Acting Cults

For several years… at least three… way back in the 80’s before you were born, global burden of disease I studied acting at a place called “The Loft Studio” on LaBrea. The instructors were Peggy Feury & William Traylor. It was work based on their time at The Actors Studio… the pedigree was Lee Strasberg, internist “The Method”, discount Stanislavski… all that cool stuff.

It was one of the three or four classes in town where “all the cool kids” went to learn about acting. It was a very competitive, heady, even pretentious time. But we were young, idealistic actors ready to change the world and become great actors.

There were loads of students, but the famous people were Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nicolas Cage, Crispin Glover, Eric Stoltz, Meg Ryan and a bunch of other people who are in everything you’ve seen but you have no idea who they are. Lawrence “Lorenzo” Poindexter is one of several great friends I made at The Loft.

As with any creative endeavor, there were also a slew of people who sucked out loud who never went on to do anything.

Classes were at least two hours a day, four times a week. Tuesday – Friday.

The work was fairly intense. Two days of scene study and two days of “sensory” work. Sensory could be anything from doing improvisation… not the improv with the goal of being funny, but improvisation based on scenes we were working on. The sensory stuff was basic sense memory… work on a shower. Once you had the specifics of the shower going, try saying some lines from your scene. Maybe there’s a connection… maybe not.

Each session was eight weeks. They would pick an author/playwright for us to work on. So… everyone would be working on Pinter, Shepard, Shaw, Shakespeare… We’d watch everyone do the same scenes and make the same mistakes. Watching those scenes going on, we’d learn that authors voice; what made them great. We’d learn mistakes authors made, too. The things to watch out for.

Peggy’s goal was to make us able to function if we had no director or if the director was no good.

It was, for me (though others might argue), a safe place. I could suck there. I did. Often. But, I’d be able to do cool stuff. I run in to people every few years who mention my Hamlet. Pretty cool.

I was at the Loft when I began working as an actor. They were so proud and happy. They loved when their students worked. They loved having actors over to their house for Thanksgiving and would have great parties and it was a community. I remember (and I may be mistaken) being at a Thanksgiving dinner with Jack Nicholson, Burgess Meredith, Horton Foote & Angelica Huston. Plus some other starving actors whose names I don’t remember with no where to go…. And me. I was parking cars at the time. Peggy & Bill were so sweet and generous to me.

Bill “taught” the sensory classes. It’s more like he oversaw them. He was a guide, I suppose. He would get mad at actors for doing bullshit. It never seemed to be about the person, per se, but ultimately it was… if the actor didn’t have the ability to connect to something, Bill would try to get them there. At a certain point, he’d lose his patience and get mad. There was also alcoholism going on. It wasn’t all roses. Some days he was volatile and just mean. Being the son of an alcoholic, I knew how to navigate this, so it wasn’t really a “problem” for me. I mention this because I know that memory can get blurry and make things all lovey-dovey and sweet. I’m aware that it wasn’t always fun or safe for some people. They’d get scared and mad and split. Peggy and Bill would argue about it.

Peggy was a narcoleptic. During scenes, if she didn’t keep herself occupied, she would fall asleep. We’d keep doing the scene and often she would be able to talk about places in the scene where she had dozed off.

Ultimately, the narcolepsy killed Peggy. She was driving. She shouldn’t have been driving… she wrecked her car and died.

Bill died a few years after.

And, like the great poster “Nuclear War!? There goes my career!” I was left with no safe place to study acting.

At this time, I had a girlfriend who became involved with a very different acting teacher. They would leave the country on retreats for months at a time and do lots of stuff that made no sense to me at all. Talking to dreams. Jungian psychology. “Spiritual” work. Lots of crying and intense stuff. It seemed invasive and inappropriate. Many actors arrive a bit broken. Someone with an agenda or just no skills can easily do damage.

I acted a movie where one of the main characters was a cult leader. I’d done some research on cults and saw how the instructor of this other class used some of the principles that cult leaders use: removal of the person from their regular environment, lack of sleep, extended periods of dance/movement… it left the students with the feeling that their method was the “only way.” Much like a cult member will know that their cult is the only way to true enlightenment.

I’d heard the “C-Word” (cult) mentioned when referring to the Loft. I didn’t buy it, obviously. When you’re in a cult, you don’t think you’re in a cult… but… There was definitely devotion to Peggy & Bill, and as we were all young, we would be rather breathless and excited about our descriptions of “the work” and our experiences. Young people “know fucking everything” and we were no different. But… Bill & Peggy didn’t demand that we leave town with them or have class after dancing for two hours in the middle of the night.

At that point in my acting life, I began shutting down. I felt that if what I need to be a good actor was to give myself over to some “leader” who gets in to my personal shit, then I can’t be a good actor. The girlfriend’s class wasn’t the only one, either. There were others. It became a cool thing to be in an “acting cult.”

