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Greenlight that Impulse

August 30, 2010

One week later, I’m a real grad student.

For any of you who have taken the leap back into education after time off, I’m sure you can relate to the smacking, immediate jolt you go through in the adjustment back to academia.

Hey, in the four years since  graduated from undergrad, I undertook some real challenges. I did a 300-performance tour, I started a company, I worked three jobs at a time, I moved all over the country. I was ready for a little homework and quizzing.

Yet, I rolled into town with just enough bravado to be at least a little ashamed at the quivering I did upon receiving the first syllabus. Orientation at a program like this one goes a little something like this:

“Don’t go anywhere. Don’t take any vacations. Don’t get a job. Don’t even think about having a life. We have so many obligations for you, sometimes they overlap and we have to fight over who gets you.”

To sum, the first (and most difficult) year of a MFA in Acting at my program consists of:

Priority one. Four classes: Voice, Movement, Acting, and Play Analysis. This ain’t your little sister’s school day, either. It’s eight hours long, from 9-5. Acting alone is three hours. And sometimes, they schedule you meetings or fittings or one-on-one tutorials during your one break during the day, at lunch. Or, sometimes they schedule them at 5pm.

Tech. As we’ve been so eloquently reminded, despite our past awards, accomplishments and acclaims, first year students are firmly re-planted back at the bottom of the totem pole. In your first year, you join the crew for the Cook Theater, where the 2nd years perform all year in the Conservatory Season. So, I’ll be running a board, gripping a prop, or managing a house for at least 2-3 productions.

Understudy. One of the pleasant side-effects of working in a conservatory setting instead of a campus setting, is that we’re associated (nay, married) to a professional repertory theater, and that we’ll earn enough equity points to join the actor’s union upon graduation. One of the unpleasant side effects of this system is that you earn your points your first year by understudying the principle actors in the Repertory Season. Time, commitment, and energy all for a show you may never sniff the stage for. It is most definitely part of the gig. We find out these assignments later down the road, but audition this weekend.

So, when I’m not studying for class, I’m in rehearsal for a show I’m not really in, or at a performance of a show I’m definitely not in. Sometimes you’ll be on understudy call the same night you are crewing a show, and if you’re needed to go on, they pass along your crew assignment to another student or faculty member.

It’s mind boggling. And I love it.

The professors aren’t just qualified, they’re brilliant, and they’re experts at what they do. The training isn’t just good, it’s “make you better if it’s the last thing we do” good. And I’m fairly convinced, albeit just one week in, that I’m a pretty lucky guy to even be accepted here, much less with a full scholarship. So when you want to talk about living-wage stipends, I’ll happily admit that I’m taking the unwieldy, demanding schedule with a smile on my face.

In our first week, 12 hours of acting class has covered one exercise. Remember those blank scenes you did in undergrad (or earlier), that go a little something like this:

A: I really must go.
B: Stay a little longer.


A: Is it nice outside?
B: I don’t know.
A: Really, I saw you at the park two hours ago.
B: So what?
A: You weren’t alone.

The generality of the scenes allows for about a million different interpretations, and the exploratory etudes we’ve been performing focus on receiving your lines, taking about 15 seconds to learn them, 3 seconds to empty your brain and body of ideas and preconceived notions, and to enter into a scene with freedom and truth (and absolutely zero planning). Some end up chaotic, others spellbinding and riveting. The idea, I believe, is to train to yield to the natural impulses of acting, to remain at the absolute essence of presence during every moment on stage.

What seems like a simple exercise can be, in fact, a deeply encompassing, somewhat profound experience because, as our acting professor reminds us, “it takes courage to start from nothing.”

The impulse will come if you let it. The mind has an ability to immediately fill itself with an idea or an impulse once emptied. However, as respectful members of society, we’ve all become very good at redlighting most impulses we have. But what is uncommon in life is interesting on stage, and that’s what we must be present to. Commit to the moment, commit to your scene partner, and commit to the reality of everything that is happening. If you have the courage to start from nothing, you’ll be amazed at where you take yourself.

For 12 of us, it has taken us to a grad program filled with challenges, hurdles, and demands, and yet quite possibly, the most rewarding experience we’ll ever have.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 9:20 pm

    Lovely writing, totally accurate to what my experience of first year demands were–love your attitude!

  2. August 31, 2010 9:59 am

    I can’t tell you how excited I am to read about your journey. 🙂

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