Acting Class

By John Levenstein
(Originally performed with Sit n’ Spin at the HBO Workspace)

“Anne has nothing to live for.” My mother was on the phone, urgent as usual, but refreshingly not about the man she was dating who was married in name only. Anne was Anne Seymour, an old family friend, an actress in her seventies who was attempting to die with dignity. My mother would have none of it. “You know what Anne needs? Anne needs to teach an acting class. Me and you and–ask Mike–and Bibi and Fred, all the people who love her, we’ll meet at her house once a week. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Years later, if I had to pick at this plan, a couple of things sort of jump out at me. The first is that none of us were actors. And not because training had been unavailable until then. We had no interest in acting whatsoever. That’s okay. We could fake it, we just needed to get a few classes under our belt. But there was another problem, one that didn’t occur to me until the class was already well under way. We were making an old woman give a party every week. She must have dreaded Tuesdays. Probably started thinking about it on Friday. Lists on Saturday. Sunday, freaking out, she’s accomplished nothing. Monday, Gelson’s, gardening, lesson plan. Tuesday, Christ, they’re coming! Wednesday was hundred percent devoted to recovery. She had Thursday. That was Anne’s day. The other six suddenly devoted to her closest friends, who, in a surprising mid career move, had all decided to become actors.

We started out with some simple microphone techniques, particularly useful in the live broadcast of an old radio drama. Anne put a lit candle in front of me, inviting me to pronounce the word toupee without blowing it out. That’s craft, people. And then it was on to the meat. The emotional work. We weren’t ready to act. Which suited me just fine. We were assigned various injuries and then took turns hobbling around the back yard, communicating nonverbally what we had. Fred’s choices were a bit cartoony for my tastes. Anne gave a lesson on how an actor could find the motivation even for murder by picturing a fly buzzing and buzzing and buzzing until you want to KILL. My mother confided that she didn’t need the fly to imagine the murder of the wives of certain men who were married in name only. We could have gone on like this forever, Fred in the backyard, doubled over in imaginary pain, my mother getting in touch with her murderous impulses. But, most importantly, not acting. Always the not acting.

But there was this one woman. We’ll call her Beth. To this day I have no idea who she was or where she came from–a friend of a relative or a relative of a friend–but she seemed to be under the impression that she had landed in an actual acting class. None of us had the heart to burst her bubble. Which gave us some semblance of hope. If Anne could reach this one actress, in the magical safe environment my mother, Mike, Fred and Bibi and I had helped create, maybe Anne’s legacy wouldn’t have to die with her. God knows none of the rest of us were fighting over that torch.

Beth–great, another b name, too late to change it now-Beth was chomping at the bit to perform a monologue. Anne tried to rein her in, but, like a young filly, Beth (Beth-stupid) could only be held back so long. She
opened up a book of monologues-where did she find such a book?-the anticipation built. Beth made a bold choice, before she even began to speak, looking directly at Mike, my friend who until then had managed to hide in plain sight. She began with a line about how she’d never forgotten him, fought her way through some second rate Tennessee Williams, as Mike held her gaze, stricken, then wrapped up, straight into Mike’s eyes with, “I’m bringing it all home…to you.” Mike nodded solemnly, then turned away-never to look a woman directly in the eye again. The rest of us burst into applause, as Anne smiled bravely. It was undeniable. Beth was terrible.

So why didn’t we pack it in right then? Should I have stood up and demanded that we end the charade, give up acting and let the lady have her week back? A lesser man might have. But I wasn’t ready to pack it in just yet. Did I love Anne too much? Was I too good a friend to her? That’s quite an accusation. Perhaps I was. But if I hadn’t held on, kept coming to class, what was she going to do with that time, really? Not be bothered, yes. But that can’t be the goal, to grow old with as few encumbrances as possible, to be left alone, until all that remains is the absence of inconvenience. Okay, obviously that sounds good, but there’s a larger point here, one that we’re in danger of losing sight of, and that’s that I was a very good friend.

I knew it was time to bail when Anne, who by this time I suspected was just fucking with us, had us mingle in her living room, each of us personifying the trait of a different animal. One person was “mule” headed, another would “bull” forward, I was in the middle of a conversation, acting “squirrelly,” I suppose, when I felt something against my leg. I looked down. It was my mother, looking up, like a cat. “Mom, we’re supposed to personify an animal, you’re not supposed to be the animal.” She tilted her head, non comprehending. To her credit, she was nailing the cat. In fact if Beth had brought the same sort of conviction to her second-rate Tennessee Williams, we’d still be in business today. Still, when you look down at something rubbing against your leg, your mother isn’t what you’re hoping for. What would be better? A corpse, a big bag of shit, someone I could sell my soul to that could make the memory go away. Because, after all of Anne’s efforts, when all is said and done, that’s the main thing I’ll take away from the class. My mother on the floor thinking she’s a cat. By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that she’s here with us in the audience tonight, so you might want to watch your step on the way out.

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