“So, you’re an actor…”
“How do you memorize all those lines?”
“Do you get nervous on stage?”
“Is it fun to wear all those costumes?”
“Have you worked with anyone famous?”
“How do you make yourself cry?”
These are questions I am commonly asked about acting (well, those plus, “What is your REAL job?”) I am always happy to answer:
“Rather than memorize, I try to learn by heart.”
“I don’t call it nervous; I call it exhilarated.”
“It is fun to dress up in costumes.”
“Yes, I have worked with a few celebrities.”
“I can cry by being emotionally available to the circumstances of the story; or I furtively pluck a nose hair…that usually does the trick.”
What I find interesting is that these inquiries are based on the notion that “acting” boils down to “performing.” Truth is, the scope of being an actor goes far beyond what takes place on stage or in front of a camera. Performing is actually the very last step in an actor’s process. Before we step foot on stage, there are the years and years of training and continuing education, the head shots and resumes, the workshops and readings, the physical conditioning, the routine warm-ups, the agents, the auditions, the callbacks, the rehearsals, the dramaturgy, the costume fittings, the fight choreography, the dance calls, the dress rehearsals, the previews, and then finally…the performance.
I have been working on the play independently for three months and next month the cast rehearsals begin. So in this case, I will have been preparing much longer than I’ll be performing. Those curious patrons who ask me about acting might wonder “All that work for so few shows? Is it worth it?” “Absolutely”, I’d say. In fact, it’s more that “worth it”; it’s essential.
I’ve spent my career chasing magic moments on stage: a moment during a performance when suddenly everything becomes truthful and I feel completely clear and lucid; thinking, reacting, listening, and moving honestly as the character I’ve developed. Everything imaginary in the story becomes “real.” Those moments are intoxicating and unfortunately for me, a bit of a rarity. When the magic doesn’t happen, I rely on practical storytelling skills. I believe an actor must do all that pre-performance preparation before they can summon a magic moment. They have to be alert, available, relaxed. They have to know what their character wants and what they need to do to get it. Then and only then do they stand a chance of finding themselves in the elusive magic moment. One thing that helps me get there is considering the character’s perspective.
I had an acting teacher once tell me that after his wife informed him she was pregnant with their first child, he left his office to take a celebratory stroll around town. What he saw during his walk amazed him: everywhere he looked, there were pregnant women! Everywhere! Sitting on benches, having lunch, chatting on their phones, power walking. The town seemed suddenly entirely populated with pregnant women. How could this be? After he cleared his head, he realized that those women had likely always been around, but on this particular day, he was different. He told me, “On that day, I was looking out of the eyes of a new father for the first time. My perspective changed.”
For the past few months (and the next few), I endeavor to see out of the eyes of a master illusionist, escape artist, and international celebrity. And just like my teacher, when I use this perspective, everywhere I look I see potential for illusion or escape: I could make that toy vanish, I could make that credit card appear in that waiter’s breast pocket, I could get out of that thick rope in the hardware store window, this would be a perfect location to perform an inverted straightjacket escape, and so on.
Oh…the straightjacket. Made to restrain the criminally insane. Thick leather straps, unforgiving canvas, and heavy metal buckles everywhere. Mine came in the mail a couple days ago and I was so excited to give it a go that I asked my wife to strap me in while our kids were taking a bath. Once I was firmly secured in the jacket, I went into another room and watched myself in a tall mirror. I had watched footage of Houdini wrenching himself out of a straightjacket countless times, as well as at least a hundred clips of other escape artists doing the same. So, alone in front of a mirror, it was my turn. In my head, I’ve escaped from the straightjacket a thousand times. Would it be as I imagined it? Could I do it? Minutes later, I returned to the bathroom where my wife was bathing the boys. She said without looking, “So, did you get out?” I dropped the straightjacket on the tile floor, just as I’d always imagined. Now to try it hanging upside-down…
Entry #2: The Pursuit of Trivia…or A Trivial Pursuit?
