The Mayhem of the PD Unit: “The scene lays a royal egg. And I’m thinking: This is not what Stanislavski had in mind.”

I’m sharing this post because I’m having lunch with Sam today (the star of the notes below). I haven’t seen him since he showed up at a play I was in a couple years back, and I burst into tears at the mere sight of him. Sam was a great believer in me. A great friend, one of my champions. You hope you run into someone who believes in you the way Sam believed in me. It occurred to me recently that I miss him. So now we’re meeting for lunch. I re-read these notes yesterday and was guffawing with laughter at all of the memories.

First, the preamble:

In grad school, we had an intense Friday workshop which met for hours every week, and it was called the PD Unit: the Playwrights/Directors Unit. It was a requirement. In that workshop, projects were developed. Playwrights would bring in new work, actors would perform it, and directors would direct. Actors were looking for thesis projects, so actors would bring in existent work, Chekhov, Williams, and perform for the Unit, and see if the scene had legs enough, if it was right for you, whatever, to be your official thesis project. As you can imagine, managing this PD Unit was a BEAR of a task. It wasn’t a bunch of artists dicking around with no end in sight. We had to have end results. We had to get thesis projects approved. There were two PD Units, each run by a different teacher, and mine was run by one of my dearest teachers, Sam Schacht. Sam Schacht was (is) an incredible teacher, with an irreverent sense of humor but also an ability to make actors feel safe in his room. He loves actors. He was one himself. He was in the televised production of True West, with John Malcovich and Gary Sinise, but his career lasted decades. He studied with Lee Strasberg.The PD Unit was not a typical acting class, where actors work on scenes for weeks on end developing their process. No: the PD Unit was a fast, brash, commonsensical place, where we had to get through 8 or 9 projects a workshop, so there was very little time to stand on ceremony, or to be precious or careful. If someone brought something in saying, “I love this and I want this to be my thesis”, and then they went ahead and were awful in the presented scene, Sam would let them know. “That stunk,” he would declare. “Find something better.” Sam would wreck someone’s dreams, and then shout out, “NEXT” for the next project to go up in front of the group.

A mood of hilarity was often the overwhelming energy of the PD Unit. The only way to get through it was to keep things light, take nothing personally, and also – when it came time to work – to really show your best work. You couldn’t blow off the work itself, you couldn’t laugh your way through the work. So much was riding on everything. So all of that: high stakes, too-long hours, 30 creative people in a room for hours on a FRIDAY with Sam Schacht at the helm – added up to some of my funniest experiences in grad school. I took notes during the PD Unit, some of which are below. Taken all together, these “notes” really give a feeling for what that dreaded PD Unit was like. In the middle of hilarity, would be a quiet moment of truth. Sam never skimped on that – he always was a teacher. Despite his official duties (“everyone in here must walk out with an approved thesis project”) he still took the opportunity to TEACH when opportunity arose. But mainly, just to pass the time, I took note of funny things that people said, and now, years later, I am so glad I did. Much of this will be incomprehensible, but hopefully it gives an outsider a feel for what that workshop was like. By this point in grad school, too, we had been in school with each other for two years straight. We all knew each other really really well. This was acting school, too, remember. The whole point of acting classes is to get personal, reveal yourself, and be vulnerable when attempting to do something. So you get to know people really well, even if you are not intimate friends with them. You know people’s issues, their hangups, their drawbacks, their strengths. All of that was present in that high-stakes yet hilarious PD Unit room. Things often get funny when the stakes are very high, as they were for all of us. Work is work, it is important, but the process itself can often descend into absurdity. These notebooks show that mix. The deep questions being asked, the demands being made, and then the complete LUNACY of spending 100% of your time with creative people who are all working their asses off.

Also, random unconnected memory, I was very close to getting hitched at this particular moment in time. Michael had proposed, out of the blue, I hadn’t seen him for three years, but he proposed. I said yes. We wondered what we should do and Mitchell gave us a talking-to. Obviously, we did NOT get hitched, although we’re still great friends, and I’m still not sure how that worked, but it did. Long-time readers know all about Michael. So along with worrying over my thesis project, I was also having basically urgent conferences with Michael about what the hell we were supposed to do. We came close to meeting up in Vegas on New Year’s Eve to have Elvis marry us. Or go on a killing spree. Either one. I’ve had three proposals, and this was the one I said Yes to. There is a scribbled note in here about Michael, interspersed with PD Unit notes, a reminder of the multi-layered experience of that time. A lost era. Filled with excitement and ambition. Many things are lost, but look how lucky I am. I am still friends with Michael and I am having lunch with Sam today. So not everything is lost.

September, PD Unit

“A half-hour where you stink is no great shakes.” – Sam

Sam: “I wanted people to be ready to bring in work today—”
Barbara: “Oh, for cryin’ out loud.”

9/9 PD Unit

Cowboy Mouth – Chaos.

