Again, From the Top: On Learning to Act -The Toast

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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.

“Okay,” she says, closing a door behind her. “How was rehearsal?”  It’s been twenty years since my mother stopped playing her cello, but she still refers to everything—classes, meetings, my sister’s high school soccer games—as rehearsals. She leaves her college photo albums out on our coffee table, and some nights, after my father went upstairs to bed, I’d catch her sitting on the couch in her pajamas, thumbing through the yellowed pages where she’s pictured along with the rest of the Northwestern orchestra, dressed all in black and smiling into the camera, her cello cradled in the crook of her right arm. In this photo, my mother doesn’t know that soon she will no longer be able to hear out of her right ear, waking one morning into a deep, humming silence the doctors will have no explanation for. “A medical mystery,” they’ll say as they peer at her on the metal exam table, naked except for a thin cotton smock. Self-conscious about her new hearing aid, she will eventually decide to give up her spot in the orchestra, where she sits first chair.

“I couldn’t stand the way people looked at me,” my mother told me once. We were sitting on the couch in our pajamas, flipping through her photo albums. “Like I was crippled or something.” She gazed straight ahead, out the living room window, as if feeling the sting of those eyes again. It was the looking, she said, that did real damage, the sidelong stares from her teachers and classmates the greater injury.

Still, my mother misses performing. I can hear it in her voice during our phone conversations, used to see it in the way her eyes lit up when I’d fling open the car door after high school play rehearsals, eager for the day’s gossip. Weekends, she drove me to acting lessons in the city, spending her Saturdays reading in her car in the studio’s parking lot while I learned the proper way to chew a cracker during a commercial. Though I didn’t see it then, I’d mistaken her dedication for my own, excusing my tired voice, my absence at parties and shopping trips as signs of my devotion, my commitment to the craft. Without meaning to, I’d made theater my world, and even on the days when I was tempted to quit—the days when my every muscle screamed, when I’d come home at midnight and scarf down a peanut butter sandwich in the quiet dark of our kitchen—I convinced myself that it was better to be seen than not at all, lost in the shuffle of bodies winding through the high school halls.

I worked harder. Though money was tight, my mother signed me up for summer camps and vocal coaching, dance classes and—worst of all— piano lessons. Every night I sat on the hard bench, and if I missed a note or stumbled over a chord she would cry out over the hiss of hot water in the kitchen: “Bum, bum, bum!” Or she’d stand behind me and keep time with her feet, placing her pruney fingers over mine while counting: “One, two, three.” Bent over the keys, her lips flattened with the same disappointment that I sometimes see in John’s eyes when he catches his reflection in the mirrors, as if he’d expected somebody else.

Leaning back in my chair, I shift the phone to my other ear and tell my mother about John’s midterm project. We’re to perform a scene from a play of his choosing, which he believes poses our greatest individual challenge as actors. Mine is from The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash.

“It’s about a woman who lives alone on a cattle ranch during the Depression,” I tell my mother when she asks, making sure to leave out the greatest challenge part. Though John hasn’t told us what, exactly, he thinks our greatest challenge is, mine becomes clear when I turn over the photocopied pages he hands me and read the description of Lizzie, my character: A strong and integral woman in every life function—except one. Here she is, twenty-seven years old, and no man outside the family has loved her or found her beautiful. Stubborn, she struggles to embrace her feminine side.

I position my arm over the bolded words and fake a yawn, pretending to look bored. Around me, my classmates’ eyes dart nervously about the room, everyone sitting up straight, arching their necks so they can peek at each other’s scripts. Keeping my head still, I push my eyeballs as far right as they will strain in an effort to spot Andy Lamp, my assigned partner. He’s sitting in his chair with his legs tucked beneath him, a wing of thick brown hair tumbling over his left eye as he bends his head to study his script. Confident and charming, with small mounds of muscle that bulge from his arms and neck, he’s perfect for Starbuck, the handsome con man who comes to town and tricks Lizzie into falling for him.

“It sounds great,” my mother says. “I wish I could see it,” and I lie and tell her that I wish she could, too, even though it’s the last thing I want. I haven’t told her about Andy, or about the long kiss Lizzie gives Starbuck at the end. I like being the kind of performer I know my mother needs me to be: daring and bold, willing to risk everything.


