Here’s a story I’m not proud of, but it’s a good one as far as teachers and life lessons go…
It was my second year at McGill University and I’d spent the first in frustration at not being able to take any “real” acting classes. Finally, I could take Fundamentals of Acting and I couldn’t wait.
That first day we sat in a circle on orange/brown utility carpet that smelled vaguely of feet, and introduced ourselves. There was no stage in sight and I soon discovered that people with no acting experience had been allowed in—people who took it because it would be “fun.”
Still, I was excited. We were to keep journals, work on sonnets and study Stanislavski. There would be leading roles to play once my brilliance was discovered.
In week two Johanna (our teacher) decided we’d have class outside in the quad at the center of campus. Fine. I would recite Shakespeare (or whatever) in the quad, no big deal.
But there was no Shakespeare that day. Instead, we were led through a meditation that helped us imagine an animal and then, slowly, become and move around as that animal. When I realized where the exercise was leading I quickly changed my animal to an alligator. No way was I going to gallop around the quad and whinny like a horse.
I lay on my belly in the grass with my eyes half open (like a legitmate alligator) and watched in disbelief as the girl from engineering flapped her arms and clucked like a chicken. There was howling, hopping and all kinds of wild animal impersonating. Apparently no one was mortified…except me.
Maybe I shouldn’t be an actor after all, I thought.
After that, I approached Fundamentals with ambivalence. I’d always been a good student but I started skipping classes. Toward the end of the term we finally got to the “real” acting (scene work) and I’d figured out that there was a point to the earlier work on animals, breathing, rolling on the floor, etc. My enthusiasm began to return, but when it came time to hand in our journals, I found a nearly empty notebook and had to pull an all-nighter trying to reconstruct the term.
We got the journals back, along with our grades and a letter about our progress, before we went home for the holidays. I will never forget the letter I received. In it, Johanna stated in blunt terms that I was lazy, had a terrible attitude and was the worst kind of student—one who was wasting her intelligence and talent, letting people down and very close to failing out of the class. She was disgusted with me.
Rarely have I been so ashamed. Rarely have I had such an ugly mirror held up to myself. I wanted to be angry, but she was right. I had been an ass. I had been immature and irresponsible and I had sabotaged myself in the very arena where I most wanted to succeed. I was horrified..and mortified for real this time.
Short of quitting school or crawling into a hole and dying, my only option was to go back. I apologized and set about to show that the real me was the opposite of what I’d demonstrated so far. I did my homework, attended classes, kept my journal and worked my way back up from a D (my all-time lowest grade!) to a B+.
More importantly, I was profoundly and permanently altered by the experience. I won’t say I was perfect or never cut another class (please, I was nineteen!) but from that point on, in all my creative work, I tried not just to show up, but to show up on time, prepared and with an open mind. I’d learned that you get back what you put in and that to be taken seriously, you have to to be serious. These were crucial lessons and they have affected the course of my life.
So, Johanna Mercer, wherever you are, thank you.
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