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"At the end of the four weeks, you'll know whether or not you should continue acting."
On the first day of the summer session of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, these slightly ominous words tumbled from the mouth of Peter Craze, the ruggedly handsome director overseeing the division of fourteen actors in which RADA had placed me. I was sitting with my colleagues in a vast, white classroom on the third floor of RADA's annex, where, as I gazed out the sunshine-drenched windows overlooking Chenies Street in the Bloomsbury area of London, I had started to daydream. I had been thinking about notable RADA graduates who had performed Hamlet—John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, and Ralph Fiennes came to mind—which, in a tiny flare-up of ego, had led me to wonder if I would ever get to tackle the Dane. Suddenly I saw myself backstage at a venerable West End theater, nervously pacing on my opening night. Beside me is RADA's patron, the Queen, who, earlier in her chambers has fed my anxiety about playing Hamlet by exhorting me to "do it for RADA, old boy!" I peer out into the audience from the wings, and my eyes bulge with amazement: the theater is so vast! Will I ever be able to fill it with golden sound? Her Majesty lays her hand on my shoulder and then counsels, "Breath support, dearie!"
But, soft, what's this? Whether or not you should continue acting . . . A note of potential doom. An asp in the proverbial garden, a rodent in my very leotard. Casting a glance at my fellow actors, I grew concerned: had I flown all the way to London, my copy of Shakespeare's collected works clutched to my bosom, only to learn thatmoney-making and tights-wearing were, as far as I was concerned, mutually exclusive concepts? Had I ponied up close to three thousand dollars for training and accommodations and meals, only to be told to keep my day job? Granted, we summer-session students had not, like the students in the three-year program, had to audition, and so there were likely to be some stargazers whose illusions would be shattered. But was I to be one of them? Craze—an actor and director with West End and off-Broadway credits—explained that on the last day of the monthlong session, he would meet with each one of us privately and deliver his sentence.
An image popped into my mind: A Heathrow customs official presses a handheld stamp into an inkpad and then emblazons my forehead cargo.
I had fallen asleep at the banquet of Life; at some point during my thirty-fourth year, the better part of my spirit and personality seemed to have crawled under the covers. I had become reclusive and slightly sullen; I showed little or no interest in working with others or in making new friends. My six-year relationship with my boyfriend, Jess, too, was showing signs of stasis.
Where was my zest? Where was my verve? I was rapidly becoming the mope of Greenwich Village.
At about the same time that I became aware of my gradual brownout, I had an epiphany. Namely, that three of the peak moments of my adult life had hinged on, or involved, performing. A magazine article I wrote in 1991 had landed me on The Tonight Show. A reading I had given in New York City had led to my first book deal. And I had decided that Jess was the man for me when, on our second date, he agreed to my suggestion that we read each other our favorite short stories.
Like you, I was in Oklahoma! in high school; I wore a series of colorful bandanas and uttered one line, "Don't tetch 'im—he's daid," stretching out daid to at least two syllables. In nursery school in New Haven, asked what farm animal I wanted to be in the class play, I had opted for "earthworm." In short, I had not been without early signs of professional aptitude.
But once I became an adult, I formed that essentially elitist opinion that most people have toward actors: if actors are successful, we can be drawn to them with near-religious intensity, subtly altering our opinions and habits as a result of our infatuation; if they are unsuccessful, we view them as deluded self-promoters who are prone to wearing rainbow suspenders and to nattering or about "mask work."
These feelings were exacerbated when, just after college, I worked for four years in the film industry, as an associate to a casting director named Joy Todd. Brought into almost daily contact with professional performers, I came to think of the truly talented ones as beautiful musical instruments, capable of producing almost any sound; the untalented or unschooled ones seemed like strangely large kazoos, best relegated to long-term storage.
