Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In Memoriam: Arthur Storch

Arthur Storch was my acting teacher in the second year of my time at the New School for Drama.  He was one of the best I've had.  His approach was always practical, focusing on tangible things that would affect us or our partners in the scene.  I remember one "trick" he taught me, one that I will forever use when needed.

In the scene from Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" with the two brothers, I was the more passive Frankie.  At one point in the scene my partner Florin had me up against the wall, threatening me.  Afterwards Arthur said I was missing the fear that he thought should be present there, and told me a story.  In a similar situation on stage, he was supposed to be terrified of his partner but he was having trouble making it real.  Arthur said he always had a fear of getting his nose broken, so when it was needed, he just imagined his scene partner punching him square on the nose.  He suggested I try finding something similar.  I have a thing about my teeth, so when we did the scene again and Florin started intimidating me I imagined him punching me in the mouth, splitting my lip and knocking out a tooth or two.  Arthur said that time, I was white as a sheet.  Immediate results from a simple thought; it was excellent advice.

Arthur loved imagination, the "as if" of acting.  He often said "When you're sitting at home in your chair, thinking about your scene..."  He also encouraged us to find inspiration from all corners, especially literature.  I loved this approach.  I've been a lifelong reader, and I don't exactly have a great deal of drama in my own past from which to draw inspiration, so it helps me to use the drama of others (real or imaginary).  I ended up re-reading Lord of the Rings after Arthur had given us this advice, and by the time I finished I found myself so identifying with Frodo's sense of discontent and not-belonging at the end of his journey in the Shire, even though that wasn't something I'd ever experienced myself, that I knew it was something I'd be able to utilize forever, when the need arose.

I've had a lot of great teachers, and the best of the best expanded their approach well beyond the subject we were ostensibly there to learn.  My Latin teacher in high school, Mrs. Warren, knew everything I could ever begin to ask about Latin.  But she also taught us how to learn, how each of our brains functioned and how best to work with that.  Rick Sordelet was just at the New School for six weeks to teach us stage combat, but he had us doing exercises to learn about ourselves as people & actors and how we could best fit into the industry, and how to work off of other people not just in a fight scene but a kitchen-sink drama, or even off-stage.  He helped us take ownership of our careers.  Arthur wanted us to be students of life.  He encouraged us to read anything and everything; literature, non-fiction, the news.  He took us on a field trip, my first visit to the Frick.  He wanted us to be inspired by the greatness that had come before us.  He was delighted to be there, and delighted to introduce us to the museum.

By the time I took his class, Arthur had been in the business for about 50 years.  Needless to say the man was full of stories.  He once rode to a session at the Actors Studio on the back of James Dean's motorcycle.  He had a terrible time on Broadway with Shelley Winters.  He reported to the set of The Exorcist for weeks before William Friedkin finally took a minute to talk to him about his now-famous scene as the psychiatrist.  He wasn't just namedropping though; his stories were always told as an example of some point he was trying to make.  Except perhaps the James Dean thing, but, come on.

He also told us smaller stories, the points of which often became catchphrases for our class.  In one play (I may be paraphrasing a bit here, as this was seven years ago), Arthur was supposed to rush onstage to deliver some news.  He knew his character had run from the bus station, so he spent his time before entering working himself up physically and running out of breath.  He realized the point of his news was being lost because of his physical state, because "it's not a scene about a guy who's out of breath."  He also used the example of whispering "shh, the baby's sleeping" on stage.  In life, of course, you'd say it as quietly as possible.  On stage you have to make sure the whole house can hear you, while also serving the reality of the play.  That was the crux of what I took from Arthur's class: be as real as possible while also serving the story and the audience.

The day after I got home for Christmas break that year, my father died suddenly of a heart attack.  Arthur had given us homework for the break, which involved acting in social situations without telling our friends we were acting to see how it affected us and how they reacted to us.  Great assignment, but I now felt inappropriate pretending to be drunk while carrying out mourning obligations.  I gave Arthur a call to let him know the situation, and why I felt I couldn't do the assignment.  He was wonderfully supportive.  We talked for a while, and he asked me about Dad and generally made me feel better about everything.  He excused me from the assignment.  When we came back to school, everyone took turns telling the class how their homework went over with their friends.  When it came to my turn, he asked if I'd like to talk to the class about what happened, so I briefly told them about Dad and why I couldn't do the assignment.  I believe I may have still connected some of what I had to do to the work.  It's hard to turn that off.  But not everyone in class knew about what happened, so it was a good way to get it all out there.  Arthur was incredibly supportive.  When you met him, you wanted him to be this old Brooklyn warhorse of an acting teacher, and while there were certain aspects of that he defied expectations.  He was incredibly sophisticated, and demanding, and encouraging, and frustrating, and kind, and everything you want your acting teacher to be.  We all worked hard to meet his expectations, not out of fear of being reamed out (though that was a possibility if you really shirked your duties), but because we were excited about meeting the potential he saw for us.

One last story: Spring Break of that year I drove with my then-girlfriend now-wife from Texas to Tennessee and back (or vice versa; again, seven years), a 15-hour drive.  Arthur asked us all what we were planning, and when he found out I was doing that he basically told me our relationship wouldn't survive being stuck in a car together for 30 hours.  He said it in that great Arthur way, though, that said more about him than me.  The man's eye could twinkle brighter than Santa Claus.  Amy and I still joke about that comment.  And we're still surviving the trip, Arthur.

I'm not a believer in the afterlife, but if I were, I'd imagine Arthur in his chair somewhere, script in his lap, imagining the life of his character to the fullest, and avoiding Shelley Winters at all costs.  Rest in peace Arthur.  We miss you and we thank you.

1 comment: