It’s John Strasberg’s birthday today. I told this story before on here years ago, when I used to write like this on here, on occasion. Figured I’d re-post it. He is very very important to me.
Back in the late ’90s, I took an intense acting workshop with John Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, and author of one of my favorite acting books/memoirs, Accidentally on Purpose. The workshop lasted 4 or 5 days but I came out of it altered. The quote in the title to this post is one of the things he said during the workshop. I never forgot it. Going into it, I was tense with excitement and anticipation, because Lee Strasberg was so important to my own development and growth, particularly as a teenager, and Lee’s influence was so vast – considering the Studio circle in which I ran – that being connected, in some small way, to Lees legacy was really exciting to me. I did not know much about John Strasberg at the time, although I had read his sister Susan’s books, in which he is often quoted, and exists as a peripheral figure to the main triangular drama going on between Susan and her parents (Lee and Paula). John came off as a troubled young man, resisting his parents’ domination, and hurt by their affectionate tender relationships with the actors they coached (in stark contrast to their rigid displeasure towards him). But I didn’t know much about him as an acting teacher. How does one become an acting teacher if you are the son of one of the most famous acting teachers who ever lived? How do you begin to come out from underneath that shadow?
Once I moved to New York and started attending sessions at the Actors Studio on 44th Street, John Strasberg came into my circle: he was always there, sometimes acting as moderator of the twice-weekly sessions. I sat up in the balcony of the old converted church and stared down at his head from above, the nimbus of white hair, his quiet intense manner which demanded you listen. He was mainly gentle, although he had a temper (which I witnessed in the workshop I took with him). You got the feeling he loved actors, and loved the struggle, and he was gentle with actors who were working sincerely. (The actors who tried to bullshit him, or snow him … look out.) I would stare down at him, sitting in the building his father had helped create (or at least put it in the map: Lee did not found the Actors Studio), and think of how odd life was, how perfect it was that I would be there, and now going to those sessions, the sessions Marilyn Monroe and Shelley Winters and Michael Gazzo and all the others attended. I felt a strange connection to John Strasberg merely because of who his father was. I am sure he gets that a lot.
It wasn’t until the workshop that all memories of his father went out the window. Lee Schmee. John Strasberg is a powerhouse in his own right. My experience with him was very much in the Now. In the Moment. I was still a little in awe of him, but not because of who his father was. I was in awe of him because of what he was like as a teacher.
I don’t want to boil things down because boiling things down when you’re talking about acting is a fool’s errand. But there are generalities that can loosely apply. I am speaking only from personal experience. I can’t believe I have to say that, but apparently I do. And remember: I speak from a place of actually having studied this shit extensively. Like, deep immersion as an almost daily practice for 15, 20 years. If Lee Strasberg took a somewhat Freudian approach to the business of acting training (and this is not entirely true, but for the sake of argument), then John Strasberg’s approach is pure Jungian. John works a lot with dreams, not so much literal dreams, but the actor’s dreams and imagination: you – as an actor (or director) – have a “dream’ of what you want to do with a scene, a play, a film. The dream already exists in your head, the dream is a perfect expression of what you desire/want to express, what you want to get out of what you’re doing, whatever. The challenge is ENTERING the dream. LIVING it. and living it in front of people.
I responded strongly to this concept, because it was so connected to my own feelings about art, although I had never articulated it as such. I was immersed in Method training and its offshoots since I was 15, 16 years old. After studying the Method for years – and by “Method” I mean the real deal, Stanislavki and then Strasberg’s interpretation of it: sense memory, affective memory, and Strasberg’s developments – Song and Dance and Private Moment – etc. – In my experience, I came to believe that the Method was really effective for beginning actors who really needed training in concentration and relaxation. Because these are muscles and they MUST be trained. The Method stuff (sense memory, affective memory, Song and Dance) requires focus and discipline. You can’t do it if you can’t concentrate, and NOTHING happens, of course, if you can’t relax. I saw these things as excellent training tools, and prone to being mis-used when used in the actual work itself.
