Read Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself Online

Authors: Alan Alda

Tags: #Actors - United States, #Actors, #United States, #Biography, #Alda; Alan, #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Personal Memoirs

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“Lysenko. Now, I hate him,” he told me. “Because he wasted my useful time—when I was young and strong.”

But then, somehow, he found books on standard biology, and while he was working on Lysenkoism during the day, he taught himself true biology at night. “I bring
Lysenko’s
book outside. But
inside…

This was a brave act; if he had been discovered, he could have been sent to prison, or worse. And I realized in that moment, standing ankle deep in an irrigation ditch in Jianjiang, that I was talking with a Chinese Jefferson. He had risked his life to give his countrymen rice that would save lives—and so had the man from Virginia.

Jefferson’s side of the story began while he was in France. He was infatuated with Maria Cosway, a British artist, and in order to impress her while they were walking in the park, he tried to jump over a bush. This was not, you would think, the act of a genius. He caught his foot on the bush, fell, and broke his wrist. A short time later, he told people he was going to Italy to recuperate; but actually, he was on a secret mission. He had heard that Italy’s Piedmont rice was better than the kind grown in the Carolinas, and he wanted some of that rice to plant in America. This was partly to help America compete with foreign countries in the sale of rice and partly because slavery, which he hated, was encouraged by the production of the American strain. The Carolina rice grew in hot, swampy, malarial lowlands, where slaves were becoming sick and dying. The Piedmont rice could be grown by ordinary farmers working without slaves in the highlands. He wanted that rice.

But the Italians were protective of their rice. It was forbidden, on pain of death, to leave Italy with unhusked rice in your possession. This was a tough sanction, and he ignored it. He sent two bags of it by mule to a port city, and just in case it was intercepted, he filled his pockets with as much as he could carry and brazenly crossed back into France.

Both men had taken serious risks, both over a question of improved rice and both to serve their country. Yuan seemed to have found the contentment that comes from serving others. I had to ask the typical interviewer’s question: How does it feel to have helped so many people? He hesitated. In China, then, people weren’t used to being asked about their feelings.

“You…you mean my feeling?”

“Yes. How do you feel?”

“My feeling. I feel very happy to do that. If people, they live very comfortable…this is my goal, my goal of my life, to make more people happy.”

I told this story at Monticello, how I had finally understood Jefferson for the first time when I met this scientist standing in a muddy ditch on the other side of the world.

Just as Jefferson filled his pockets with forbidden rice, Yuan Long Ping filled his mind with forbidden ideas—placing himself in the same kind of danger.

Yuan has fed hundreds of millions of people…because he insisted on thinking for himself. He can say, as Jie Fu Sun once said, “I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way.”

Meaning can happen when you least expect it. As with Julann’s willingness to take a random walk, one improbable thing can lead to another. I found out a little about Jefferson when I started reading feverishly about him—but now I felt I could sense him, could feel his emotions. I could see his skin and hair; I could smell him. As great as he was, he was a man of complexities and contradictions; he was human. I could accept those contradictions more easily now because I’d found out how to imagine him in a more three-dimensional way.

And I got there in the oddest of ways. I scared myself.

Chapter 7

Where Is the Place of Understanding?

It’s a quaint tradition that must go back centuries. You honor someone in a ceremony that includes seating him at a table on a dais, while the assembled guests watch him eat his dinner. That night they were honoring Simon Wiesenthal, and I was presenting him with an award, so the guests got to watch both of us eat. But, sitting next to him, I saw something more personal than that. I got to look into Wiesenthal’s soul, and it changed me a little.

Thirty-seven years after Hitler brought his country to ruin, a few neo-Nazis were still trying to kill one more Jew. They planted a bomb outside Wiesenthal’s house in Vienna, so even in 1982, for him the war was not over. I had planned to speak about this, about how harshness and hatred persisted in this artful city of Mozart, Sacher torte, schnitzel, and strudel. But after my meal with Wiesenthal, I put aside what I had planned to say and spoke instead about the man who revealed himself to me in those few minutes. I had been asked once to play him in a movie on television, but I turned down the part because I didn’t think I was right for it. As we talked now, I regretted that I hadn’t said yes, just so I could have met him earlier.

