Sunday, March 22, 2015

Watching a great teacher work: What I learned in acting class on Sunday

Since I've gotten involved in many back and front stage aspects of the theater out here in Rockaway, I've learned to appreciate live theater in so many ways - from set design, lighting, sound and the essentials of acting.

There are reasons to go see revivals because different actors - and more important, directors, bring a wide variety of prespectives to the play and the various roles.

Thus my recent visit (I'm a Mad Man About Peggy) to The Heidi Chronicles with Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss' unique interpretation was just one slice of how that play could have been presented. (The Times gave it a top-level review).

I've been taking a Sunday morning acting class at the Rockaway Theatre Company (RTC) with 28-year old Frank Ciaiti, a guidance counselor in the DOE, my 3rd or 4th class with Frank in the past 6 years. Frank was trying full-time acting when I met him and is now bringing his wide-ranging talents to his middle school in Brooklyn.

He was recruited to RTC over a decade ago as a student at Leon Goldstein HS in Brooklyn by some of his teachers there who are mainstays at RTC.

So in this class people are teamed to rehearse and perform a scene. My partner is a young NYC Queens middle school theater teacher. She chose a scene for us to do from "On Golden Pond" - where I play the Henry Fonda "dad" role - and my name is Norman, so that solves one memory issue. She plays the Jane Fonda daughter part. This is the famous reconciliation scene on the dock, with dad in the row boat and daughter on the dock. They never got a along. With great difficulty, she makes the first move. After we did a run through Frank jumped in with pointers. Since we are both static we needed a way to avoid each other so Frank told me not to look at her and to be fishing so I had something to occupy myself. I also played it with some sarcastic responses which he felt was not the way to do it -- but dad does say somethings that hurt daughter. So we do the scene and when I say these words, she starts to cry-- really cry. She tapped into something that made her emotional. Holy shit! Acting 101. She had to pull herself together. I have seen that on stage and always took if for granted. But to play an active role in it makes me appreciate acting for all it's worth. J is a wonderful actress - I've seen her in a few roles, notably as one of the stewardesses in Boeing Boeing and as one of the strippers in Gypsy. What a treat to be working with her -- and to have Frank to guide us.

There were other scenes performed today where Frank jumped in to guide people. In The Graduate, an older Mrs. Robinson had to seduce young Benjamin. The actress, a woman probably around 60 - a retired DOE teacher I believe - was working with a 23 year old - and seemed uncomfortable in going far enough to make the scene effective. Frank yelled -- "you want to screw him - every single line - even innocuous ones - must have that behind it. Stop being a Jewish grandmother." Then he tells her to touch him. She grazes his shoulder. Frank laughs. "Grab his inner thigh," he orders. I won't go on -- but this is amazing teaching.

And here is one more. Arthur Miller's "View From the Bridge" a Brooklyn waterfront drama. The 2010 revival with Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber, got good reviews.

This scene is between the wife and husband - he has a thing for the Johansson 17-year old house guest and is covering it up with anger at the young guy who is pursuing her - his wife gets what is going on. Now these are 2 veteran RTC actors - he played the Joe Hardy role in Damn Yankees and she had done many roles. So it was fascinating to see how Frank broke down the spots where each of them needed to ratchet things up or down. This was like going to a literary class studying the play. Much better of course. The emotion that emerged in different ways and how Frank adjusted things to get the emotion out at different times - and how skillfully the actors responded on a dime was like opening a window into so much I have always taken for granted regarding live theater.

Tomorrow we go to see Gigi -- and I think with some insights I might not have had before today.

Add on
So I also help build the sets. Last Wednesday I was using a gas powered framing nail gun and had my hand too close when I shot the nail on an angle and the tip of the nail clipped a bit of my palm. There was little blood and I put a bandage on it and some peroxide and took some Advil. But it's been bothering me and by Saturday's end of the NYCORE conference, even though some of my favorite people were going to the after-party at 6PM I felt I had to go home and take care of it. This morning I went to a local urgent care clinic and it is infected and I got some anti-biotics and some cream. It's burning like a bitch but here's hoping flesh-eating bacteria is staying away.

Lesson learned: Keep my free hand far away from certain tools. And go to the doctor sooner rather than later --I'd take a photo of my hand but you don't want to see that.


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