I grew up learning how to act in a barn. I didn’t really learn how to act. We got exposed to Stanislavski, Ute Hagen and all that method acting stuff, but we were only scratching the surface. We wrote first-person essays about our characters but then we forgot it all once we got on stage. We didn’t understand theater really, we were just teenagers who wanted to get into each other’s pants.
It was the late 80s and the heyday for Prince and the girl I liked was mad over him and his music, even dressed like one of his back-up singers. She was from community theater though and that meant our director had to untrain her from a lot of bullshit she’d learned there, a lot of handwringing and overdoing it. It was different with me, I was a blank slate.
Kelly looked like a porcelain doll with her big brown eyes and perfect glowy hair. She reminded me of a girl in a Japanese anime show I used to watch called Speed Racer. But she didn’t have eyes for me, she only liked Rob. Rob had a full chest of hair and soft voice. But Rob didn’t like Kelly, he only liked me. So the three of us were in a constant state of frustration: me liking Kelly, Kelly liking Rob, Rob liking me. The sound of Prince squealing in a song like “Kiss” captures the tension for me in that timeframe. It was a soundtrack for lust and longing, the sound of alley cats in heat.
I did have a long-distance girlfriend (Marie) and we’d committed to being faithful once we went off to college but neither one of us knew a goddamned thing about faith or commitment. In fact I drove across the state one time on a surprise visit to see her but found out she “wasn’t available” for some opaque reason her sorority sisters gave. Ironically the same thing later happened to Marie when she drove to a hotel in upstate New York and asked which room I was in and someone said “he’s in there, with Tina.”
And that was true, I was in there with Tina, but Tina and I weren’t messing around. We were just messing around with the idea of messing around which is different, but basically the same thing. I didn’t know anything about “optics” back then (how things look from the outside, like in politics) but the optics on that one were bad. And so Marie turned right around and drove back to her dorm in the middle of the night. And then gave me a frosty comment the next time we talked like, “how’s Tina?”
I didn’t mean to get into acting but things had gone south with my pre-law program. I wasn’t willing to do the work and the professor was a sour old man and it just seemed like there was no joy in law. The more you learned about it the more you started hating everything.
I took acting classes because I idolized Jim Morrison and everything he represented and he was into all this Antonin Artaud crap, “The Theatre of Cruelty,” the “Theatre of the Absurd,” and so on. I thought if I dug into that I could learn more about him (and possibly even become him, which would be cool). But I got convicted for a felony and experienced the legal system first-hand, and that’s what led me to leave law as a vocation. None of it was fair. They convicted me of furnishing alcohol to minors which was true on one hand but impossible on the other because I myself was a minor so legally I couldn’t even purchase it. I got busted for both (they call it ‘double jeopardy’) and went on probation for two years, and paid a lot of money for nothing in return. I had to get a job washing dishes and scrubbing melted cheese off steel pots at a Taco Bell. I got fired for trying to buy weed over the phone when my narc of a manager listened in on the other line. The whole experience cleft a part of me off and made me feel like a criminal. And so I became an actor, it was somewhere I could fit in.
All the plays we did were pretty literary and heady because our director Steve was that way. He was also kind of a pervert I later learned, and that was too bad because I really liked Steve, would even call him a friend. He was the guy who drove me across the state to visit Marie and it’s a long drive from Erie to Philadelphia (six hours) so you get to know someone pretty well when you’re in a car together that long.
Steve had left the last acting program he led in Ohio for reasons that made you feel like he was hiding something. He was a good dude, and couldn’t lie too well. There were allegations and he went kind of red and looked away when asked about it. After I left there he wound up marrying one of the students, a girl named Jen, who was even younger than me. And Steve was in his mid 30s. Jen was my girlfriend at one time too, and Steve had made up a story about her having chlamydia in hopes that would dissuade me from sleeping with her but his plans didn’t work, I did anyway.
One of the plays we did was by Christopher Durang, an autobiography of his life growing up. He pokes fun at himself and his parents, and I played the lead role. But his parents got divorced, and I remember now how my mom had a funny reaction the night she and my dad came to the show. Looking back I can see why she reacted that way, and it must have been strange for the two of them to watch their son performing in that kind of role knowing they were headed for a divorce soon themselves. And all the irony in that.
There were a shit-ton of lines and monologues to memorize for that part with references to books and characters and inside jokes I didn’t get, and I bet none of our audience did either. But I had to learn what it was like to command attention for that long and it isn’t easy. The thing about good acting is you have to commit to your choices 100%. The choices reflect your true character, which you convey through the overlap of what’s true in you and what’s true in the role. And that’s ironic, because none of us at that age were willing to commit to anything on stage or off. Acting was a form of non-commitment to life. Or to some rendering of life that was fantasy-based, made up. And the same could be said about who we were as human beings, too. How can you bring out some real human experience in a role when you hardly have any yourself?
Ute Hagen came from a school of acting built on Stanislavski’s technique (known as The Method) where the actor isn’t representing a thought or feeling per se, but actually experiencing and embodying it. Steve had us read these books and try to understand it but man, we were teenagers. Connecting with a character through a shared personal experience was hard. We just needed to live more.
And I discovered the same when I later moved away and tried to write for a living. There wasn’t enough in that jar to use. But there is a similarity between acting and creative nonfiction writing in being true, through channeling a feeling for others as a form of release. Because we all need a release from this world. I learned young what bullshit the criminal justice system can be. Theater can feel like bullshit too, but unlike law enforcement or the courts, theater sets us free.