Theatre yesterday and today



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Right now I am surrounded by a group of young actors I am directing, all of whom are either currently involved in a professional acting program or have recently graduated from one. In the current system, anyone exiting high school today has many more colleges and universities offering unique and exciting programs catering to the acting profession than I ever did back in 1975, the year I was pondering my prospects. Such programs today attract students who have made up their minds decisively to become actors by age eighteen, which was my mindset at that time as well. I attended one of the few conservatories back then, a fledgling one at SUNY Purchase (the fourth year of that school's existence and very much in the process of ironing out the kinks). Since then I have often wondered: did I make a mistake? Was it (is it) a leg up to craft an education exclusively in the interest of acting in order to be successful in the profession?

By way of statistics, the answer to the latter question is no. Many people come to acting in their early twenties (sometimes even later) with no experience whatsoever. There is such a thing as a natural actor—and woe if you're up against one of them for a part. I've seen such types wander into the audition lounge, and I have falsely wondered what the hell they thought they were doing, dressed improperly and unprepared (or so it seemed). The joke was on me when the sound of their audition would travel into the waiting area. Believe me, you can tell the real deal even from behind a closed door.

True, there are always things an actor can learn, but learning by doing is definitively the best teacher of them all. Say you are twenty, never acted before, and are fortunate enough to have been cast in a film or play. Under the proviso that you are ready for the challenge, then there is no acting class in the world that can substitute what learning on the job can. Sure, it's sink or swim, but the best acting comes from a brave individual diving into the deep end (and that goes for comedy as well as drama). And keep in mind it's a metaphor: no one has ever actually drowned making choices as an actor. After all, acting is acting. On its deepest level, it's really just kids playing, even when it's adults performing in Hamlet.

Actors in the Priscilla Beach Theatre production of The Producers, opening 8/3 in Plymouth, MA.

All of this is preamble for the purpose of this column, wherein I am still surprised when I discover that some of my favorite actors of yesterday fell into the acting profession with little to no training whatsoever, and certainly with no guidance from their parents. With nothing predefined or predetermined, it just happened for them. One day a switch got turned on and acting was suddenly a choice (and in most cases, a surprising one). The great Eli Wallach, a stage and screen actor with a career that spanned from theatre in the 1930s to film in 2015 (at the age of ninety-eight), came to the profession in just this way. "I graduated from high school in 1932—one of the worst years of the depression. I then went to the University of Texas, where the tuition was thirty dollars a year. My family and everybody else I knew told me I should become a teacher, and I agreed with them. I stuck it out in Texas for four years, working at odd jobs ... to pay for my board and room. The university had no Drama Department, but it did have the Curtain Club, which I joined. I swept the stage, painted scenery, and, in 1936, my senior year, I played the lead in Liliom for one week. At the end of the week, I began to think it might be possible to earn a living as an actor."

Eli Wallach mid-career (in one that spanned seventy years).

This doesn't mean Wallach was completely untrained. He did go on to study, and even was in classes while a working professional, mostly at the Actors' Studio in the 1950s. He was part of perhaps the most famous scene study class ever gathered, seated as he was beside Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley and Marilyn Monroe, all eager to better themselves as actors. Monroe, at that time, was the most well-known face in movies, and was invited in by master acting guru Lee Strasberg himself. There, she worked on characters like Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, in a scene with a somewhat baffled Maureen Stapleton. Writing in her autobiography A Hell of a Life, Stapleton tells of what it meant for her personally to go up on stage with Monroe and how their performance together got a big hand—something contrary to Actors' Studio custom. "Too bad the public wanted her to be a ditzy blonde," Stapleton recalled. "See how lucky I was? I never had that problem. People looked at me on stage and said, 'Jesus that broad better be able to act.'"

Marilyn Monroe, observing in Lee Strasberg's acting class in the 1950s.

Now you might wonder if Marilyn Monroe needed acting lessons at that stage in her career? But that's not the point. Marilyn Monroe felt that she did. And the actor who feels they've learned all they need to learn is a dead actor. From that egotistical moment on, they will cease to grow and get better. They don't have to take a class, but they do need to always be searching and discovering things about the world and about life. If you ever watch an actor you once thought start to give one bad performance after another, it's not their talent that has left them, but something else: their curiosity. Tempted by luxury and power (and other such accouterments), they can often cease to live in the real world anymore and therefore become less capable of making a human connection—the most important thing about acting that there is.

But how does one choose acting as a profession anyway? Or does it choose you? I think in almost all the cases I know of where someone has gone on to great success, it is the latter. Even though there are jobs much harder physically and even psychologically than acting, there is still no denying that just being an actor is hard work. Perhaps more so when one is not working, than while on the job. The down time can be brutal. When an actor is unemployed, it's nearly impossible to feed the beast. Yes, there are ways for an actor to keep limber (literally) by way of a class, much the way a dancer must do in order to stay fit and up for the challenge of the next audition or job. But it’s just not the same as the real thing — being challenged by a scene partner on stage in front of an audience who have paid to see the work.

Going back to Eli Wallach for the final word, this is a quote that puts some of this in perspective: "In the summer of 1939, I performed in a play where I thought I was a much better actor than I think of myself as being now. I was ego incarnate. These days I know too much about the awesome amount of work that must go into making a part your own to be like that anymore."

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book