ART EPIPHANIES: How I learned to stop fearing improvisation and love mimes

Aug 28, 2007 at 7:59 pm

Sherry Deatrick acts out a scene with Molly Frick in which Frick’s character has been injured.
Sherry Deatrick acts out a scene with Molly Frick in which Frick’s character has been injured.
In February I was forced to take acting classes. Every morning for more almost a week. I was petrified. This foray included classes conducted by a mime. Eeek! Like most people, to me the word “mime” conjured up an annoying person in whiteface pretending to feel a wall.

The classes were part of a 10-day fellowship I attended with 24 other theater critics in Los Angeles through the National Endowment for the Arts and University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. Sure, I expected lectures with luminaries including New Yorker magazine critic John Lahr, the keynote speaker. But acting classes? With mimes?

But our teacher, Tom Leabhart, is not your typical mime. He’s a renowned scholar who studied with Etienne Decroux, the great teacher of body language. Leabhart is about 5-foot-6 and muscular but not lean, with grey hair on a balding head, thin lips and clear blue eyes. He is a gentle soul who commands attention.
I didn’t realize how important movement exercises are in an actor’s day. Our classes were 90 percent physical work, with the rest of the time spent performing in front of the group.

Leabhart first taught us to get in tune with our sacrum, at the base of the spine. We repeated the syllables “ta ta ta” while reaching for the sky, then bent forward to touch our hands to the ground and slowly uncurled. Upon rising fully, we clasped our hands behind our necks, quickly turned our palms outward, and pushed the energy over our heads with a loud “Fa!” In doing this, we became aware of the energy flowing between the audience and the actor. Lying on a yoga mat, we did “pulsations” by moving the sacrum up and down and from side to side.

Leabhart taught that good posture denotes a good actor. A good actor stands with knees bent and heads straight — neither too high (the “victim”) nor too low (the “executioner”). According to Leabhart, “real” actors do these exercises for hours at a time, making me appreciate the dedication required of great actors.
We were instructed to write out our earliest childhood memory or a description of our first love. We threw our papers into a pile and picked one at random. While memorizing the words, we broke the piece into three sections incorporating physical movement — like putting on a jacket — at each interval.

This daunting exercise drew us together like boot camp recruits. We honored our fellow fellows’ deepest memories, and this is perhaps what made the presentations so moving. We knew what we were portraying was deeply meaningful.

Despite this, I confess that I rebelled. I didn’t take time to practice in my room, as directed. I thought, “I didn’t come here to learn acting! I’m here to become a better critic!” I grumbled about how hard the monologue was, to anyone who would listen.

But when Kyle Minor, a critic from Massachusetts, finished my script about getting pricked with a diaper pin while Elvis gyrated on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” tears poured down my face. Even better was the surge of love I felt from my audience when I performed Bridgette Redman’s childhood memory. This colleague from Lansing had hammered her neighbor’s porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary to bits. Everyone roared with laughter at the punch line. The audience’s energy nearly knocked me over.

Now, I was hooked on the lure of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.
So in May, to build on Leabhart’s foundation, I enrolled in a beginning acting class with Megan Burnette at StageLab. Like Leabhart, Burnette is a nonjudgmental teacher who encourages better acting painlessly. She doesn’t follow a particular method, but leans toward the philosophies of Richard Boleslavsky, one of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s disciples who taught method acting and founded what became the Actors Studio in New York. The small class size (no more than three students) guaranteed personal attention.

Megan Burnett, of StageLab, teaches a beginning acting class where she challenges Deatrick to do improv.
Megan Burnett, of StageLab, teaches a beginning acting class where she challenges Deatrick to do improv.
Burnette used warm-up exercises similar to Leabhart’s. Each student selected an object and prepared a wordless activity using it. I angrily “washed” a skillet of baked-on macaroni and cheese, and was a shameless ham. Burnette had me try it again, less emphatically. Then she had me really “ham” it up, and suggested I throw the pan across the floor. Another student, Mariam Williams, calmly ‘hammered” a picture to a wall. I gleaned that you don’t have to exaggerate your motions to get the point across. But what I really needed to do was take the time to figure out why I was mad at the skillet. Actors spend as much time offstage gearing up for a role as they do actually performing it, even in rehearsals.

At another session, Burnette said we’d be doing “improv.”
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “I can’t possibly do that!” When I hear the word “improv” I think of that dismal TV show, “Whose Line is It Anyway.” We might as well be doing mime. I was again petrified and disgusted. To my mind, improv is not theater because there’s no playwright and no script.

But with Burnette’s encouragement, I learned to let go of my prejudices. My classmate, Molly Frick, and I built a scene where we were co-workers at an Italian restaurant. I suggested we were at Lentini’s, and once we made a picture in our minds of the setting, the dialogue came easily. My character talked about being a groupie for the Rolling Stones, who once ate at Lentini’s. Frick riffed off that comment, and the banter just fell out of us.

I don’t think Burnette was stroking our egos when she said we showed real talent for improvisation. Under her tutelage, the fear of “winging” it vanished. The secret, she said, is not saying “no” to your partner’s suggestions. Rejecting an offer is known as “blocking” and will get you in hot water with your fellow actors. It’s a sure way to stop the action. Frick asked if she could have the last tomato. I said, “Sure, go ahead,” while conveying that I was making a big sacrifice. Had I said “no,” we would have been stuck in a pointless tug of war of the tomato. But by saying “yes,” I created drama without blocking.

We did several other exercises in building a character. But one doesn’t act in a vacuum unless it’s a one-person show. Working with another actor is a challenge. Once you get your own character’s goals, obstacles, tactics and expectations down, you have to start dealing with all the other cast members, with their own peculiar characters. They may be with you or against you. Probably against, because without conflict there’s no drama. You have to separate your fellow actor’s character from the actual person. Otherwise, you might begin to dislike that person whose character is always opposing you.

The actor’s choice of tactics in resolving conflict is what makes acting “real.” Tactics come from the actor, not the script. By concentrating on a particular object, we drew from deep within to be able to reach the emotion associated with it without actually reliving the emotion. It would be impossible to, say, cry with conviction night after night. But if you think about a music box your old boyfriend gave you before he ditched you, you can more easily dredge up the proper response onstage.

We covered a lot of territory in those five classes. I learned that acting requires much more than playing dress-up. It’s physically demanding and requires keen observation and imagination coupled with fearlessness and a sense of play. Anyone who must speak in public would benefit from these lessons, whether a businessperson, lawyer or rock star. Actors, like professional athletes, must constantly practice these skills to achieve greatness.

Certainly, there are other viewpoints on acting. Not everyone follows the early 20th century Russian notions (like Marlon Brando’s “method acting” traced to Stanislavsky). I’d love to see an acting class based on Bertolt Brecht’s theory of the “epic theater,” where actors play characters believably without convincing either the audience or themselves that they are truly the characters. Wouldn’t that just knock critics for a loop? They could no longer marvel at the believability of an actor in a review. As if attaining credibility was all an actor need do. I’d also like to see classes based on theater techniques used in Czechoslovakia, where actors rehearse a role for years before deeming it ready for an audience. It makes me wonder just how puny our theatrical experiences are compared to theirs.

My classes were just the tip of the iceberg. But going through them has made a huge difference in how I watch a play. I’m not quite ready to embrace a mime, or idolize “Whose Line’s” Colin Mochrie. I do feel more humble, and yet more discerning as a critic. Hopefully.
And don’t worry. I have no plans to tread the boards.