Slow-Acting Advice Through the Back Door: The Method to a Method-Acting Director’s Madness

At the time community theatre director Howard Lenters gave me the advice described in this piece, I thought he was nuts.  I still have that thought every now and again.  But maybe old Howard was crazy like a fox.  He somehow planted the theatre bug deep within me, for life.

What?  Had I heard that right?  I mean, could a sane person have seriously suggested—indeed all but insisted—that I go for three days, in the middle of a New York-area heat wave, without bathing, shaving, washing, or changing my clothes?  But no, it was not a bad dream.  I had heard it right.  And the man who had just made that incredible suggestion, community theatre director Howard Lenters, was standing not three feet away from me, looking me in the eye, and awaiting my response!

This all came about in the context of a post-rehearsal discussion, during which Lenters began by expressing his frustration at my apparent inability to get inside the head of my character, a starving Spanish orphan, one of the leads in a turn-of-the-century Spanish melodrama in which the Catholic Church figured prominently, and to display emotion.  After looking me over a good deal more thoroughly than he had during the audition, Lenters said “You haven’t suffered enough.”

Coming from a man who barely knew me, who indeed had never met me prior to the audition, the remark was enough to induce a state of shock.  Granted, I may not have suffered in the way my poor orphan character had—few people in modern First World countries had, after all.  But I had just spent four years in a Massachusetts boarding school run by a headmaster from West Point, with its half-mile trudges through snow to the dining hall, terrible food once you got to the dining hall, lack of girls, and teachers who positively got off on flunking people. That had certainly been suffering enough for most of us.  In response to Lenters’ words, my lower jaw dropped at least three inches, which should have answered any question he might have had as to my ability to display emotion.  Jaw agape, I stood, motionless and speechless, for the better part of a minute.

“Do you know any way of learning about suffering?” he finally asked, a little more gently.  Still unable to speak, I shook my head. 

“I’m not sure I do, either,” he said.  “Still, we’ve got to try something.”  There was an ominous pause, and then came the suggestion about going without washing, bathing, or changing clothes. “That should teach you something about suffering!” he concluded, not without a certain smugness.  This time, my jaw dropped at least four inches.

“Suit yourself!” I said.  What I wanted to say was, “Are you crazy?  Might I recommend a good psychiatrist?”  But he had, after all, cast me—perhaps against his better judgement.  And he was The Boss.  I therefore felt I owed it to him to at least try out his experiment, whacky though it might be.

“See you Friday night!” he said, almost cheerfully.

“See you then,” I mumbled as I left the rehearsal hall.

The next day, the temperature hit 90.  By Day 3, it was 98 at 12:00 noon.  We were in the grips of one of New York City’s infamous heat waves (I lived in a Connecticut suburb just outside the city).  Through it all, I faithfully followed Lenters’ instructions about not bathing, shaving, washing, or changing clothes.  What I hadn’t told him was that we had a swimming pool in our back yard, in which I swam for at least an hour each day.  Without those swims, I’m sure my body odour would have been unbearable, and my fellow actors would have revolted and thrown me off the stage. As it was, the mud-caked, increasingly stiff chino pants and T-shirt looked like an outfit better-suited to a criminally insane fugitive than an innocent Spanish orphan.

 “I think you’ve suffered enough,” Lenters said as I entered the rehearsal hall on Friday.  “You can go back to washing and bathing and changing your clothes.” A good thing, too.  I was finding the filthy outfit unbearable by this time, and might well have dropped out of the show rather than wear it even one more day. As if in gratitude for my deliverance, I displayed more emotion than I ever had before, to Lenters’ obvious approval.

Soon enough came the dress rehearsal.  Facing a real audience, I managed to display plenty of emotion.  For the two actual performances, I displayed even more emotion, winning a rave review from the local paper.  In contrast, the actor playing the bullfighter, who had been ranting and raving and generally going way over the top during rehearsals, showed far less emotion during the actual performances, and drew barely a mention in the paper.

Was there a connection  between Lenters’ bizarre request of me and my sudden ability to display emotion? When I took an introductory theatre course in college the following year, I immediately recognized Lenters as a disciple of Stanislavski, the Russian method acting guru who believed that the best way to prepare for a part was to go and live that part.  It seemed utter malarkey, on the face of it. Surely it was beyond ludicrous to think one could actually be another person.

But was there more to all this than met the eye?  After all, the bizarre experience would stick in my memory throughout my adult life, long after apparently saner but more conventionally expressed advice offered by professors and other mentors had been forgotten. Whatever else you could say about Lenters’ approach, it had gotten my attention.  I was, in fact, still thinking about this experience in my first play when, some five decades later, I tried out for my second one, the classic comedy Harvey, at a community theatre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  By this time, I recognized that Lenters had hit a raw intellectual nerve, making me obsessed with the question of how an actor engages in learning.  Had I not still been obsessed with that question, I wouldn’t even have considered auditioning.  As it was, I did audition, and was eventually cast.  The role would lead to another and then eventually to eight more, plus a gig as assistant director. In retirement, theatre has become a serious pursuit.  And all from that one crazy suggestion!

Looking at it now, I suspect that Lenters may in fact have been issuing me a challenge rather than expressing any true belief in the method of Method.  “All right,” he may have been saying.  “Here’s one approach.  If it doesn’t work, it’ll be up to you to find a better one.”  To this day, the most important part of any acting venture for me continues to be how I learn the role, and what, at the end, I have learned as a result of having played that role.

The lesson here may be that not all the best advice looks wise on the surface, and not all of it kicks in, like a headache remedy, within 30 minutes.  Whatever advice Lenters may initially have intended, it has taken a lifetime to sink in and it is still working.  He has long been gone, but if I could have one minute with him, I’d say, “Break a leg on that celestial stage, Howard.  You done pretty good despite yourself!”

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