Wiesenthal had escaped death in concentration camps and had spent his life tracking down Nazis who had never been brought to justice. His goal was not to ambush and kill them, but to deliver them to courts of law. He valued justice more than revenge. He might have
felt
like killing them, but he didn’t. I had been advising young people for years to stick by their values. But
what
values? There are plenty of people in both prisons and palaces who follow their values, but not necessarily to anyone else’s benefit. Here was a man whose life made it clear that it mattered what those values actually were; what they pointed you to. Just a few degrees in another direction and they could have led to a life of violent retribution. I wondered where this calibrated sense of values had come from.

As we talked, I saw a complicated person emerge. Wiesenthal’s life was a serious, dangerous business, yet he was a man with a rich sense of humor. He told me he had a standing competition with an actor friend to see who could come up with the best jokes that the other had not heard before. Each time they met, they would pepper each other with new stories. And then he began telling me a long joke he had just come across. He loved the telling of it. Even the setup made his eyes crinkle with pleasure. He was about two-thirds of the way through the story when we noticed someone had come up to the dais and was waiting to speak to him. Wiesenthal turned to acknowledge him. The man was short and slight, in his seventies, with a weathered face. He smiled, but his smile was sorrowful.

“Remember me?” he asked.

Wiesenthal looked at him for a moment, and then tears welled in his eyes. “Yes.”

They had known each other in one of the camps and had not met since then. They spoke only a few words. Considering the power it had over them, it was a surprisingly short exchange. The man said his name and a few words about the work he did now, and Wiesenthal nodded.

“I just wanted to say hello.”

The man left and went to his table. Wiesenthal turned back to me. Tears were streaming down his face, but he didn’t speak about the encounter with the man from the camp. Instead, he picked up where he had left off, and—through his tears—he finished telling the joke.

When I got up to speak, I told the audience what I had just seen. I thought it was a look not only into Wiesenthal’s own person, but, in a way, into the soul of the whole Jewish people. No matter what the world had done to them, through their tears, they could find something to laugh at. There was almost no pain that couldn’t be eased by humor. The ability to translate misery into something else gave them power over it.

When the evening was over and I was leaving the hall, a young rabbi came over to tell me he appreciated what I’d said. He told me a famous rabbi had a phrase that explained what made a good talk: “What comes from the heart goes to the heart.”

That registered—and it stuck with me over the years. Maybe that was how Wiesenthal got his values—someone, at some time, revealing something from the heart that went to his.

I think that’s how my daughters have found their values. As much as I tried, I don’t think I put them there. Instead, I’ll bet that everything they saw and heard resonated in the part of the brain that, because we don’t know what else to call it, we call the heart. Wherever that particular
heart
is and whatever it is, I saw it develop in our girls from an early age.

I was having lunch with our daughter Beatrice when she was six. We were in a restaurant in California, and I was telling her about the wildlife that existed just outside our house. There was a column of flying insects that looked like gnats and clustered in a column, suspended in the air, right in the middle of the brick path leading to the street. They lived for a few weeks every summer, and then they were gone. Dead, I guess. And a year later there they were again, another column of them suspended in the same place. And there was a bird that built a nest every year over the lamp by the front door. She fluttered up and flew out past your ear when you left the house. Her nest was woven tightly. It was made of twigs, and she had no hands to weave it with, only claws and a beak. How did she do it? Once, when it fell out of the cranny between the lamp and the wall, all the eggs broke apart, but not the nest.

I was carried away by the wonder of it, but suddenly I realized that tears were coming down Bea’s face. I’d been talking about nature, but I’d included death in the story. The dead gnats, the chicks in their broken eggs. Had that upset her? She tried, but she couldn’t tell me why she was crying. Maybe at that time in her world, death wasn’t part of the wonder of nature. It didn’t seem fair to her.

Even as a child, Bea had a sense of fairness. We taught her to argue for what she wanted, and she took to arguing like a lawyer. As young as seven or eight, she argued her case meticulously and felt that since her arguments were unassailable, she should get what she was asking for. Anything else would be unfair. And fairness still guides her in her work. She led a group of women in building a children’s museum and spent ten years fighting the opposition of interests with connections all the way up to the governor. They won, and the museum serves thousands of children a year now.

