Monday, June 30, 2008

"Almost Acting - Part Two"

Previously on “Almost Acting”:

I’m twenty-one. I’ve just traveled alone for the first time in my life, to attend a summer theater workshop at UCLA. We are required to audition the first night, so the teacher/directors can decide how to cast us in the summer’s four production, all written by Bertolt Brecht. Who I’d never heard of.


I had had a pretty rough day. (Read Friday’s thing, I’m not going back.) Now it was time to do what they paid me for. (Or, in this case, to do what I was paying them to let me do.)

I arrive at the theater to audition with my scene from Inherit the Wind. There are sixty students signed up for the workshop. We’d be called in alphabetical order. I’m “P.” I’m always “P.”

While we waited, we were each given four forms to fill out. These forms would be provided to the four teacher/directors who’d be judging our auditions. It was standard stuff. Name. Where you’re from. Acting background. Identifying features.

Under “Acting Background”, I write “Nothing, if you don’t count camp.” Under “Identifying features”, I write “Brown hair, brown eyes.” And then, for no reason other than I’m nervous, I include a different additional “Identifying feature” on each of the forms: “Brown hair, brown eyes, chapped lips.” “Brown hair, brown eyes, sore feet.” “Brown hair, brown eyes, brown pants” – silly stuff, just to fill out the form. And pass the time till they get to the “P’s”.

I sit backstage, studying my lines. I hear muffled auditioning noises emanating from the theater. I hear proclaiming noises. Indignant noises. Heartfelt noises. Lyrical noises. I can’t hear what they’re saying. But I know they’re acting.

Then they call Pomerantz.

Suddenly, it hits me. My scene involves a legal cross-examination; I’m going to need another person! I accost the guy who’ll be auditioning after me – who’s also a “P” so we have something in common – I point to my script and I say, “I need you to read this.” The guy’s caught totally off-guard. Probably thinking about himself. I have a certifiable look in my eyes. He agrees to help me.

The two of us come out on stage. I immediately jabber, “I’m Pomerantz. I don’t know who he is.” I explain that I need him to read with me. I add, “If he’s no good, don’t hold it against him. He’s doing me a favor.”

As I start to set up, I hear giggles emanating from the darkened theater. They’re perusing my form. Somebody’s chuckling at “chapped lips.”

The laughs calm me down a little. My knees had been literally shaking.

I start my audition: “Henry Drummond”, the Clarence Darrow surrogate, pleading for independent thought over religious dogma.

“In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘Amens’, ‘Holy holies’ and ‘Hosannas’.”

I’m pickin’ up steam.

“Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.”

And for those benefits of progress,

“We must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.”

I argue for the single uniqueness of the human species: the individual human mind.

“What other merit have we? The elephant is larger. The horse is swifter and stronger. The butterfly is far more beautiful. The mosquito, more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable.”

I plant the seed.

“Or does a sponge think?”

And when the response comes back,

“If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks”

I pounce.

“This man wishes to be accorded the same privilege as a sponge. He wishes to think!”

Curtain. End of scene.

There is dead silence. And then there’s applause.

The next morning, I check the bulletin board outside the theater. I’ve been cast in three plays. (Due to a scheduling conflict, I end up only appearing in two.) One play, The Private Life of the Master Race, is made up of over two dozen individual scenes. I’ve been given small parts in three of them. The other show, A Man’s A Man, I play a Buddhist monk, a lead role.

Our activities began. Every morning, we’d classes every morning where we’d study Expressionistic theater. Don’t ask me what that is. It has something to do with getting people to think when they go to the theater rather than feel. But it seemed to me, and it still does, that after they get you to think – you know, how terrible things are for the proletariat – you start to feel anyway –furious at the owners of the means of production – so what’s the difference? I didn’t do well in that class.

In the afternoon, we took acting classes, we rehearsed and we built the sets for the shows. After witnessing my dexterity with a hammer, my set-building responsibilities were immediately reduced. I’d get people water instead.

Our first show went on in ten days – the multi-scene play, where I had three small roles.

In one scene, set after Kristalnacht, the first organized anti-Semitic episode in Germany, a group of shell-shocked Jews gather for a gloomy post mortem.

I had one line in that scene:

“Some people are crazy.”

but I repeated it four times, at various junctures in the scene. Every night, I’d experiment, trying different approaches in the delivery of my line. During some performances, I’d say “Some people are crazy” exactly the same way each of the four times. By the third repetition, the audience would start to chuckle.

Other nights, I’d deliver each “Some people are crazy” differently, and by the fourth repetition, the audience was roaring the moment I opened my mouth.

It was very strange. The play wasn’t a comedy. I guess I was getting dark laughs.

The L.A.Times reviewed us. Despite my minimal participation, I was singled out for a positive “mention.” People seemed to like what I was doing. Except for the actors playing much larger roles, who’d been overlooked in the review.

I was having a ball and making friends. The school’s summer schedule did not provide us with dorm food on the weekends. But my classmates always made sure I got fed. One classmate, from Linchoping, Sweden, invited me for speeding Sunday evening motorcycle rides down the near-abandoned corridor of Wilshire Boulevard. We never wore helmets. I had no idea it was dangerous.

As the summer went on, and my successes continued, a number of my classmates encouraged me to consider sticking around and continuing my training.

I called my brother in Toronto.

“I’m thinking about staying here and applying to graduate school for acting.”

“What about the war?” He meant the Viet Nam war. It was the Sixties.

It wasn’t clear in my head, though it probably should have been, that the American government is not in the habit of drafting citizens from other countries into their military. I’m pretty sure those people would complain. Instead, my thoughts went directly to my eyes, which, from a vision perspective, are not very good.

“They’re not going to want me with my eyes.”

To this, my brother responded with a classic line:

“If you see bad, they put you in the front lines, so you can get a better aim.”

I took that to heart. But I decided to give the last word to my teacher, who was also the head of the Theater Department, and would be responsible for the scholarship I’d need if I wanted to stay.

“What do you think about the idea of my going for a Masters in theater?”

I remember his answer as if it were yesterday.

“You have a certain appeal on stage, there’s no question about that. But I wouldn’t call it acting.”

“Couldn’t I learn acting?”

“I’m not so sure.”

The door clanked shut. Goodbye graduate school in acting.

I informed my classmates I’d be going home. Some of them got angry. They believed in my talent, probably more than I did, and they thought I was making a mistake. But I didn’t have a choice. There’d be no scholarship, and who knows? My brother may have been right about the front lines.

I liked acting. But it wasn’t worth dying for.

So that was that.

Though not totally that. Three months after I returned to Toronto, I was out of law school and onto a plane, alone once again, headed for a year and a half adventure in London.

It was a big and scary step. And it would never have happened if I hadn’t gone off to the Bertolt Brecht summer theater workshop at UCLA.


I hope you enjoyed my experiences in almost acting. If this were a DVD with “extras”, I could regale you with stories of the time I grabbed hold of a cactus with my hand, the verbal abuse I received from some purveyors of sex services in San Francisco, and a totally unnecessary transcontinental train ride. Maybe some other time.


Anonymous said...

Friday's story was so great, I could hardly wait for today's. Sorry the acting thing didn't work out. Obviously the writing thing did work. Would love to read how you wound up in the sitcom biz. Meantime, do you believe writing can be learned? Specifically, sitcom writing? Or is it an innate gift?

R.A. Porter said...

Wait, I'm not clear. Did you go home at the end of the program, or did you bail early because of the teacher? I was waiting with breath-abaited to read about the second show.

Earl Pomerantz said...

To r.a. Porter,

I hate it when I'm not clear. I spoke to the head of the theater department at the end of the workshop. I stayed for the whole thing.

The second show went great. But I can only brag so much before my Canadian background grabs me by the throat.

The truth is, I'm not an actor, even though I imagine I'd like to be. Sometimes, what you want to be and what you actually are are not the same thing.

Fortunately, it turned out okay.