“Life’s like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.” – Seneca
If there’s any one trade or skill that I’ve steadily been working on over the years, its the art of acting. Indeed, I’ve been pretending to be someone else off and on throughout my whole life. Most kids do this. They imagine they are fighter pilots or badass adventurers, flying high in the skies or exploring treacherous caverns in search of the ultimate treasure. Others pretend that they are everyday adults, or dress up in wild clothes and portray themselves as royalty or a damsel in distress. Some play with dolls or action figures, creating little personalities for each and having them interact. You know, that little thing called imagination.
For most kids, this goes away with age. As they get older, they get into those more “grown up activities” and leave that behind. Their imagination doesn’t go away, but it takes a back seat. Pretending to be someone else doesn’t make much sense when you’re building your own personality instead (as a side note, there are folks out there who’ve dedicated their lives to becoming someone they’ve just made up). But there are some intrepid people who never lose touch with that sense and are able to both know themselves and become completely different people. Those people are actors.
I was one of these kids. I would pretend to be so many things, I would write stories, I’d play with legos, action figures, toy guns, and so much more. I found that I could and did imagine myself to be anything I wanted to be. I spent a lot of time in my own head, reading wild stories of adventure and gallantry in the history books while also diving head first into non-fiction tomes, learning as much as I could about everything imaginable. Somehow I never lost that sense, and it followed me into my teens.
This is when I found the stage. Though I had been part of small performances and projects, it never really stuck for some reason. I think my biggest role was playing Tom Saywers little brother in a three act play. It wasn’t until theater in high school that my love for acting truly came to life. At first, I entered the theater organization wanting to be a tech. Indeed, I wanted to be the spotlight guy, pointing that massive light cannon at folks on stage, illuminating their performances. I also hoped to work my way up to the tech loft, where the lights and sound were controlled, so I could hang out with my buddies who were up there. We could look down both on the front of the stage and the back, goofing off with the other techies and the actors who were waiting to go onstage. Honestly, it was a great extra curricular to do if you weren’t an athlete but wanted to get out of class or do something fun after school. That changed the day I was asked to step on stage.
There was this one act play called Caution: Politricks. All the roles had been filled and I was going to be a tech during the production. Amped up to run the spotlight, I signed on. During pre-production, they realized that a part had been missing: a small role for a cameraman at the end, when a field reporter is reporting on the chaos that is going on within the confines of the story. They asked me if this was something that I’d want to do, and I was a bit reluctant to do so at first, being kinda shy (this might be hard to believe now). However one of my best friends was going to be the reporter and he convinced me to give it a shot. I had no lines, all I had to do was act like a camera guy (hell this may be where my love for video was born), and aim this massive piece of old tech at the reporter as he interviewed various folks in the crowd. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Don’t have to do much, don’t have to say anything, and I could go right back to wisecracking behind the curtains after I was done.
So we practiced, we rehearsed, we prepared, and then came the first night of the performance. Everything went according to plan, the actors reciting their lines and bringing their characters to life was a sight to behold. I got to hang out in the tech loft, observing the performances from above while telling stories with my buddies. Suddenly, it was nearing the end of the play, and I had to get ready. I climbed down the ladder and grabbed my gear. Finding my place offstage behind my buddy, we prepared to jump out in front to pretend to report. I was able to see the crowd from here, and dang, it was real at that point. You can rehearse all you want, know a performance back to front, but nothing beats that feeling of actually reciting those lines and portraying those characters in front of a live audience. Regaining composure, I relied on my practice. My job was simple, and I knew what to do. Then, the right lines were said, cues were called, and armed with a microphone and a big ass TV camera, we charged onstage.
Focusing not on the crowd but on my buddy, we glided around that stage like ice skaters, moving from person to person to conduct those on the scene interviews. I kept my camera aimed up, being shorter than everyone else (I didn’t hit a real growth spurt til around 16-17) while these characters were saying their scripted sentences and phrases meant to further the story along. Fueled by eagerness, anticipation, practice and adrenaline, we darted all along the stage. Then, just like that, we were off, and a few minutes after, the performance was over. It was a great success for everyone involved, the audience loved it! But more than that, it lit a fire in me that burns to this day. That night, I fell in love with acting.
Since that time, you couldn’t get me off the stage. Indeed, I spent the rest of my high school career in multiple plays. One acts, three acts, musicals, I was everywhere I could be. I played multiple types of roles, from soldiers to dentists, from random historical figures to everyday folks in comedic syntax. I crushed every role I could, regardless of their level of “importance” to the overall show. I often found myself enjoying lynch pin roles, the character that sort of tied the whole plot together. I remember playing Froggy LeSeur in the play “The Foreigner”. This was a crucial role in that it was the main character’s best friend who introduced him to the environment in which he was foreign to. I was the guy who provided context and levity to an increasingly erratic and ridiculous situation (due in no small part to the main character’s antics). It was sort of a fascinating and complex aspect of what was otherwise a pretty damn funny play. During the second night of our performance, I was in a scene with another character, and her and Froggy were friends. It was a sort of “catch up and establish context” scene so that the audience would understand the background of how Froggy knew all these folks. Midway through the scene, the other actor forgot her lines, and I mean completely. It was one of those crucial lines that without that line, her whole line of dialogue fell apart and therefore the scene would fall apart. Any folks who’ve been in a stage performance, in front of a live audience, know the look of “oh fuck what do I say?”. She gave me that stare right after I got done with a couple of lines. I knew immediately what had happened, the entire scene had just vanished from her mind. No hard feelings towards her at all. Sometimes shit happens.