I wanted to pass on values to Bea’s kids. And my first inclination was to do it the way I did with Bea: by talking. As soon as they were old enough to reason, I would take them after school to a local muffin shop and we’d have tea and talk about ethical issues. This sounds monumentally boring, but they seemed to be interested. A favorite of theirs was the lady who sued a fast-food chain because one of their restaurants sold her a cup of scalding hot coffee that burned her seriously. Was she in the right? Or was the restaurant? In each round of discussions, we would worry about new information that made the issue more complicated, until it was almost impossible to know what was fair. All I wanted, of course, was for them to think about fairness, but I doubt they’ll get it from talking. They’ll get it indirectly, by what they see happen spontaneously around them, because what comes from the heart goes to the heart.

Bea’s house is full of noise and life. A fire is going in the kitchen. The kids are laughing, fighting, bargaining, complaining. And meanwhile, as the household swirls around him, Bosco is watching it all with one blue eye and one brown eye. He doesn’t know from fairness. He just wants to lick your face. He’s a mutt, a cross between a dog that looks like a frankfurter and one that looks like a hamburger. But he’s all affection. He runs across the room toward you, pees on the floor with excitement, and rolls over on his back so you can scratch his belly. He’s been trained by a professional dog guru, and when someone in the family looks him in his mismatched eyes and says in an unmistakable tone, “Place!” he skitters back to his place, which is a small piece of carpet in the corner. He stays there obediently, straining against an invisible leash that exists only in his trained brain, as he longs to curl in the crook of your arm. To him, I guess, fairness is whatever comes his way. But it seems hard to let him languish there.

How long he stays in his place depends on how long the children can go without giving him a thought. They may not feel like dropping what they’re doing to give him the attention he craves. He depends on their ability to know, like Wiesenthal, the difference between what they feel like doing and what they know is fair. I watch and wait for them to notice his suffering and take him in their arms.

They don’t let him wait too long. They’re learning to feel for a fellow animal. And seeing them learn that, just as I watched Bea learn it, adds just a bit of feeling to my own life that it’s been worth living it.

Chapter 8

“Love Your Art, Poor as It May Be”

Sometimes, standing on the stage, I have an experience of unusual awareness. I know I’m in a theater and that an audience is watching; and I know that the woman across from me is not really who she’s claiming to be. And in spite of knowing we’re in front of other people, I know we’re alone in this room. I’m also aware of something much weirder than that. I’m aware that the two of us are other people, someplace else, arguing over something. We are so completely involved with this struggle, we could say almost anything at this moment. But we say the same thing we said last night. And I’m aware that this is because we’re acting. It’s like an endless arc of images in paired mirrors curving off into infinity. And when this moment is at its most intense, it’s at its lightest. There is no strain; in fact, there’s a feeling of floating. But, of course, I’m aware that, far from floating, I’m standing on a stage that’s raked for the audience to see us better, and I have to be careful where I plant my feet or I’ll lose my balance.

This multiple awareness is for me the ecstasy of acting. When this happens, there doesn’t seem to be any part of my brain that isn’t working on something. The clock stops, and an intricate pas de deux takes place in slow motion. You choke with emotion, yet you feel nothing. You know everything and nothing at once. You walk a narrow beam a hundred stories high, but your steps are as sure as on a sidewalk. Failure can’t happen. Death is remote. There is no way to know what you’ll say next; and then you say it. And you notice that you’re saying it slightly differently from the last time you said it at exactly this moment.

This is what it was like for me the year I played in
Art
at the Royale Theatre on Broadway. Each night, I was dropped off at the entrance to the alleyway and walked down the narrow space between a neighboring theater and a bar, past huge bins sometimes overflowing with the rancid trash from the matinees of three theaters. Inside the stage door, I would write my name on the sign-in sheet, say hello to the doorman, and head up the stairs to my dressing room. Then, within a few minutes, Victor Garber, Alfred Molina, and I would be sitting on straight-backed chairs in a tiny room, where we would lock in a session of ribald laughter and merciless rudeness that would last for an hour. We never talked about the play; we just made fun of one another. And then a few minutes before the curtain went up, we would throw on our stage clothes and resume the jousting until a second before the curtain went up on my first lines to the audience. As Victor and Fred came onstage, it was as though we had never dropped the connection we had backstage. We were alive to one another, flushed with the present moment. We took hands like skydivers—and went up instead of down.