My original training as a teenager was Sanford Meisner’s technique, which has to do with repetition, and I really really took to it. I absorbed it. To me, it was extremely practical and very useful in the actual doing (or, as Kimber Wheelock, my Meisner mentor, and one of the most important people in my development and growth, called it “the reality of the doing”). I used it without even knowing I was using it, eventually. The repetition exercise forces you to be in the moment. For me, and again – FOR ME – sense memory, affective memory, etc. they remained exercises. As an exercise, they’re amazing tools. They ground you in reality. But much of this comes from imagination. Some people need more promptings into the imaginary, more pushing, than others. I didn’t need the push. I’m just being honest. I needed pushing in other areas, but not belief in make-believe circumstances, sensory and emotional. I never grew out of living in a fantasy land. (Much of acting training has to do with helping adults retrieve the sense of play they had as kids. Extremely important.) You tell me in the middle of winter to play a scene where it’s a hot humid day and the humidity is there for me instantly. Maybe this is because I’ve been playing make-believe my whole life. I never really stopped. I don’t know. Some people in class would agonize over how they couldn’t ACTUALLY feel the humidity, etc. They really wanted present-moment reality to cease existing. But of course it doesn’t. If present-moment reality totally ceases to exist, then … check yourself into a psych ward for evaluation. You can be in two places at once, just like children are when they devote themselves to play. So I never worried about whether or not it was REALLY humid because … I knew it wasn’t. You tell me it’s humid, I believe it, I feel it. I’m just trying to describe my frustration with taking the techniques too literally. It can really freeze up actors, I saw it happen. There are people who are gifted in this stuff on a whole other level. Ellen Burstyn comes to mind. My friend Ted worked with her once, and he describes how the character she was playing had a cold, and so every night for the performance she had to “create” having a cold. Burstyn herself was not sick, but Ted described how she literally had snot-running out of her nose, she was sniffling, sneezing spontaneously – like, the woman legitimately created a head cold out of her own imagination and belief in the imaginary given circumstances. This is next-level Method shit. Don’t discount it.
John Strasberg used all of his father’s techniques, but the dream layer and the imaginative mysterious layer was something new. You must commit yourself 100% not to the PLAY, but to your DREAM of the play. His work was very very challenging. It really made demands on you.
He was a quiet man, but not passive. You could feel a tight coil of energy in him. He could be intimidating. We all filed into the workshop (held in the round room at the New School, the same room where Erwin Piscator held his influential workshops, where Stella Adler held hers: Marlon Brando was an acting student in that very room). By the time I took the workshop, I had read John Strasberg’s book and fell in love with his ideas about theatre and process. I was excited but also so nervous my heart was throbbing. I’m just going to be totally transparent because I think transparency is useful. I almost felt sick to my stomach. It was so important to me that he … like me? Validate me? I felt overwhelming need, and it was embarrassing. I don’t normally feel that way. I was scared. What if he thought I was full of shit? What if the workshop revealed I was a fraud? What if he rejected me? I was putting WAY TOO MUCH onto it, but welcome to my world,. I put WAY TOO MUCH onto everything.
The first day of the workshop he threw someone out of class. The guy had it coming, it was shocking he hadn’t been reprimanded earlier for disrespectful disruptive behavior. I came from a very disciplined theatre background, starting with Jan Grant‘s training when I was a kid. I had worked for years as an actress by the time I got to the Studio. In a professional setting, you have to be professional. This guy would take over a room, considering himself to be equal to – or better than – the teachers. He refused to be subordinate, he refused to listen, he refused to accept he had anything to learn, too. He was such a bore. After a heated exchange with John Strasberg, after nitpicking and arguing some of the points – before Strasberg had even gotten started with the actual teaching, Strasberg said, without raising his voice, “Get out.” A bomb of silence dropped. The student was stunned. Strasberg said, “Leave. Now.” The guy got up and left. I had issues with this guy from the jump and wondered why someone hadn’t clocked him one. Jan Grant would have thrown him out too. It’s not about unquestioning obeying. It’s that if you are unable to settle down and LISTEN, then you have no business being in a classroom setting. Him being tossed out of the workshop in the first ten minutes was stressful, but I trusted Strasberg immediately for having the balls to finally call the guy out on his bullshit. FINALLY. Stereotypically, many of the other people in the classroom bitched about it later, how “mean” Strasberg was, etc. Mean? You thought that was “mean”? Amateurs.
Strasberg’s quiet clarity demanded something of you. You couldn’t listen passively. You could not tune out. His approach was confrontational in a quiet way. This is WHY I take workshops, this is WHY I am interested in art. Because it is confrontational and it requires engagement. I WANT to be confronted, I WANT to be scared, I WANT to have to overcome my fears, etc.
Strasberg talked a lot about his theories of theatre and acting. He talked a lot about boredom. Often workshop or class settings, or when you’re an audience member seeing a play or a movie – you feel boredom come over you, and you try to re-engage with the work, you think YOU may be the problem, you think you are not being polite or attentive enough. But Strasberg told us to pay very close attention to when we are bored, because our boredom is trying to tell us something is wrong, something is missing. I have never forgotten those words. They have been hugely helpful during my segue into film criticism. If I’m bored, I pay attention. I ask what’s wrong.
A typical acting workshop usually involves the teacher assigning scenes or exercises for everyone to do, maybe there’s a little lecture about it, or the teacher would lead you through a sense memory exercise or whatever. John Strasberg didn’t do any of that. He was up to something else.
The story I’m about to tell is something I’ve wanted to tell before, but I haven’t because it will sound like I am bragging. Or, worse, humble-bragging. But I’m not. What happened to me in his class is something I never forgot, one of those moments that propels you to a new level, that gives you a sense of confidence, happiness, certainty, an indescribable full feeling of RIGHT-ness. He gave me that. And in an acting career, those moments are few and far between. To give myself credit, this happened only because I “showed up” so fully in his workshop that he responded to me in the way he did. He basically dismissed people who only met him half-way, or who fought him, or tried to bullshit him. The workshop was 5 days long. You’re gonna waste that time resisting the teacher? Okay. Next. He had zero time for stuff like that. I had no idea what was in store for me with him but I walked in there determined to be open and to be coach-able. It was walking into a total unknown.
Here was the assignment he gave us.
Pick your favorite play. Pick a play you are dying to act in. Come in and tell me about the play.
That was it. That was the assignment. Not work on a SCENE from said play. Just pick the play, and then come and tell John Strasberg about the play. He did not give us any more details. He gave us no guidance. He did not elaborate, like, “Please tell me your favorite things about the play – please tell me why this role is right for you – please tell me your production ideas …” “Pick a play and come in and talk about it.”
I had read his book. I knew how he talked about dreams. I had a feeling where we might be going. I knew that surface instructions were a smokescreen. He didn’t want a book report, although he didn’t say that explicitly. Wherever we were going, it was going to be deep. I guessed: Strasberg is interested in entering your dream. I didn’t have to flail around for a play to talk about. I immediately knew I wanted to bring in Tennessee Williams’ little-known Two Character Play. I felt a corresponding bolt of terror when I realized there was really no other choice. I have been obsessed with that play for the majority of my life. I have done workshops of it. I have done scenes from it. I keep circling back to it. The play feels dangerous to me. I have never really been able to articulate what it is about Two-Character Play … why it is such a draw.
I didn’t sleep at all the night before the next day of the workshop. I kept thinking about Two Character Play and what the hell I should say about it, beyond, “It’s fucking great. I must do it someday.” I re-read the play. I had nothing to say about it. I made no notes. I really worried about going in there the next day.
Strasberg hadn’t told us who he would call on, or the order in which we each would talk about our play. Walking into the workshop the next day was strolling into a scary unknown. I was terrified. I felt like I hadn’t prepared enough. I had no notes to refer to, I just brought in a copy of the script. Some people came in with collages they made, or pictures, or binders with notes. You know, you had no idea what you would be called on to present, and Strasberg had already thrown someone out of class. It was definitely not a friendly atmosphere. It was rather tense and fraught with anxiety. Maybe that was just me.
