My First Acting Class
I was looking in the mirror, rehearsing what I was going to say when the acting teacher answered the phone. I am a mirror-gazing veteran. That’s where I talk to myself and live out all my fantasized situations, where I say just the right thing, at the just the right time. It’s where I leave people in awe of my intelligence, my uncanny ability to be charming and disarming. I picked up the phone and dialed the number for the Actors Studio in San Francisco.
I have anxiety—the kind that makes it hard for me to order coffee in a coffee shop. The kind that makes me hyper-aware of my body, and how I’m standing or walking. I avoid situations where I have to introduce myself to more than one person. I am lonely, because I don’t know how to have relationships. I am so scared to push people away. I am scared to mess up.
I rented an apartment in San Francisco, away from everyone I know, just so that I could stumble, fall, get up. I am going to give myself a year to learn how to be fully human. I figure that actors get on stage and do everything that scares me right into a catatonic state. If I can learn to be an actor, I will learn to live. I want to be a person who laughs spontaneously, whose hands don’t start dripping sweat at the thought of being watched, seen, heard. I want to be free to be outside my fantastical life in the mirror.
“Hi, this is Shelley Mitchell,” came the soft, clear voice.
“Hi, my name is Natalie King. I’m calling about acting classes.”
I sat down light-headed, wiped my dripping hands on the chair, and her voice began.
“Great, but if you are intending to have a career in acting, you are in the wrong town. You should just go to LA. San Francisco is like a horse-drawn carriage—nothing happening here, just a bunch of cogs in a wheel, toeing the line of upward mobility.”
“I want to be here for a while,” I managed to say.
“OK,” she sighed. “Are you interested in my intensive course?”
“Yes,” I said, not sure what that was. I just knew I needed the most of what she had to offer.
“OK, come to class tonight. Just watch and see if it’s right for you. I look forward to meeting you.”
“Thank you. OK, I’ll see you tonight.”
I sat down in the back of the classroom. Shelley Mitchell, a student of Lee Strasberg, sat down next to me. Her smile was warm. I wanted to curl up next to her, to bask in the heat.
“I just want you to watch; then if you have any questions we can talk after class.”
The lights were turned low; the room was the size of a small coffee shop. Seven people in the class. The stage was about five feet in front of me, and it looked like a place for a divinity setting or a beheading. It was scary and illuminating. I was waiting to see that the medicine I was seeking existed.
“OK,” she said, “who is going up for chair work? Auden, Sofia, Gabriel, Sara, Noah, who?”
Four people went up on stage and sat down in chairs.
Eyes closed, arms at their sides, feet spread apart. I’ve never seen anything like this. Auden tilted his head back and made a loud, groaning moan sound that I would imagine a dead person making, when embalming substances are escaping.
“Good, Auden,” Shelley said, “let it go.”
A tear rolled from his eye, and his arm started moving in circular motions that looked like he was trying to get out of a dark hole.
“Yes,” Shelley said, “you are there, right there. Let it go. Gabriel, what is going on?”
“I don’t know,” said Gabriel. “I just can’t connect.”
“Stop then, just stop. Open your eyes. You are vain. That is what is in your way. Call yourself out now.”
“I am vain. I am worried about what others think of me. I am afraid of judgment.”
“There you go. Let it go and start punching through. Punch through. Natalie, sometimes people just watch the class for weeks. You learn by watching and doing.”
This is what I need, I said to myself. I need her to teach me to punch through. I can do this.
“You’re stuck, Sara, you’re stuck.”
“I don’t think I am,” said Sara.
“I see it,” said Shelley. “You are not connected to your body or your emotions. What are you doing? Open your eyes. You’re not ready to do this. Come down.”
There were four of us watching, including Shelley. She turned her head to us and asked, “Do you guys see that Sara isn’t connecting to truth? Because until you can see the difference, you’re not ready to get up there.”
I could see the difference. Auden looked like his body was telling a story. It was alive, and I was listening. Sara looked like she was telling her body what to do. There was definitely a difference.
