April 12, 2012: How to Be an Actor

1. Start out as a more-than-slightly neurotic child, perhaps with a nervous tic or a speech impediment—or at least as a kid whose parents are divorcing. Having an emotionally distant father and/or alcoholic mother is helpful, too. Homosexuality is a definite plus.

Start small: Reenact toothpaste commercials in your basement. Do impersonations. Memorize the cast recordings of Man of La Mancha and Pippin. Practice lying. Crash your mother’s Canasta party, bellowing an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Buckle Down Winsocki” from The Girl From Oklahoma. Vamp. Tell people, “Theater is my world.”

2. Follow your first public appearance—as a shrub in P.S. 42’s Christmas Follies—with the role of Second Villager in your high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. Wear black. Practice your Tony acceptance speech for hours. Develop a confused sense of self. Faint. Tell people, “I see myself as a cross between Medea and Maria von Trapp.”

3. Hire an acting coach. Take up smoking. Spend your last pennies on head shots, then tell casting directors, “They don’t really capture what I plan to achieve on the stage.” Study the Method. Work a day job that you hate—preferably waiting tables or as a hat check clerk. Accept a role as Shark #5 in a black box production of West Side Story for no pay, even though your rent is four months late. Sleep with your director. Decide you hate the Method. Gossip. Develop bipolar disorder. Starve. Begin work on a one-person show about all your crazy experiences in the Theater World. Say, “I’m finally giving myself permission to examine who I’ve become through my art.” Weep.

4. Give up. Say, “This acting thing is something I’ve passed through.” Join the work force. Marry. Procreate. Force your child to study voice and tap and to appear in a backyard production of The Threepenny Opera. Divorce. Tell people, “I’m thinking of returning to the stage.” Accept a job as assistant wigmaster for your church youth group’s annual “Teen Scene” pageant. Begin revising your Tony speech.

5. Return to the stage. Offer to perform your one-person show about all your crazy experiences in the Theater World at a local strip mall theater in Ahwatukee for no money. Accept instead a job painting flats for the theater’s kiddy version of HMS Pinafore. Audition for the role of Jet #3 in a little theater production of West Side Story. Plead. Accept instead a job as assistant stage manager. Say, “Anything to be part of the theater.” Because theater is your world.

 This essay was originally published by me in Phoenix New Times in October of 2005.

Thing I Hate Today: Lisa Alther’s boring memoir.

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