Strasberg asked who would like to go first. I felt a swoon of relief at this, because it meant people would volunteer, as opposed to being called on and put on the spot. Instantly, after feeling the swoon of relief, I felt shame and anger at my own cowardice. I was relieved he was leaving it up to US who wanted to speak, and so if I wanted to, I could NOT raise my hand, let others walk into the unknown before me, so I could get a lay of the land through their experience … or … if I really wanted to, I could not raise my hand at all, and see if I could put it off until the following day. I was sure I would be calmer the following day. All of these thoughts pulsed through my head, including the shame at how much I was copping out, how much I was abandoning myself. My cowardice filled me with rage, so I put my hand up in the air instantly. Like: fuck YOU, Self, for being such a scaredy cat! A couple of other people also raised their hands, and Strasberg picked one of them to go first. My internal weather was different now: the mere act of putting my hand in the air changed my energy. Now I felt I had to speak, and it had to be today.
The first person threw himself into the fray, and started talking about the play and why he picked it. Strasberg stopped him almost immediately, asking him to clarify something. He was not mean. He was not contemptuous. He was quiet and open. He didn’t ask the question like he knew the answer. He wanted to hear what the answer was. The person answered the question. Strasberg asked another one. The person fumbled an answer, getting confused. Strasberg waited for him to think it out. Then asked another question. By this point, we were 10 minutes into this person’s “turn” and he hadn’t even gotten out the list of characters or the plot or anything about the play. It was confusing. What was Strasberg getting at? Was he giving the guy a hard time? It wasn’t that. Most people in life prefer to live on the surface of things, actors included. You may think you are going deep, but you have to realize how deep the job requires you to go. This is difficult for some people. John Strasberg was a master psychologist, in a quiet unassuming way, and he could tell, 5 seconds in to the student talking, that he was on the surface. He was doing a book report. He was being obedient, and careful, and intellectual, and Strasberg clocked him on it.
The conversation went on for about 40 minutes, and it was actually frustrating to watch – but it was frustrating on an interesting level. As I listened to the back and forth, as I realized this guy would not get to talk about the play at all, not really, I first felt annoyed at Strasberg and how he kept interrupting. But as the exchange went on, I realized what was happening. This wasn’t about a teacher constantly interrupting a student. Too many students go into classes with a sense of entitlement, like: “I’m HERE, aren’t I”, as though that is enough. Strasberg asked him questions about the play, but he was more interested in this guy’s response to the play than the play itself, Strasberg was interested in why he wanted to talk about that play. Why did you choose THAT play? Once you start talking about THAT, you’re in the dreamspace. This guy just couldn’t go into a dreamspace – maybe he didn’t HAVE a dream of the play. This was not a contentious conversation, by the way. It was expansive and questioning and deep. I am sure there were some people who freaking hated John Strasberg for shit like this. They thought he was arrogant, a bully, and impossible to please. I had the opposite reaction. I stared at him, trying to listen on the level he was listening. Strasberg would take the time to turn back to us, and tell us why he was asking all of those questions, letting us know what he was hearing, but for the most part he stayed focused on the student.
Finally Strasberg asked who wanted to go next. Now everyone was terrified to face the interrogation. Now that we knew what it was, who the hell was gonna raise their hand. Jesus. My thoughts were: I clearly haven’t thought about the script at ALL and how will I deal with him interrupting my speech every other sentence? Only a couple of people raised their hands this time, and he chose someone else (not me, although I had raised my hand again. I was now chomping at the bit to go toe to toe with Strasberg. I was DYING for it. I COULD NOT wait until the next day for my turn. I NEED TO DO IT NOW.)
