Laurence Olivier and I
During my first year of teaching college, I got involved with a local theater group. All I had to do was run on stage and say something to the lead. Still, I was so terrible that the director got after me one evening. He made me get onto the floor and do push-ups. Then he had me run around the stage and up and down the aisles. He forced me to lift heavy weights. After a half hour of this he said, "OK. Now do it again." I was so exhausted and annoyed that I just stumbled out, said what I had to say, and ran off.
"Much better," said the director. I looked at him, puzzled. "Acting's partly a physical thing. You were so wooden it was pathetic. Now you're less aware of yourself. You have to learn how to relax. And enjoy yourself." And eventually I did.
Of course, in acting you're saying someone else's lines, which means memorizing, which is very hard for me. I once skipped from the first act of a play to a similar scene in the third, and we all had an interesting time getting back into Act I without the audience knowing. In teaching, you don't so much memorize as ad lib. Plus, you're not booed off the stage if you say, "I don't know," or "I forget."
Yet the more I acted, the more I loved it. What a high it was playing opposite Norwegian actress Tore Segelcke in "A Doll's House" when she was hired by the college to strengthen the ranks. Her energy, her concentration, sucked me dry yet enabled me to perform as I never had before. A few years later, we staged a Shakespeare festival in which I played Othello - for one scene. But that was such a thrill that I seriously considered giving up teaching and apprenticing myself to Sir Laurence Olivier. It all seemed quite reasonable at the time. I'd go to England and persuade Sir Laurence to take me on. He came to mind not only because he was the best, but he, too, had trouble memorizing lines. He'd even blanked out on stage. So perhaps there was hope for me.
I was completely smitten. Practical considerations did not exist for me. I had found my true calling, and there was no turning back. For half an hour I had stood on the stage and spoken those magnificent lines (Act III, Scene iii). I had become the Moor of Venice, felt my mind seared by the words of my trusted lieutenant Iago, had been overcome by that green-eyed monster, jealousy, until all reason had fled. I seemed to have been transported out of my own skin. I was watching myself play the scene. And I was inwardly smiling with pleasure. I heard my own voice as if it were another's. I saw myself, but it was not myself. I was Othello. But I was also me. I was two people who were somehow also the same. How could I go back to being just one?
I wandered around in a daze for a few days and gradually came to my senses. I was married, after all, with four children and a good job. I liked everything about my life - except that I was not Laurence Olivier.
Years later I told a friend who had been a professional actress about all this and she said, "You weren't really smitten, then, or you couldn't have resisted."
But I don't think she was right. I have never felt any serious regret. I went on acting from time to time, and continued teaching.
Acting helped my teaching: Not only was I more relaxed, I was having more fun. More and more I let the students do the talking. More and more I knew when to sit back and enjoy the show. And sometimes, though very rarely, I felt that I was standing there looking down at myself and the class and smiling - disembodied, detached, yet thrilled by it all, is if I were the audience and the play, the dancer and the dance.