This week I witnessed something amazing. Two young women who have not done a day’s work yet as actors came into my improvisation class. That was the amazing part! They actually committed to showing up and spending two hours learning what the hell improvisation is all about.
I have a great deal of respect for people who make a decision to do something and then do it. I have met a ridiculous number of people who tell me they want to “pursue acting” but then do nothing about it. Booking roles on camera, like most jobs in virtually any industry, doesn’t happen accidentally.
The young women in class both struggled to handle the first exercise, an improvised Oscar acceptance speech. At times, they each looked like they were in pain. Maybe that pain was real but they survived it. In fact, they did more than survive.
By the end of the class, the progress made by these two non-actors was apparent. Noteworthy, to say the least. Occurring during the final exercise in the last 15 minutes of class.
The final exercise involved listening to a real obituary I read from an online entry on Chron.com. I didn’t know the deceased and the students didn’t know how I would ask them to respond to what they heard. The woman, named Susan, died after an 11-year battle with cancer and I asked each student to deliver a eulogy.
One of the newbies stepped forward and shared memories of Susan as the grandmother she lost. She spoke with sincerity about Susan as she was mourning in the improvised scene. The same student who wanted to quickly end her Oscar acceptance speech less than two hours before this moment was immersed in authenticity as she reflected on a life she only just heard about. It was beautiful.
I figured the choice for her to be the granddaughter of the deceased woman would create a higher level of difficulty for the other new actor. After all, if she chose to be another granddaughter, what could she say that would seem fresh and distinct? But her choice stunned me and led to the most memorable moment of the class.
When she walked up and hit her mark, she began with a comment about not knowing the woman who died. I expected her to take the easy way out right away. I was wrong. She proceeded to explain how Susan, while battling cancer, came into her life. She described how her mother was also a cancer patient and struggling with the terminal illness. She made it clear her mother had suffered emotionally from what she was enduring and it was only the chance encounter with Susan, a caring and giving woman, that her mother found the strength to keep going and made peace with dying. A moving tribute indeed.
When I asked her after the exercise what inspired her words, she said it just came to her. And that’s where we often find our power as actors. Not outside, but inside. In our minds. In our imagination. By allowing ourselves to have the freedom to explore the possibilities of making choices. Strong choices. Not the safe ones. At least not the safe choices in our acting.
Now I have a fresh story to tell about two people who walked the talk. They said they would be in class. They showed up. They remained present in mind and body and open to direction. And brave enough to create moments of brilliance for themselves and those of us lucky enough to be in the room to witness it all.