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Letter to my acting teacher

Letter to my acting teacher

by Wolf Pascoe on August 28, 2011

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.

swan theatre


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.

Angelica Huston:

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.

Dear Peggy,

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.



Second Wish

Zen fatherhood



Three wonderful books on acting: Audition, Impro, Acting: The First Six Lessons



Any thoughts about acting and actors?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Alameda August 28, 2011 at 3:15 pm

when I finish my day, turn in to face the next, right before I close my eyes I don’t ask myself-did I “act” well today or was I myself?…..but, ya, life is a stage!


Wolf Pascoe August 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm

But what did you pay attention to?


Barbara S. August 28, 2011 at 11:31 pm

I loved acting when I was a child. Then for some reason, I froze and withdrew. My children awakened my love of make-believe and acting and one of my favorite jobs was subbing for a dear friend, the high school theater teacher. All three of my kids enjoyed her theater classes. I was redeemed. How exciting that you took lessons from such an esteemed teacher, though! Do you still perform?


Wolf Pascoe August 29, 2011 at 7:16 am

The training is very helpful for poetry readings and public speaking and puppet shows for Nick. The last time I was on stage was when an actor in a play I wrote had to miss a couple of performances and the director made the mistake of using me as understudy. I did all right, I’m told. The stage! The stage!


Privilege of Parenting August 29, 2011 at 1:15 am

Knowing that I was too shy for actually acting, I nevertheless took an acting class to help me be a better director. It was an astoundingly challenging and soul-opening, albeit uncomfortable, experience—and I second your vote for it in terms of mindfulness, and also for writing… and for courage in general.

I also think that whatever deepens our sense of presence, empathy, imagination and interiority certainly seems like a good skill set for parenting. I always think that great actors are generous and good listeners… good things for all of us to strive for, but especially as parents.

Perhaps the world truly is a sort of eternally changing stage, and perhaps there are no small parts after all… if we attend to whatever the universe has cast for us.


Wolf Pascoe August 29, 2011 at 7:18 am

If you don’t mind my asking, where is the script for that part the universe has given us?


Chopperpapa August 30, 2011 at 7:04 am

You know I’ve always given another meaning to that quote of Shakespeare until today. I have a new clarity surrounding it that I didn’t have before.


Wolf Pascoe August 30, 2011 at 9:32 am

Freud: “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.”


BigLittleWolf August 30, 2011 at 10:38 am

I’ve read this several times and been unable to comment. I needed to absorb, perhaps.

I tend to believe that most of us are acting throughout our lives – playing the parts we create for ourselves and all too often, the parts we believe are expected – until we reach a time (if we are lucky) that we can and do climb the mountain, become the lover, travel the world – in some fashion.

Perhaps your teacher would say that we have only to read a scene once to get it, that it is about “seeing,” yet I would dare to contradict that teaching, from my own experience at seeing and learning, and the layering of seeing and learning, at the perpetual expanse of new seeing.

As I was learning about art (and continue to do so), as I am learning about writing every day, I realize that I am constantly seeing differently.

One time – to get anything? I don’t “get” that.

There is a saying that I like. How many times must I learn the same (damn) lesson? The answer: As many as it takes.

Awareness comes in moments and layers and years and willingness to see. Perhaps there are those who read a script and “get it” the first time out. Perhaps they are the exceptions. But yes, at life, we get our one chance – to “tend to it.”


Wolf Pascoe August 30, 2011 at 11:01 am

Peggy was a harsh taskmaster, to be sure. Or felt that way to me. Her point was that I wasn’t paying attention, or that I was wasn’t paying attention to the right things, if I wanted to understand the play. In my case at least, she was right.

I agree, we see things when we’re ready to see them. And we see different things at different times, as we peel back the onion skin. But one time, to get something, if you’re paying attention. Something you won’t get if not paying attention.

It’s said that the natives did not see Columbus’ ships as they approached that fateful day in 1492. Did not see the sails approaching across the bay. Did not see them at all, as in invisible. Because such a sight was new, beyond their ken, not of their world.

A complex business. I fuss about seeing because it’s the most important thing.

John Ruskin: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.”


Kate September 2, 2011 at 10:28 pm

I have only had a few acting classes. But, by some marvelous grace, too many years ago, I found myself performing Shakespeare in a barn in the Texas summer for 100s of people every weekend.
The act of being present of ‘being in the scene’ as our fearless leader put it, required more stamina then any task I have taken. Deeply listening and responding (with someone else’s words!) from your heart is a task I wish I had the power of mind to do constantly. However, you need breaks. (Ours, in those summers were sewing and ironing and eating around a table together.)
I think you can get a meaning in one reading, but the meaning evolves as you live it, while who you play with in a scene effects the tenor and the meaning.
I had the gift of playing Paulina in A Winter’s Tale. She has a scene where she brings the king to his knees. It is full of anger and passion. Neither of which I am good at coping with in ‘real’ life. But I did then. And I found that sometimes presense, truly being there, negates memory. When I left the stage unsure of what I had said or done, that is when those I trust deeply applauded my performance.


Wolf Pascoe September 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Oh, to do Shakespeare in a barn!

Peggy used to tell the story of doing The Three Sisters in New York. Masha was the sister who played piano–I think it may have been Kim Stanley who played her. One day, after months of rehearsal, she ran into the theatre terribly excited, holding out her arms to Peggy. “Peggy,” she said, “I’ve got her hands! I’ve got her hands!”


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