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The actor Alan Arkin tells how to live "An Improvised Life" in his memoir of that name.

By Alan Arkin Da Capo. 201 pp. $17 by Mindy Aloff
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 10:59 AM

At the outset, this memoir by Alan Arkin - the Oscar-winning character actor, director, author and singer, best known recently for the film "Little Miss Sunshine" - promises to keep the focus on acting, and it does exactly that. You'll find more personal detail about the author in his Wikipedia entry than in this uncompromising, thoughtful and surprising book. Here all backstage information regarding his family, his friends, his colleagues and himself is dispensed on a need-to-know basis. The high security, so atypical of the contemporary memoir, seems at first a little tight-lipped.

However, after a couple of chapters, a reader catches on: Arkin is bringing forward only those indiscretions and confessions that have a direct bearing on his interior progress as a performer. He and his wife conduct workshops in imaginatively structured group improvisation, for both professionals and non-actors, around the country. Stories arising from these - and from his own enlightenment as a workshop leader - figure in the second of his memoir's two parts. By the end he has made many aspects of acting interconnect: acting as product, as entertainment, as process, as a route to self-knowledge and even - for both actor and observer - as catharsis.

When an actor isn't acting (Arkin seems to suggest), she ponders her character's life choices, so that, when she does act, there's no need to think at all. The key aspect of these dramatized meditations is that there's no final scene: You go on visualizing the next and the next, each a legacy of the choices made in the one before. For Arkin, the benefits of this mental work begin with prying open the armored self to the spontaneity of the moment. They also include the willingness to trust colleagues - even when their contributions are of questionable value - and the effort to behave ethically and with a positive outlook, especially in situations that are bleak or negatively charged.

An actor pursues these goals because, in Arkin's experience, they make it possible to become a transparent instrument for whatever part of the self is required to project a character. More than that, he suggests, they make it possible for us to transcend our condition as particular human beings. The entire book illustrates an anecdote in its prologue, where Arkin recounts how he once asked a friend and colleague, the late, ferociously talented comedian, singer and musician Madeline Kahn, what she first wanted to do as a kid: Sing? Play the piano? Make people laugh? She answered that she used to listen to a lot of music; then she thought for a while and added, "I wanted to be the music."

The nurturing of imagination - meaning those associations of disparate insights that suddenly make sense when brought together - is a major component of Arkin's improvising. His own associative skills bloomed early: He decided he wanted to become an actor when he was 5, and his vocational commitment never wavered. In his 20s, he flourished as a member of the risk-affectionate, Chicago-based improv group Second City - even when Groucho Marx was in the audience, stealing the show. (It was in Second City, where Arkin was hired by Paul Sills, that he surely encountered many of the exercises he describes using in his current improv workshops. Sills's mother, Viola Spolin, taught them to the first generation of Second City performers in the 1950s and '60s.)

Despite Arkin's later success on Broadway as an actor and director, he prefers making movies. Movie actors aren't stuck with a planned performance for months or years, an obligation he finds enslaving. He plays down the reliable acting techniques of the stage ("techniques don't last a lifetime") in favor of the uncharted adventure he finds in moviemaking, of treating a script as if one were living it for real:

"Acting is nothing more than a metaphor for life, and a pretty transparent one at that," Arkin writes. "Theater is supposed to be an art form, but most of the time it's just life up there. In the first part of a theatrical event, the playwright shows us the rules he believes life is governed by, and then he goes about attempting to prove his theories, and he does it simply by showing us human behavior. It's rarely much of an abstraction."

Still, it sounds fun to be able to live much of one's life up there on the stage. Arkin's three children, Adam, Anthony and Matthew, must think so: All have become actors. Meanwhile, Arkin's third wife, Suzanne, organizes the workshops and translates his epiphanies to the group, making it possible for the man of a thousand characters to be comfortably himself. The best part: "Miracle of miracles, Suzanne has no interest whatsoever in becoming an actress."

Mindy Aloff is the editor of "Leaps in the Dark," a collection of the writings of choreographer Agnes de Mille, forthcoming in May.

AN IMPROVISED LIFE

A Memoir

By Alan Arkin

Da Capo. 201 pp. $17

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