Fall 1995: Acting Notebook

Going through all these old notebooks – I came across the notebooks I kept during grad school. At first they start out all work, no play … which is interesting in and of itself – but the notebooks I kept over the last 2 years, this sort of manic hilarity started to infuse all of them – and there were times reading some of them where I was HOWLING. The comments from Sam – my great acting teacher and mentor (he came into my life in 1996 – so he’s not in this particular notebook). He was so irreverent, and yet also so brilliant. The things that are said in acting class sometimes … are just the funniest things in the world. Because what we are working on is SERIOUS. And yet … there is a level of absurdity to the entire endeavor. I always loved that dichotomy.

Anyway, here’s the notebook I kept about my acting classes and stuff I was working on – my first fall in New York.

It’s a mix. This is kind of the serious all-work-no-play notebook. Book lists. Quotes. Personal ruminations. Acting notes. Mish-mash. A lot of this is just me trying to work stuff out – character stuff, writing questions to myself, answering them, contemplating … I guess I find it hard to believe that this was written so soon after this stuff. It was quite a year.

FALL 1995

Make Voyages.
Attempt them.
That’s all there is.
— T. Williams

Bobby: “Acting is not so much about letting people in. It’s about letting you out.”

Well, might it not be part of an actor’s expertise to produce what is real?
— Nicholas Mosley

Sept. 1
Watching Dog Day Afternoon with David.
David: “Did you see how when he was screaming – his whole throat and body remained relaxed? That’s acting technique.”

Sept. 5
Tomorrow. 10 am. Orientation begins. Total unknown. I am positively unprepared. And also pretty okay with that. Walk in with confidence. You know you’re not cocky. Breathe in the air. Remember EVERYTHING. You belong here. You have been invited. Remember that audition. Remember how you felt. You felt validated without one soul telling you you did good. You knew it.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

Set yourself up only to be open, receptive, a sponge, ready to be hurt, ready to be wrong, ready to learn. Run screaming into the void.

Run from safety.

Even in small ways. Be yourself. But see, that has never been the real struggle for me. I carry my snail shell around with me. I hide til I know it’s safe. I can’t do that here. I must stop setting up barriers, inventing things to be afraid of, reasons to run away. Take your moment, Sheila. Own your own life. I am the sorceress. I dreamt of this, and now it has happened.

Don’t be afraid. Remember Michael whispering to me over and over and over in the pitch darkness – I will never forget it – fear is death fear is death fear is death, Sheila, fear is death … Tears sliding down my cheeks. Michael whispering, “That’s right, Sheila – cry – scream – laugh – ” From whence all this fear? I do not know.

Feel the fear and run through it screaming.

So tomorrow. Walk slowly. Take your time. Be conscious of your breathing. Be open. I am here for a reason. My feelings are mine. My life is mine.

Also. Remember your angel.

Know that you are not alone and never will be so.

Sept. 7
Boloslovsky – read more Boloslovsky

Anne Jackson: “Actors are braver than astronauts.”

Meisner: conflict
Conflict is not just a quarrel. Conflict results from the glue between people. Conflict results when you ask the question, “Can either of those people walk away from that?” and the answer is no.

I don’t know how this has happened – but so much of who I am is because of him.

Sally Field: razor blades inside, scraping herself raw – Then, just before it’s time – letting that inner stuff start to bleed. Make herself available.

How painful this all has been for me. Moving. Leaving my home, my dear friends, my man. And yet I know now why I subjected myself to all of that. I sit in that darkened room – and there were times when I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I’m home. Here is where I should be.

Sept. 12
“calm brilliant power” – David

Sensory work: as if it were the last thing we were going to explore on this earth. Give it that importance.

Lee Strasberg: “If I ask for an apple, just a slice would be fine. Just don’t give me 4 or 5 oranges.”

Sept. 13
The key to the treasure chest is the 5 senses.

Concentrate. Focus. Engage your will

Sept. 15 – workshop with Estelle Parsons

she talked of Nijinsky

“Have faith in your gift”

“Bring your instrument to the playing space”

“I am my Stradivarius.”