Andy and I have two weeks before we perform our scene for the class. Evenings, he meets me in the lobby of my dorm and we wander down the noisy halls together, seeking a quiet space where we can rehearse. Secretly, I look forward to our walks. Girls grin and wave at us, boys’ eyes sliding over me as we pass. Walking with Andy, I work on imitating him, the confident way his body smiles and struts: I lift my head and toss my shoulders back, careful to laugh on cue with everyone else. Lately I’m learning that performing is the same thing as hiding, a clever way of covering up what you don’t want seen.

Alone with Andy, though, my act falls apart. During rehearsals, he isn’t afraid to reach out and touch my hair or slip his arms around me, his breath warm against my reddened ear. “And Lizzie, one day the lookin’ glass will be the man who loves you,” he says in the same forced, patient voice as the night before. “And you’ll look in that mirror and you’ll be more than pretty—you’ll be beautiful.” Andy spins me around so we’re facing each other, and I know that I’m supposed to kiss him, to “cling to him, passionately,” as the script directs, but I freeze instead, arms stiff at my sides. It’s our sixth night working together.

Andy lets go of me and slides down against the wall, dragging a hand back through his wavy hair. When he looks up, his features are pinched, and though he’s trying hard not to be I can tell that he’s frustrated. Both of us will get the same grade.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he reminds me. A group of laughing students walks past, lowering their voices as they swivel their heads toward us. I look away.

“I know,” I say. I wish I could tell him the truth—how lately I’m not sure if it’s theater making me more aware of my body, or if my feelings of discomfort have always been there, growing inside of me like a second skin.

According to John, that’s what his new play is about: truth. Last weekend, I sat with the rest of my acting class in the back row of a dark auditorium, watching dress rehearsals for his play. “Take notes about the things you observe,” he told us as we filed in yawning, granola bars and lukewarm coffees in hand. “Then type up a report to hand in for Tuesday.”

Around me, seat springs groaned as students slumped lower in them, sighing and rubbing sleep kernels from their puffy eyes. A row ahead, Andy reclined with his sneakered feet on the back of the chair in front of him. His rumpled hair stuck out in arrows beneath a sagging grey beanie, and I wondered where he went Friday night, what he did, if he kissed anyone.

“Places.” John’s deep voice bounced off the walls of the tiny theater. A circle of orange light pooled onto the stage floor, and out of the dark wings stepped an actor. Dressed in a navy blue blazer with the bold BYU lettering stitched across the breast pocket, I recognized a younger John from the seventies, the same square, sharp jaw and lopsided haircut. The makeup artist had painted age lines around his eyes and mouth, a kind of pre-mature weariness that I know now can only be born out of some private sadness. Easing into a wooden chair, I watched as actors wearing white lab coats attached what resembled electrodes to his arms and legs. I remembered this scene from photos in the playbill, where I’d read about the electroshock experiments that John and thirteen other Mormon college students had volunteered for in hopes of ridding themselves of their attraction to men. “This play is about facing yourself,” said John in the article. “About being truthful to what made you, to who you are.”

Onstage, a projection screen lowered, flashing images of bare skin. As he watched, young John began to buck and writhe in his chair, his face twisting skyward in pain. “Forgive me,” he cried.

“Stop.” The house lights snapped on, and John rose from his seat and walked over to the stage where cast and crew stood frozen, waiting for instructions. “Be honest with your body,” John said as he bent down and arranged the actor into a slouched pose, head lolling, arms and legs splayed at his sides. “Give us more truth, more shame.” Stepping back to the lip of the orchestra pit, John clapped his hands and called “Scene.” The lights dimmed; when they came up again, young John was back in his chair, straining against invisible currents of pain. “Forgive me,” he gasped, his limbs straining as John nodded his approval, peering intently over the gold bridge of his glasses.

“Again,” John said after they’d finished, and for the last hour of rehearsal we watched the scene over and over, with John interrupting every few minutes to fuss with props and readjust actors. Beneath the lights I noted the slight wince in his mouth, how the muscles in his face loosened as he gazed at the young,tormented version of himself, and I wondered what was more painful: the truth of his past, or the performance of it.

“Again.” John’s voice broke, and I looked away, down at my blank notebook.

The morning of our performance I walk into the studio to find scene partners huddled in private corners, talking softly and giving each other neck massages. Removing my shoes, I scan the room for Andy and spot him alone in the back, pacing in front of the mirrors and mouthing lines from our scene under his breath.

“I’m here,” I announce as I walk up to him, making a joke of flinging my arms out at my sides. Andy turns, pinches his lips into a thin smile. “Hi,” he says coolly, his clipped tone letting me know that he’s still angry. During our last rehearsal I’d finally managed to kiss him on the cheek without freezing up or turning red, but we both know this won’t be enough for John.