My story is not wholly emblematic: as someone who writes for a number of national magazines, I have something that most struggling performers do not. Indeed, almost all of the professional engagements that I have secured as a performer have had something to do with the fact that I am a writer. While I would never suggest to prospective employers that my engagement might bring them or their projects one step closer to that bitch goddess, Publicity, nor would I take steps toward this unethical end, I am never privy to the decisions that surround my hiring. It is said that Jerry Lewis used to "forget" his briefcase in the offices wherein he had met with directors, producers, and casting people; the suspicion was that, once the briefcase was retrieved, Lewis could play back a tape in a tape recorder therein. My sense of decorum and my fear of physical violence would prohibit this.
I did not set out to become either of the Toms, Cruise or Hanks. Nor did I think that I would be transformed from a fairly emotionally restrained individual into a gushing fountain. Rather, I wanted to find some kind of performing that I enjoyed doing and was good at, in the hope that it might spur me on to reengage with life.
And then, one day, it might happen: a starstruck fan might indulgently ask, "And did someone tell me you do a little writing as well?"
At an initiation meeting for us eighty RADA summer students, Ellis Peters, the ruddy, eggplant-shaped director of the summer program, told us, "You'll be working your socks off." He also pleaded, "Please don't put 'trained at RADA' on your CV's and rŽsumŽs. We reserve that for the three-year students." This second comment inspired looks of disappointment on a few faces; what good was buying a little prestige if you weren't allowed to flaunt it?
We recited; we memorized; we seized any opportunity to utter the phrase "with a bare bodkin." Classes met from nine to five Monday through Friday; in addition to the three hours a day that each of the five divisions would spend with their director rehearsing a play or a series of scenes to be presented on the last day of classes, each division would also have an hour of voice and an hour of movement a day. Other classes included stage fighting, speech, tumbling, Elizabethan dance, and seminars on Elizabethan history.
We tromped from classroom to classroom, from the John Gielgud Studio to the Charles Laughton Room ("Excuse me," one of my classmates said to me one day, "I'm looking for the Gary Oldman Toilet.")
My group was a cosmopolitan one—of the fourteen actors, six of us hailed from the States, two from England, two from Belgium, and one each from Denmark, Canada, Japan, and Italy; the average age was twenty-seven, and most had at least a little experience performing Shakespeare. And so we formed a tiny United Nations of thespian ardor; together we endeavored to lengthen our spines and to relax our lower jaws and to transform the pedestrian "I grant the duke" into a pear-shaped "I grahnt the dewque." Fortunately, there were limits to our ardor—when our speech teacher announced in our first class with her, "Henry has tension in his upper lip, and I want you all to remind him of it as often as possible," my colleagues, bless them, did not comply.
In one early exercise, we took turns reading a scene between Kent and Oswald in King Lear. Cast as Kent, I got to call my scene partner first a "knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action-taking . . . , whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave," and next "a son and heir of a mongrel bitch," and, finally, a "whoreson cullionly barber-monger." I based my character interpretation on a prominent New York City divorce attorney.
My favorite class was tumbling. In our first session, our small, wiry instructor, Terry, explained that we would start by learning how actors pull hair, choke, bite, stomp on someone's foot, and scratch; I whispered to Donald, the happy-go-lucky Dane in my group, "I can't wait to get cast in the next Bette Davis picture." Terry would look at one of us, say, "Can I have a borrow of you?" and then use that person as a demonstration modelstunt puppet. After he had taught us the five moves, he encouraged us to pair up and string together three or more of these moves in a sequence. I paired up with Tracey, a twenty-eight-year-old with swimsuit modeling and a Baywatch appearance in her past.
I suggested, "How about you're tying your sneaker, and I come up and scream, 'That's my sneaker!' and then bite you."
Tracey, one of the sunnier individuals I have ever met, betrayed a small amount of discomfort with my proposal. "I don't know . . ."
"We don't have to," I started to back down.
"No, no, it sounds okay. Just, umm, just show me how we would do it."
We worked out a brief scene—Tracey, on bent knee, was tying her sneaker. I approached from stage left, screamed, "You bitch, that's my sneaker!" and bit her left arm. She rose on the bite and wriggled free; I spat out the arm nugget; she choked me violently till I collapsed on the floor, apparently dead. But as she walked away, I reanimated, grabbed a hank of her hair, twirled her 360 degrees, and banged her head on the floor, inducing unconsciousness. I removed her sneakers and walked away. But then Tracey revived and shot me dead.