Immediately I recognized myself in Sara. I’m not connected. I’m like Sara. How do I give my body the unencumbered freedom to be—without my mind tightening it all up? Can she teach me to let go and connect? Can she teach me to be that free?
“If you are going to be in this class, you need to read the books that are on my website. Come with questions. Be ready to practice.”
“People don’t connect up there, because it’s so easy to walk around like a zombie in this society that preaches upward mobility, status quo, mediocrity. It’s a soul-sucking way of being. This isn’t a place for valley cadence or house pride. Save it for Facebook.”
Her voice went right through my body, sending every cell on its edge. She had my focus, my attention. Something inside of me, way, way down deep, something soft, was trying hard to listen.
Sometimes she started class by quoting Alan Watts, Duse, Stanislavski, Carl Jung, Noam Chomsky, and Khalil Gibran.
“Feel the things you stuff. What are you stuffing? People walk around with phony smiles on their faces, hiding the roaring pain of being human. Unroll yourself. Know your terrain. Find yourself in literature, in plays, in roles. When you read a script, the right role will call to you. You will need to play it. Bring it in front of me.”
The next day, I went to class and stepped on a landmine. This landmine is called “reading in front of others.” I knew at any moment I could be found out. I could give myself away. She might ask me a question in front of everybody. Then I will go blank and lose my breath—say something totally off the subject.
Her long skirt, hemmed in lace, swayed a few inches above her 1940s, foot-forming, kitten-heel, lace-up boots—feminine—and something else, rooted, like her feet were magnetically pulled to the earth, grounded and free. Free to run about the terrain of the human experience. And here I am in the same room with the kind of person I want to be.
“OK, since there are only three of you here this afternoon, we are going to start the class by reading Khalil Gibran. Everyone will get a chance. Randomly open the book, and drop in. Natalie go ahead and start.”
The other students looked at me, not like I was about to read a poem, but like I was about to endeavor to cross over to a different universe. Display my craft. It was serious, and their look actually matched the organ-squeezing, lung-compressing fear that caused the room to fall from its axis in my eyes. She put the book into my wet hands.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
Then my eyes felt hot, and my nose tingled like I’d sucked water up into it. I opened the book.
“And the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.”
The words were out, and so was my breath. Hot rivers started gushing from my eyes down my cheeks.
“And he answered, saying: Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.”
I looked up at her, knowing that I was found out. They all know now—that I don’t have any control over myself. This is where I leave and never come back. I betrayed myself like I always do.
The look in her eyes was not what I was expecting. It was pleasure, interest, and excitement.
“Continue, please,” she beckoned.
At her encouragement air flowed into my chest, and I stopped trying to stop myself. Each word of the poem grabbed up a suffocating part of my human body and breathed fresh oxygen into it.
I looked up at her, and risked a look at the other students, and realized that it’s OK. What is happening right now is OK.
I finished. Silence. The wind blew the sheer curtain under the beloved Duse painting. Shelley sat back in her chair, feet firmly planted, a warmness coming from that source she’s connected to of pure experience.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I am happy to have you here, Natalie.”
“I am happy to be here,” I said, never having been surer of anything else in my life. “Let the words play you, OK? You are the canvas of the human experience, to which we say yes.”
I learned how to say yes to all of me and shared the parts of myself that were wrapped up in chains of fear and shame. I let it all be seen. People didn’t run from me. They came closer, and over the year I became fully human. I’m still anxious, but now I laugh spontaneously, cry without shame, share my fear, my longing, and my love. I moved beyond the safety of my fantastical life in the mirror and entered the world of human relationships.
Natalie King is a native to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. She is raising two small children with her husband, Greg. They spend the weekends boating around the the Puget Sound, pulling crab pots and collecting shells and driftwood from the shore.
Natalie has a degree in philosophy, she is a professional actress, and makes a mean apple pie. (She won best apple pie award at the county fair.) When the kids are in school, she writes, reads, and folds heaps of laundry.