The second person’s experience was the same as the first person’s. Strasberg interrupted him almost immediately with a question. Or an observation. This threw him off his carefully prepared flow. The room was baffled by Strasberg. Scared of him. Resentful. What the hell did he want? What were we SUPPOSED to say? Would ANYTHING pass muster with this guy? Another 40-minute conversation ensued, with the student trying to bring the conversation back to the play, and Strasberg interrupting with almost every sentence. Not rudely or shortly. I want to be clear. He wasn’t like “No, this is wrong, your answers are all wrong.” Not at all. He was just asking questions. Open-ended questions. These questions required the student to dig deeper, get personal. I think that was Strasberg’s issue, mainly, if I had to make a guess. People were not talking personally enough. Don’t give me a book report. Give me what is in your heart. He didn’t SAY that, though, in his instructions to us. He said “Come in and talk about the play.” The whole assignment felt like a big “Gotcha” test. We may have been preparing our own comments about the play, but we were completely unprepared for what HE was doing. He hadn’t said, “Now I am going to be rough on what you say … I am not just going to sit back and listen … I am going to engage … ”
The second person struggled, got confused. With each question, they got further away from the play itself – and deeper into the personal. They kept wanting to get back to the point. Strasberg was, to be clear, not “correcting” the student. It’s not like the student said, “I am going to talk about Hamlet because I love the idea of revenge in the play” and Strasberg interrupted with, “Actually, the theme of Hamlet is more THIS … you’re talking about Hamlet wrong.” Strasberg wasn’t talking about the plays at ALL. Not really. He was asking penetrating questions about what the person said, the words they chose to use … and then sometimes asking them to think deeper, and maybe rephrase – because the words we use to describe what is in our heart are very important. It wasn’t a script analysis class. It was a psychological battery. You offered yourself up to him, and, with each question, people started feeling, “Well … clearly I am not getting this … what I am giving him is not enough …”
Arguments ensued. Not as heated as the one on the first day when he tossed the guy out of class. But pretty sharp arguments. The second student started getting testy and irritable. Strasberg was calm, he expected this, he didn’t take it personally. People have all kind of defense mechanisms, and often you utilize them even when you don’t mean to. You try to plead your case. You erect a boundary and talk from behind it. Strasberg was having NONE of it. He remained cool and calm but would point out the resistance he was sensing.
It was a scary-ass room.
Then Strasberg said, “Okay, so who’s next?” My hand flew up, and he picked me.
I believe I have set up how the day was going. I fully expected it to go the same way for me. Why would it not? Clearly this was Strasberg’s teaching technique. I was ready for it, hot for it, I was dying for him to interrupt me, I was dying for him to make me go deeper, question harder, whatever it was going to be. I was CRAVING the first question he would ask, whatever it was going to be.
I said, “The play I’m going to talk about is The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams.”
He interrupted me. “Do we get to hear the title of the play?”
I said, “That is the title.”
Strasberg burst out laughing, and said, “Oh! Okay. Sorry. Please continue.” The whole room laughed, the tension breaking for a second.
I started talking. I had no notes, like I said, and no plan, even. I just started talking.
I talked for half an hour straight.
And he did not interrupt me once.
As I kept talking, and as he remained silent and focused on me, I started getting confused and scared. My whole head was beet-red (as multiple helpful people informed me after class). Why wasn’t he interrupting me? Was I doing it wrong? I didn’t refer to the script. I don’t think I even opened it. I sat in my chair, and talked and talked and talked, I remember gesturing, I remember stopping for a second to think … and he let me think. He didn’t interrupt me thinking. He just waited for me to get my thoughts together. The entire energy in the room changed. I know everyone in the room was also on the edge of their seats, like … “why … why isn’t he interrupting her?” And as it became clear he WASN’T going to interrupt me, the focus then turned to me with a bright spotlight. I could feel it happen, I could feel the wattage intensify. It was like suddenly realizing you are ahead of the pack, you are alone on the road. Like I said, I have always wanted to try to write this experience down, but have hesitated because of the reality that it will sound like I am bragging. But minor triumphs (and major) should be treasured and remembered, because they will be few and far between, and they can help you soldier on when the going gets tough. I have often felt invalidated, or disappointed, but then I remember what that day felt like, the day John Strasberg didn’t interrupt me once – and I remember who I am, my strengths, and why I am doing what I am doing.
I don’t even remember what I said! I just talked. I talked about my love of the script, I talked about how it haunted me, I talked about how I had worked on it in Chicago, I talked about how I saw myself doing it, I talked about the freakin’ SET I wanted. I talked about the characters, and why their crackup was something I understood. I talked about how it was a play ABOUT theatre, and that it was MY dream of what theatre was like. I talked about Strasberg’s Song and Dance exercise – his DAD’s exercise – and how I always thought Two-Character Play was kind of that exercise in play form. I don’t even know what the hell I said. Try talking for half an hour straight and you’ll see how long it is!! As I kept going, and as he never interrupted me, I started to feel my strength, I started to forget my fear, and I knew exactly – EXACTLY – who I was.
Finally I stopped. I don’t think I summed up things neatly. I didn’t end with a thesis statement. I just finally was done. So I stopped.
