I assume an identity

I suspect there may be more to this acting business than meets the eye.

"This week," Ian, our acting teacher, announces, "make a character-study of someone you know. Not a close relative. Someone you can watch without getting arrested. Then, next week, bring this person in."

"Bring them in?" someone mutters.

"Not literally!" Ian lifts his eyebrows.

For two days I wonder who my victim might be. Most people I meet are dog-walkers. I tend to study their dogs, not them.

I remember, from Peter Ustinov's autobiography, "Dear Me," that he spent a term at drama college as a salamander. The students had been asked to "be an animal of [their] choice ... to 'broaden [their] imaginations.' " But Ian didn't mention salamanders or dogs.

What about the Electricity Man? (Before retirement, he was a high-up type in Scottish Power.) But I encounter him exercising his King Charles spaniels at night. I thought daylight better for scrutiny.

Suddenly, inspiration struck.

Neil the Carpetman!

Neil is already somewhat an embodiment of performance art. One of my fellow gardeners on the municipal-garden allotments, his nickname derives from his greater fondness for carpets over the ground than for plants growing in it.

So down to the plots I go and, nonchalantly, over to Neil's patch. He's in residence. "Neil, how about that cup of tea you've been promising me for a year?"

He emerges from his shed - no, it's his "cabin" these days. "You want a cup of tea?"

"If it's convenient."

Neil is a generous, open-hearted fellow, but I sense suspicion. I sink into his ancient armchair. He boils water. "You must want something," he says.

I reply, as innocently as my poor acting skills will allow, "Nah, just a cuppa."

Warming my fingers around the cup (I actually don't like tea), I pretend I'm not watching his every move. And he moves a lot, particularly with his hands. He is proud of his hands. Not just of their eloquence, but of their immaculate condition. He protects them from earth-contact - with carpets. He is a great subject for gesture study.

In the ensuing class, assuming our characters, we first sit about, then wander around, then meet each other. The real Neil is a hail-fellow-well-met type, and I have seen him summon folk to him in a startlingly imperious manner: "Come here, Bob! Jim, over here a minute!"

I followed suit. One student's character was extremely reluctant to be summoned assertively. But I knew Neil would rise to the challenge. The other fellow's character gave in.

Finally, we were to act our character in a scene. I wanted allotment gardens. But, Ian informed us, it was a hospital waiting room. Neil was second onstage.

He had come to see his girlfriend in a ward. He gestured a lot. He admired his fingernails. He urgently called someone on his cellphone. He imperiously asked the attendant why he was being kept waiting. He couldn't sit down for long.

But, listening to the class's comments afterward, I knew they would never, from my dubious attempts, recognize Neil if they met him. Most of their characters were admirably introspective and underplayed. Ian, the teacher, said of one of them: "What a great old guy! The sort I meet down on the allotments."

But my overdemonstrative "Neil," I concluded, came across as an impatient, class-conscious chap, obsessed with his hands. Nothing like Neil at all, really.

Well, failure is salutary. As with Ustinov's salamander, "this exercise certainly revealed more about my character than it did about what goes on in the heads of lizards." Or, in my case, in the heads of Carpetmen.

"Outward shows be least themselves," as Shakespeare put it.

* A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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