Now I get it

Ian made a little speech to us at the close of the class. To the few of us who had stuck at it to the end, that is. One word summarizes his remarks, really: commitment. Above all else (even, perhaps, above talent), commitment is what actors must have.

This impressed itself on me.

Not that I have considered my past "am-dram" doings -my enthusiastic exits and my ebullient entrances - as dabbling. I have given them everything I've got. What is the point, otherwise? It might even be argued that amateurs are all commitment. After all, they have no expectation of income from what they do. They do it out of strong love.

But I now remember an experience I had at Cambridge. I had joined the university's prestigious dramatic club (the ADC). I was really keen - until I realized that if I didn't spend every waking moment in utter devotion to the club, I wasn't going to go very far.

These other undergraduates seemed to live at the ADC, apparently ingrained in its woodwork. They were people, perhaps like dancers or cellists, who knew from their perambulators that they were destined and designed for theatrical careers. They had never wavered. Looking back, I can see that their absolute commitment was the grounding of success, even if one (in the end) was to become a notable novelist rather than an actress. Another did, however, achieve an unrivaled respect and status as a theater director. His name is Trevor Nunn.

But I had doubts. Qualms. I had, after all, something called a degree to work for. And I couldn't quite see how I could give 100 percent of my time to that and another 100 percent to the ADC. The arithmetic baffled me.

And then I had a defining moment. New members were to take part in an evening of one-act plays. I found myself with a minuscule role as an old man in an episode from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - a character of no importance, a kind of Shakespearean major-domo. I had this idea (what arrogance!) of being more of a Main Part kind of actor. Hadn't I risen in my earlier schoolboy career from bit parts to starring roles? I was missing the point, of course.

And so I took this old character with a pinch of salt. There was nothing to it, after all. But the (oh, yes, utterly dedicated chap directing our little episode, a man who has gone on to great things on British TV) found me rather annoying. He dressed me down. Lectured me. He knew I was only acting.

He wanted conviction, he wanted age, he wanted character. He wanted me to give myself to this part, give the old man a history and a reality. He didn't want a kind of jokey performance, self-conscious and imposed from the outside.

After that, I buckled down and gave it my best shot. But I knew then that I had a choice to make. I did little more at the ADC. I turned to a more modest, but still tremendously active, drama society in my college. Good and still very time-consuming, but not the incubator of great theatrical careers.

Today I feel I am making some amends. A few passing years have made it easier to play an oldish man. Claire, our director, and I agreed that the chaplain I am now playing in Tennessee Williams's "Not About Nightingales" should be round about 60. No problem. But, more than that, I am at last trying to really bury myself, mole-like, in this fictive man's persona, to do what the ADC director failed to get me to do those moons ago.

He probably didn't use the word "commitment," then. A little too preachy. But that's what he meant, I feel sure.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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