Monday, February 24, 2003

Life is…hard to sum up in an adjective.

I’d like to learn how to act. After all, my best friend is a filmmaker, and acting looks like a lot of fun.

After watching with wrapt attention countless episodes of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I remembered one name above all other names in the field of method acting: Stanislavski.

So, when I was in the library last Saturday getting this week’s pile of books (including one about iBooks, one about electricity and electronics, and three on indoor gardening), I noticed a book called An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski. I tossed it on the pile.

I’m about a third of my way into An Actor Prepares now, and it’s not only enthralling, it’s deep. It reveals secrets about the true nature of art that I’d never realized before, and which reflects on writing and drawing and any number of other things.

“Let us give a new play,” said the Director to Maria, as he came into the classroom today.

“Here is the gist of it: your mother has lost her job and her income; she has nothing to sell to pay for your tuition in dramatic school. In consequence you will be obliged to leave tomorrow. But a friend has come to your rescue. She has no cash to lend you, so she has brought you a brooch set in valuable stones. Her generous act has moved and excited you. Can you accept such a sacrifice? You cannot make up your mind. You try to refuse. Your friend sticks the pin into a curtain and walks out. You follow her into the corridor, where there is a long scene of persuasion, refusal, tears, gratitude. In the end you accept, your friend leaves, and you come back into the room to get the brooch. But—where is it? Can anyone have entered and taken it? In a rooming house that would be altogether possible. A careful, nerve-racking search ensues.

“Go up on the stage. I shall stick the pin in a fold of this curtain and you are to find it.”

In a moment he announced that he was ready.

Maria dashed on to the stage as if she had been chased. She ran to the edge of the footlights and then back again, holding her head with both hands, and writhing with terror. Then she came forward again, and then again went away, this time in the opposite direction. Rushing out towards the front she seized the folds of the curtain and shook them desperately, finally burying her head in them. This act she intended to represent looking for the brooch. Not finding it, she turned quickly and dashed off the stage, alternately holding her head or beating her breast, apparently to represent the general tragedy of the situation.

Those of us who were sitting in the orchestra could scarcely keep from laughing.

It was not long before Maria came running down to us in a most triumphant manner. Her eyes shone, her cheeks flamed.

“How do you feel?” asked the Director.

“Oh, just wonderful! I can’t tell you how wonderful. I’m so happy,” she cried, hopping around on her seat. “I feel just as if I had made my debut…really at home on the stage.”

“That’s fine,” said he encouragingly, “but where is the brooch? Give it to me.”

“Oh, yes,” said she, “I forgot that.”

“That is rather strange. You were looking hard for it, and you forgot it!”

We could scarcely look around before she was on the stage again, and was going through the folds of the curtain.

“Do not forget this one thing,” said the DIrector warningly, “if the brooch is found you are saved. You may continue to come to these classes. But if the pin is not found you will have to leave the school.”

Immediately her face became intense. She glued her eyes on the curtain, and went over every fold of the material from top to bottom, painstakingly, systematically. This time her search was at a much slower pace, but we were all sure that she was not wasting a second of her time and that she was sincerely excited, although she made no effort to seem so.

“Oh, where is it? Oh, I’ve lost it.”

This time the words were muttered in a low voice.

“It isn’t there,” she cried, with despair and consternation, when she had gone through every fold.

Her face was all worry and sadness. She stood motionless, as if her thoughts were far away. It was easy to feel how the loss of the pin had moved her.

We watched, and held our breath.

Finally the Director spoke.

“How do you feel now, after your second search?” he asked.

“How do I feel? I don’t know.” Her whole manner was languid, she shrugged her shoulders as she tried for some answer, and unconsciously her eyes were still on the floor of the stage. “I looked hard,” she went on, after a moment.

“That’s true. This time you really did look,” said he. “But what did you do the first time?”

“Oh, the first time I was excited, I suffered.”

“Which feeling was more agreeable, the first, when you rushed about and tore up the curtain, or the second, when you searched through it quietly?”

“Why, of course, the first time, when I was looking for the pin.”

“No, do not try to make us believe that the first time you were looking for the pin,” said he. “You did not even think of it. You merely sought to suffer, for the sake of suffering.

“But the second time you really did look. We all saw it; we understood, we believed, because your consternation and distraction actually existed.

“Your first search was bad. The second was good.”

This verdict stunned her. “Oh,” she said, “I nearly killed myself the first time.”

“That doesn’t count,” said he. “It only interfered with a real search. On the stage do not run for the sake of running, or suffer for the sake of suffering. Don’t act ‘in general,’ for the sake of action; always act with a purpose.”

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