Finding Alan

Photos by Ted SoquiWhen my husband, Alan, confessed not long after we got married that he wanted to take acting lessons, I was thrilled – Alan was in for hell, and I could help him through it. He could prosper in a way that I never did when I studied acting at UCLA, but only if I explained it all. I’d have been less thrilled and more jealous were Alan not the most un-actorly guy I know. He hates affect of any kind and despises having his picture taken even more. He likes coffee shops but is wholly suspicious of coffeehouses, which he thinks of as colonies for slackers and model types and people with no real jobs, like actors. He’s a leftist social critic and a public high school teacher with a wardrobe and mindset so utilitarian, I have to beg him to buy new socks or underwear from a real store (he also hates malls) instead of a swap meet. Yet he’s always had a flair for the dramatic and a commanding ease in front of tough crowds — the hallmark of any successful teacher, and excellent training for any actor. But he still resisted lessons. This was partly because he remained leery of the whole acting culture, but mostly because he’s a perfectionist who hates doing anything that he can’t do well the first time. Essentially, he fears looking like a fool. “If you want to be an actor,” I told him, “you had better get rid of the idea that you won’t look like a fool, at least at first.” That much I knew. Like almost every red-blooded Angeleno who grew up with a love of the movies and a chronically vague sense of career, I thought I wanted to be an actor. After college I did the rounds of small theater, playing everything from Anita in a dinner-theater production of West Side Story to a tap-dancing allegory named Life in an ambitious little musical at a community playhouse. It was as good a time as I’d ever had while making almost no money, and I thought I’d found a calling. In UCLA’s graduate theater program, I was taught that acting is about the furthest thing from a good time that a person could possibly imagine. My teacher was a fierce Strasberg devotee who believed people must be reduced to emotional pulp before they can even call themselves actors. I was still in guarded post-adolescence and knew I was in trouble when, during the first moment-to-moment exercise, I stood before my professor’s famously withering gaze and said, “I feel fine. Nothing’s going on!” Bad answer. I eventually ditched my acting dreams for writing, I suppose because as a writer I could detail my feelings without somebody barking from five feet away that I wasn’t feeling them. I consoled myself with the thought that I would still be performing, but on the page. Every art form shares a common set of muses, and all that. Finally, Alan agreed to acting lessons, but only after braving tap-dance classes for five weeks and feeling like a total failure from moment one. He was in bad need of an antidote. I leapt into action. I went on the Internet, and, among the 850,000-plus hits I got when I put in “acting classes in Los Angeles,” found the One: Acting Without Agony. Probably too good to be true, but the mere promise of a painless experience sold me. The program was inspired by the teachings of Don Richardson, a Group Theater alumnus who’d decided that the deep-psychology approach of Strasberg and Stanislavsky was bad for good acting, so he created a much more pragmatic-sounding technique that he called “an alternative to the Method.” Richardson was dead, but one of his protégés, Brad Heller, was running an Acting Without Agony academy out in Studio City. Classes met every Tuesday at Two Roads Theater on Tujunga Avenue, directly across the street from the restaurant where Robert Blake’s murdered wife ate her last meal. Alan thought this was a good sign, in a morbid kind of way. Heller turned out to be wiry and bright-eyed, with an impossible amount of energy and dark, wispy hair that always made him look like he’d just rolled out of bed, though I could hardly imagine him doing something as passive as sleeping. No coddler, he put Alan onstage right away with a monologue Alan had chosen before this first meeting. I had gone through a monologue book with Alan over dinner to suggest pieces he might like to do. One was a lovely speech about regret and lost youth from a play by Ivan Turgenev. I thought my intellectually inclined, Russian-descended husband would like it; he didn’t. “I don’t get this,” he grumbled. “It’s too talky. What else is there?” He ended up choosing a speech from another play called Good Business, in which a character named John, a low-rent white thug from Detroit, tries to talk his partner out of pulling a boneheaded job in a Jewish part of town. “‘West Bloomfield — that’s way the fuck out there, man,’” Alan read aloud. “‘They’re gonna nail our asses to the wall, man. Jesus—fucking—Christ!’” He looked pleased. He was more nervous reading it to Heller onstage, though Heller didn’t really give him time to be, immediately explaining the