I have been busy doing my homework: Essays on Houdini. Documentaries about Houdini. Biographies on Houdini. Pictures, film clips, correspondences, magic tricks, escapes. My nose has been in books and YouTube clips and decks of cards and stacks of coins. And, today, I remembered something I tell my students all the time, but often forget to remind myself. All of this research, this wealth of information (or what we acting folks like to call “circumstance”) is only as useful as the play demands. That is to say, I might spend hours researching Harry’s favorite breakfast and discover it was grapefruit and oats, but this does me no good unless breakfast is discussed (or eaten) in the play. It sort of reminds me of my body-building diet these days: if I eat more protein than my body can process, it’ll just turn to fat. Just the same, if I try to “digest” more circumstance than the script mentions, it’ll all just turn to fat – a bunch of trivia taking up room in my head. So much to know and so little room in my brain. I must always remember to narrow my research to only the elements of Houdini’s colorful life that are of topic in Flim-Flam Not so easy to do, though…he’s a thoroughly fascinating fella.
What makes him so fascinating? Why is he so adored? How did he reach the heights? I believe he was compelled to. Driven. He was obsessed with perfection, attention, respect, and notoriety. He was noted as being a uncontrollable egotist, focused only on ensuring his name went down in history much as it has. Perhaps it was being a child among four brothers that he developed this hunger for attention, and this drive was powerful even from a young age. Druglike, the more attention he received, the more he needed. He was further compelled to become the most well-known something by a need to prove himself an intellectual despite little formal
education, a need to make-up for the shame he may have felt when his Rabbi father was dismissed from his job, a need to make sure his mother would never want for anything according to his father’s dying wish, and a need to prove to the world he was the best among the thousands of imitators. This is a key to playing Houdini. And certainly more important than grapefruit and oats.
A favorite acting teacher of mine used to tell a story about Morris Carnovsky, an original member of the famed Group Theatre and my teacher’s teacher. Carnovsky had played King Lear a gazillion times and all he needed to do to get into character was to hold his hand in front of his face while waiting in the wings before the play began and quietly utter the words “This is Lear’s hand…” And just like that, he became Lear. Easy, right? Well, that hand bit is a shortcut for the years and years of research, rehearsals, and performances Carnovsky experienced. But he couldn’t remind himself of all that information just before going on stage to play the lead in a very long drama…so, the hand bit.
Speaking of hand bits, I have been rarely seen without a deck of cards or a fifty-cent piece since I last journaled. I can only hope I am not driving my wife insane with my incessant shuffling, fanning, flourishing, and calling for a card to be picked. I have enlisted the expertise of fine magicians like Jim Bentley and Tony Clark to sit down and work with me on my technique. I’m hopeful that the more magic skills I can bring to the table at rehearsals, the more options we’ll have of using magic in the show. Truth is, I have no idea if any of it will be used in the show. So why learn it? I notice that magicians move their hands differently than other folks and while Houdini was known as the “King of Cuffs” due to his many famous escapes, he was first regarded as the “King of Cards” from doing sleight-of-hand routines throughout most of his early career. Surely, his hands grew strong and dextrous from all the practicing these maneuvers require to perform. Secondly, I’ve noticed some magicians and mentalists use their skills as a means to affect people; and I don’t just mean to “amaze and delight” either. If one was feeling threatened, for example, a magician might use their tricks to make their antagonist feel “slow” or confused or distracted or hopelessly left behind while the magician seemed smarter, faster, stronger, even dangerous…simply by using illusions. Pretty powerful stuff if one had secretly low self-esteem and often felt threatened.
Harry’s birthday was the 24th of March. He’d have been 139 years old. Happy Birthday, Erich!
“It’s important for me to perform locally: That way my students can see me succeed. And fail.” One of my favorite acting professors said these words on a promotional video for the university I attended so many years ago. I remember those words vividly, not just for the sincerity by which they were said, but for the smile on my professor’s face as he said them. That smile was warm and comforting as it always was. Yet, it also had a bit of fear behind it. Appropriate fear, I am discovering.
My name is Rick Wasserman and I am preparing to play Harry Houdini in the last production of our 2013-2014 season, Flim-Flam. The play was written by our Artistic Director, Gene Franklin Smith. This “dramedy” is not strictly a biographical work about the world’s most famous escape artist; it is also about the Spiritualism movement in the early 20th century and the conflicting crusades of Houdini and his friend, Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Most central, through, is the theme of death (or the end of any thing, I suppose) and how we do or do not ever let go of those we’ve lost. Heavy stuff? Nah. Gene layers the piece with plenty of levity, a little sex, and, of course, magic.
Magic. Seems it’s always been in my life. As a child of five or six in Kalamazoo, Michigan, my debut into the performing arts was as a contestant in a talent show performing a three-minute magic act. I wore a silver glitter top hat, black satin acetate cape, black tights, and a long-sleeve black sweatshirt that my mother had taken to a kiosk in the mall to have ironed on the words “TRICKY RICKY” in rainbow metallic lettering. Yeah…about that outfit…it had to have been my own design…I don’t know what I was thinking; I choose to believe I was practicing a basic concept of magic known as “misdirection”: while the audience and judges stared at my bizarre wardrobe, they surely didn’t notice how completely awful my act was. There was no surprise when I didn’t win the competition, but it was a bit of a shock that I never flinched at all being in front of so many people for the first time. It was a very telling moment for me and for my family who have always been incredibly supportive of my interests. My father would show me a little sleight of hand here and there, regale me with stories of his dentist friend who always had a deck of cards in his pocket ready to display his talent, and he’d regularly take me to see many popular magicians like the great Harry Blackstone Jr, Doug Henning, Penn and Teller, and David Copperfield. He even took me on a little pilgrimage to Colon, Michigan…you know…the Magic Capital of the World. As I got older, I teamed up with a buddy and we put on magic shows for children’s parties to earn a little pocket cash during our high school years. Eventually though, magic gave way to being in a rock band which eventually gave way to acting on stage.
Today, I am an actor. Well, I am an actor when I am acting. So, perhaps right now I am not an actor. I am a potential actor. Right now, I am a voice-over artist (voice of AMC network, CBS Morning Show, etc.) and I am a teacher. I teach voice-over privately and I also teach acting at the Performing Arts Conservatory affiliated with Malibu Playhouse.
I created the Conservatory, in fact. I wanted there to be a facility in Malibu where anyone, novice or professional, could come in and get a little arts education without shlepping down the PCH to LA or Santa Monica. I wanted to help raise funds for the productions at the theatre (most of the tuition fees for the classes go into the shows at the Playhouse.) But my secret has always been that I’ve wanted to be able to say, “It’s important for me to perform locally: That way my students can see me succeed. And fail.” I want my students to follow me through this process of conjuring Harry: The discoveries, the challenges. The research and the rehearsals. And just like any Houdini stunt, there is always the possibility of failure: the story I tell is lacking or unclear, my portrayal of a historical figure becomes a series of encyclopedic facts without any heart, or I simply screw up a trick on stage. There is certainly fear there, accompanied simultaneously by giddy excitement. And when I struggle or fall flat on my face, it will be an opportunity for my students to see that I will survive and continue the chase to enrich my story on stage for the six weeks of show. Now I understand my professor’s smile in that video. I smile that smile at some point every day now.
Flim-Flam opens on June 20th, but we have already begun working on the play. Our director, Thomas James O’Leary, joined the production team and the cast (yes, it is already cast…and the cast is spectacular) on a visit to the legendary Magic Castle in Hollywood. We spent an evening watching sleight-of-hand masters; the more we tried to discover their secrets, the more we found ourselves pulled into their world of flim-flam. They even have a room with actual handcuffs and a large milk can escape used by Houdini himself. We all ate, drank, laughed, shared; bonding and becoming an ensemble before our very eyes. Ta-da!
The next day we met again, this time on stage in the theatre and had a full read-through of the play. The result: Boy, did I feel clunky. I found myself not knowing what I wanted or why I was saying what was written on the pages in my hand. My great friend Lee used to say that those moments, when you are on stage and you are saying your lines, but you haven’t the faintest what you are talking about are like floating in “the great cosmic wallow.” Surely I was there that afternoon…but as my favorite smiling professor would say, “The first day? That is as green as you will ever be.” There is great comfort in that for me.
We meet as a cast again in late May. Months from now. I have what is rarely had in an acting job and that is the luxury of time. So, here’s what I am doing until then:
I am reading a number of Houdini biographies and books by Houdini.
I am watching all the Houdini documentaries I can get my hands on.
I am consulting with our production’s Houdini consultant, the hugely-knowledgable Jim Bentley.
I am practicing card and coin manipulations and mentalism (not that I necessarily expect to be engaged in any during the play, but I’ve noticed magicians move their hands differently than most people. So I am letting my hands learn a thing or two.)
I have been fitted with blue-contact lenses as Harry was known for his piercing eyes.
And I am packing on muscle with the help of a wonderful conditioning coach, Heather Faucher.
Check back now and then and see how I’ve been doing. Please feel free to email any questions you have or thoughts you’d like to share: firstname.lastname@example.org.