They wanted to call the class “Anyone Can Act.” And at first I thought:Should we be telling people? What if we get people’s hopes up? I say to people when they first come in: Anyone can act, but I’m not guaranteeing that you’ll go to Broadway.
How do you teach people to act in two hours? You don’t. You talk with people about why they are interested in it. And you play some games, do some exercises and show people that, in fact, they can act. Meryl Streep said the key to her acting ability was embracing this very simple idea: “Be who you are and know what you know.” We’re all human beings with emotions and needs. And we want to connect with one another as people. That is acting.
Sometimes we only have seven people show up, and sometimes we have 27 people. But it works no matter how many people there are and whether they know each other or not. You have to work something out together and pretend. Every now and then if there is a married couple, I’ll give them George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” And it’s so startling to hear and see people approach it. Just from human experience, we know what it’s like. We can step into somebody else’s shoes.
We move gradually from talking about ourselves, talking about our experiences, to doing a little improvisation exercise, which gives you a circumstance and pairs you with somebody. I give these little slips of paper — this particular circumstance, one of the people pretends that they have lost their child in the woods. They were hiking; they lost sight of her. They can’t find her. The other person has had an accident, was hiking alone in the woods, has fallen and broken his or her leg. They don’t know what the other person’s piece of paper says; they just know what theirs says. And so I had given this man the broken leg scenario. So he goes up on the stage and throws himself on the floor, which was great. And then this delightful woman starts screaming, “Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer!” Just throws herself into the exercise, and this amazing thing happened when the two of them started interacting with one other. She said, “What happened to you?” He said, “I fell out of the tree.” And she looks up, and she said, “Jennifer, what are you doing up there?” I’d never seen anything like that before. It was brilliant. She was just so quick. I talked to her afterward, and I said, “Keep doing this. Pursue this.”
I think that the performing arts are part of everyone’s lives whether they realize it or not. Almost everyone watches TV at some point. Or listens to the radio. Or goes to a movie. For me, art has a lot in common with religion. It’s about seeking, finding, making meaning out of our lives. The arts, I think, make one feel alive.