You could have heard a pin drop in that room. I was still so nervous I felt sick to my stomach. I wondered if he was about to crucify me with some devastating comment about how full of shit I was. Or, worse, toss me out of class. I wondered if he hadn’t interrupted me because he was so gobsmacked that I even had a delusion that I deserved to be in that room. This is the head trip I put myself through. I was so WOUND UP. God. Red-faced, lit-up, chattering, clammy, heart pounding. The silence kept spreading and I felt like I was being hung out to dry.
And then all he said was, after about 15, 20 seconds of silence: “I’d like to see you work on a scene from the play. Ask someone in the class to work with you and bring it in next time. Okay?”
That was it.
THAT WAS IT????
I was on the edge of a nervous collapse. I didn’t understand what was happening. Why he hadn’t done to me what he did to everyone else. I nodded. “Sure. Okay.”
Then someone (bless them) asked the question everyone (including me) wanted to hear. “John … can I ask you why you never interrupted Sheila?”
John said, “The entire time she was talking, she was in her dream of the play. You could see it vibrating off of her. She was so involved with herself and her dream I felt no need to stop her. She’s already in the space of work. She’s ready to work. Couldn’t you feel it?”
Nobody answered but everyone thought about it.
I didn’t even know my own name when I walked out of the room. It may not be a triumph on the level of winning an Oscar, but the day John Strasberg didn’t interrupt me once is one of my greatest triumphs.
I did work on a scene from the play for the next day with my friend Stephen. We cavorted around in our pajamas, I wore a tiara and held up a candleabra, I popped pills, I wore false eyelashes, I screamed at him, and whatever, I don’t really remember it. I know the play so well, and it’s always scary and fun. Strasberg had asked the other people to also come in with scenes from the plays they talked about. I suppose he wanted to see us attempt to enter our dreams about these plays. I have dreamt about doing Two Character Play for most of my life. We finished working, and I was a wreck. I was sure I was awful, blah blah. Strasberg spent a lot of time talking to my scene partner. He liked my scene partner, I could tell. He gave him notes and suggestions. He worked with him a bit. He liked the theatricality of the play, he was not familiar with it, and he liked it. The play is not realistic and he thought what we did was a hoot, and said he actually would like to see a production of it. This was all fine. But he focused only on my scene partner. He didn’t look at me once. Or, this is what it seemed like to me.
I felt betrayed and abandoned and alone. As Strasberg kept talking only to my scene partner, I started to sink into a pit of despair. (I don’t mind criticism. PLEASE make me better! I WANTED it from him. I ACHED for it. So it wasn’t like I wanted to hear “You were glorious darling, Perfection!” and was upset it wasn’t forthcoming. I was sure he had hated me, but worse that I had let him down somehow, especially after him letting me talk for half an hour without interrupting. I wondered heartbroken if he was like, “Well. She sucks. That was terrible. Oh well, too bad, I thought she might be good.” How much time of my life has been spent with bullshit like this.
After talking with my scene partner for about 15 minutes, NEVER ONCE ACKNOWLEDGING ME, Strasberg turned to look at me. He didn’t say anything. I looked back at him. I was so uncertain, so on the edge, I felt like screaming, “WHAT? WHAT DO YOU SEE RIGHT NOW??”
Finally he said, simply, quietly, but also bluntly, “Sheila. What do you think your problem is?”
It was a terrible moment. I clearly had so many problems he didn’t even know where to start. I was on the verge of tears.
One of my strengths as an actor in that class was my openness to whatever he did. I did not resist him. I felt it would be in my best interest to go with him, whatever it was. I would learn more if I just submitted. It was a gut feeling. I’ve had a lot of teachers and this is not always my reaction. Sometimes you want to “vet” the teacher, hold off, get a feel for their style, to see if they’re trustworthy. There are some charlatans out there. But for whatever reason, in Strasberg’s workshop, I threw myself into it with such abandon I was a nervous wreck. So he asked me that terrible question. “What do you think your problem is?” Was this a setup?
I can’t remember what I said, but I did pull myself together and talk about what I thought my problem was as an actress. It wasn’t a bullshit answer. It was honest. Maybe something about not trusting my instincts (even though … I DO trust my instincts. Like, that ISN’T a problem for me as an actor.) But I FELT like I didn’t trust my instincts so maybe I needed to work on that. etc. I didn’t talk for half an hour this time. I didn’t rattle it off, but I did not go on at length.
