First part of Short Story
Submitted By Ed on October 18th at 10:05am
The Incurable Bungler On the first day of my beginning acting class, the instructor, by way of “breaking the ice”, asked students to explain their interest in his profession. While I waited for the question to reach me, I considered my answer. I did not wish to be confused with the aspiring actor—though that is exactly what I then was—most aspirants being forever separated from the thing to which they aspire. My sensitivity on this point was perhaps needless, given I did not live in Los Angeles, where this demographic abounds and even has a certain degree of respectability. Thankfully, my job provided a believable pretext for my interest. I explained that I was a lawyer interested in the theatrical side my profession, which, being on the corporate side of the law, was hard to get a glimpse at. The instructor, bless him, was delicate enough not to ask why I did not simply become a trial lawyer. I cannot say I was even especially interested in acting; I had a vague idea, however, that I could actTo get either I needed to be discovered and I thought the way to be discovered was to put oneself under the nose of one who, as in the case of our teacher, had credits to his name. I had, moreover, seen his work and it was impressive enough for me to trust whatever verdict he rendered regarding mine. It really was too degrading to approach him—as I imagine so many others had—wide eyed, hat in hand, eyes to the ground, and ask sheepishly, “Well, do I have what it takes?” All I wanted him to say was that I should be reading scripts instead of briefs. I wanted someone to tell me not just that I had chosen the wrong career, for that was a tolerable insight only if he assured me I still had time to forsake it for the right. Yet, after claiming my interest in acting to be a purely utilitarian one, it occurred to me that he might not think himself duty bound to alert me to my talent, leaving me to seek confirmation of it elsewhere. I was taking his class, after all, to get a second opinion—ideally one not in conflict with my own—and I suppose to learn about acting, though that was almost inconsequential. I trusted, however, that he saw through my little ruse; there were similar games afoot in that class, being played with more or less equal degrees of incompetence. We claimed to love our conventional lives, which, when we arrived at class, we were all coming from. What more transparent balderdash would you have? Some of us might have been interested in acting, but we would have been interested in any profession which offered to liberate us from the stupid ties around our necks. My classmates answered the question in the same fashion: they, too, were just “trying it out”—I purposely avoided this line, being a dead giveaway—dipping their toes in the stream to see if it was agreeable, and, as you would expect, it turned out to be agreeable to the exact extent that it did not completely reject their offerings. We set ourselves up as judges, as if the question was not whether the stage wanted us, but whether we, with all our other interests and duties, which we took pains to mention, wanted the stage. It was an absurd charade, and, consequently it was, taken together, our weakest performance. We simply could not pull it off. Paul, who sat beside me, did not even attempt to, for when the question at last reached him—he was the last to answer it—and he was asked to account for his interest, he took no refuge in our subterfuges. “I want to be a great actor,” he said, and then stopped short, without elucidating this desire, which seemed the polite, reasonable thing to do. Instead, he let it hang naked there, a little raw piece of humanity, unexplained and unjustified. Had we not given him ample example as how to contextualize one’s interest, to make it, in other words, contingent on something else tangible such as a job? His declaration lingered, rebuking all the nonsense preceding it. If some words have the power to displace others, his displaced all of ours, shewing them contemptuously out of the room. The room went silent while it underwent this fumigation. I, along with everyone else, looked at this unlikely aspirant: who was he to separate himself from us? If there were to be separations, and of course there were, the quality of one’s acting would do the work, not some grandiose pronouncement. I suspected the instructor had some such thought. Probably he had heard similar nonsense before from former students. He looked at Paul intently, almost microscopically, as if to ascertain whether he was mad. In any case, I did not need to penetrate his surface to see that his exterior would only commend him to casting directors looking for a fat, pimpled, ugly young man. His appearance belied nothing, least of all his talent. It was cruel that his disadvantages should have been piled up so mercilessly high, with nothing, so far as I could see, to offset or even ameliorate them. Talentless actors, especially those blessed with beauty, often think they are brilliant, and Paul, it seemed, was of this class. Paul’s case was different, however: it was impossible to discover what indicator he mistook for his talent, for search though I did, I could not alight upon it and neither, I suspect, could he. Was he, god bless him, even aware that there were indicators and