Sunday 17th
Watched Scarface

What I saw at work there: besides all the character work that he buried – fucking buried himself in – I saw total utter Zen-like relaxation. No tension in the face, the throat – The ACTOR was relaxed – the CHARACTER was tense.

This is what I believe to be my greatest challenge. This is my goal – what I want – and what I will strive for.


Walking down the street today after seeing Scarface – thinking about Pacino’s relaxation – I remembered Kenny’s favorite story about Ruth Nelson. When asked the key to acting, she said: “Love and relaxation.”

Mary Stuart Masterson:
“I need to do what I can do to do a good job – not try to be a good girl.”

On Chris Walken: “the relaxation with which he works is extraordinary” – Wow

On Johnny Depp: “He is a really safe place for me.”

“You learn by observing.”

“Practice the art of letting go. Don’t try so hard to do it. Try to let it do you.”

She said, “If you have a structure – then you have freedom.” I so believe that. Madeleine L’Engle taught me that. I still am learning a way to work. You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to work whether inspiration comes or not.

Stanislavsky: “In relaxation lay the whole secret, the whole soul of creativeness on the stage. All the rest would come from this state and perception of physical freedom.”

Tuesday Sept. 26
Thinking about Action. Strasberg says that action is the most essential element in acting. I think people forget that about Strasberg. They get all caught up in the controversy of effective memory and forget that above all else, says Strasberg, is action. That’s what I see in Lili Taylor’s work. All of it. She tackles a scene with action. She is Doing. The reality of the Doing. Holly Hunter is that kind of actor, too. Action. What are you DOING?

“Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.”
— Helen Keller

10-2 Lee Grant
She spoke of Meisner. Neighborhood Playhouse:
— breaking down a play so that there isn’t a mystery – work thru the mystery. You want something – how badly you want it is what makes it exciting. Meisner taught: Keep your secrets precious.

“I like my secrets. It’s where your juice comes from.”

“Say yes to everything.”

“When I get up to do a tough scene – I just have to trust that all the living I’ve done will be there.”

She brought up Trust a lot

She said she lives and feels more intensely in her work, her acting, than she feels in her real life. Same with me.

Let the leap of faith immerse you in imaginary circumstances.

“Don’t be afraid that it will take you nowhere.” – E. Parsons

John Strasberg workshop
Think organically.

He said: “Boredom is very important in life. It helps you feel when something is wrong.”

“Don’t push through. Just direct yourself towards the life you imagine.”

“It is in the accident/in the moment of silence that you find out who you are.”

Kazan said to her: “You must not be ashamed of your emotions.”

“The rhythms of being an actress – 1. Intensity, 2. Letting it out. It’s like a heartbeat.” – Faye D.

Faye: “The world of acting leaves nerve endings exposed. You have to learn that if they are touched, you won’t die.”

On Chinatown: “I tried to give that character a voice full of money.”

On Days of the Condor: “That was very interior”.

Pinter said: “No answers, no labels, just investigation.”

Faye: “The character doesn’t know what she is doing, she doesn’t know what is in her subconscious – but the actress does. You have to gear up towards the moment of release.”

On Network: “I just had to play that one like a bat out of hell.”

On acting, in general: “I like to get in my own little world and play. It’s private.”

On Mommie Dearest: “There was a rift in that woman’s psyche. I played the entire performance from inside that rift.”

On Mommie Dearest: “It was really supposed to be more like a piece of kabuki – rather than realistic.”

On Mickey Rourke in Barfly: “He works for 4 months before doing a role in order to throw it all away the seconds the cameras start to roll and find something else.”

Faye: “When the cameras are rolling, I have permission to be the best of myself.”

Working on The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year by John Guare

Remember what the title of the play is. Think more upon this.

— 11 months of silence
— What do I do all day?
Why? Why don’t I speak to anyone?
— I moved to NYC from Ohio. Why?
— surrounded by piles of murder mysteries – what is that about?

I have moved to NYC from Ohio to find my soulmate. I know I’ll have a better chance of finding him here. So I will wait. I will see what comes my way. And I would rather die than be without him. Literally.

He says to me: “You’ve saved my life.” Likewise for me.

“I want to be married. I like you. I’d like to be married to you.”

