A New Lesson From Long Ago

First Published backstage.com Oct. 30, 2014

I was a student in graduate school at the University of Illinois. It was the first year of its master’s program in acting and, consequently, they didn’t have a handle on who would teach what. They lassoed in a woman in her late 70s or early 80s to teach acting.

Mary Arbenz was an actor from a long-gone era. She arrived in New York in 1927 and was almost immediately cast in the world premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. As students in 1976, acting meant Marlon Brando and the Actors Studio, not Mary Arbenz and her performance tips from the Pleistocene Epoch. Unfortunately, as a group we didn’t take her class very seriously.

That was almost 40 years ago. Mary would be happy to know that some of her advice landed in fertile soil. Mary said one of the best exercises for the actor can be done when you are not working: reading plays. Read the great plays. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, and of course O’Neill.

Mary said she used to invite her actor friends over to her apartment for a “reading party.” She would open a bottle of wine, people would bring over a copy of the play for the evening, and they would read.

But there was a catch.

No one played a part. You went around the circle, in order, reading whatever speech was next. That way everyone had a turn playing Othello, Iago, or Lodovico. Men read Desdemona. Women played Cassio.

We learn in many ways. Speaking and listening use different parts of the brain. Using Mary’s method, you absorb a play in a completely new and comprehensive way.

We tried it with Henry IV, Part 1. Everyone had the best time taking a crack at Falstaff and Hotspur. Everyone played extras. Actors who never got a chance to play leads got to read Hal. The play flew by. (The wine may have helped.) Tuesday night became play-reading night. We took on new plays by Pinter. We read Sophocles and Euripides.

Our readings uncovered larger patterns. We began to understand the elements of storytelling, a critical skill for all directors and writers. By moving through plays of different eras, we got a historical perspective on structure and we saw the transforming views on morality. On man’s desire for freedom. What changed. What stayed the same. It became a tutorial on civilization.

We learned different approaches to comedy and drama. We saw how great writers created suspense and delivered exposition, which became a critical skill in improvisation. We learned all of this in ways you cannot learn in an acting class or even doing eight shows a week on Broadway.

And you do it all while drinking wine!

One of the hardest parts of being an actor is how to manage your time when you are not working. Mary Arbenz would say never turn your back on your creative self. Always be a student. Keep learning. Keep taking steps forward. Revelation may come in a moment, but it doesn’t come overnight.

1 Comment

  1. Stan Williams on April 20, 2015 at 3:53 am

    It wasn’t just the wine. It was doing this out loud…with friends. Imagine how instructive this would be for the first table read for a real production….for the lead to have his or her lines read by the nemesis, or even include department heads in the rotation. Then throw in the slug lines, action descriptions and parentheticals. What fun — and insight. Thanks, Stephen