of a sword.  As I spoke the words, I envisioned poor Henry lying on the floor at my feet, in a pool of blood, cursing me.  None of the directors seemed to be noticing him, so I continued speaking — “Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste and seek their ruin who usurp’d our right?” — as I walked behind them.  Yep, I walked out into their space and stood behind them, encouraging them to behold the spectacle lying on the floor.  After all — I was talking to them now — Harry was dead.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of week, but then a Korean woman in her late 20s called.  We worked on an abstraction of Death of a Salesmen — she had me in a trench coat and my underwear.  Payback is a b__ch, as they say.  She told me that the other directors said, “you’re going to work with him?  He’s so scary!” Within weeks, however, I was called by one after the other.  During that semester, each director put up 21 projects between Anne Bogart’s  first year Death of a Salesmen class and Robert Woodruff’s Euripedes class.  I appeared in 17 projects.  During the Spring, I was working on Moliere at the McCarter Playhouse (Princeton), so I did not work with the directors again until the end of the term.

I’m am often asked two sets of questions about working for such programs:  “Does anyone see you.”  And “Is it worth it?”

Over the course of 10 years, I did countless projects at Columbia’s graduate directors program.  I did projects with the film program as well — readings, scene study, even some really bad films.  During the very first session with the Korean director, I had to make a decision:  do I only work this way (my way) or am I flexible enough to try other things?  I’d been trained in Uta Hagen’s technique — a technique that grounds itself in the objects of reality.  At its best, the Hagen technique is a life-rope that supports the actor in their made-up world while giving them some leeway to be alive and respond.  At its worst it is a cage for actors who only trust the objects, often picking up needless item after needless item simply to give them the reference for saying a particular line.  Now, I was being asked to do something that felt more like dance — move here, count to three, make this gesture.

Since we were doing an abstraction of the Miller, I simply did what I was asked.  I did not channel Willy Loman or even consider what I was doing a part of Death of a Salesman.  I was simply working like an extra — going where the director told me to go, doing what I was told to do.  Next, the same director asked me to perform in Medea.  The director had a very clear vision of what she wanted to see.  She wanted to cast a black actress who had put on white face.  The denouement of the encounter with Jason would have the actress then taking the white face off.  Problem: none of the actresses agreed.  They had ideas of what they needed to do to be seen as valid actors. I was given directions such as “Sit at the table.  Count to three. Pick up the knife.  Count to two.”  It is very difficult to be in the moment, to have any inner life at all, when you are counting.  That scene was about as close as I came to rebellion — yet I saw the actresses raging and what happened was we were wasting every rehearsal with hours of discussions on why the actress could not perform in the director’s requested manner. I decided to simply do my best.

It turned out that this problem did not just pertain to this particular scene.  Almost every director with whom I worked had a process that was particular to their background — whether they were from Korea, Maine or the Lower East Side — and they encountered actors who were generally trained in one method.  I decided pretty quickly that my job was to be there for the director — they were the ones paying for the course, they were the ones getting graded — if they wanted me to count to five and hold a knife in the air, that’s what I would do.  I get the counter argument: you are performing in front of Anne Bogart or Robert Woodruff, later Brian Kulick or Karin Coonrood, you don’t want to do something that makes you look lame.  But I made that decision — do what you are asked; find a way to make it work for you.

I learned as much in the years I worked at Columbia as the years I took class (frequently I was doing both at the same time — I did go back to class after I came back from my time at the McCarter).  I continued to work with Columbia students after my son was born simply to keep myself in practice — several of the directors were willing to rehearse on my schedule (having kids gives you only x windows of space for your art), so I was grateful to keep working.  In this time I worked on Moliere’s Don Juan, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Inge’s Bus Stop, Goethe’s Faust — works I probably would not have tackled otherwise.  And other than Faust, I did them in their entirety.

Additionally, over the past 15 years, Columbia’s film program has grown from NYU’s starving younger sister to a perennial Oscar producer.  I can do very little with the footage of those films I made in the late 90s — I was asked to cry without a reason, to be “evil” instead of psychologically complex and there are camera shots that are so bad that they look as if a six year old got ahold of the camera and was bobbing it up and down (although none of them are as bad as Norman Mailer’s direction of Tough Guys Don’t Dance)Now, I’m more than willing to do student films from both NYU and Columbia — as is Len Cariou and some other “name” character actors.

Have I met anyone?  Yes.  Anne Bogart and I know each other, she’s familiar with my work.  Robert Woodruff knows who I am too.  I stay in touch, at least on Facebook with many of the directors I’ve worked with there.  Are any names?  Not at the moment.  But if you ask me, that’s not the reason to do the work.  If you go to Columbia or NYU so that your work will be seen by Anne Bogart and you might be hired by her company, you’ll most likely be disappointed.

The main reason to go do work at Columbia or NYU (or any of the other institutes that require actors) is that you get better by working.  You cannot become a better actor by reading about it.  You cannot get skilled doing monologues in your living room — there’s no reception.  It’s like being angry when no one is there — if no one receives the anger, it goes back in — it doesn’t get processed.  You don’t grow.

I know an actress — one of the best I’ve ever seen — who refused to do any more student films when she was only one or two years removed from being in school herself.  She refused to do a lot of things — get new head shots when a potential agent asked.  She spent a lot of time in class — paying to develop.  And she kept up her skill.  But she wasn’t in front of the camera.  She was rarely on stage.  These things take their toll. She also never had an acting career — despite being enormously talented.  As I said, probably the best actress I’d ever seen in person.

So my advice to anyone who moves to NYC to become an actor?  Get familiar with the schools.  Start to work — yes, it demands your time.  And it doesn’t pay.  And the people may be demanding.  But you pay for class, don’t you?  What if you could get a class for free?  One that teaches you everything you need to know about being on stage, being on film? And dealing with people.  Wouldn’t you take it?  The only caveat is that it demands for you to be flexible, with your time, your attitude and your technique.

I’m pretty certain the schools in L.A. offer the same deal.

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