The last post closed with the thought that hearing actor Yul Brynner’s attitude toward rehearsal provoked a reprocessing of one of my life experiences. As such, I decided to write a bit about my own time in the theater.
When I was studying for my master’s degree in French literature at Middlebury College, I took a theater course from one of the school’s most popular young professors, Bernard Uzan. A well-known actor in France and a world-class director (he would later direct the Montreal Opera), Uzan was a gleeful provocateur—artistic, demanding, intellectual, edgy, and hilariously funny, especially in French. I loved French literature, and I spoke French well, but I was no actor.
And so, I was stunned the day that Uzan asked me to join his acting troupe. “I can use you,” he explained. “You speak fluent French, you’re good-looking, and I can train you.”
Maybe, I thought. Like almost every beginner, though, I was initially afraid to get up on stage and perform. But that quickly disappeared as Uzan coached me every day for months. Almost everything I know about public performance and deliberate practice began with him. If you are fortunate, you somehow find the right coach at the right moment. I was very lucky.
Bernard was a true perfectionist. His view was that if you are going to do something, you should do it right. And, he was relentless. But he was so stimulating, so funny, I often forgot how hard I was working. He had the highest expectations, but he upped your chances of success by giving constant feedback. At some point early on, I realized I was learning an enormous amount very quickly. In addition to mastering the role of Candide, for example, I was learning principles that could help me meet other challenges for the rest of my life.
Uzan had started a program called French Theater in America, and I became one of the half-dozen regulars in his troupe. We went on the road for three or four weeks at a time, putting on plays in dozens of schools and theaters. We stayed in cheap hotels, then we would pile into a large station wagon and drive, say, for ten hours from Boston to Cleveland.
We did everything in the car—rehearse, tell jokes, even wax philosophical. It was Uzan, the most observant and aware person I have ever met, who initiated one of our favorite driving games. We would spot someone in another car and create an entire life history for the briefly glimpsed stranger: “She’s 40 years old and a graduate of Harvard Law School. She’s unhappily married to a urologist from Ottawa. She’s got a great work ethic and a wicked sense of humor, but she takes herself far too seriously. . . .” Besides exercising our imaginations and having fun, we began to coalesce as a theater company as we rode. It felt like a great adventure, but it was also an intense education in creative collaboration.
Our most popular play was a stage version of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince. Among the most valuable things acting teaches you is self-awareness. In theater you have to be conscious of everything that is going on around you. You must listen to the other actors in order to respond appropriately, and you have to be aware of the physical space you are moving through. In our case, we performed almost every night in a different venue, each one presenting its own unique challenges.
Because there were so few of us, we often played multiple roles. In The Little Prince, for example, I appeared as all the animals; I wore a natty vest as the wise Fox and a long, black, serpentine scarf to play the Snake. And, we learned to be flexible and to improvise. Since the actors were also the “technical team”, our roles had to be written in such a way that one of us would be backstage whenever a lighting change was needed.
More than I realized back then, my time in the theater constituted a pivotal learning event in my life. It was during those years that I mastered much of what I use in my work today, from how to interact with an audience, to deep listening, to acute self-awareness.
Today, I look back fondly on this period of great fun and adventure, but also of perhaps more intense learning than I realized at the time.
Image: Flickr user bDom – artiste