“Why fall in love with anybody? You just get hurt. I’m young. I’m pretty. I don’t need anybody.”

I am ready for love. I live in an empty apartment filled with murder mysteries I’m afraid to read.

I’m pretty. I know I’m pretty. This is why I cannot understand why no one will speak to me. Prettiness. Think more about that.

Uncle Vanya
“Life here is dreary and stupid and sordid.” – Astrov

Elizabeth: “By breaking a pattern – we’re already unlocking cages in the psyche.”

Concentrate. Relax. Focus. Think of focus as a liquid thing – so that you can pour it. Be in my soul.

11-13 Glenn Close
“Bring your whole day onto the stage with you.” – Mike Nichols

She likes to work totally within the imagination. Within a character – she likes to have “a library of images from the character’s life.”

“I have to love whatever character I’m playing.”

On live theatre: “Good live theatre should disturb molecules. An audience should come out of the theatre a little rearranged.”

2 Character Play – T. William
‘Fear is a monster” – ????

I mention a doctor (a psychiatrist?)

Magnust/Artists Management guaranteed press coverage

Felice says I “rage against fascism” to the press – what is that about? Like Stella Adler?

When I first walk in – where am I coming from? Felice says – “I called you” – was I passed out in the dressing room? We arrived at the theatre and I blacked out in the dressing room.

We have had two disastrous seasons in a row – we have no place to return to – we have to go on.

I told Felice to cut his play. What do I think needs to be cut? When I do cut, why? What do I cut? If I’m supposed to start the play at the window: how does the play really start? Is the first line really “who are you calling?”

Are we twins?

The cablegram: when do I notice it? Does he notice me notice it?

Sunflower: Here he says he saw the flower. At the end, I say it. Which way is it?

Esoteric astrology. Need costume jewelry for this part. T-strap shoes. Vintage dress.

Agoraphobia. Nuclear holocaust. Paralyzing self-consciousness.

I don’t want to get lost in the play. He does. One of us has to be in touch with reality or we will never come back. He’ll kill us both. I have to keep one foot out of the play.

“Fear is a monster” – some kind of incantation (taught by Father?) – to keep the fear back – is it something he would say before astrology readings (me and Felix under a blanket of tents – listening)

My Painting Project [the following image is pasted into my notebook. My assignment was: write a monologue for this woman – what would she say, whose hat is that on the radiator, who is she – and at some point – during the monologue – assume the pose – so that you “become” the painting – for just a moment. It’s one of the best acting projects I’ve ever been assigned. Seriously. True high point. So these are my notes on creating this whole little show out of nothing. ]

— Scott Joplin – “Solace”
— stillness
— smoking
— contemplation
— he loves me. He told me when he left last night.
— stand at window, staring out.
— he is too much for me. I am gonna fuck this up.

I can’t do this. No way.
You’re too much for me. Way too much. I don’t like how I’m feeling right now. Something’s happening to me. When you leave me – I am set adrift. I wander.
I’m afraid to go outside.
Everything hurts.
The air is full of glass.
I did not feel this way before I knew you. Other people can do this. Have relationships and things. But I can’t. I am not made right.
When we make love I feel like I have a chance at a life.
I love you. You’re nothing special, either, so I don’t understand this.
I don’t want to get involved. I don’t get involved.
You’re so fucking nice about all of this. I can’t figure that part out. I know I’m a bitch. I’m a bitch on purpose.
In your presence I am disarmed.
I know what people think when they see me. I know what men think. I know who they think I will be. And I don’t disappoint them.
Ever since we started sleeping together, I’ve been having this dream. It has to do with icebergs. Icebergs scare the shit out of me. Most of an iceberg is underwater. Why does that scare me so much? It just does. Huge skyscrapers of ice – and you see 20 feet of it. Same dream every time. I go into it and I know what’s coming, I know the end, and I get ready – I succumb to the inevitable in the dream. It’s like I’m blind – I can feel myself moving thru space – not space – but moving – and there is something ahead of me. Then boom! Suddenly I can see – and my entire view is this massive fucking iceberg.
I’m not stupid. I know what the dream means.
I want you to see all of me, not just the tip. I want you to see me. But I don’t know how to do it. I am going to fuck this up. I might even fuck it up on purpose. Please. Don’t let me do that.
You ever see pictures of what happens when an iceberg melts? It’s not a popsicle melting on a hot summer sidewalk. It’s huge fucking chunks of ice crashing into the water. That’s an iceberg melting.

