Stepping Out of Myself and Onto the Stage
I experimented with being a thespian once, but that was in college.
I love movies, and always thought, far in the back of my mind, I could be an actor. However, I never really made the effort to fulfill that small, but persistent, dream. Never worked on school plays, or musicals, in high school. I was content to watch old black-and-white Warner Bros. movies in my room on Sunday afternoons (that sounds even more pathetic now than it did back then).
When I went to Kean College (now University) I decided to step outside of myself; I took an acting class. Acting 101 convened in the small theatre on campus. Once there, I was surrounded by people whom I was sure had done this before. The next few weeks I found myself doing things in a classroom I never dreamt I’d ever do. For example, our teacher made us lie on the floor of the auditorium, told us we were asleep, and when we awoke up, we’d be blind. Then, on cue, as we ‘awoke’, the room was suddenly filled with bodies contorted in horror as anguished cries filled the air (“Khan!”).
As the weeks went by we became less boisterous, more in control of our mannerisms and emotions, so we looked less like we were “acting” and more like we were actors.
After a few more weeks, we had an assignment. For 75 minutes we had to stay in character for the duration of the class. We could not say who we were, it was for each of us to guess who the others were playing. So we mingled for an hour and 15 minutes through the auditorium, each of us encased in our own little world. From afar it could have been a scene from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I walked deliberately through the crowd, my head tilted slightly to the right, a thoughtful look on my face as I rubbed my chin and spoke with a slight lisp.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
No one guessed I was Bogart. Guess I still had a long way to go.
The next assignment was the final, the majority of our grade. We were to audition for the Director’s class One-Act Play Workshop; it was their final grade of the semester as well.
Saturday morning, I walked toward the main auditorium for the audition. How bad could it be? The director’s class couldn’t have been that big, and wasn’t sure how many other acting classes would be auditioning. With trepidation, I opened the auditorium doors. The room was packed — filled to capacity with hundreds of actors, each quietly spouted lines to themselves — a beehive of sounds attacked my ears (peas and carrots, peas and carrots). With more courage than I thought I had, I stepped inside.
I signed in, and was handed a sheet of paper with four possible scenarios — I selected ‘liquor store clerk shot during a robbery.’ Over the next few hours I watched the same four scenes played out in a variety of manners. Truthfully, I don’t remember the other three scenes because I was focused on how I was going to die on stage (one way or another).
Finally, my name called, I stepped up to do my scene. One of the student directors acted as stand-in who read the lines with me until he lifted his right hand, formed his thumb and index finger into the shape of a gun, and said, ‘bang’ The imaginary bullet ripped through my flesh, I clutched myself to keep my imaginary guts from spilling out onto the stage. The bullet shattered my spine, I slumped to the ground followed by a smattering of polite applause. I quickly jumped to my feet as if to show the audience, ‘hey, I know you thought I was really shot, but I was only acting’ and ran off stage right (or maybe stage left).
The following week I was picked by three directors to be in their workshops, but went with a one-act play called The Clod by Richard Beach for no other reason than the director was also in my acting class. The play was set during the civil war, I would play a Confederate Sargeant who terrorizes a husband and wife in their farmhouse as he searched for a wounded, northern soldier.
Now I had to memorize lines; that was something else new to me. For weeks, I walked around with a dog-eared copy of the play, repeated lines to myself as I went around doing mundane tasks. We rehearsed each day, and finally I felt (almost) ready when the day of the opening arrived.
A half-dozen plays would be featured each night, and The Clod was one of the first to be presented. I had friends in the audience, but did not get a chance to see them before the performance. I was told later, when my brother showed up, he leaned over the row where my friends sat and said, “No one is going to say anything stupid, are they?” I should note just how intimidating my brother is — I was sure to get a standing ovation when this was over, thanks to the sheer terror he instilled in them.
The play was about to begin; I stood behind the back stage curtain, seconds away from making my entrance. Butterflies slam-danced in my stomach just as the director stepped up next to me and, in a staccato barrage, said, “oh-by-the-way-make-a-sound-like-a-horse-riding-up-to-the-farmhouse-thanks-good-luck”.
He slipped back into the darkness.
What the f*ck!
Every line fell out of my head. The sound of applause filled the theater as the actress who played the farmer’s wife said her first line.
A f*cking horse! No one told me how to play a f*cking horse! I was one line away from my entrance when in an all-or-nothing desperate move, I started to pound my chest with my hands in a rapid pattern that I hoped to God sounded like the rhythmic beat of hooves. It was a horse, or else this confederate soldier was about to arrive by helicopter. I took a deep breath and stepped onto the stage.
The play itself was a blur.
Two things stood out for me. The first was about halfway through the play. After I said my line I could tell by the petrified look of fear on the other actor’s face, he totally forget his. I repeated mine, and was thankfully saved when the woman playing the farmer’s wife said his line so we could move on. I honestly didn’t know what I would have done next if she hadn’t.
The other was near the end of the play when the farmer’s wife pulled a shot gun off the wall and fired point blank into my chest. I flew over the table and landed on my back, dead. But that wasn’t the end of the play; others still had dialogue, so I held my breath to keep the illusion of death on stage. That illusion almost became a reality as I nearly passed out before the final curtain came down.
I passed my acting class at the end of the semester and went on to take a few more theater courses. But by the time it was my turn to do the Director’s workshop, whatever acting ambition once fueled by the black-and-white Warner Bros. movies was gone. I went on to the next best thing though: Business Management.
Once in a while, though, when I’m watching Turner Classic Movies I wonder: Are you ever too old to be a thespian?