Again, From the Top: On Learning to Act

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Frances is the first to cry. Our Beginning Acting class is seated in a row against the back wall of the rehearsal studio, socked feet stretched before us, notebooks open on our laps. We spend two long mornings a week together in this room, watching our reflections move in the mirrored walls surrounding us: We drop to the polished floor and growl and grunt; volley an invisible ball in the air; shake our limbs out like rugs. Facing us, in our instructor’s bold script, a chalkboard reads, “Acting is telling the truth under imaginary circumstances.” We’re supposed to have it memorized by the end of the semester.

Frances stands with her back to the board, fists clenched into tight white knots at her trembling sides. I watch as she remembers to check her posture: lifted shoulders, planted feet. She inhales, aiming her gaze at a piece of blue masking tape stuck to the wall above our heads. 

“You were my best friend.” The line snares in her throat, and she spreads her arms wide as if reaching for someone, tears rushing to her eyes.     

I steal a peek across the room at John. He’s perched on a black box in the corner, sweat-panted legs crossed beneath him and scratching a patch of fuzz on his chin. John has been teaching acting at my university for over twenty years. Before moving to our small, Midwestern college town, he was an actor in New York City; it’s rumored that he once performed opposite Meryl Streep on Broadway, so we are reverent in his presence.

“Give yourselves ten years,” he told us on the first day of class, pacing at the front of the room in his sweatpants. His voice boomed like a loudspeaker from his tall, stocky frame. “And if you still haven’t made it in the business, then give up.” He peered out at us, eyes frozen in challenge. In the few weeks that I’ve known him I’ve only seen him smile twice, once on accident, and once when he announced that the play he’d written about his time as a gay college student at Brigham Young University was chosen by the department to headline this year’s winter showcase.   

And now a third time, today, at Frances. A pair of tiny gold glasses dangles from a chain around John’s neck, and he keeps slipping them on and off, as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing. None of us can. Frances has done what the rest of us have been trying to do all semester: cry during a performance, a kind of truth we’ve learned can only be achieved when an actor is connected to his or her body, an idea I pretend to understand but don’t. 

Last week, I stood in the bright center of the room where Frances is standing now, and delivered my monologue to the class. I was playing Salome, an ex-prostitute in Charles Mee’s one-act of the same name. Since the beginning of the semester I’d been working to perfect Salome’s voice, jaded and tough, her crass way of speaking that, at nineteen, still managed to make me blush. My roommate spent most nights at her boyfriend’s dorm across campus, and I waited until she left to rehearse my lines. Raised on my toes, I peered into the dim mirror above the sink and imagined that the face I saw looking back at me was Salome’s, her full red lips and her steady, smoldering gaze. Though I’d never seen a prostitute in real life, I knew what they looked like from watching soap operas with my mother. Swinging my weight to one side, I stuck out my chest, moving around my dorm room with a kind of limp-waddle that I envisioned as a cross between sexy and drunk. Without anyone watching, I was free to imagine Salome the way I wanted to imagine myself: experienced, edgy. Ready for anything.

My bare feet squeaked on the floor as I took my place at the front of the room. I tried not to notice John in the corner, chin cupped in his palm, pen already scratching across his yellow legal pad. Tried not to notice the twelve pairs of eyes all aimed at me, a chill needling up my spine. It was my first time performing in front of an audience since I’d been cast as the scheming fox in my high school’s production of The Gingerbread Man. That day I’d padded onstage in my furry orange jumpsuit to an audience of wailing first graders, their screams drowning out my lines as I chased the Gingerbread Man in his fabric cookie costume through the aisles. After a whole summer away from the stage I’d forgotten what it felt like to be looked at, the exhilaration but also the fear, the conflicting urge to hide and expose myself at the same time.

Sucking in a breath, I pointed my eyes at the blue tape on the wall and spoke my first line: “Andrè was the first to fuck me.” As soon as the words left my mouth I knew how ridiculous they sounded; they tumbled out high-pitched and quick, not in the slow, swaggering drawl I’d practiced. Alone, in front of the mirror, it had been easy to impersonate Salome, to slip inside her skin, but with my classmates watching all I felt was the sensation of my own body: the tickle of my hair as it brushed my neck, the familiar pinch of my glasses against my nose. My cheeks burned. I had only ever kissed a boy, in the back row of a clammy movie theater when I was a junior in high school. What had made me believe I could be convincing in a role as mature as Salome’s?

Voice wobbling, I hurried through the rest of the monologue, not bothering to look up at the end and smile the way John had taught us. Instead I gazed down at my feet, bowing my head to avoid my classmates’ stares. Only five minutes ago I would have basked in the attention. Now it was all I could do to keep from turning and running out of the room.

Slowly I felt the eyes shift to John, who was still bent over his notepad writing, white, horse-mane hair flopping across his brow. Several minutes passed in silence before he lifted his head and snapped his pen closed with a sharp click.