— stool
— black fringe
— scarf
— Daily News
— little table

2 Character Play
p. 327 – he tells me to “stop repeating” – what am I repeating?

Then comes the section about the opal. It ends with Felice, p. 328 – “Nothing could be unlucky that looks so lovely” –

Why do the sunflowers scare me? Are they a sign we are near the end of the play? Then comes the cablegram section. Seeing it really pulls me out of the play. Am I stalling? Avoiding the sunflowers? But then he brings us back to the sunflower. I seem to be trying to avoid it. Then I say: “Front yard? Now I know you’re fooling.” What is that about? Where else would they be? He goes off on the sunflowers – I seem to cut him off – strike the piano – I want to get off the subject.

Question: the card isn’t really there – but this event really happened. We both GO with the Citizens relief thing – it’s like it’s a shared memory we are re-living

p. 333 – I seem to wrestle us back to the script. “What’s next on the agenda?”
p. 334 – I totally break and look out at the audience: “I don’t want to do next” –

Who is Fox? Normally he makes our hotel reservations. Is he the tour manager.
Villa Lobos. Brasilianas?
Who is Franz? I want him to get me coffee. He was supposed to call me to the stage. Stage manager?
Eleanor of Aquitaine
I say “a state theatre of a state unknown” – are we in a Communist country? Touring theatres?

Our house in New Bethesda
sunflowers: were they really as tall as the house?
Felice describes us “a recluse brother and his sister”
I say about the flower: “It would be a monster of nature – not marvel – if it existed at all, and I know that it doesn’t.”
He imagined the monster flower?

Were we children when the event happened?

My secretiveness has served me well. And it no longer does. It is hurting me. I am hiding. Why is revealing such a shameful thing for me?

Wherefore is the shame?

As Olympia Dukakis said – these things like shame, and fear – they have to come with us – come on stage with us – be put into our work.

Uncle Vanya
What does this character want
My marriage – ???
“It wasn’t my fault”
This conversation with Sonya would not take place in the day
The air has cleared from the storm
Gout: huge swelling ankles and feet, feet spilling over top of shoes
Boredom – the jumping off place
It is one a.m.
Almost a sleepwalking atmosphere
Vanya just hit on me
The tension between Sonya and me – she’s been “sulking” – and no. I do not love her father. She sees me. She’s got my number. I feel I need to talk to her about it.
*I am married to her Father. I am 10 years younger than she is.
Music. What have I given up? How talented was I?
Am I in love with Astrov?
Do I sleep with my husband anymore?
How much does he repulse me?
Have I had missed moments with Sonya before? Have I ever tried to connect with her before?
We’ve had no space
What’s the hook here.
Can woman trust each other?
Sonya’s unrequited love for Astrov – I relate to it. I also know that he does not love her. I can see it.

In the script:
Serebyakov says: “Ask my wife to come here” when I am right there
Does this happen a lot? I am invisible to him.
I am not invisible to Astrov. Or Vanya. Or Sonya.

When I open up to her – don’t assume she wants to make up too. Risk. Higher stakes. Unknown territory. I could be hurt.

Sonya tells me about Astrov and his trees – then in our scene, I tell her about it. I tell her as though she has never told it to me. I have been mulling over what she said about Astrov in my mind. It impressed me.

Opposites. Remember opposites. Cover up how needy you are.

Happiness is not possible for me. I must give up on the hope for love in my life. Guilt: I don’t love her father. Tap into that guilt more. I am faithful to him.

One must trust people or life becomes impossible.

