To Be or Not to Be: Acting's not for Me Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity To Be or Not to Be: Acting’s not for Me

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 200 ~ January, 2014

My youngest sister, Penny, moved from Andover, MA to Wilimington, N.C, with her husband and teenage daughter, picking right up in community theater groups as an actor and director. Since she was a little kid, my sister was treated as a bona fide actress, and I suppose she was in school plays and such, but I was older and away at college and don’t remember specifics. I do remember, at one point, helping my mother out by driving my sister to dancing classes, and piano lessons, but I don’t think my sister was ever involved in any serious musical performances, though she did run a singing-acting-playgroup for young children in Massachusetts for many years.

I’m not sure how it happened but my father convinced my sister into getting a degree in business administration, which she did, even though her dream was to act.  So, instead of Broadway or Hollywood, after graduation, she ended up in retail; not bad if that’s what you truly wanted but I suspect my sister’s main goal was not success in inventory control.

My sister was at Lord & Taylor in Manhattan for a spell, and then took another job which involved flying around the country doing something or other related to making cash registers more efficient in large stores. She never told me much about it, though she did admit she was away for such long periods of time that it was easier to buy new underwear than worrying about getting them washed.

After my sister’s daughter was born Penny was having a horrible time managing her job in Massachusetts, once again retail, and getting my niece to daycare which was a long drive in the other direction. My father and my brother-in-law thought it was great that Penny was doing so much, the complete woman, working and raising a child, but truth be told, Penny just wanted to stay home with Katy, though, of course, inside, she longed to act. The problem at the time, however, was Penny was scared to tell her husband and my father that she wanted to quit her job.

Since, fortunately it wasn’t a matter of financial life and death, and daycare was eating up a significant amount of my sister’s salary, my mother calmly told my sister she should quit. I received a phone call from Penny at around that time in which she related what a typical day was like; the stress of getting Katy to daycare on time, and feeling crazy driving two hours a day back and forth, while working at a job she didn’t particularly care for.

My response to her was simple. “Quit.” But what about her husband and our father. “What about them,” I asked. It wasn’t worth the sacrifice, I added, being miserable and stressed when there was no legitimate reason, as far as I could see.  I could tell Penny agreed with what I said, but she was still unsure, tentative about confronting our father and her husband.

Thinking back on it, maybe I should have told her to pretend she was a character in a play. Acting is something I can’t conceive of for myself, but I had witnessed Penny act once, and she was good. It was in a teaching video my father, a psychiatrist, filmed to use in teaching group therapy.

The video experience was unexpected, the actors who were supposed to play the children in the family in the group therapy session were on strike and my father was in a panic. He had a deadline to meet and two fellow psychiatrists were coming to play the parents in the family. My father called my mother in a panic from Manhattan to New Jersey just across from the George Washington Bridge where my mother was at home. My father desperately asked if any of us, his children were around. My mother said, “Yes,” and within a half hour my two sisters and I — I don’t know where my brother was — were on our way to my father’s office, compliments of my mother, who uncharacteristically was going way over the speed limit on the Harlem River Drive.

I don’t remember the specifics of the scenario the video was about but I know it centered around Penny playing a troubled young teen whom her parents couldn’t control. I forget what my sister Wendy and I were supposed to be, but I do know the entire time the filming was taking place I was acutely aware of being myself, pretending not to be myself, but not quite able to carry it off.

Penny was really good; surly, rebellious, confrontational, all attributes she didn’t have in real life. She had some intense exchanges with the psychiatrist who played the mother, leaving that woman exasperated.

The woman psychiatrist confided to my mother after the filming, without knowing whom my mother was, and apparently without knowing that Penny, Wendy, and I were siblings that she couldn’t imagine having three such children in real life. “Can you?” she asked my mother, who simply answered, “I do.”

As I think back to Penny ad libbing in that video, actually playing a character, I feel bad she didn’t stick with acting. I am happy she escaped the world of retail and devoted much of her time, and still does, to community theater productions. As far as I can tell, it seems like she’s busy, always in some production or other, and though it’s better than nothing, I suspect my sister still longs for a larger venue in which to appear.

I learned at an early age that acting was not for me. My first bad experience was in third grade when I was supposed to play a reindeer in a play at Christmas time. Not any special reindeer, just one of the group, and we were only supposed to come out from behind curtain left and prance around the stage as part of the final climax of the play, which I don’t remember. I do remember my teacher, Mrs, Poinsett, a large woman whom I thought resembled a dinosaur, sort of a mutated part-human tyrannosaurs rex in a dress.

The guys playing reindeers, including me, who was toward the front closest to the stage, were standing in line behind the curtain when Mrs. Poinsetti started toward us, armed with a tube of red lipstick. I was shocked and wanted no part of it. It had never occurred to me that makeup would be needed, it made no sense, and to this day, I’m not sure how lipstick on third grade reindeer enhances a play.