He didn’t respond immediately to what I said. He took it in, just staring at me across the room, with that face that was so hard to read at times. Despite the unreadability of his expression, I have rarely felt so seen. I didn’t even know WHAT he was seeing, but I knew it was me – all of me, my nerves, my desire to do well, my anxiety, how I got in my own way, but also how much fun I had when I got to play make-believe, all of it.
Then he said, and this was the comment that altered me: “I think your problem is that you feel like you are supposed to have problems. You actually have no problems. You have no problems.”
That was all he said to me.
It was one of the most validating moments of my adult life as an actress.
I said, “I … I have no problems?”
“You have no problems as an actor. You think you should have problems. But you do not have any problems.”
“And so … that’s it?”
“That’s all you have to say to me?”
The way I said “that’s all you have to say to me?” made the room laugh – and John Strasberg laughed too, his face bursting out into warmth.
So I left the stage with my scene partner.
I sat in my chair, and was barely able to concentrate on the other scenes going on. I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but I knew it was something important. Someone – someone I revered and admired in my chosen field – just told me there was nothing wrong with me as an actor, and – this is the bragging part, but bear with me – I sensed, and it was unmistakable, that his energy with me was very different from his energy with the other students in the class, and everyone recognized it. He liked my scene partner and yet worked with him on improving for about 15 minutes. He didn’t work with me at ALL. A part of me felt cheated but another part – the bigger part – felt a little awestruck. You NEED these moments in the pursuit of acting, where you feel your singularity, you feel seen, you feel strong, where you feel like whatever you do is RIGHT. You alREADY are a success, whether the world knows about it or not.
On the last day of the workshop, as the class dispersed, he came over to me and actually stood there waiting for me to finish talking to someone else. It was obvious. He wanted to talk. We then stood there for a while, not speaking to each other. We both were rather shy. Then he said, out of nowhere, “You and I …. are kindred spirits, you know.” I almost burst into tears because I felt the same thing, only I never would have presumed to say something like that to him, and I said, “Yes. I felt it too.” He saw the emotion on my face and then said, “Keep working. You’re exciting. I won’t forget you.” We were awkward and at ease at the same time. We recognized one another.
I will never forget him, either. He’s still out there, still teaching, still doing his thing. If you are an actor and you see he is teaching a workshop near you, do yourself a favor and get yourself a spot in his class.
Lee Strasberg was a big influence on me as a kid. John Strasberg saw me – and my dream – as an adult and told me I have no problems. I think I SHOULD have problems, and so maybe I even manufacture them, but he just wanted me to know – to KNOW – that I have no problems. Nothing was in the way between me and my dream. I was already IN the dream. I was in the dream when I walked through the damn door.
He saw that in me, recognized its rarity, called it out, and then let me go on my merry way. Forever altered. The dream has changed over the intervening years, but I’m still in it. Still attempting to bridge the gap between my dream – of life, art, process – and reality. It’s the only way I know how to be. I’ve sometimes considered this a problem. I’m an escapist, a fantasist, immature. He wanted me to know there was no problem with it. I was there already.
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.
This was a very thought-provoking post. It was incredibly interesting. I’ve told you before that I’ve always seen and felt something very special in you. You have an openness and life in your writing that is really quite rare. It seems that the world has largely not picked up on it, although your very loyal following and many successes are a good indication that a lot of people do get it. This is poorly said, but you are so very human, and that beautiful reality just leaps off the page. Of course, in addition, you are smart, honest, thoughtful, funny, empathetic, observant, and tough as nails…softer nails. It’s sad that I’ve never seen you act, but I KNOW that human quality would be equally apparent in your stage work. You certainly don’t need my acknowledgement, but this post is just another example that you are special, and I’m glad I know you.
DBW – I always appreciated your comments here and am very touched by your kind words.
DBW said it so well. I cannot improve on those words. Sheila, I loved this piece. My heart was beating like mad. I am so glad you had this experience. You deserved it.
Thanks Melissa – yes, it was so special! I highly recommend his book if you haven’t read it!