“See how Amy isn’t connected to her body?” John swiveled to face the class, everyone nodding along and taking notes, and with a terrible, pressing curiosity I wondered what they saw, what they were writing about me.

“Tension in the upper half,” John answered, as if he could hear my thoughts.  Stepping behind me, he laid his hands on my shoulders, the firm press of his fingers making me flinch. With his right foot he prodded the soft backs of my knees, letting out a disappointed sigh when they bent easily beneath the pressure. “And no grounding in the lower.” He released me, my legs unlocking as I shuffled across the floor back to my place against the wall, resisting the usual urge to glimpse myself in the mirrors as I passed.

Now, watching Frances wipe her eyes with big, exaggerated sweeps of her hand, I feel a stab of jealousy. I want to tell John that the problem isn’t only connecting to my body, but connecting to everyone else’s. Lately it seems as if my classmates are always touching. They walk the halls of the theater building arm in arm, leaning into each other with a kind of ease I envy. In the mornings, before classes begin, they gather in the lobby to stretch and massage each other’s shoulders, a routine I avoid by lingering in the bathroom, pretending to fix my hair.

Movement class is the worst. We sit in a circle with the lights off and hold hands, breathing, or we spend the hour cycling in and out of yoga poses, everyone sighing and bending together. One day, we practice giving each other full body massages. I lie facedown on my mat, trying to relax while my partner, a blonde boy with chapped lips, probes my neck and then my shoulders, his long fingers inching clumsily toward my lower back. Our instructor paces at the front of the room. “Breathe,” she says, cupping her wrinkled hands over her stomach. “Breathe,” and as I pull air into my lungs, I wonder how my classmates can manage to appear so comfortable when I’ve never been more aware of my body. After class I’m still thinking about how to carry it, where to look.

Even outside of the theater building, I’m conscious of eyes on me. Weekends, I make myself go to house parties and hang out in cramped, beer-sticky kitchens with the girls from my dorm, all of us sipping from red plastic cups and scanning the room for men who might want to take us home with them, back to faded, brick apartment buildings or a pizza-stained futon. Now that we’re in college looking is supposed to lead to touching, but rather than admit my inexperience I hide it by pretending to act like everyone else: I perform a show of giggling and hair-flipping, mimicking the soft, teasing lilt my friends use on men they like. If one walks over from across the room, I talk to him just long enough that it won’t seem weird when I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, picking my way through clumps of sweating bodies to stairs leading to a damp, dark basement where a smattering of people stand around, bobbing their heads to howling guitar noises. I find an empty corner and settle in, relieved. In the dark I can’t see or hear anyone, and I close my eyes, letting the music vibrate my bones until I hear my roommate’s voice yelling into my ear that it’s time to go home.

After my monologue, John keeps a close eye on me. He hovers nearby while I do my morning warm-ups, his bare feet slapping the floor as he hurries over to correct my posture, my breathing. Though part of me enjoys the attention I know there must be some other reason for his concern. I feel Frances studying me in the mirrors, no doubt wondering why John has chosen to work with me—the worst actor in the room—over her.

Even I have to wonder, since John never seems pleased with anything I do. Once, during a class on the Meisner technique, he calls on me to help him demonstrate the repetition exercise. Two actors face each other and repeat their observations back and forth, the goal being to break free of the mind in order to live truthfully in the moment. Truth, that magic word again. Everyone straightens in their chairs.

John and I face each other at the front of the room. “You’re wearing a blue shirt,” he says.

“You’re wearing a blue shirt,” I repeat, waiting for the tingling sensation in my fingers, the lightheadedness that I imagine will mean I’ve finally succeeded in experiencing the kind of truth we’re always talking about in class. When I feel nothing, I open my eyes wider, forcing myself to hold John’s gaze.

“You’re wearing a blue shirt.”

You’re wearing a blue shirt,” I echo, and tilt my chin toward the ceiling in a pose of transcendence until John notices and rolls his eyes, dismissing me back to my seat with a wave of his hand.

After class, I leave the theater building and walk back across the river to my dorm, the punch of my heels on the metal bridge and the water lapping below the only sounds. I walk slowly, enjoying the quiet before I step inside my building, the bustling hallways where students roam up and down, laughing and fake-shoving each other into the pale yellow walls.

My room is at the end of the first floor. I pull open the door, check to see that my roommate’s gone, and flop down in my desk chair, dialing my mother.

“Hello?” she answers, out of breath. In the background I hear the clatter of nurse’s carts, the hurried squeak of white tennis shoes against lemony floors. A muffled voice comes over the intercom, paging a Doctor Someone to the third floor.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hold on,” she says. “I’m going on my break.” The phone makes a rustling noise as she drops it to her side, and I picture her three hundred miles away, stethoscope swinging from her neck as she walks. Homesick, I grip the phone tighter.

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