I looked on in horror. No one was resisting, every guy was allowing Mrs Poinsett to apply red lipstick to them. At that point in my life, I was a well behaved kid not used to defying grown ups, yet, there I was, a big test was coming toward me. I didn’t want to be disobedient but there was no way I was going to let dinosaur woman apply lipstick to my face. Why hadn’t she told us about this before the play was about to begin? Didn’t she know I was one who hated older female relatives kissing me because I hated the trace of red lipstick on my cheek?

Time was on my side when Mrs. Poinsett was finally standing before me. I lowered me head. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I don’t want any lipstick,” I said in a low voice.” “It’s just for the play, everyone does it,” Mrs Poinsett said. “Not me,” I responded. The play must go on, so Mrs, Poinsett couldn’t waste time trying to convince me to comply with something I was so adamantly against. As I pranced out on the stage with my other reindeer companions, I suspect being free of lipstick was in no way detrimental to the ending of the play.

I suppose I was resilient because I found myself in a play the next year in fourth grade, pretty confident my teacher, Mrs. Carlson, wasn’t going to insist on the lipstick route. I don’t remember what the play was about but I do remember my friend Spencer Rosenbloom was the main character. Once again, I was lined up behind a curtain, this time on the right hand side of the stage, playing one of a group of villagers. God knows why, but at one point when Spencer was on the stage alone, and then uttered a specific line, our cue, we, the villagers, were supposed to come charging out, throwing and hurling vegetables at him. Seemed pretty simple. When the time came, however, and I’ll never know why, but I found myself the only one of the supposed villagers to come running out from behind the curtain. So, there I stood, looking directly at Spencer, a carrot in one hand and a celery stalk in the otter. There we stood in confused silence.  I finally nodded awkwardly to Spencer and walked off the stage in the other direction from which I came. I don’t know how the play continued on from there, but my part was over, and though my appearance may have baffled many, at least I knew I wasn’t the one who screwed up.

I’m not even sure how I ended up in cub scouts, but I did, and I hated it. I hated the blue uniform, hated the cap, hated trying to sell light bulbs door to door, and hated a den mother trying to supervise me making a scrapbook of leaves, none of which I carted about. I wanted to hang with my friends and play baseball, football, and basketball, depending on the season, instead of being sentenced to a cub scout meeting once a week in a church basement.  Somehow I stuck it out for a year, the year I was in fifth grade. That is until the annual dinner, which I think was called the Blue and Gold Dinner, in which different packs of cub scouts would all gather, with parents in attendance, and there would be an awards ceremony, and entertainment, skits, and musical performances and such.

My group was supposed to perform a skit in which there were eight of us in a row, and we each had a single line, and each line led into another until the final one was the punchline to the routine. I was number seven, the one who was supposed to deliver the set up line for number eight to follow up with the grand finale punch line, which was expected to be greeted with loud laughter from the crowd.

Number six and I were both nervous as could be, so we kept repeating our lines to each other to reinforce that we would remember them. On and on we continued, repetitiously, repeating our lines in a whisper, getting ready for the big routine, which was set to start any minute. We were both intimidated by the crowd, the score of parents and their children who weren’t cub scouts, and we were desperate to each deliver our line perfectly.

And then, it was show time. The first guy went, and then the second guy delivered his line, continuing the narrative. All was going fine. Three followed two, and then four and five came through, and then it was my rehearsal buddy number six’s turn, and he spoke his line perfectly, and then my turn came, and I repeated number six’s line perfectly, and poor number eight was standing at a complete loss, left with a line that made no sense because of my flub.

That was it, I was never interested in acting after that, at least for myself. Still, I found it interesting I could write fiction, was able to create actors, but I think the main difference was I was in control of my creations, and while I could identify with them, or even find them leading me in unexpected directors based on their traits and the demands of the story, I knew I could never become a complete character unto itself without an awareness of myself.

I’ve always been fascinated by great actors who can so convincingly play a variety of characters. Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchet immediately come to mind. They are both so believable in diverse roles that I almost wonder if they are real people instead of ones who simply inhabit multiple roles. It makes me wonder what they are like when they go out to dinner with their respective families, and what they talk about.

I’m also amazed at Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ed Harris, who is an amazing actor, though I’m not sure he’s as well-known and respected as he should be, and Anthony Hopkins, of course, and then finally, and I was saddened by his death at 81 a few weeks ago, Peter O’Toole, though I was fortunate enough to see an interview with O’Toole conducted by Robert Osborne for Turner Classic Movies, and O’Toole came across as a clever, lively, three-dimensional human being who obviously wasn’t trapped going through everyday life in theatrical roles. though, to me, he still towered as a larger than life figure,

In the final analysis, I must send congratulations and praise to major actors, but also to amateurs, ones in community theater groups throughout the country, because acting is something I could never do. But then again, I’m not sure all actors can write, otherwise there wouldn’t be a lot of ghostwriters making a bundle by completing respective autobiographies for some of our major stars. So, in the end, I suppose, we are all left to pursue our own particular dreams as best we can.