basics of Richardson’s anti-Method method, which consists of setting an objective and emotion in any scene and sticking with them throughout. “Acting is 80 percent emotion,” said Heller. “We don’t need sense memory. Objective is the anchor that keeps you focused. With an objective, you always try to get it, to keep the other character here, but you never do. You keep trying, but you never actually achieve the objective. You never figure it out, because then the dog gets the bone. The story’s over. The story’s never over.” Alan nodded vigorously. He was probably thinking of all those students whose attention he had to hold for an hour at a stretch, and then get it back the next day. Alan lived this stuff in a way that I never did, especially at 23. At 7:30 the rest of the class filed in, and Heller introduced the new recruit. Alan got to do the monologue again, this time kind of jumping the gun instead of relaxing, jamming the words together in his haste to get them out. But there was no doubt my husband was interesting to watch, genuine and appealing even as he stumbled. Heller praised him and then gave him copious notes, punctuating every one of them with, “Does this make sense?” Driving home, Alan was broody, but in a more productive way than usual. “I lost it,” he muttered. “I had it the first time, and then I lost it.” I reminded him that the acting flow was like that, maddeningly ephemeral, there one beat and gone the next. But I could see that Alan was on the right track; he wanted to be good. He didn’t think he sucked or that this whole enterprise was hopeless. He was having some normal difficulty, but no agony — in fact, he was having fun. Now I was envious. The following week he rehearsed John with a vengeance. He said his lines under his breath in the car, around the house, in supermarket lines and parking lots. He started pacing and gesturing with his hands. Once I called him on his cell phone and was startled to hear John answer, “Jesus-fucking-Christ!” The next class he did the monologue from memory. Heller was impressed enough to let him go to the next step — a scene. He assigned him a partner, a veteran actor named Kerry. Alan was excited, though he lapsed for a moment back into his loser gloom. “Kerry’s a pro, and I’m a beginner,” he said after class. “He’s being polite about baby-sitting me. He probably doesn’t even want to do it.” Alan practiced even harder the next week. Before I could offer help this time (which by now I could see he didn’t need), he drafted me into playing his partner. Over and over we rehearsed the scene, in which Alan played another thug — Scottish this time — and Kerry played the gang boss. The thug was a loose-cannon underling who tries to get his boss’s assurances that he won’t screw up a lucrative drug deal. Rudimentary stuff, dramatically — hardly Turgenev — and I was already worrying that my husband was typecasting himself as a hood. But maybe he needed this to vent an inner criminal that he didn’t normally exercise as a history and humanities teacher dedicated to serving others. Maybe if I had used acting that way when I was studying it, I would be doing it this very moment instead of writing about it. Alan’s passion now was such a contrast to my reticence then, I couldn’t help but feel a kind of peevishness that I hadn’t known or trusted myself enough to walk away, or speak up, or use what I had in me. Nor could I help but wonder what might have happened if I’d had a Heller for a teacher instead of an accidental terrorist. But then, one thing I’ve already learned from Heller is what he told Alan when he derailed in his monologue: It’s always better to be where you’re at than to try to recapture a moment you lost. The scene was brilliant, by the way. Dressed all in black, Alan was much more imposing than I’d ever seen him. He brought to his character all the nuances of himself, everything utterly familiar to me — anxious air, darting eyes, clasped hands, hunched shoulders — which now looked utterly different. He was menacing, but oddly sweet, which made him more menacing. He stared at Kerry hard enough to burn a hole in him. I knew the scene by heart, but when Alan leapt up and exploded in anger, I was taken aback. Everybody was. When the scene was done, Heller didn’t say anything for several seconds — a long time for him to be quiet. Alan was very good, and we all knew it; I felt not regretful or envious at all, but proud. On the way home this time, I said little. I wanted to bask. Alan was torn between being giddy and being sheepish. “That was all right,” he finally said. “That felt good.” He let out a long breath and laughed shakily. “But you know, I was terrified. I was scared to death.” That, of course, is entirely the point of acting, latching on to the moment and riding it wherever it takes you. I never really got a hold of it, but Alan — well, he’s going to be a different story. One that’s hardly going to end anytime soon.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >