03 March 2015

Memoirs of a Desperate Actor

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend Kirk Woodward has come through with another terrific contribution to ROT.  This time, he’s dug into his own archives and brought out a series of entries from a journal from the early 1970s when Kirk was an amateur actor (and, coincidentally, an active-duty army officer).  Here Kirk’s recounting his “memoir of one of my most awful experiences in theater” while working on a performance on an army post, contending with rehearsals at a time before he gained any training or practical experience in acting technique.  Let’s look back along with Kirk.  ~Rick]

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(I discussed on this blog on 27 October 2010 the process by which a wonderful acting teacher named Elizabeth Dillon helped me become at least an adequate actor [“Making A Movie”]. The following memoir, written day by day at the time the events occurred, shows me in an earlier state – with no acting technique at all and enough bad theatrical habits to fill a Betty Ford Center of the Arts. Fortunately, as Monty Python would say, “I got better.”  What happens in this memoir, though, can give an actor nightmares. You’ve been warned. Children: don’t try this at home! Or not this way. Time: the early 1970’s. Place: a US Army post.)


A week ago I tried out for a scene (a cutting, not the whole play) from Black Comedy [by Peter Shaffer, 1965, about a disastrous meet-the-parents evening when the power and the lights go out], to be done in September. The director, a soldier here, is young, serious, and nervous. I suspect he’s more serious than he is confident. He heard me and a girl read – off just one script – alone, in an office. I read badly – nervous, no sign of physical control. Voice dropping at ends of sentences, swallowing words. The girl who read with me gave a poised, “theatrical” reading. The director wrote some notes; mine said only “Physical,” I noticed. A shortage of actors; I was cast. Now, apprehension; what about my lack of vocal technique? What about my lack of physical technique? What else is there?


Rehearsal in the living room of Katina, a woman with some theatrical experience. I’m Brimsley; a nice-looking girl named Sue is Carol. The other two haven’t shown up yet. The director has a long thin face and blue eyes. When making a point he leans forward, staring earnestly.

He explains the set – standard living room – sketchily. He says, “The first time we’ll just read through. Next time I’ll start commenting on characterization. We’ll read through it about four times.” Then we begin to discuss rehearsal times; they’re necessarily a little vague, but we arrange some times and places, cordially.

We begin to read. On the second page he stops us and does something which turns out to be a pattern for the evening. He makes a comment on the scene, on how it should be characterized and paced. Then he reads the lines in question himself, asking, “Do you see? Understand?” looking earnestly. This is directed at Sue twice in the evening and at me many times. Sometimes he asks character questions. “How do you feel about Carol? Do you really love her?” “I don’t know,” I say, and we all laugh at the confusion between my “I” and the character’s. But I’m slightly pissed at being asked questions about a person that, so to speak, I just met. This time Katina (referred to sometimes as the assistant director by the director) asks the director if we’d read the whole play, and he sees that we haven’t. He arranges for us to read the whole play. But we keep doing detail work, trying to get the right line readings on the first night while sitting on the sofa, for scenes demanding interplay while moving about on a stage.

He says: “Remember this is a conversation. You’re talking to each other.” “The most important thing is to be convincing to the audience about your relation to each other. It’s just like being in this room, only it’s up there, on stage, in another world.” “This whole play depends on the pacing. Without pacing there wouldn’t be any comedy at all.” (To Sue: ) “Have fun with this scene. You’ve got to enjoy it.” He gives specific line readings – “put a pause there and then an ‘uh’ before you say the line.” I find myself doing the line the way he says to.

His interpretations of portions of the play are sound: ”He’s the richest man in the world! Think how you feel about that!” “You’re lying in your teeth. You’ve got to be more nervous.” My objection to that is that it comes too early – I don’t even know what I’m reading. On the other hand, I could be using my incipient-director point of view to cover my fear of what I’ll be able to do (or not do) when I do know the lines. Actors are such sensitive people. Katina says at one point, after both the director and I had read a speech: “The difference between your reading and Kirk’s is that you stress the verbs, he stresses the pronouns.” God’s truth. I often sound to myself like an imitator of Noel Coward.

At the end: “You’ll both be good. You’ve both got what it takes. You’ll both be very good. I may be pushing you hard right now, but it’s because we’ve got so little time [a dozen rehearsals]. I may do things in a way that’s a little unorthodox.”

Later: I read the whole play. (We’re doing a cutting.) I’d like our scene better if I hadn’t. Shaffer despises people. The ends of his plays find his characters on stage, broken and humiliated. Our scene must be light and fast and not dwell too much on any one thing.


Rehearsal in Sue’s living room. The director worked with her for an hour before I arrived. I didn’t notice any difference (except for the first speech she read, which was more punched and suburban-bitchy than the rest). He told her, “I see we’ll have some problems with your projection.” We read straight through the first section. He went back to a particular bit, trying to get me to project, and I hope I did justice to his criticism of my overall readings of passages. Basically, I was trying to give the humor and sense of nervousness by reading all the lines fast and tensely, as though about to become hysterical. Part of the reason for this, I think, is a need I feel to loosen up on stage in every way. This feeling comes out by my being louder.

The director had us stand up and read “as an exercise.” He gave us starting positions and then let us move. We made tiny, nervous steps – mostly facing each other, rustling our scripts and looking vaguely around. He stopped us and pointed out some ways characters would move – away on lines of confidence, sitting during emotional scenes, etc. So we started to read again and I moved on her line. He stopped me and said you never move on someone else’s line, and I said never? And he said never, and I got pissed and snapped at him about the difficulty of making up our own blocking as we went along. Then he had to say conciliatory things to calm me down.

The next time we read he gave us some simple blocking which worked all right and shaped the scene, in a primitive way. A better rehearsal than the first; he seemed fairly certain it’ll end up all right. We’re becoming more familiar with the text. . . . Perhaps it’s best to have a definite idea about how long rehearsals will last each night?


Rehearsal at Sue’s again. Everyone slightly tired. The director begins by urging us to “be very funny.” We read; I start slowly, with pauses between sentences of my speeches; Sue picks up that tempo, and we do a painful, mechanical reading of the first section. The director doesn’t stop us. Afterward I say how dull I thought it was. The director says not to worry, that it was an improvement over last night, that he knows we’re tired of sitting and reading. He’s learning about actors’ temperaments.

We do blindfold work. First we try to do a scene blindfolded, but we don’t know enough lines and it’s just stumbling around anyway. So we take turns watching each other work in the dark – crossing the room, becoming disoriented, trying to identify objects, opening doors, dialing phones, climbing steps. We do some practice walking as though in the dark, without blindfolds, and learn that without constant concentration we’re not convincing.

A fun evening. The director is exuberant, confident about prospects for the show. “I thought it would be much harder.” I think he may not have confronted yet how different a living room is from a stage; but that may hit him over the weekend. The director tells us we’ll be all right because we both care about the show. He tells me: “You know what you want, but you haven’t broken through. You haven’t broken the ice.”


Rehearsal at Katina’s house. One other character, the Colonel, is due tonight for the first time. We chat a long time, led by Katina, on non-theatrical subjects. The director looks over the rehearsal schedule; he has a self-conscious nervous habit of raising topics disconnectedly. “Thursday? I don’t know” in the middle of a discussion of life in the Philippines. He sounds slightly world-weary.

Memorized lines are due tonight. Sue and I begin without scripts, improvising some fumbling blocking. Line memorizations not too bad, contact between characters nil. Halfway along we stop because the Colonel comes in. We never try that scene again, so we don’t know if we know our lines or not.

Reading begins again – the last part of the show, with the Colonel. He’s a large man with a marvelous big slightly-Southern voice.  He’ll be very funny without too much effort. He’s done a lot of acting and approaches this scene relaxed.

The director works on my readings in several passages. “I want you to be more nervous on the phone.” “We need a lot of giggling in this scene. You’re humoring him along, trying to smooth things over. You’re badly embarrassed.” Once he tells me to do a speech a way I’d done it last week and gotten criticized for it (I think). He does some line readings again as examples, but not too many. When making corrections, he doesn’t ask the actor what’s happening here, how his character feels; he tells. When he does ask, it’s so he can answer himself.

He tells me – several times – “You’re still too self-conscious… You need to break out”

Now more blindfold work, one blindfolded or two, the others watching; then without, being watched and critiqued. Once again I get mad; the first time I act as though I couldn’t see, it’s not good, so next time he says, solemnly, “Do you think you can do it this time? Remember what it was like to be in the dark. Remember,” etc. “I’ll try,” I mutter. I’m not concentrating.

“The most important thing about this show is its believability. You’ve got to convince the audience.”

“Be as creative as you can. The more creative you are, the funnier you’ll be, in this case.”

During the blindfold work he refers to us as “the Artists” – “let the Artist have room.”

The Colonel picks up the blindfold work quickly. Sue’s good, too. An issue which surfaces briefly tonight: if we do realistic mimes of people who can’t see, will we correspond to what the audience imagines people who can’t see are like?

“I feel better about the show than I did when we started tonight. It’ll be good.”

Some discussion of costumes. The director isn’t prepared, but his ideas sound good.

The rehearsal was called for 8:00; it’s over at 11:30. Needless.


Rehearsals in a mess-hall-sized room. Furniture arranged for the set, but compressed somewhat. We begin the scene – jerkily – grind to a quick halt. (The first section of the play is done in darkness in the play, so the audience couldn’t see much of it.) “I see I’ll have to give you blocking,” the director says. “I made a few notes on my script here.”

Well, about time! He improvises the blocking through the scene, and it’s good – instinctively, I think. Places I like: where the direction that a person is moving, or the fact that he’s sitting, gives the line a meaning, a feeling of appropriateness. That’s how it should be – as though the line had sprung from thee action rather than the other way around. He sketches the blocking for long stretches and then we do it immediately. For me it’s not easy to remember. “It’s mostly common sense.”

While we’re learning these movements, the director starts to get after me for the way I stand. “Don’t just cross over there and stand. It’s not as though your shoes are nailed to the floor.” This said, not sarcastically, but solemnly and a shade patronizing. “Turn on that line. … You’re too stiff. I want you to relax. Come over here on your line and stand like this” (does a pose, hands in front of his pants). Now I’m angry. All right, so I look stiff; and I really don’t know how my character moves or looks; in fact, I know embarrassingly little about what he thinks. What good is it to copy somebody else’s pose? What if my Brindsley doesn’t stand like that? How should the director get me to see what I should do? Not by saying, “Relax more,” which he repeats several times. So I’m pissed.

We go on with readings. In the romance scenes, he gets after both Sue and me about our obvious embarrassment and coldness, focused in two lines I just can’t say well: (after an embrace) “I like you in yellow. It brings out your hair” and (after a kiss) “Nobody in the world kisses like you.” Sue and I begin to break character to giggle or make remarks – she doesn’t do it much, just breaking up occasionally, and she wouldn’t do it at all if I didn’t. The director is amazingly patient: “You’re breaking character a lot, too. If you don’t stop that, pretty soon I’m going to start being very upset about it.” Back to work. I get stuck on one speech and feel so obviously nasty about it that, after comments (“All I hear is commas. It’s doing da-da-da-da-DA-da, da-da-da-da–DA-da, da-da-da-da-DA-da”), he lets me alone on it, telling me to take it home and work on it. By now my readings are all impersonal and flat. I feel ghastly. Four or five people – experienced theater people – are standing around, too, watching.