I met Alexander when I was 17. He was a sort of celebrity in St. Petersburg. I had just started studying at the College of Music. I had read some of his essays on art and was awed by his brilliance. He kissed my hand when we were introduced. He said he could tell that my soul was on fire. And my soul was on fire when I played the piano. I was swept away. He was married, though. Years went by where I did not see him. I had a very unhappy love affair with another musician. A violinist. I fell in love. He did too. Then he fell out of love with me – suddenly – and married someone else. I stopped playing the piano. Then Alexander sought me out – he was now a widow. I was 25. He courted me beautifully. I had such heartache. He made me feel cured. Here he was again, after all those years. Destiny. He made me feel alive again. He worshipped my beauty. He called me a goddess. We married after only 3 weeks of courtship. I was very lonely. I had no one else in my life. I thought he was a genius. I loved his genius.

Never forget the underbelly. Astrov. Astrov occupies all of my fantasies. I am not free to have him. And Sonya is a threat. Not sexually. But he could marry her. I do need love – but not from Sonya. I need it from him

POWER! – There’s the edge. Use your power.

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11 Responses to Fall 1995: Acting Notebook

  1. Harriet says:

    “If you have a structure – then you have freedom.”

    I, too, learned that from Madeleine L’Engle, or at least she put it into words. Her sonnet explanation has always stuck with me. I’ve been learning more and more in the last year just how much this applies to me, as I have structure and I’m falling apart. Somehow I’m going to have to learn to create it for myself.

  2. red says:

    She’s so good that way, isn’t she? The whole – not waiting for the muse thing, but sitting down every day and writing … court inspiration, rather than wait for it.

    Remind me – what did she say about the sonnet?

  3. JFH says:

    The most fascinating part of this post was your notes on the picture, almost a stream of conscienceness of your thought process.

  4. red says:

    I deleted part of your comment, JFH. I’m fucking sick of that kind of comment on my site. It’s not that kind of site.

    Sorry to be mean. But I’ve had it.

  5. JFH says:

    I apologize, my secondary comment really should have been a personal email, if uttered at all.

  6. red says:

    JFH – you should apologize. Thank you. Your comments often have that edge to them – as though you dislike what I write about. Why on earth you keep reading the site of a person who so irritates you is beyond me. This isn’t a site where I’m interested in having an adversarial audience. There are plenty of those sites out there for you to choose from. I just want to chat with like-minded people about stuff that I’m passionate about – and that they are passionate about too. If this irritates you – then seriously – stop reading me. You’ve been reading my site for a long time but you’ve got this chip on your shoulder about how I write about stuff – and there’s nothing I can do about that. This is just an online journal – a personal website. Go elsewhere if you don’t like the content.

  7. Alex says:

    Oh Sheila. This is amazing, amazing stuff.

    As a matter of fact, I’d really like to steal some of your quotes for class use. Especially the Stanislavsky one.

    And please…..Faye’s Kabuki comment????? BRILLIANT!

    You know…I’ve always said that. I’ve always said that her performance is about indication rather than sub-emotion. Ya know? Like…she was playing Crawford from the outside in.

    But, when you think about it (and I have) that’s the way Crawford was. She WAS that person. Always “on”, always “ready”, and always, always performing. So, there was never a real moment in her art, or her life. Although a great actress at times, Crawford’s ability to be available in the abstract was what she was really good at.

    And that’s what Dunaway captured magnificently.

    What a GREAT Acting Diary, Sheila. It’s like one big, gorgeous treasure.

  8. red says:

    Alex – I knew you would dig those Mommie Dearest quotes!!! She was so eloquent about her work in that movie – and also really open about how disappointed she was in the result and the response. She said she felt it was the best work she had ever done. !!

  9. red says:

    Oh, and I am very glad you “benjoyed” the acting diary.

  10. Harriet says:

    At first I was just going to reply from memory, but then I remembered that I have my copy of A Wrinkle in Time here with me, so I got distracted skimming the whole book (as I am wont to do). My recollection was basically correct–Mrs. Whatsit is talking to Meg as she prepares to go back to Camazotz alone to rescue Charles Wallace, and they ask if the Happy Medium can see what will happen. Mrs. Whatsit explains that if we knew the future we’d be like the people of Camazotz, with no lives of our own, and compares it to a sonnet. She reminds Calvin of how strict the rules of rhythm, rhyme, etc. are for sonnets, but that the author has complete freedom to write about whatever he wants within those rules. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

  11. red says:

    Oh Harriet. I had forgotten that part of the book. Thank you so much for reminding me. beautiful.

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