Being Dr. Coppelius taxed this non-thespian. Photo credit Ken Esten Cooke

“Be brave enough to suck at something new.”

Dec 4, 2019–A few weeks ago I was coaxed back onto the stage again.

Readers of this column know I am a reluctant thespian. I never acted in high school, and my only other roles were when I played a tree in a local production of The Wizard of Oz and “man in bar” for Beauty and the Beast.

But somehow Regan Mann talked me into helping out the Fredericksburg Dance Company for its production of Coppelia. She appealed to the part of me that finds value in trying out new things, especially ones that terrify me. Acting would fall into that category.

After doing the show, I have a new admiration for actors.

For those who don’t know the ballet, Coppelia is about an eccentric old man who makes dolls–for some reason.

Though I played the pivotal role of Dr. Coppelius, I’m still not sure I follow the story thread. He thinks his dolls are real, and uses one to lure Franz (danced by Carlos Hernandez) to his studio–for some reason.

A real woman–Swanhilda–is jealous of the doll and loves Franz, so she pretends to be the doll and come alive to fool Dr. Coppelius–for some reason.

The backstory doesn’t matter. But I had to learn it so that Barclay Hammond, FDC ballet instructor, could patiently help me inhabit the part and refine my character.

Summer Reed, a professional dancer, played the role of Swanhilda. Much of my part was being on stage with her while she teased, vexed, and annoyed me because she was really in love with Franz.

To prepare for this role, I read several books on acting and especially loved one by D.W. Brown called You Can Act! (a brash title). He shared some pointers…

  • Be affected.
    It’s OK to be vulnerable. That’s a terribly frightening state, one we learn to suppress from the first day we enter school and discover that friends will tease you. On stage, you have to be open to looking foolish. Never a problem for me.
  • Do the next necessary thing.
    You can overthink a part. Waiting in the wings, I would obsess over where I would go, what I would do. I found it better to just think about setting that foot on stage, then letting the scene unfold by doing the next thing. Saves lots of stress.
  • Respect stillness. Don’t rush.
    Most of us amateurs overact. In acting, teaching, or public speaking, one of the hardest actions is to stand in front of an audience and do nothing. Yet it is effective in drawing attention. In my other role as Uncle Drosselmeier, just before he started the Nutcracker magic, I stood stockstill with my back to the audience while the music built. It put the accent on the transition from reality to magic.
  • Be surprised. Fight anticipation.
    The one takeaway for me was not “to act,” but “not to act.” To be so comfortable with the blocking and story, that you can virtually enter into that scene and live it as if for the first time. That happens in the details. For example, if you need to pick up a prop, you have to look for it, even though you know where it is from 37 rehearsals. If someone jumps out and surprises you, you have to be surprised!
  • Allow everything.
    This is gold. It’s saying to embrace everything, even–especially–the mistakes that happen on stage. Summer was a genius at this. Every show, she did something different and spontaneous. I had to pay attention to what she was doing, and really react to her. I knew it was working because my character–who was supposed to be annoyed with her–grew genuinely annoyed with her. She kept pestering me, getting in my space where she hadn’t before. One time she actually whacked my thumb with a sword, drawing blood. Oh, how we sacrifice for art.

These revelations changed the way I acted, and gives me greater appreciation for real actors. I now understand the talent and skill required to go on stage. The good ones are not pretending to be in the scene; they are in the scene. Despite the distractions, cameras, lights, and multiple takes.

For those of you who are veteran stage performers, this is probably something you learned in Acting 101.

But I like to take new insight and turn it into a lesson to be used in other parts of life. I guess the obvious is to “be in the moment” in every part of your life, from enjoying a delicious meal to listening to a toddler tell a convoluted tale.

So, the next time you are looking for an eccentric old man to perform a role… call someone else! Someone who already knew this.