27 April, 2006

acting lessons

Well, obviously first things first: it's time to put away those pesky heavy skirts and cardies and collared shirts and tights and go for the summer uniform. Isn't this just about the sweetest face you've ever seen? The garden is blooming and lovely. I'll try to get a picture of Avery with her straw boater hat as well, but she's getting sick of being documented every minute of her life. Can't blame her.

When I came home from my first acting class yesterday, Avery was in the garden with her new babysitter, Erin, Katie's roommate. They were practicing their cartwheels and it was a truly beautiful spring day, a real rarity. Today of course the sun has seen the error of its ways, decided we've had enough of its presence, and is in hiding once more.

My class was a huge success. It's at an open university called The City Literary College, but it's called City Lit by everyone. No entrance requirements, and very inexpensive if you are a resident of London. I am considered, however, transient, having just arrived, so I am paying foreigners' fees, but even so it's a bargain. It felt so odd waiting outside a classroom where I wasn't going to be in charge. I haven't been in a classroom where I wasn't teaching in 19 years, and I must say it was a pleasure to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end, of knowledge. All of us stood around outside the closed door, looking furtively at one another and feeling self conscious. After all, it's not like we were lining up for trigonometry, this was going to be acting class and weren't we all supposed to be sort of performers, or at least would-be performers? After a few minutes, a gorgeous young girl came up to our huddled group and simply reached out to the classroom door handle and pushed it open. "Clever thinking," I said, and everyone laughed, breaking the ice.

Honestly, outside the pages of "Murder on the Orient Express" I have never heard of a more diverse group of people. Thirteen students in all, and let's see, I was the oldest, but not by as much as would have been embarrassing. Then there was Colin the English pub owner, Marcus the Brazilian hairstylist, K (yes, she explained it all very fully, just the initial K), an aspiring rap singer, Vicky the second generation Indian cookery book writer, and possibly our most colorful cohort, Julian the self-confessed former crackhead and prison inmate, father of four children, awaiting his court date for some undisclosed crime and for some reason cooling his heels in the meantime in our "Introduction to Acting" class. Do you suppose his parole officer thought it would be good therapy? Anyway, then there was Tim, a six-foot-eight lanky fellow with dreadlocks, and Marte, a French girl who looked like she had raided Jackie Kennedy's closet. All in all, every nationality you can imagine was represented. I am the only American, and there were just I think three English people. Our teacher came in, breezy and energetic, introduced herself with the economical comment, "I'm Pip," and we were off. Our first activity was to play a game of tag where when you got caught, you stopped, raised your arm in the air and shouted, "I'm it! I'm Kristen!" And everyone else pointed at you and shouted, "You're it! You're Kristen!" So humiliating but funny, and a good way to remember names. Then later in the game you could save yourself from getting tagged by hugging the person closest to you. Pretty funny.

Next Pip assigned seven of us to stand in a circle facing out, and paired us up each with another student, facing us. Then we were to introduce ourselves and say one thing about ourselves. "I'm Kristen and I forgot my bracelet today." "I'm Renee and I love JayZ but I hate Beyonce." Then we sat in a circle and Pip would say, "That's Kristen," and everyone would say the thing I had to said to each of them. I wondered privately if anyone had lied, and I wanted to ask, but thought it might sound really odd, so I held my tongue. Then Pip talked about the essential quality for good acting: learning to listen. It's surprisingly hard. Maybe I'm just more self-centered than most people, but I do find that I often carry on conversations in which I can feel myself just waiting to say the next thing. Am I listening to the other person, really listening? As in, perfectly open to the conversation going in a direction other than the one I intended? Not always. She asked us how the information exchange had felt. Colin said, "I found it kind of awkward. I mean, I would really rather have had to talk to a lot of people about myself, rather than focus on just one person." I thought about how the situation would be John's worst nightmare: a room full of strangers that, one by one, he would have to talk to, about himself. Pip talked about the usefulness of acting skills in daily life, not just on stage or screen. "Aren't we all equipped with more than one self, underneath? Maybe we don't always bring them all out, or even think consciously about what we're doing, but isn't there one self who confronts the landlord with problems with the heat, and another who goes for coffee with a friend, and another who solves problems at work? Really think, from now on, about what self you're bringing out for situations."

I thought about how, since moving, I have had to reinvent myself, or my selves, in every situation. It's getting less so, but every day there is at least one new person, and many days many people, who I've never met before, but have to form a relationship with. Maybe it's Kimia's mother at pickup for Angelica's birthday party, or the drama teacher at Avery's school, or a new babysitter, or now this acting class. I do think it's useful to analyze who I trot out as "myself" in these situations. Of course it's heightened in our current life when I'm having to replace all the familiar people in my life (pediatrician, deli owner, best friend, school head, librarian) with strangers in their spots, standing in their roles, ready to play for me the part that was played by someone else in the last "performance" of my life. No interaction is truly, effortlessly natural yet. But even outside the sort of extraordinary level of role-playing that goes on in life in a new place, I think some amount of it takes place all the time. I noticed it when I spoke on the phone with my beloved grandmother last night. I hadn't played the part of granddaughter in a really long time! I felt myself becoming that self gradually as we talked, but some essential part of "Mamoo's eldest granddaughter and mother of her first grandchild" came out before I was really conscious of having to remember my lines.