that one generally waited for at least the manifestation of one of them before haphazardly committing oneself to the art they would serve? I reckoned he was one of those who thought acting the most accessible of the all the arts because we all do it from time to time; it is, in any case, the one the failures of all the others flock to, though, to be fair, acting was always Paul’s first—his only—choice. Paul excelled in histrionics, or the art of stomping his feet, flailing his arms and dabbing his perpetually moist eyes. He was not an actor; he was a ham. His performances all ended with him violently slamming the door of the classroom. Paul did not submit to stage directions. Indeed, the requirements of the script meant nothing to him. He did not modify them; he simply ignored them. He imposed the same interpretation on every piece, thereby inadvertently interpenetrating tragedy with comedy, and vice versa. Paul mostly cried during his scenes, forcing me to find ways to stifle my laughter, which often refused to be stillborn, trickling out in little, regulated bursts. Paul seemed not to notice. I’ll give him this: he never punctured the illusion of the fourth wall. When my right hand was not covering my mouth, it involuntarily offered the same service to my eyes, which it took all my power to decline. His stabs at comedy did not induce the inverse reaction. I simply recoiled in my seat, and averted my gaze from him, and looked at anything else: another student, the instructor, the bookcase behind me containing a few tomes on acting. Only the instructor gave Paul his full attention. We, most mercifully, were not so bound, though we could not make much use of our freedom. We did not, for example, walk out during Paul’s performances, as we certainly would have done in a theatre where our exits would not be noted—I mean not individually noted, as the appearance of Paul on stage would have prompted an en masse exit. Our teacher saw how bad Paul was, but, when it came time for him to assess Paul’s work, he heroically censored himself. His critiques of our performances—we delivered monologues at first—followed a formula he refused to deviate from: he praised one good thing about it and found another thing we could “work on.” He might have spent the rest of his days detailing all the things Paul had to “work on,” which is why this formula of his was a godsend, even if it did require him to lie by saying something laudatory about Paul’s work. He had a genius for balancing his praise and criticism so precisely that if he offered his compliments first, he immediately returned one to equilibrium by his subsequent criticism, and vice versa. In this way, we all underwent a constant process of inflation and deflation, leaving me anxious as to where I stood relative to everyone else, for if we were classmates, we were also competitors. After one of Paul’s especially bad performances, our instructor made a rare mistake and did not calibrate his criticism to his praise. He let a brutal remark slip after offering him a trite, meaningless compliment; usually his criticism was as banal as his praise. I felt sorry for Paul, and decided, on the spot, to give him a compliment that would return him to the level. I addressed him as he returned to his seat, which was next to mine, and said, “Well done. That was brilliant.” I immediately recanted. There’s nothing more an annoying to my mind than an underserved compliment, and surely Paul wasn’t so thick as to not know how underserved mine was? Instead, he turned to me, a broad smile lining his fat face and asked, “Really, you think so? What about it did you like?” I stumbled for a moment, and even considered retreating, for to give him another compliment was to tell another lie. I finally found relief by saying that I agreed with our teacher’s assessment, specifying that I meant that laudatory part of it, though it was only his critiques of Paul that found my assent. This, it proved, was but a temporary resource. Paul wanted a fresh, original compliment. Once again I wracked my brain. This really was too much, but being a budding actor I played along. “Well,” I managed, “you handled the emotion very well. Your character was believable.” He had made me, god damn him, give him the highest praise an actor can receive. Judging from his reaction, he seemed cognizant of this. His moist eyes became considerably moister; his handkerchief which he often used as a prop was called into duty to dab them. Apparently, he too was seeking confirmation, and it did not matter to him that it came from a mere novice. Every pimple of his was on edge, ready to burst its casing. I drew my face away from his, fearful of that eventuality. “Do you want,” he asked, “to be my scene partner next week?” What was I to do but assent again? There are some people you cannot be amenable to unless you are prepared for the onslaughts of attention the forgotten of the world have for those who notice them. I had not learned this lesson. It was as if he had been waiting for years for someone to deign to notice him, and was not to be caught off guard when the longed for day arrived. He pounced, smothered me from that day forward. He insisted we rehearse at least five times before the next class. Our teacher’s short lecture on what a good actor should do when playing off a very bad one had never seemed more apropos.