Simultaneously, at this point the career was in the toilet. I felt, irrationally or not, there was a sort of secret acting key that I was not going to be able to grasp. Because I liked reading Skeptic Magazine and going to Michael Shermer’s meetings at CalTech I’d been labeled by people I knew as “cut off” and “limited” even though I tried, poorly, to present my case as being curious and interested in how the world works. I’ve come to understand that it’s the same argument Christians use against atheists “Oh, you think you have all the answers and know everything” when it’s exactly the opposite. I believed I was cut off and limited.

I found Howard Fine’s class. It was great. None of the woo that I’d experienced in other classes. His class was a safe, nurturing place and I began doing good work again. Unfortunately, I was only doing that work in class. I couldn’t get arrested as an actor and my career, for all intents and porpoises, was fucking over.

Cut to:
I start working nine to five (more like 8am to 8pm) as a front end web developer. That went on for at least a decade.

Then, a couple of years ago, Coreyoke (my karaoke band) books a gig for someone who turns out to be an agent: Jay Schacter. He asks me what’s up with the acting. I ramble on about how I’d been going up on parts I didn’t care about so I would go in unprepared and suck because there were people going in on those who did care, so I’d stopped chasing the carrot. I worked when someone offered me something, which was few and far between.
“You don’t have an agent?”
“No. If I had an agent, I’d want someone who grew up watching me who would try to get me the career I should’ve had…”
“I grew up watching you…”

The rest is something like history.

Jay signs me and I start booking small parts. I get a cool gig killing myself on Southland and we have this plan to just get a bunch of new shows on my resume, as it’s pretty out of date. Will & Grace had been the most current show. So I go in on small parts and start booking them.

I turned 50 years old and my mom died a couple years ago and I realized I was ultra-miserable working in the real world. I’d come home and sleep all weekend and my son was seeing his dad as a person who hated his life. I’d tried remaining creative, but the ‘day job’ was demanding and my free time dwindled. Sleeping 18 hours each Saturday & Sunday was my hobby.

I’m now extremely fortunate to have a bride who supports us while I’m Mister Mom to our boy. I book enough day player gigs and voice overs to earn as much as a struggling 23 year old actor living with 3 roommates in Encino Adjacent. It buys groceries and gas in my car. My wife is a saint.

Dissolve To:
Last week, I was invited by a very cool casting director to participate as an actor in a workshop for film directors. It’s a few hours a day one day for three weekends. I’ve been saying yes to everything, so of course I said yes. I’m all for working with young directors. If they’re wanting to learn how to talk to actors besides “Stand over there. Louder.” I’m allllll for it! Happy to help.

I look up the class online and it seems a little crunchy, but the person leading it consults on a t.v. show with work I really like and the process seems really interesting and challenging.

I speak to the director who says the magic words “it’s really safe and non-judgmental.”

I bite my tongue. Everyone is judging everyone all the time. It’s what humans do. It’s how our ancestors kept from getting killed by enemies. I understand the ideal: as artists we want a place where we feel free to explore, but even the idea of a place to explore means that we may fail. And the only way you know that you’ve failed is by judging. Right?

Then I get an email with a document outlining all of the rules. “No flip-flops. No jeans. You must wear…” Non-judgmental indeed.

The director sends me the scene I’m going to be working on. I’m intimidated. It’s a really nice scene and a part that I would never get cast in… But… I’d never get cast like this in this stage of my life or career. In a parallel universe, where my career landed in the direction I would’ve liked, it’s definitely something I would be considered for.

I’ve been struggling with this idea of who I am vs. how people see me. It’s the struggle, I believe, everyone working in showbiz deals with. Perceptions vs. reality. Tom Hanks breaking out of wise-guy comedies to be the actor we all love. Matthew McConaughey stepping out of Rom-Com stud and astonishing everyone in True Detective.

My narrative is much different: Almost-ran relegated to under five lawyer gigs on episodic television and aspiring to do something before it’s all really over.

Those perceptions are almost as much as convincing other people to allow you do that work as convincing yourself to allow yourself do that kind of work. One must get out of their own fucking way. I have all of these voices in my head from “the bad old days” when it was all crashing and burning: “No one takes you seriously. You’re not viable. You’re not good looking enough. There’s a hair issue. You’re not a name. You’re not sexy. You’re not ‘fuckable.’ No one thinks of you in that way.”

The bride and I binge watch the first season of the show the instructor consults on. I’m intimidated but excited. I feel myself a bit resistant and curious. Is this going to be one of those culty things?

I dump my insecurities on the bride for a bit. I’d recently been asked to do a screenplay reading that was a big deal. I was one of several actors performing the reading, but all of the other actors are actually “names.” And they are all great. And then there was me. All of that imposter insecurity that had crept in the week of the screenplay reading was clouding in.

“Why me? Don’t they know that I’m not worthy of being part of something good?”

I worry that I don’t have the goods. That it’s all dried up.