We ran through it twice, Tracey adding wonderful embellishments in the form of grunting; her strangling technique was equally solid. Finding ourselves with a minute or two of free time, we watched classmates Anna and Dorothy rehearse their routine; when the tiny Anna fell to the ground in her death throes, her left leg convulsed in a highly unconvincing manner that was equal parts Folies Bergre and dwarf bowling.
"Very showy," I sniffed to Tracey.
"Yes," she agreed.
"But we have narrative."
Performing Shakespeare, as they say, is exhausting—only royalty ever get to sit. Chief among Craze's ambitions for our dramatic education was to have us perform Shakespeare as the Elizabethans had. He was adamant about using the First Folio, the 1623 edition of the plays, probably based on Shakespeare's manuscripts or promptbooks that were still in the possession of his acting company; in the First Folio, bosom is always bofome, and pagination is sometimes whimsical (Craze: "One is to assume that the printers went out to lunch at that point and had a bit to drink"). In Shakespeare's day—regardless of what you saw in Shakespeare in Love—acting troupes sometimes performed a new play a day, and thus actors were often unable to rehearse. Moreover, they were given not complete scripts but, rather, cue scripts—only their own charac-ter's lines, preceded by the line of dialogue that was their cue. These cue scripts would come to the actors on rolled paper; they would roll out this paper—thus the word role?—to see how big their part was.
One dank, overcast Wednesday afternoon, Craze handed out cue scripts for the scene in Romeo and Juliet in which the two lovers are found dead—a scene of tumult and many, many exclamation points—and told us to memorize our lines overnight. I was cast as Capulet; I was to enter and say, "What should it be that they so shriek abroad?" then, at some indeterminate length of time later, I was to say:
O wife, look how our daughter bleeds!
This dagger hath mista'en, for lo his house
Is empty on the back of Montague,
And is missheathed in my daughter's bofome!
I showed my cue script to Laura—a wisecracking senior at University of Chicago who would emerge as one of my favorites in the group. "Lotta exclamation points," she observed. "You better get a good night's sleep."
"Yes," I responded. "Much drama for me. And a bofome."
The next day, Craze had us perform the scene without giving us any blocking. He provided only these Elizabethan guidelines: "Move to the person you're speaking to or about. If you have lots of lines, move to center stage. Also, think of status. If you're a prince, move to center stage."
Chaos ensued. Cues were missed; the First Watch bumped into the Second Watch, engendering testiness and faint moaning. One of the Southern Californians, cast as Juliet, fell to her knees at one point and started clawing the ground, as if to demonstrate her region's fascination with nail care. When we were done, we had a lot of questions for Craze. For instance, what would the Elizabethan actor who played the friar have done? Just after the friar enters, the Third Watch says, "Here is a friar that trembles, sighs, and weeps." Should the friar, upon hearing this description, heed it? Craze said yes. Wouldn't his walking out straight-faced and then, on cue, suddenly trembling, sighing, weeping, cause the audience to laugh?
"Indeed, it would."
Craze had us run the scene again. As we drifted to the back of the classroom, I asked Craze what an Elizabethan actor would do if, as had happened to me, his Capulet wasn't able to see Romeo's back—as Capulet's line, ". . . for lo his houseIs empty on the back . . . ," necessitated—because Romeo was lying on it. "Would the Romeo roll over?"
"Well, he can't really if he's dead, can he now?" Craze answered.
"I guess not."
"Maybe he kicks him right, or lifts him up."
I looked at Donald, who was playing Romeo, and said, "Face-down this time, Romeo, unless you want to be kicked into place."
The highly presentational nature of Elizabethan performance would again be impressed upon me the following week when Laura, Donald, and I went with two other classmates to the Globe Theatre to see Henry V. During Henry's marriage to Catherine of France, an audience member yelled out, "Don't do it!" whereupon Henry looked at her and said, "I'm sorry, madam, but I must.