Six years ago, I joined an acting workshop led by Jeffrey Tambor at Santa Monica Playhouse. The class was astonishing. Outstanding work. And Jeffrey was always pushing for riskier choices.
I was enthralled by the level of artistic challenge he inspired. In the first few weeks, I sat in the back and laughed and often wept at what the students were presenting. At the time, I thought I was responding to the depth and ferocity of the work. But there was something more, too.
I was rediscovering a lost Muse. And I don’t mean Jeffrey. Jeffrey’s not a Muse; just ask him. But rather it was the Muse he summoned in class. It was part of the deal. Inspiration, whether as an actor or a teacher, was sacred and everything else was just respectable hash.
It took me a while to discard some of my old working habits. But eventually I came to trust whatever inspiration decided to whisper in my ear and that changed my whole approach. I was willing to tackle anything Jeffrey threw my way. Periodically, he would give the class a challenge to work on along with scene work and monologues. He might ask us to write a poem or create an invention, plan a trip, make a collage, etc. Very offbeat stuff. I managed to hide the fact I wasn’t doing any of the exercises by bringing in major dramatic pieces that led to long entertaining critiques!
Then one day, Jeffrey came up to me, a little perplexed, and said, “Someone told me you’re hilarious.” I grinned faintly. He went on, “How come I’ve never seen you be hilarious? Next week, bring in hilarious.”
“Hilarious?” Really? Was it too late to bring in a collage? Then I remembered a character I would do for my nephew that always cracked him up. I would pretend to be a Korean woman who made nasty comments about everything and he’d just laugh uncontrollably. I decided to bring the character to class. As it happened, that week Jeffrey had asked the class to do a painting and discuss in class.
So as a way of being hilarious and getting out of doing the assignment, I went up that night as a Korean street portrait painter. I mimed painting while making rude comments about people in class, with a surly accent. People were laughing very hard and nobody noticed I hadn’t brought in an actual painting. Double win!
Triple win, actually, because now I was on a roll. Over the next few years, I brought in more characters – a demented Russian, an Aussie painting instructor, an ancient Southern woman, a gangbanger, a Southie sergeant, a nasty Brit and a faux Frenchman, each with a different story to tell. And as I went for walks in the evening, developing their stories, the characters began to grow on their own.
As I worked on them in class, the challenge moved from trying to come up with a new piece to when was I going to perform them in the “real world.” So, before I was ready; in fact, to force myself to get ready — I booked a theater!
My show, Five Uneasy Pieces, which Don McManus is directing, previews at Santa Monica Playhouse on Friday, Jan. 21 and opens the next night. I hope you’ll come see it. You won’t see the Korean street painter– I’m saving her for my nephew–but if we’re lucky, the Muses might show up.
P.S. If you’re interested in the workshop go to http://jeffreytamborworkshop.com/
Five Uneasy Pieces, produced by Todd Waring for Devoted, Inc., opens Jan. 22; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7:30 pm; through Feb. 27. Tickets: $15-$20. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica; 323.960.5521 or plays411.com/five.