Anna Deveare Smith portrays 17 different people—students, teachers, parents, judges, Congessmen, social justice workers—in her new, almost one-woman play, Notes from the Field. Your intrepid reporter reviewed it for WBAI radio yesterday.
Click on the gray triangle to listen.
A first artistic mentor can be like a first love. Everything seems new, extraordinary, larger than life. Your brain, body, soul, emotions are expanding so rapidly that you endow the other with superhuman powers, even if on looking back, you understand that what you had been exposed to were, perhaps, the usual lessons of life. Nonetheless, memories are formed and the lessons learned take on an importance that stay on, years later.
The following story came to my mind today, of a day many years ago that made a large impact on me. It didn’t even directly involve me, but it was something I witnessed. I had just performed a scene in my college acting class with my scene partner, a talented young woman named Dena. We had a wonderful teacher, Lloyd Richards, not only an excellent acting teacher, but one of the finest teachers I have ever had for any subject. Dena was a very good actor, probably the most accomplished in the class, but on this day, after class, she was very upset about something. She went up to Lloyd, and she was obviously a little shaken and embarrassed, and said to him, “I had this awful dream last night. I dreamt that I was having a big argument with you, and I was telling you that every thing that you’ve ever taught us about acting was completely and utterly wrong.”
And Lloyd, whose physical manifestation was similar to a plump Buddha, with great repose and a Cheshire Cat grin, replied, “Congratulations, Dena. You’ve just passed the class.”
Click on the video above for more of Lloyd Richards and Chekhov’s advice.
I’m going to talk about something that I don’t think I am able to talk about directly. So let me tell some stories.
When I was in college, I had a very strange and seminal experience with my acting teacher. During his office hours, I asked him an acting question. He told me to stop and try an exercise. He told me to focus my attention on exactly what I could sense with my senses, one by one, at that moment. And as I did so, I sensed his aura grew stronger and stronger. My teacher was a short heavy African-American man. From the cloud of that aura, he transformed into a tall, thin, Russian man, who I recognized as Stanislavski.
I was not under the influence of any drugs at the time.
I was somewhat alarmed and told my teacher why; he was calm, and said, just remember what brought you to this place.
Sometime later, I performed a scene in his class, and as was his custom, after the scene was over, he said to me and my scene partner, “What were you working for, and how did it go?” I forget what the scene was, but it was always a little nerve-wracking to have to speak about my work, and I muttered something. Then he pointed to my foot which was jiggling up and down. “When,” he asked, “will we see that in your acting?”
From a different field: magicians have a way of shuffling a deck of cards that they call a faro shuffle. I’m not going to go into why magicians like to shuffle this way, but suffice it to say that there are certain properties of the shuffle that are inherently useful to a card magician.
Now the faro shuffle is not simple to acquire. For better or for worse, once you can faro shuffle, you generally are not considered a beginner at cards anymore. You can read a number of descriptions in the magic literature about learning this shuffle; how to place each finger, what the action of the left pinky and right forefinger are, how to adjust for the varying qualities of card stock and brands, and so on. But one thing almost all the books agree on is this: the way to learn how to do the faro is to find someone who already knows how to do it. Then you ask them to teach you.
American actors classify themselves into the Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, or Spolin camps. Magicians trace their lineage to Vernon or Marlo.
There is the written law, and there is the oral tradition. Furthermore, every religion has its exoteric and the esoteric traditions. Actors and magicians too.
Another time, I did a scene where I played a character who uses racist language. Afterwards, my teacher asked me to take a moment, and think back to when I–not the character–first saw my first Black person. My thoughts raced back to my childhood. He looked at me for a few seconds: “That.” My mind jumped at the indication. How did he know I was thinking that, then?
What book? What text? How is it preserved? What, exactly, is transmitted? Can the thread be lost? How far from me to you?