“Places.” Everyone’s head snaps to the door as he sweeps into the room, legal pad tucked under an arm. In sweatpants and slippers, he looks unusually tired this morning. Dark circles smudge his eyes, his face pale from so many nights spent in the pitch black of the theater. Braced in our chairs, we wait for him to turn to a blank page in his notepad, heat creeping up my neck when he uncaps his pen and looks out at us. “Who’s first?”

A long silence fills the room, John’s eyes bouncing from face to face like a flashlight. He’s opening his mouth to call on someone when a row ahead of me Frances shoots her hand into the air. “We’ll go,” she says, standing and pulling her partner—a slender, soft-spoken boy named Chris—by the arm to the front of the room. Watching them, it isn’t clear at first what their challenge is. Frances is as bold as ever, dropping to her knees and pounding the floor with her fists as she begs forgiveness from Chris, who looks down at her with a nervous half-smile.

“Again,” John says, after they’ve finished.

Frances’s cheeks flame. She launches once more into her lines, nearly shouting as she flails on the ground. “Pull back, Frances,” John calls from his chair in the corner. “Let Chris take the lead.” When Frances doesn’t listen, John leans forward and cups his hands to his mouth. “I said pull back, Frances.”

Chin vibrating, she hurries through her lines, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Today, she won’t be the only one to cry. Almost every pair after her and Chris ends their scene in tears, though it’s hard to tell if this is a reaction to John’s criticism or a sign that they’ve achieved the kind of truth all of us are desperate to feel, the kind that will mean we’re real actors. Like everyone else, I’ve been eager to prove myself to John, but after watching today’s performances I’m not so sure. Something about the way he tries to control the scenes bothers me, as if by perfecting the truth he can make it more bearable, appealing.

Once there are no volunteers left, John calls Andy and me to the front of the room. “Follow my lead,” Andy whispers as we take our places, and before I can react he’s tugging on my hands and hips, the force of his body steering mine across the floor. “Don’t upstage Amy,” John calls to Andy as he gathers me in his arms. He dips my waist low to make it look as if we’ve kissed at the end, his long hair falling across our upturned faces like a curtain. We hold the pose, waiting. Someone whistles.

Rising from his chair, John throws down his legal pad and crosses the floor toward us. I hear the irritation in his steps, quick and clipping closer, my heart speeding up to match their rhythm. On my back, Andy’s hands go cold.

“Did you kiss?” John stands with his arms folded over his chest like an expectant parent, though by the way he’s looking at us, it’s clear he already knows the answer. Andy lets go of me, spinning to face him. “We had some trouble”— he starts, but John cuts him off with a wave of his hand.

“I’m asking Amy.” John turns his eyes on me, a hush settling over the room. When I can’t answer him, he rolls his head around on his neck, digging his fingertips into his graying temples. “Start over,” he sighs, and more than anything he’s done so far to embarrass me this is what hurts the most: his expectation that I feel comfortable in my body, despite his struggle to be true to his own.

Again Andy steps forward, slipping his solid arms around my waist. “And Lizzie, one day the lookin’ glass will be the man who loves you,” he repeats, and when he turns me around to face him—when I still can’t kiss him—John grabs my hands, presses them to Andy’s chest. “Look at him,” John hisses in my ear, and slowly I lift my eyes, not knowing that today’s performance will be my last; that after the semester ends in a few weeks I will walk into the registrar’s office and change my major from theater to English, just as my mother did with music so many years ago. After today, I’d rather keep my truth instead of perform it for an audience, though a small, secret part of me will miss the feeling of those eyes.

Beneath my hands, Andy’s chest rises and falls, his breath quickening as I tilt my chin toward his. “That’s it,” John says, reaching an arm to draw Andy and I closer together. In the audience, a zipper sighs as it makes its slow loop around a backpack. It’s noon, time for lunch. John holds up his hands.

“We stay until they’re finished.” Throat burning, I drop my eyes, bite down on my tongue to keep the tears from coming. I don’t look at Andy or at my classmates slumped in their seats, trading glares. I don’t even look at John as he takes a step closer, laying a warm hand on my shoulder. “I’m giving you permission to be honest,” he says, but for the first time this year, I’m not sure if I want it. Andy lets go of me, and we start the scene over.

Amy Bernhard is a recent graduate of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. She's working on a book about growing up in the Midwest, and she's also looking for a teal 90s Ford pick-up, if you have one let her know at amybernhard3 at gmail dot com.

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