But, because the bride is a genius, she talks me down and gets me to this place where I understand that it’s a class and supposed to be fun and artistic. She points out names of people who believe I’m a good actor and how this person wouldn’t have asked me to be involved unless they thought I’d fit in. There actually are enough actors in Los Angeles that it’s difficult to not be able to find one.

So I’m excited to go to this thing. Even if it’s crazy crazy crazy, it will be fun. I can learn from it. Plus, I get to work on a cool scene with new people. I get to do some work. Yay!

There are six directors and 10-12 actors. The first 2-hour sessions where one director works with two actors begin at 10am and go until Noon. Then there’s a discussion where we were asked to prepare to answer questions like: how we like to work, what we like in directors, how we prepare for a part, etc. Then another 2-hour session where the directors work with their actors from 1pm to 3pm. I’m scheduled to do the 1-3pm session but they ask me to show up for the noon panel. Cool beans.

I arrive around 11:45. There are two people lying on the side-walk holding potted plants. Standing above them are two people with phones “filming” them. I cross the street as I don’t want to bother them. There’s an ad agency and some other business. Maybe it’s the workshop. Maybe it’s the ad agency. Who knows?

I open the door to the studio and there is a scene going on so I close the door and wait on the sidewalk until noon. I’m 15 feet from the phone/plant people.

I hear someone say “Stop working. You’re in your head. Quit it.” It’s quite aggressive and loud. I look over to the plant/phone people. Yep. The person is lying down with the plant and the person with the phone is berating him. “You’re doing to much work. Stop it. Don’t work so much.”

I do what everyone in L.A. does when they have nothing to do: I check my phone. I want to see what time it is, and I want to check the map as maybe there’s another way in to the studio.

The talking gets louder. “Come on. Over here. Do it.” I look over. The person with the phone seems to be talking to me. I think. “You’ll want to watch this.” I realize that this is a group in the workshop. Cool. I put my phone in my pocket and turn and watch. I’m thinking to myself “that tone of voice doesn’t seem so safe and non-judgmental, but yeah…” The person says “Over here. Come over here.” I begin walking to the plant/phone people.

“Hurry. Run.”

I’m ten feet away. No way am I going to run. I don’t think I was being yelled at, but this is certainly not how I talk to anyone unless I’m upset with them. I look at the person with the phone who then says “Run right now.” I reflexively slow down. Then “You have to make a decision: If you want to be in this workshop, you’re going to run over here.”

So I begin walking. Slowly. I pass the group.

“What’s your name? Are you in this workshop?” and then the kicker “Relax your jaw.”

I walk past them and head home.

I’m all for the creative process. I’m all for “getting in there” and shaking shit up.

But, unless I’m being paid a load of money to whore it out for abuse on a Joe Pytka commercial there has to be trust and respect and it must be mutual.

Of course now I’m certain that they had a long discussion about how I am closed off to the creative process and that’s why I will never do anything but 4 line day player roles and that casting director will never call me in again. Which is probably the case.

You know, I don’t talk to my son that way. When I see people telling their kids to run and hurry up, it only means they planned poorly. I came up with that opinion from being on film & t.v. sets. If people are running, someone fucked up.

There are friendships where it’s uneven, but there is a payoff that makes it worth it. But, because of that unevenness, it’s not a true friendship. Sure, sometimes those balance out, but if one person can make the other person “run right now” it’s not a friendship. It’s commerce.

If you’re doing me a favor, or I need something from you and you want to yell at me and make me jump or run or control me somehow, I bet I’d do it… but I’m going to make sure I never ask you for anything again.

If I trust, love, respect and admire you, I’ll run for you, I’ll jump through a ring of ebola-fire. I will. I am an open book. But… come on.

Comments

4 Responses to “Acting Cults”

  1. Todd Tucker on October 11th, 2014 11:41 pm

    I loved this. It was a long read, but it was by someone I admire. May I say your wife looks like Maria Bello from Grown Ups 1 and 2 or Cara Bueno from Beer League. Just a funny thing to tell you. You have some great writing skills Dean, let me tell you. You are funny in more than one area. That’s talent. I’ll play your guitar music if you get a show again. Dean and Todd Show. D.T., hey we’re set. We’ll be the funniest thing since Johnny and Ed. I’ll be Dean and you be Sammy.

  2. Randy Eisel on October 13th, 2014 10:46 am

    Thats a great story Dean. Or collection of little stories. You really do have a talent for writing and this telling had me engaged from beginning to end. It was like reading a Stephen King novel. You read the happy little story about the safe little acting school with its quirky instructors and you start thinking to yourself, “Oh no. This is starting to sound bad. Something tragic is about to happen.” But you cant stop reading. You cant look away from the accident. Very very well written. In fact, if you were ever compelled to write a pilot I think the setting is right here. There is a ton of drama and comedy to build on with the characters and experiences you have introduced. I want to read more about it. Congrats on the article and for being a man of principle. Randy

  3. ken on October 13th, 2014 1:21 pm

    That was awesome!

  4. William on September 5th, 2015 5:45 am

    I really enjoyed the story.

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