All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.
I studied acting once. I think most playwrights do. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was gathering myself to be a writer. If you want to learn what awareness is, take acting. Ever get up in front of an audience and try to be yourself? It’s a school for mindfulness.
I was lucky in my choice of a teacher. Her name was Peggy Feury, a name for the most part unknown, except to the community of actors in New York and Los Angeles, where it had mystical power.
Peggy was a very beautiful figure, quite small and delicate. She had that halfway-to-heaven look: pale eyes and light hair, she liked pale stockings and pearls, and sometimes she looked very angelic. She was extremely intelligent and mordant, Irish, with certain very visceral preferences: she could rhapsodize about food or a certain kind of glass or just something you brought in that day as a prop…. She had a way of telling a story that was always instructive to what you were doing. And a way of commenting on a scene that was never destructive [even if] you knew she thought it was pretty terrible. When I was lucky enough to get Prizzi’s Honor, so much of that had to do with Peggy saying, “Go on, just bite its head off.”
Peggy died in an automobile accident in 1985, leaving her students bereft. She was sixty-one. A few years after, I began writing letters to her, to come to grips with the loss, and with what my experience in that class had been like. Mostly it had been a painful exercise in frustration and humility.
I thought of Peggy when I wrote the post If it is attended to because of the title, taken from a remark by Wallace Stegner. The Stegner quote—its dozen words give lie to a thousand excuses—had also found its way into one of my Peggy letters.
I always had a thousand excuses for my acting.
You assigned a play, a scene from the play, and a partner. I read the play and the partner and I worked on the scene. We ran the scene for you and you spoke to us about it. We rehearsed more, brought the scene back, and you spoke again. This took two weeks. Another scene, same process, and another, for three years, time off for vacation. Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov, Behrman, Genet, Pirandello, Albee, Miller, O’Neill, Wedekind, Brecht, Coward, Ibsen, Barry, Feydeau, Bergman, Pinter. Fifty scenes? A hundred? More than I remember. More Chekhov than I wanted. Not enough Albee.
When you spoke, my ignorance stunned me. Not only ignorance of myself; that was a given. Ignorance of the play I had read and worked on. Whereas I thought a scene had been about A, it was really about Q. Not probably Q. Not a matter of artistic difference between you and me. A matter of seeing. Once you opened my eyes, the truth was plain and incontestable, right there in the lines: Martha hated her husband. The doctor knew he was a fraud. I read and re-read. Where had I been? Was I born so stupid? It brought me to despair.
Once, thinking I saw a life raft, I asked you: Peggy, how many times do you need to read a play to get it? You told me the number, which I never forgot, and I slunk away. Years later, thinking my life paltry and my writing boring, sorry I had not made different choices, lived brave and been a mountain climber, a traveler of the world, a lover, I found solace in Wallace Stegner, whose remark about writing—any life will provide the material, if it is attended to—called back your answer to me: one time.
That’s what you need; that’s what you have.
It sounds strange to say that acting made me a better writer, but it did. It made me a better parent, too.
Get real? Take an acting class.
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