“We could do a merchandising tie-in.” – Sam

“We have 2 striving artists yearning to be free.” – Sam

9/11 PD Unit

Arcadia – Tom Stoppard –
actors: Matt and Barbara

Sam: “The grapes don’t solve the problem.”

Sam: “Not everything is Hat Full of Rain.”

Barefoot in the Park – actors: Elena, Mike Z.

Sam: “It’s like trying to revive a 2nd rate dead horse.”

Home Free – actors: Wade and Kara

“This play is like 2 panic attacks meeting each other.” – Sam

“Hoffman’s won Oscars playing morons and bums.” – Sam

Somehow I think that if actors are bored watching something … what is the good of doing this? Like Sam said: Recognize when you are bored. It’s not that you are being rude to your fellow students by being inattentive. Boredom is a sign that something is not working. It is a valid response.

“The Ski Lift Named Denial.” – Jen on doing Streetcar in Vermont

9/16 PD Unit

Buried Child – actors: Tom, Nina

“Anything can be good. If it’s good.” – Sam

To extract a scene: it needs to have its own internal arc. Make sense on its own

Am I Blue – by Beth Henley – actors: Mike Z., Kara, Cheryl
The writing of this play is lousy. Lifeless. You’d have to invent the subtext. With plays like Streetcar or Death of a Salesman – the subtext is IN the lines.

“If there’s any poetic dimension to this, it escapes me.” – Sam

“She’s not a waif physically. She’s a waif emotionally.” – Sam – on This Property is Condemned)

Breathless – movie – long scenes, jump cuts
The thing that gives it its stature is the legends. When you stand back, you see the universal. It is in the fragments that you have the uniqueness.

Playwright: “Then why these scenes in this specific order?”
Sam: “I have no idea.”

St. Joan – actors: Tom, Kelly

“Yeah, fuck you, Rich!” – Sam

“Tom, you fuck-head, listen to me!” – Sam

“Do whatever you want to do. Just don’t have a rod up your ass and think you’re playing Shaw.” – Sam

“Cast well, and then shut up.” – Sam, to the directors

“All the plans that you think you’ve made may be just delusions on your part.” – Sam

9/18 PD Unit
A Loss of Roses – by William Inge – actors: Barbara, Tom
Warren Beatty made his stage debut in this

“I know I’ve been manipulating you, but I think I’ve been helpful to you.” – Sam to Barbara
Barbara: “You have.”

Snow Angel – Elena, Mike Z.
It’s one thing to act material – it’s another thing to embody material.

“It looks like your soul is adrift in the wrong play.” – Sam to Mike Z.

Gertrude Down
Kevin: “What’s it about?”
Matt: “It’s about a door.”

“You talk a little bit like a French art critic.” – Sam to Rich

9/23 PD Unit

Michael. Las Vegas. New Year’s. Yes, Michael, let’s get this thing done.

There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Cloud Tectonics – by Jose Rivera

“This was a bore.” – Sam

“You look like you have parentheses around you at all times.” – Sam to Cheryl

Sam: “Blackout. Slow fade.”

Sam: “Renee Taylor, in reality, is larger than life.”

9/30 PD Unit

Barbara, dressed in green, lying spreadeagled on the floor, trying to relax. Sam said, “You look like a human pool table, Barbara.”

10/9 PD Unit
We read German Lullaby – Sam said to Lesley afterwards: “Lesley, you should be very proud of yourself for what you have created.”

Sam discussed subtext – for him a play needs subtext – that “subterranean tide pulling us forward.”

Sam on PD issues: “The main issue is the bored actors.”

Sam to me and Jen: So how are you 2 Irish broads doing?
Me: We were just sitting here appreciating you.
Sam: Oh – really? (he got all excited – stretching his arms)
Me: Yeah. You’re not afraid of anything, are you?
Sam: No. (He went right there with me)
Me: I can tell. Have you worked really hard to get that?
Sam: Yes.

10/14 PD Unit

Sam to the directors: “Actors at their best are fantastic creatures. If you give them the correct stimuli – character, circumstance, objective – and then Get Out of the Way – they can work miracles.”

10/16 PD Unit

Speed the Plow – out of context this scene is hard to follow. The relationship is not clear.

“Relaxation should not be a spectacle.” – Sam

10/22 PD Unit

Sam, at one point: “Who do I have to fuck to get out of here is what I want to know.”

Sam: “I’m just trying to keep my spirits up.”

Liz on SRO hotels: “You could be killing people in there and no one would care.”
Wade: “Where is this?”

Kara: “Are we still not allowed to be naked in school?”

Sam: “All this love of Jesus is just as obsessive as any other form of narcissism.”

Sam: “You know who originated this part? It was Geraldine Page.”
Kara: “I bet she sucked!”

10/23 PD Unit

Sam: “Fences is a masterpiece of structure.”

