Saturday, September 10, 2011

Theatre For Thought, September 10, 2011

In which I continue to reminisce about my days in theatre school….
joel fishbane

My acting teacher’s name was Ron and he passed on a lot of practical information, most of which I was still use. A typical class involved a student performing a monologue and Ron pointing out all the ways she could make it better. That was how it was: you were never “wrong”, but you were always in need of improvement. But though I admired Ron, I would be lying if I said we got along. We did not. 

Every day was an exercise in ritual humiliation.

Actors have a lot of ego and mine was being decimated through the barrage of acting and singing classes. I was a passable singer and a terrible dancer. I couldn’t pirouette, sing a High-C or touch my toes without bending my knees. Every day was an exercise in ritual humiliation. 
But I had been acting all my life. Here I was in my element, or thought I was, which amounted to the same thing. The truth is I was a bit of a terror. 
At the beginning of the year, Ron instructed us all to keep acting journals. This is a typical request: the journal is a place for young actors to record their thoughts about their process and development. It is also a way for professors to ensure that students are thinking about their process and development, since otherwise an actor might coast through a class without every thinking at all.  
I had been forced to keep an acting journal throughout high school and I had never found them useful. So, in my youthful arrogance, I decided that no, I would not keep a journal, because I was above such things. As they say, pride goeth before the fall. But more on that later. 

* * *

I think I went for a year on only three or four hours of sleep a night.

During those school days, I stopped sleeping. School started at 8:30, but I lived two hours away. At night I worked at a nearby restaurant until it closed, which must have been around midnight. Since it took me two hours to get home, I think I went for a year on only three or four hours of sleep a night. And don’t think I slept in on the weekends. On the weekends I worked at a bookstore where I used my powers to special order books about musical theatre, which I took home and never paid for.
My friend Hamlet lived around the corner from me and as I had a car, I was conscripted into forming a carpool. (Note: Hamlet is not his real name). This carpool would eventually come to include our friend Rosalind (Not her real name) and Ophelia (Not her…oh you get the point). Ophelia came to live with Hamlet after her roommate moved away. Hamlet and I had been in high school together, but we were never really close, and at first the carpool was more about convenience then friendship. 

...those in the carpool were forced to listen to odder selections like Forever Plaid, City of Angels and, God help us all, The Muppet Movie.

I drove my mother’s car and I remember it had an old tape deck that I would use to play Broadway musicals. If I had had any compassion, I might have played crowd-pleasing musicals like Phantom and Les Miserables, but those in the carpool were forced to listen to odder selections like Forever Plaid, City of Angels and, God help us all, The Muppet Movie. Oh, they complained. But it was my car and there wasn’t much they could do.
During our first winter, a car skidded on the ice and crashed into me. Poor Rosalind hurt her back, a thing which I feel guilty about to this very day. She moved downtown after that and I always saw this as her way of making sure she never got into a car with me again. As for Hamlet, we eventually bonded over the fact that we were both in love with Ophelia. Ophelia, though, just wanted to be friends. Or so I thought. Towards the end of the year, she told me that she and Hamlet had broken up.
“You mean you aren’t friends anymore?” I asked.
“I mean we aren’t dating anymore,” she said.
Apparently, they had been secret paramours for months. Not telling me wasn’t personal – they hadn’t told anyone. Now they had broken up and both Ophelia and Hamlet needed me to be a good Roman citizen and lend them an ear. But I had been betrayed and I snubbed them both for weeks. 
I did not stop driving them to school. I was a martyr and I continued to pick up Ophelia. Not Hamlet. For almost a month, Hamlet took the bus. 

* * * 

“At the start of the year, I told you to keep a journal,” said Ron. “Did you not understand me?”

In the spring, Ron asked us to hand in our acting journals. When he noticed one was absent, he asked me if I had left it at home.
“Oh no,” I said casually. “I don’t keep one.”
The class fell silent. I think someone made the sign of the cross.
“At the start of the year, I told you to keep a journal,” said Ron. “Did you not understand me?”
I told him I understood, but that acting journals are a waste of a student’s time. Ron reminded me that if I didn’t hand in a journal, I might not pass the course. Much to everyone’s surprise, I told him that this was fine.
I have never cared much for grades – generally speaking, they fail to provide an accurate reflection of how much a student has truly learned. This is especially true in the artistic world,  for art is subjective and an artistic education is even more subjective and the actor who gets an A  can still go into the world and find she has learned nothing. The A is a reflection only that she has learned how to please an audience of one, namely her professor. Unless that professor becomes a casting agent, this is never going to do her any good.
Believe it or not, I assumed my remark would end the discussion. Ron had threatened me with an F and I had accepted the F. What else needed to be said? A lot, actually. The threat of failure is the only power a teacher holds. Neutralize the threat and you neuter the teacher. They lose their authority and can no longer force anyone to accept their knowledge as gospel truth. Which, of course, is the whole reason a lot artists become teachers.
Ron’s response was to exile me from class. Later, I was informed that I was being suspended from the class for three weeks, after which I could only return if I handed in a journal.

I was called out of ballet and so I went to see him in my shorts and Superman tank-top...

At the end of the three weeks, I did not go back to class. The next day, Ron summoned me into his office. I was called out of ballet and so I went to see him in my shorts and Superman tank-top - hardly the right attire for a showdown, but what can you do? 
Ron asked me why I had skipped class the previous day. I told him I had not “skipped” class – I had simply followed his instructions. He was, if I remember correctly, sincerely surprised by this, as I think he had assumed I would return, tail between my legs and acting journal in hand. This new development stumped him and we sat in perfect silence for several minutes.
“And you still won’t keep an acting journal?” he asked.
I shook my head. I explained that at this point it would simply be absurd. An acting journal is a diary which the student keeps for his own edification. At this point, I would be keeping a journal only for Ron, which seemed completely self-defeating. 
What happened next was that Ron lost his temper and swore at me – something along the lines of “Who the f&@!* do you think you are?”. I remember asking him if he wanted me to come back later when he had calmed down. This only angered him more. 
At last he told me that if I didn’t hand in a journal I would fail his class and if I failed his class, then he would have no choice but to recommend that I not be invited back to the school for a second year. This, as they say in chess, is called a checkmate and the following week I handed in an acting journal which I had cobbled together mostly by copying the entries of my friends and changing the names. 
I wish I could say I was sorry for this behaviour, but I’m not. Students should always challenge teaching methods they disagree with. This forces teachers to re-examine their habits and either confirm they still work or alter them for a new world. Still, never let it be said that I didn’t learn the value of swallowing my pride. I also learned how to choose my battles: the following year I kept a journal and when Ron gave me a D, I didn’t argue at all.

Next week: I spend lots of time trying to date girls who are beautiful, out of my league and convinced I’m gay 

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