An Acting Teacher Lights a Fire

The Acting Teacher

Scene One

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to have had an acting teacher who had his own unique style of teaching. Few people were as passionate about the craft as he was. Tall, dark eyed, with Café au Lait skin, he was a Persian via Germany and America. That meant that while his English was perfect, it held an unusual cadence that made his voice sound asif he was casting spells when he spoke.

One evening we met for one of our “special” classes. Those would be to highlight different acting techniques, or to learn a new improv technique or to view and critique a film. Tonight, though, we came in unprepared for what was to come. We entered the darkened theater where our class was held… and when I say darkened, I meant pitch black: all the lights of the auditorium were off, all the stage lights were out. We sensed, rather than saw, him on stage.

“Please take your seats as best as you can and please be quiet.” His rich,  accented voice echoed in the room. 

Ripples of laughter accompanied our stumbling as we found our seats  The silence settled in between us and with it, the darkness. Several minutes passed  – a chasm of time that was uncomfortably quiet and eerily dark.

Scene Two

On stage, a match sparked accompanied by the faint smell of sulfur . Quickly, the spark went out. Another match was lit and it too went out. And another. Finally, the spark held and its flame moved to what was revealed to be an old brass oil lamp. The clear globe was lifted,  the flame perched unsteadily on the wick until it was fully consumed, as a small circle of light shadowed the top of a table. When the globe was replaced, the light broadened to expose the entire tabletop and the shadow of our teacher standing behind the table.

“So what was it you saw when you first came in? Hmmm? You couldn’t make out a thing in the dark, could you? Your mind was nervous and unsure until you heard my voice… yes ? You thought, oh good, someone knows what’s going on.”

We laughed in nervous agreement.

“You needed some reassurance when you encountered  the dark.. Yes? The dark is uncomfortable and mysterious and you all sat in it and could feel its heaviness surround you. You grew more uncomfortable. Then, as they say, there was light. And then darkness. Again and again. Until, finally, the light held. Something so inconsequential as the spark of a match changed the room. You had something to focus on now. Your eyes followed the flame as it moved to light the wick in the lamp. You watched the light  from the lamp expand even more when I put the globe back on. Your eyes began taking in more of what was in front of you. You now saw the tabletop, my hands, the lamp, my body. Now what if I…”

And here, he turned the lever of the oil lamp, allowing more of the wick to expose itself to the flame, making the light brighter, showing more of the scene. On the right, we saw a chair next to the table, a small potted plant was to the left, and behind, our teacher wearing jeans and a pullover sweater, his face still shadowed in the darkness.

“You see more, yes?”  

Faint noises of acknowledgement. 

“And then this..” 

Again he turned the lever, the brighter light showing a briefcase leaning against the chair with a tall plant behind it. To the left was another chair with a jacket draped over its back. Our teacher paced behind the table. 

“ Why am I doing this, you may ask? Good question. We all start this way – in the dark. We stay in the dark,  maybe occasionally hearing a distant voice… and for that moment, we feel comfort. Yet, when that voice is no longer there we’re right back in the darkness and back in the uncomfort.

 One day thougha spark lights a flame.  Maybe it goes out, maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. What I do know is that if we do nothing about that spark – it will eventually go out. When that spark does become a flame, that is the beginning of something life changing. That flame lets us see beyond the darkness that we’ve known. There is something more out there… Something that makes us curious, something that draws us forward.

What do we do next? What? We look for a place that can hold that flame longer… where it’s fed… and it’s protected. We now know that the very thing that made us uncomfortable – the darkness that has been surrounding us – has become something to be explored instead of something to be  feared. But only because we had a light source, yes?” 

He stopped to scan our unformed faces, silent but nodding, caught up in the world  that he was creating. His pacing started again, more deliberate this time, more measured.

“All of us have this uncomfortable darkness. It may be something we have buried inside, something we know about and have hidden… Or perhaps, it’s something we don’t even know exists. And yet, we  also have something that sparks a light into that very darkness. We have some spark that will light again and again until it finally takes hold. It might be a desire for something more, it might stem from a boredom for what is, it might be what you call it ? A wild hair. It’s a spark. Let it catch the light. And once that flame is lit, I urge you, I beseech you, to DO something with it. 

Scene Three

Light a wick with that flame– take a class in what interests you, learn more about it, move somewhere that will encourage it… Whatever ‘it’ is, make the flame bigger. And feed it!  

Find the oil that nourishes your flame. It could be the support of family or friends, it could be the sound of an audience, it could be a spiritual connection, it could be anything or everything. Whatever it is – let yourself to be fed by it and keep feeding it. That source – whatever it is – will help each of keep the flame alive.

He paused to look at us again.  

“Now, there’s one more thing that’s important. You need to protect your flame. You see, just like with this oil lamp, the globe allows for two things:  the flame is protected against wind and the globe focuses the flame. What that means is this: there will always be wind and there will always be darkness.

What are you going to do when the wind comes to blow you out? Or the darkness creeps in? What are you going to do when you lose that audition, or your job, or your partner ? Because that is the wind, my friends… It will happen. The wind will cause you doubt yourself to the point where you will give up and your light will go out. And darkness will come back.”

He stopped and rapped his knuckles on the table.

“What is this protection? This protection can be of your choice, you see. One way is that we don’t care, we can become bulls, yes? We don’t care about the wind, about focus – we think we will stay safe by ignoring them. We think we can overcome any wind. Maybe that works…. For a time. I tell you this – it only works until a bigger wind blows. A wind that you can no longer ignore and your flame will be in danger. That is one choice… the other choice leads to real protection and real focus. But, in order experience that, something radical has to happen. You need to do something so crazy that it won’t make sense.”

“What is it, you ask? You see, you need to learn what makes up the wind and what makes up the flame. By doing this, you begin to learn what is really the outside wind, or life, and what is the wind that only you made up. That one consists of all the fears, all the questions, and all the doubts that make you blow out your own flame. THAT is the wind we need to be aware of because it comes from inside us.”

“Life doesn’t punish us, nor reward us. Life is just life. We can choose to fight it, or work with it… either one. The very act of moving from a spark into a flame, of growing that flame, of finding fuel for that flame – all of that becomes your protection.  Your focus is your protection. Once you know who and what you are, no wind can undo you. You may dim, but you will never go out.  And do you know why?”

Silence held in the air.

“A flame does not go out if it has enough fuel and enough oxygen … that’s all life is. Oxygen. Do you understand what I’m saying ?”

Mumbling rolled toward the stage.

His eyes flashed and his voice grew firm. ” Do you understand?”

Our voices rang as one, “YES!”

“Good.” He paused and took a deep breath.

“You’re all here because you once had a spark that I am teaching you how to keep aflame. To keep it alive and protect it. To not let it blow out. I want you to explore what is in the dark. I want you to use whatever life gives you as oxygen to feed you. Go. Go do it. Keep the flame alive.

Just be back after the break.”

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