A break, because of something. Sue and I do our lines to each other, trying to see if we really know them. The third actor, the Colonel, comes in. We resume, starting now where the lights go out for the characters and on for the audience. The director talks about pacing – the nerve! Our blind bits are bad. When I have my speeches with the Colonel, I at least feel as though it’s fun, although I’m no more with the character than ever. The truth is, I don’t give Sue much to play against and she doesn’t give me much. Although the director corrects me five times to each time he corrects her, I really believe we are in about the same shape, only I’m loud and she’s soft. (He keeps talking about her projection.) The theater people have left. We do the last part twice and go home.

Oh – earlier, he told me, “Try different line readings.” I’d thought about some before rehearsal tonight anyway, so I try. When he doesn’t like one, though, he corrects it – it’s wrong – and I stop that pretty soon.

Well, awful. How do I get out of this? Who is my character? I can’t have another night like this; but rehearsals are over so late, there’s no time to work by myself; and I suspect I’ll have to pull myself out. Besides, getting up at 6:00 each day, I’m perpetually tired. No point in this.


Rehearsal in the same room as last night. The before-rehearsal atmosphere is, thank heaven, nonrecriminative. The director makes another glancing remark about breaking character (but I do it again several times anyway. Those errors stand for something!) Before rehearsal I’d read to myself trying out different line readings and characterizations; there’s still no Brindsley there, but I liked some of my ideas. Didn’t do five speeches before he stopped me, said it sounded lifeless, wanted the pace picked up. I objected – not now! – but Sue backed him up and I went along. Turned out he was probably right. He’s trying to get me to be fuller; trying to get a more confident character; trying to break several vocal habits of mine – rising and falling words within a sentence; breaks in a sentence or speech, stopping the flow; a tendency to start too low and stay there. How to be big and not just be loud? …

Went through the rest of that scene. Physically both of us – Sue and I – are dreadfully restrained. We did the scene again, blindfolded now, and the combination of having to listen to the other person’s speech, and not being conscious of how one is standing, helped enormously. I began to be able – just faintly - to hear how I sound. The director made me do several of my speeches much faster, in one breath, and bigger and more climactic.

Break. The Colonel was here. We did the scene with him blindfolded. Again, the director kept building me up, and did the same with Sue. Pretty good for an early rehearsal.

A visitor was there. “It got much better the twenty minutes I watched,” he said. “When do you do the show?” “The seventh,” the director said. “Of November?” “No, of September.” “Really?” said the guest.

I drove the director home. “You’ve got to be able to relax,” he said. “How do you get an actor to relax – as a director?” I asked him. “Oh, you do exercises, if you’ve got enough time. Touching and looking – there’s a whole course on that at some drama schools . . . .”


After one night off, rehearsal at the Colonel’s house. We did the whole thing through once (except for one whole section involving Sue and the fourth person, who’s recovering from a wisdom tooth operation and won’t be back until Monday). The director only stopped us at patently inadequate line readings. We did the thing with the lights roughly as they will be for the show – out and then on. Not too bad. Sue was up some, and I had more strength, although there were huge dead patches in my dialogue. We took a break and then did the play again. Between halves this time the director gave us a talk. It was down this time, he said, because we weren’t concentrating. Correct. We finished up – slightly ho-hum – and went home. The best atmosphere our rehearsals have had so far. After this weekend, rehearsal on the stage!


On the stage indeed. First run-through slow, but Sue and I look at each other more. A lot of embarrassment in the affectionate scenes, as the director is quick to point out. He gets after Sue for her projection three or four times. Our Miss Furnival is here for the first time – a jolly gal who’s uninhibited and funny. We block the scenes with Miss F. for the first time. The director tells us every little movement, although he keeps urging us to create more as we see how. My walking-in-the-dark is bad. I watched the part I’m not in, sitting in the auditorium. It’s terribly unshaped. The actors move fairly well. We run through again completely, trying to keep the pace up. A shade better, but formless. Afterwards, the director says, “I have some exercises, but you’re too tired for them now. We’ll start with them tomorrow night.” So there!