“Do you have the time?”
“What am I, fuckin’ Swiss?”

10/28 PD Unit

“Speaking of surly and disrespectful, where is Kara?” – Sam

Quote from Gingerbread Lady: “My apartment is on a sublet from Mary Todd Lincoln.”

Sam: “If you do a high-class piece that lays an egg, no one will think: ‘Boy, that’s a high-class broad.'”

Sam: “I wouldn’t care if you had them do it on pogo sticks.”

Sam to D.: “To whatever degree you can get it up, try to create some authentic misery.”

Sam: “Method acting the stereotype is eyeballing your partner, mumbling, breaking up your sentences in illogical ways. You can be 100% full of shit and be a Method actor.”

Sam: “I studied with Strasberg for 21 years and I never felt that gave me the license to be an asshole.”
Mike Z.: “So where’d you get your license then?”

11/11 PD Unit

“The PD … boring or otherwise …” – Sam

“While she’s making all this $ on a soap opera, she can do her creepy parts off-Broadway.” – Sam

“Don’t try to pull yourself together. Fall apart.” – Sam to K.

“I feel like a two-bit whore. Next!” – Sam

11/25 PD Unit

“I don’t think it’s self-indulgent unless it’s self-indulgent.” – Sam on crying in stage

“Never mind.”

Let’s count how many times K. says “double-edged sword” in the next 3 hours.

“If she’s peeing loudly, that’s a beer-drinkin’ woman.” – Tom

Eileen: “I know that women are bad lays, too.”

“Are you a spy from Juilliard?” – Sam to Brenda

Sam: “The ‘chink in the armor’ is not a racial slur …”

Lesley began throwing paper airplanes at Christine. Everyone is falling apart.

Acting in film:
Think loud.
Talk low.

Sam: “Every scene is Fight or Fuck. Make a choice. Do you want to fight the person you’re in the scene with? Or do you want to fuck them? Fight or fuck. Choose.”

“You were doing some oddly inappropriate emotional work …” – Sam to Tom

“in the hallowed halls of ivy …” – Sam

12/2 PD Unit

“I’m totally confused from an organizational point of view.” – Sam

“Totally uninhibited. No apologies. Go.” – Sam

Liz: “Every woman in this room has gotten their period –”
Sam: “I don’t want that kind of talk here.”

12/4 PD Unit

“Do you want to speak, Richard, or are you just breathing?” – Sam

Brenda told Sam that she is a soprano. Sam said, “I don’t care what you call yourself, your high notes stink.”

“Life is short. Keep moving.” – Sam

Brenda: “Should I use my body?”
Sam: “If you don’t use it, I will.”

Sam on Method acting: “I’m flopping around honestly in my moments.”

Sam: “The punchline is ‘The cocksuckers are throwing paper clips’ – so you can work your way backwards from there.”

12/9 PD Unit

If you really go after your objective, that takes care of the pacing.

“If you 2 ever decide to start a theatre company … count me in.” – Sam to me and Jen

“Go out, say the line, and get the hell off.” – Sam

“They need you to go Ping when it comes up.” – Sam on playing the triangle in a huge orchestra

“If Alaska is germane to your piece …” – Leslie

12/11 PD Unit
“I hate it when I don’t get jokes.” – Elena

Sam: “Trust yourself. Don’t be conservative. Go out on a limb.”

Kara: “There’s something almost superior to people who are spiritually intact.”

Sam: “It’s always a mistake for an actor to fight his own instrument. It is like a violin saying, ‘I wish I was a piano.'”

“Get Strasberg out of your ass and think about somebody else for a second!” – Sam

12/16 PD Unit

“Is that that long-lost play by Chekhov?” – Sam

“I’m a little afraid of my boss.” – Barbara

Hamlet to the players: Do not saw the air.

PD Unit
I love how Sam interrupts scenes.

Sam: “So I saw that you had such ecstatic oneness with the part that you were barely in the room with us.”

Sam: “The scene lays a royal egg. And I’m thinking: This is not what Stanislavski had in mind.”

1/20/ PD Unit

“And if you’re a talented prick, who needs you?” – Sam

Lee Strasberg: “Your trump card is always the disaster that’s befalling you in the moment.”

January PD Unit
Sam, after watching a particularly bad series of scenes, “I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience.”
Mike Z.: “You’re lucky.”

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4 Responses to The Mayhem of the PD Unit: “The scene lays a royal egg. And I’m thinking: This is not what Stanislavski had in mind.”

  1. Machelle says:

    This has me in stitches. I wish I had written down all the great one-liners in rehearsals over the years. “So where’d you get the license, then?” What a great environment in which to learn.

    • sheila says:

      I know – “so where’d you get your license?” Dying.

      It was such a crazy high-stakes and yet farcical atmosphere.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. ted says:

    ‘Two panic attacks meeting each other’ made me snort with laughter. Oh, I miss Sam! Wonderful post.

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