I’m one of those kinds of actors that not only memorizes my lines, but I study and remember EVERYONE’S lines in a show. Indeed, I was also that guy who was helping the other actors out with their lines, assisting them with their inflection and delivery. I’d understudy for other roles just in case someone got sick or had to swap into another role (small school, small pool of talent). I would spend my nights reading the script over and over, making sure I knew what was going to happen when. I’d be the kid just running around and trying to find ways to be useful in every part of the whole machine. Not only did I act, I also helped build the sets on weekends and after school. Later on, I’d get a chance to assist in directing. I just loved the whole process from start to finish. This amount of preparation allowed me to do what I was able to pull off next.
So, I get the look. The “UHHHHHHHH” stare. That sudden “deer in headlights” expression that we’re all familiar with. There’s a few of ways you could go when you’re in a situation like this. You could either just end the scene and walk off, you could attempt to just wing the scene and just find a way to get to the next scene, or you could just stare at each other until someone remembers a line and hope for the best. Luckily, the audience didn’t see it, and since I knew exactly what she was supposed to say and where the scene should’ve been going, I had an opportunity to save the scene.
To give you a little context, here’s roughly what the set looked like: I was sitting on a couch with a coffee table, just on stage right. The other character was walking around and moving objects to other spots on center stage and stage left. The set is built to resemble a southern US home’s living room in the earlier 1900’s. There’s a ornate cabinet behind me, a dinner table on stage left, and additional shelving on stage left.
So I’m on the couch, and when she gives me this look, my mind lights on fire. I think “Well shit. Okay, what can I do to get this scene going again?” Then I detached, and pulled myself back to look at the scene from a thousand point view. This way, I could visualize not just what my part was, but how this was all supposed to work together to tell this small part of the story. I consider my situation, where we are and where we’re supposed to be, and roughly what the next cue lines are going to be. Of course, all this happens in the matter of a few seconds. First, I gave myself a small activity that would give me a chance to think of a few good lines to make up to get us back on track. I picked up a magazine that was on the table and start cycling through it, making it look like this was part of the scene while giving her an indication that I was coming up with a plan. She silently resumed the activities she was doing before she forgot her line. Buying those precious few seconds with some physical activity helped me come up with a few lines to steer us back. I decided the best course of action was not to get her to remember her lines or just continue the scene as scripted, but instead to make some shit up to continue the story and get us to the next cue line. This way, she wouldn’t have to remember any of her lines and we could just continue with natural dialogue. From there, we could get to a point where I could say a cue line and bring the next character into the scene and give her a chance to go offstage to regroup.
After about twenty seconds of silence (which without a specific activity can seem like a lifetime), I just started bullshitting. The exact words escape me (it’s been over ten years after all), but I started asking her questions. These questions were designed to pull the information out of her character, then guiding her forward in the scene. Instead of saying the exact lines, I just went ahead and talked to her, character to character. With enough questions and just general chat, she found her way back to the cue line and we were able to end the scene exactly where it was supposed to be. Once we got offstage, we rendezvoused backstage and silently celebrated basically jumping off a cliff and building the airplane on the way down. She breathed a sigh of relief and the rest of the play went off without a hitch. She thanked me a ton for this and apologized, and I told her it was okay, we all have those moments and I was just glad that we were able to make it work!
A couple of days after the play ended, I asked some family members, who were in the audience that night, about the performance. Specifically, I wanted to know if they noticed anything about that scene. They loved the whole play and had no idea I basically winged that scene. They were so shocked when I told them I basically made up most of it. I got a ton of praise from the director too, and this was a super proud moment for me as an actor. I don’t mean to be tooting my own horn here too much, all of this has a point to it.
After high school, I journeyed off to college. One of my buddies decided he wanted to audition for a community theater production, and asked me to come with and audition with him. I acquiesced, and off we went. You might recognize the name of this play: a musical version of “A Christmas Carol”. I auditioned for the part of “Young Scrooge”, where Scrooge was transitioning from a young adult in love to a greedy man. I ended up winning the part, and my buddy got the part of Young Scrooge’s friend, who ends up marrying Scrooge’s former fiance Belle later on.
Not only was this a full on play, but it was a musical too. This made me have to brush up on my singing as well as my acting ability. I’m no vocalist, just good enough to skate by (one day though!). This experience was amazing. I got a chance to work with some true professionals. The director was top notch (he had also played Froggy LeSeur in the past too!), and the actor who played the main character of Scrooge was incredible. My buddy and I did our best to keep up with such skilled thespians. Indeed, being around all these highly skilled and wonderful folks really helped me get my acting skills up to snuff.
During one of the performances (I believe it was the second to last), the actor who played Scrooge came up to me in the dressing room after I had just finished my main performance in the play. I’ll never forget what he said to me. “You are one of the best young actors I’ve ever worked with. The way you add something to each performance is incredible. Every time you go out there, you make some addition or improvement and it makes the entire performance that much better.” I was speechless. Seeing this guy act was something to behold, and to hear that from him was so wildly moving, that I could barely believe it. I cobbled together much gratitude after lifting my jaw up off the floor, and we finished out our show.
I haven’t been on stage since. Mostly due to other life commitments, but realistically I just never made it a priority after that. I do miss it, and I may return someday! I instead chose another path with my acting: making videos. Indeed, part of the reason that I started 7-Bit (and Rivet City) was because I had missed acting so much. However, acting on stage and acting on film are two different things which require slightly different skillsets. We’ll cover both of those skillsets in much finer detail as we go down this new series: Acting 101.