One thing he does which upsets me is to give us notes which are actually a complete description of what acting is at its best. “I want you to listen to each other, and make your lines come off the preceding lines. Don’t stop acting while the other character is speaking. Don’t be tense on stage, but move just like your character . . . .”  “I know what’s wrong,” he said, “it’s Monday.”


Rehearsal cancelled.


Rehearsal on stage. The technical things are starting. The director’s blocking, which he had to change a lot last night (“It’s like a first rehearsal,” the Colonel complained), got changed a lot more tonight. Move the bar upstage, put the piece of sculpture on the other side, move the coffee table out…  Sue and I did our first scene twice. It went all right; surprisingly, she seemed rattled about something and bobbled many of her lines. The director said we did all right at first and then dropped off. “Concentration!”  That definitely is the key. Then the scene with Miss F., who didn’t entirely know her lines yet (only her second night) and the Colonel. Many missed lines, and raggedy movement. Timing ’way off. We did the whole scene again with blindfolds on; partly all right; I nearly walked off the stage, and Miss  F. and Sue broke up a lot.

An exercise with just Sue and me: standing with eyes closed, facing each other, imagine the end of the world has come, you’ve been living for months thinking you were the only person in the world and now you find this other person. Embrace. We did – very cold. Now, with just hands touching, eyes closed – show sorrow. Fear. Anger. Loneliness. Happiness. Now embrace again. Better, but still cold. I was astonished at how inexpressive our hands were. Then we did the sitting-on-the-couch scene again. We seemed friendlier, this time, but the line readings weren’t much better.


First a run-through of the scene in the dark with Sue. Good pacing until halfway through, where it starts breathing hard. The director gives different readings on speeches – a longer pause to indicate the kiss, for example. Another run-through. To myself I sound somewhat impersonal, and my words sound unnatural – exaggerated consonants, etc. Now a practice of the scenes in the light. It starts slowly, as the director has us make sure we know our lines. A new piece of business is invented at Miss F.’s entrance. It’s funny but could be funnier. Why isn’t it funnier? I think because the director is embarrassed at doing exploratory work at this late stage of rehearsals . . . . I have no idea what’s funny to see. I have a spectacular fall over a phone wire; it knocks me out – really – but is it funny? Does it look staged?

The scene in the light is muddy. Miss F.’s tempo is good; Sue’s is erratic – the Colonel’s – surprisingly – very slow.

Then we do something I’ve always wanted to do – a speed rehearsal, where all lines and business are done at three times the normal speed. It’s not always appropriate, but when it is, it builds confidence and it relaxes. It also breaks everybody up. The director has to keep shouting, “Don’t break character!” We did anyway. Miss F.’s not secure in her lines yet.

Then a complete run-through. Pace better; still massive dull or amateurish spots. Dunno about the comic business.

In the earlier run-through, I watched while the director gave Sue instructions on her readings for specific lines, acting out whole pieces of script. She looked on passively.


Last rehearsal before dress rehearsal. A relaxed mood, though Sue seems somber. The director urges us to be “as funny as you can, relax, have a lot of fun with the show.” We run it through with lights on the whole time. Same situation with pace as before. The director gets after us for looking at objects while we’re in the “dark.” I feel more relaxed not wearing my glasses.

Another speed rehearsal. Atmosphere among the group generally jolly now. Another complete run-through, this time better. I bobble some lines, though. The show has “jelled” as much as it’s going to. Later the director tells me I did well the second time through. I felt more aware at odd moments on the stage.


