It is a strange time that life has become a stage for most of us, in ways that are more concrete and less metaphorical than Shakespeare refers to in Hamlet. We may have always been mere actors. Now as I write these blogs nearly every week, as millions of other people do, I am performing, or at least expressing myself, for audiences all of the time, even though I never actually go on a stage anymore. This has not always been the case for me. Actually, I tried to be an actor and found that the experience was completely different depending on the size of the audience, and who was in that audience, more so than my own performance. This may very well have been due to my inadequacies as an actor.
In 1995 I had just finished two years of studying in a musical conservatory. Mostly that means taking classes and practicing alone in a room (that is the school part at least. I did my fair share of college dorm parties as well). I also had the chance to be in operas, concerts, and musicals. I loved being on stage, despite the fact that I never played major roles, and looked for every chance the college or the community in Ohio where I lived gave me. I started to look outside of music, and did a few plays, rather unsuccessfully. Acting is a very personal art form when done correctly. It is not so much about performing, but rather about empathy. It is important to relate to your character and the others on stage. I am an empathetic guy, but I am also easily distracted by my own anxieties. I could never get the audience out of my mind. A close friend, Jenn Gambatese, who was going to NYU had recently left the formal study of musical theatre, and started training in an intense acting method called the Meisner technique. She explained the technique, and together we did some of the exercises. It was inspiring to me, because in those exercises I wasn’t acting at all, but rather connecting with someone else in a moment that was often emotionally charged. That summer I went to New York to study this technique further at a small acing school called the Neighborhood Playhouse. There were very few college acting students in my class. Mostly they were models who were trying to transition to acting or former childhood television stars who were trying to grow up and be serious adult actors. The classes were everything I had hoped they would be. In fact I did very well in them, as I took my teacher’s advice and didn’t act at all. Rather I was myself in either an improvisation or a scene. Since it was only a summer class we never had the chance to go as far as actually becoming a character that was so different than ourselves that research was required. Still I went back for a final year in Ohio, prepared to finish my degree and hurry to New York for a career on the stage. Though I would finish and move to New York, I had an experience during that last year which made me realize that I would likely not be an actor.
Because I had such a good experience at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I had picked up an acting agent who was not ready to exactly take me on, but to at least try me out with some auditions. He called me in Ohio and asked if I could be in New York the next day for a terrific opportunity, which was to audition for a lead role in a new Neil Simon play which was going to Broadway. The agent faxed the portion of the script I would be using for the audition to me at my school. I picked up my mother who agreed to help me out, got in the car and drove to New York. My mom and I practiced the scene in the car. I was unreasonably confidant that the role was perfect for me. I went to the audition and in front of me were the director and Neil Simon himself, as well as two other people I didn’t recognize. I did the scene very poorly with another actor, and the director gave me some notes, and asked me to try again. The second time I was even worse. They thanked me for coming, and I left the room. I wouldn’t admit this to anyone out of embarrassment, but I knew I would never be a professional actor after that. While I was good in class, I could not even be convincing in front of even that small audience, let alone an entire theatre.
I think that being a good actor is a very rare talent, as it is so much unlike what we are used to. If he is empathetic, as an actor must be, how can he take into account all of the feelings of the other actors on stage and the audience as well? It is just too much to think about simultaneously when you need to be impulsively in the moment of a scene. This kind of exposure is not for everyone, yet many of us now do it much more frequently than we used to, even when we are not seeking acting careers. The speed at which we blog, and tweet, and group IM, and receive comments and responses requires an emotional and intellectual vulnerability that only artists, such as actors were exposed to in the past. This is often criticized, just as actors are criticized, as being self indulgent. Perhaps it is in a sense, but it also, like acting, requires empathy. Millions of us are forced to think about audiences and collaborators in new ways which in turn makes our writing more profound at its best. Even at its worst it is an attempt to live more fully. Perhaps that part of us that is attracted by actors is those emotions, and that vulnerability. The technology available to us lets us all do that without subjecting audiences in a theatre, or playwrights in an audition to painfully bad performances. On the other hand we may very well be compensating for a lack of direct contact.
Last week I went to the Abramavic show at MoMa in New York, which in so many ways succeeded better in being art and theatre than any class or stage production. The first piece is simply the artist herself sitting at a table. Visitors can wait in line to sit across the table from her. Once you are in that seat, it is a wordless communication, which is unique with each coupling, even though the setting never changes. I was told that one visitor sat through an entire 8 hours with the artist.
So can we achieve anything similar to this through blogs, and comments, or is there something about being alive that manifests itself only in person? Is this what I had hope to achieve as a college actor? I am not sure. This is one reason that I also play improvisational piano with groups of other musicians. Finding connections through art and writing has many new opportunities. Whether we take them or not is the challenge.