I think what I will discover is that, as my dad always says, personality traits run on a spectrum. People have more or less of a given quality by nature, and then life impresses even more or less of that quality on them as time goes on. I think I am probably more given to the role-playing feeling than most people, but I bet a true actor has a really hard time figuring out what the "real" self consists of. It was very interesting to have Pip say that, and then say, "Right now I have brought out the self who teaches my classes," totally stripping the classroom situation of any fake sense of "normality," or transparency. Of course she was playing the part of teacher, just as I used to adore doing in my own classroom. It's not as if it's faking: but it's very instructive to strip away one's daily sense that people are "real", and acknowledge that it's all an accretion of parts we play.

Or, of course, I could be a disassociated nutcase with a personality disorder.

So then we were sent off in threesomes to plan and act out a familiar story, with just about ten minutes to get it together. I was with Vicky and Marte, and we decided to do "Little Red Riding Hood." It was funny to try to remember the exact story, and how does it end? Does the wolf really eat BOTH the grandmother and Little Red? We decided yes. Marte said she was really sleepy and would be happy to play the grandmother who ultimately doesn't do much besides get eaten. The plays seemed like silly little things, but Pip found real things to say about what we had done: had we really planned properly where the audience would be, and could they see all the action? Did we remember to be consistent about what happened to the fake teacup in our hands, and was the imaginary doorway consistently in the same place throughout the play? Katherine, the super pretty girl who opened the classroom door for us, played Adam to Julian's Eve in a "don't eat the apple" scenario in which God and the serpent were played by a Turkish florist (I'm not making this up). But at the end, when they were meant to feel shame for the first time, Katherine forgot who she was and covered her breasts!

I think the most crucial thing that Pip said was that the thrill of acting is in knowing that the thoughts and experiences of the audience are in YOUR hands. That's why, she said, most actors prefer stage to screen. There is a real-time, real-life effect you're having on the people who have paid good money for you to play a part, and she described the incredible high of looking out into the audience and seeing every eye trained on you, and knowing that your job is to do for them what they came for: play a part and change their lives, for the next two hours. "And professionalism comes into it, too. You can't change your mind halfway through the play and not finish it, or not give it your all because you're hungover or have a sick child at home. Anymore than a bus conductor can be having a bad day and decide that today, the Number 137 bus will end at Oxford Circus and not go on to Piccadilly. No, the bus journey, and the theatre journey, must continue until they are over, and that's your job."

It was an exhausting three hours! Then I decided to walk home, and it's a jolly long way from Covent Garden to Mayfair, I can tell you. In high heels, no less. But I got to talk to John's mom on the phone as I walked, and she's such a good audience that it went quickly.

Right now I have a strawberry cake in the oven to take to Avery's school cake sale ("not 'bake sale,' like in America, it's a 'cake sale' here, Mummy" she pointed out, the unspoken words "you dummy" hanging in the air like a conversation balloon). There is also a hand-me-down uniform sale, so perhaps I can pick up an extra cardie for her. I'm in denial that the downside of the summer uniform is the necessity of yet more name-tape sewing. Avery's playing at Anna's house after school, and I am under great pressure to remember to bring along her new Sylvanian animal family as necesary items for "the game." What, you're not familiar with Sylvanians? That must mean you don't have a nine-year-old English girl. They are these little flocked animal families, with little outfits and belongings and, if you're super lucky with parents who aren't ogres like we are, they have houses. With real lights that light up. It's John's nightmare, tiny little things all over the house with all their tiny little accoutrements. But they're de rigeuer for the King's College set, and I caved and took Avery to Hamleys Toy Store in Regent Street this week and let her choose a family. The amount of Sylvanian-pertinent information that flowed forth from Avery on the long, long walk home that day, Hamleys bag clutched in her hot sticky little hands, was mind-boggling. Now you know what you can give her for her birthday. If you want to earn John's undying enmity, that is.

Oh, and the washing machine saga goes like this: the part has to be ordered from some medieval village in Germany, at which point it is apparently walked over land until it reaches the sea, and then migrating fish swim it over to England where it undergoes some psychological testing, eventually arriving at my flat around the end of May. Or, alternatively as they like to say here, I can get a new machine with a similarly tortured delivery tale, around the middle of May. I got this all from Bob the porter (who's back! lame Iaian having got hired in the City, can't imagine who would want him) as I struggled to free my strawberry cake from its pan (of course I burned it while I wrote this post, so much for my future as a foodie). In the meantime I have to say it was a real pleasure to pack up all our dirty clothes into plastic bags and have someone from Zoots Laundry Service come and collect it. It's ostensibly to arrive all clean and dry and folded, this evening. "Did you separate the whites from the colors?" Bob asked. "You're such a troublemaker," I said. "Is a laundry service going to put blue jeans in with white shirts? Come on," I scoffed. But now I can't stop worrying about it. Oh well, a couple of hours selling cakes to posh English mums obsessing over their double-parked Range Rovers will distract me, I'm sure.

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