Dress rehearsal. The acts preceding us are: three song-and-dance numbers from Cabaret and George M; and a mime, wonderful, done by somebody who studied under somebody who studied under Marceau. We have makeup and costumes for the first time and lights for the second time. In the dressing room beforehand, a run rough of lines; the director doesn’t listen to it, and it’s not concentrated on as much as it should be. On stage, we take our places and go into the play without preamble. I sound choppy to myself. Sue misses a line and isn’t as energetic as she was last time – I think she’s nervous. I feel as though I could break through something somehow, but I can’t. A laugh from the audience (of two) somewhere – encouraging. The pacing of the part after I leave the stage is good, but the spirit isn’t. Last section seems very slow.

Notes from the director: “Sue, we need more whininess. All I saw was Sue Bailey up there. Brindsley: more exasperation in your phone conversation with the power company. Miss Furnival: all your movements need to be more exaggerated. . . . As a whole it was really down tonight, I won’t try to disguise that.” He repeats that idea several times – he’s depressed. Finally Miss F. exclaims, “It’ll be better with an audience!” and that shuts down the notes-session.

Later, the director tells me my putting down the phone in the dark needs to be more exaggerated – “the way you’re doing it, it could be in the light.” Also, he wants to work with me and the Colonel tomorrow night on the last section – “It may feel a lot better for you if it goes real fast.” (As it turned out, we didn’t do that work.)

He’s glum, walking slowly from person to person, listening moodily and not saying anything. This show means a lot to him – he told me the other day, “It’s the first time the staff will be seeing what I can do.”


Performance night. The director has us arrive at 6:30; Miss F. and I are early. After makeup, Sue and I are instructed to wait in the office (the occasion for the show is an open house where people are shown through the theater from 7:30 through 8:30). I’m not nervous, just curious. Sue is nervous. We go to the stage at 8:25. Bad backstage manners on my part: I make noise walking around. Others do, too; one flushes a toilet. In front of the curtain, three welcoming speeches. The two acts preceding us seem to go well; a warm audience (about 75?). Our set is to be set up with the curtain open. We cast members had been told other people would do the job, but we look around and there are no other people. (The group’s President: “Now you can see, the actors are setting their own set . . . . You don’t often see that . . . .”)

I had tried concentrating and loosening up my face in the dark backstage. Now in performance, the first scene, in the dark, goes well. With the lights on, we go all right until a late cue for the telephone to ring – always an embarrassing kind of pause. Then Sue forgets, “Perhaps we can call Mr. Bamburger” or whatever the line is. Laughs from the audience at the two women groping for each other in the dark, and for my fall. The scene between the two women starts well, then falls apart, the catalyst for the collapse being a couple of slow cues. The Colonel doesn’t strike the audience as hilarious – are they beginning to become caught up in the plot? I don’t know. Cues very slow. The Colonel bobbles a line (about the Buddha) he’d always gotten right before. I didn’t realize before tonight that he’s never felt as though he were really into the show. The last part of the show, which I’m in, seems to me to go all right, but gets small laughs. (Recently I’d wondered whether the way I did it was funny.) Curtain call – one – never rehearsed before; clumsy, of course. Applause.

Offstage, some praise. Miss F. is satisfied. Sue – finished with it. The colonel uncomfortable over some standard of his own. I try to discuss the performance with one of the staff members but sound so silly, even to myself, that I give it up as a bad job. Later I ask the director, “What did you think of the job you did?” “I was satisfied, that’s all I want to say.” “What did you think you did well?” “I couldn’t say.” “– bad?” “I couldn’t say that either.” He continues briefly: “I learned to know some people. When I came here I hardly knew anybody. I didn’t know what kind of actors to expect on an Army post. I’ve learned some things . . . .”

[When I read Kirk’s journal entries, I remarked to him that this “really is an ‘Actor's Nightmare #2’—#1 always being appearing on stage in the play you don't know, of course.”  Anyone who’s ever done any acting—school plays, amateur performances, professional productions—has experiences like this in one way or another!  My own version of this kind of experience goes all the way back to second grade—and I won’t tell that story now: it’s still too embarrassing to share!  (I did recount some experiences—both horrific and amusing—in “Short Takes: Theater War Stories,” 6 December 2010.)]

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