When I lived there in the sixties, London was (and perhaps still is) the home of the most famous and respected drama schools in the world. There was RADA – The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, LAMDA – London Academy of Music and Drama, the Central School of Speech and Drama, and many others.
I attended none of those schools.
Rather than auditioning with some Shakespearean soliloquy wearing tights, I found a drama school advertisement on a telephone pole, under a “Lost Dog” poster, the type of thing where you tear off one of those fringy phone number strips, call them up and you’re in. No audition required. Just a check.
Why did I want to go to drama school? I don’t know. Maybe because I’d moved away from Hampstead and its consuming pub culture, and I needed something to do. Maybe it was because I’d enjoyed a successful stint at UCLA’s Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, and though the professor had told me, “You have a certain quality, but I wouldn’t call it acting,” I was unwilling to take his word for it. Or maybe I went to a lot of plays in London and I thought, “I could do that.”
I’ll talk about wanting to be an actor and why, deep down, I didn’t, another time. At this point I had “the bug.” So I enrolled for two nights a week, plus Saturday afternoons, at the Actors’ Workshop.
The Actors’ Workshop didn’t have a location of its own. They rented rehearsal space in a building on Baker Street (the street where Sherlock Holmes had fictionally lived). The school was run by a man whose crowning show biz achievement was that he’d had a line in Dr. Strangelove. A middle-aged Irish fellow with twinkly eyes and a gravelly voice. He was hard not to like.
The Actors’ Workshop taught The Method. That’s right. In a country that had invented a specific style of acting, I was studying something invented in Russia and refined in the United States. You don’t study Method acting in England. You don’t study Italian cooking in France. There’s a better place to do that. And there’s a better thing to do there.
What can I tell you? I studied Method acting in England.
I get the textbook, An Actor Prepares, written by Stanislavski, the guy who made The Method up. I’m reading the author’s Foreword and, already, Stan the Man makes an assertion that totally pisses me off. I will paraphrase:
“This book does not provide a theory of acting. It provides the Natural Laws of acting.”
Why do they have to do that? Why can’t they say, “it’s a good theory” and leave it at that? I don’t need the Isaac Newton of acting. “The Apple always falls down, and if you think of your dead father, you’ll cry every time.”
Natural Laws of acting - it’s so over the top. “We’ve experimented and we’ve thought about it, and these strategies seem to work.” Apparently, that’s not enough for Senor Stan. He has to be the Darwin of Dramaturgy. “We evolved from the primates, and if you think of your birthday, you’ll smile every time.”
Anyway, they taught The Method. And I’ll tell you something. It’s not about acting, because I didn’t end up doing that. But in all of my writing, I’ve been guided by Stanislavski’s, if not Natural Laws, his remarkably valuable ideas.
When I started writing half-hour comedies, even though every scene was ostensibly made up of set-ups and punch lines, it was extremely helpful to me, before starting to write, to stop and think about which character was driving that scene and what exactly they wanted.
Considering this beforehand, gave the scene a focus, direction and an intensity that I believe it, otherwise, would not have contained. The intention gave the scene a lift, producing a dramatic (and comedic) experience far greater than the sum of its joke-constructed parts. (You’d be surprised how many writers never think about this. They just jump into the writing and let the jokes fly.)
I learned how to formulate a scene at the Actors’ Workshop.
I also learned, or at least developed an awareness, of a rule our teacher kept drumming into our heads. The rule – I don’t know if it’s a Stanislavski rule or not – was this:
“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”
Once, I was assigned to perform a scene from Two For The Seasaw. A two-person scene – there are only two people in the play. Jerry (my character) comes home from work, and while engaged in a conversation of some import, takes off his jacket and tie, and, I believe, changes his shirt.
It all starts well. I’ve got my character’s “intention.” And here we go.
Jerry enters. He takes off his jacket. He loosens his tie. So far, so good.
Then the trouble starts.
The knot on my tie loosens a little, and then, for some reason, I can’t get it to loosen any more. I remain in character, as I continue to work on the tie. But no matter what I do,
The knot refuses to loosen.
Maintaining my concentration, I decide, as the scene proceeds, to forget about the knot, and pull the not-that-loosened tie over my head. The loop turns out not to be big enough. The tie gets caught under my nose, and I can’t pull it any higher. The loop is now wrapped tightly against my face, the knot, like a “Hitler mustache” resting just over my upper lip. The tie is hanging over my mouth.
Which I'm still talking out of.
I slide the whole thing back down. Then, apparently not thinking clearly, I stick my arm through the loop, my plan being to, somehow, lift the tie over my ear and slide over my shoulder and down my arm. This does not go well. My arm gets caught in the loop.
I remain “in the scene.”
By now, my classmates, who will evaluate our performance when we’re finished, are howling with laughter. Their response catches the performers off guard. It’s not a funny scene. I’m acting serious. My partner’s acting serious. My fellow actors, however, are laughing their heads off.
Finally, I “break.” My voice starts to crack, and, despite my most determined efforts, suppressed laughter escapes to the surface. I never, however, give up on the acting. Or the tie.
By the time we say, “Curtain”, indicating the end of our performance, the mood we were shooting for has been irreparably disrupted.
Some students commended me for my determination, muddling through despite the tie debacle. Others say I made "too much" of the tie. Others think I wasn’t any good. My teacher summarized his reaction thusly:
“I think Earl was starting to love himself in the art more than he loved the art in himself.”
He was right. I could have stopped and started over. But I was enjoying the attention.
I attended the Actors' Workshop for a year, never missing a class. At the end, we staged a public performance, Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author. In this play, the entire cast remains onstage from the beginning of the play to the end, even actors with small parts, like me. I had one line.
We were reviewed in the paper. As with the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, where I also played small roles, I was singled out for commendation.
I appear to, in fact, have a “certain quality.”
I’m still not sure what it is.