Once you taste this beautiful madness, you want it again and again. It’s delicious. And in that moment when nothing else exists but you and them, and yet everything exists, that’s a moment when you know what it is to be alive.

Whenever they ask me to talk to young people who are learning about the theater, I go, hoping to find the words that explain what makes this happen to me. I’m hoping, of course, that it might happen to them, too.

I don’t try to teach them acting. I’m not so sure I
can
teach. Once, when I was doing a play in London, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art asked me to come and talk to their kids. The night before, I went to sleep thinking of what I’d say. As usual, I wanted to tell them something they’d remember forever. And when I sat down in front of them, I said, “I’m going to tell you something you’ll never forget. It’s an acronym: A. C. T.” And then for an hour I spelled out what each of those letters meant. The only problem is that I haven’t any idea now what I told them. As a memory aid, it seems to have been a disaster. “A” might have stood for dramatic action, and I think “C” was concentration, but what could “T” have been? “Try Not to Forget Your Lines”? I don’t think I’m a teacher.

But I do like to infect people with enthusiasm. I’m avid about being avid.

So in 1998, during the run of
Art,
when Victor and Fred and I were having this extraordinary experience of utter and total connection, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts asked me to talk to their graduating class, I went.

The academy had a special place in my heart, but not because I ever went there.

Forty years ago when I was starting out as an actor, I wanted to enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as a student, but I couldn’t afford the tuition. I couldn’t really afford the bus fare to get down there. I also had the misguided idea that if I trained as an actor, the training would somehow rob me of my natural genius. So as a result, I was self-taught, and it took an extra ten or twenty years to get rid of some of the bad habits and pretentious mannerisms I had, many of which came from my natural genius.

I didn’t want to swamp them all at once with talk of ecstasy, so I noodled for a while on the edges.

I think I would offer just one or two little suggestions. One has to do with energy. Laurence Olivier said that the actor’s job is to supply the audience with energy—and some people think he might have been overly generous in that area, sometimes giving us more than our money’s worth. But energy is a fact of nature. Nothing takes place without energy. On the stage, just as in the rest of nature, there’s no chemistry without energy. But, as in science, it has to be appropriate and sufficient. It has to be genuine, truthful. The energy some actors avoid is the fake, actorish energy of a century ago. But it’s not necessary for us to mute our energy. Muted energy comes off as a form of stage fright, and it often
is.
Instead of muting it, we need to tune it to the right frequency.

We ought to avoid underacting with the same determination with which we avoid overacting. It’s just as boring. In fact, the greatest pleasure onstage comes from being able to drop acting altogether and just zero in on the other person and on what you want from them and, given everything your character is capable of, get it in the best way you can.

Then I got a little closer to the real thrill of the thing.

People have been analyzing acting for at least a couple of centuries now and sometimes arguing about the best way to do it. The debate is often divided between a view of acting as an internal process and an external one. But I don’t know if the good actors I’ve worked with are that much different from one another. One way or another, we all seem to get transformed by our imaginations. When we’re cooking, something happens deep in our brains that affects us profoundly. Sometimes it happens as a result of studying the psychology of the character, and sometimes it’s just putting on the clothes. Suddenly, there’s a glorious moment where acting falls away and you’re speaking with utter simplicity. Fancy acting can often feel seductively grand ( for the actor and even sometimes for the audience). But for me, simplicity is the greatest joy for us all.

Everybody knows that. Or at least we’ve heard it often enough: Simplicity is everything. But how do we get there?

Jimmy Cagney used to say, “Just stand there and tell the truth,” which for most of us is easier said than done. But is acting telling the truth or just lying well? Some actors I’ve met are convinced that being a good liar is the same as being a good actor. I don’t think so, but maybe acting is like the rest of life: The rewards go to those who can tell the truth and also tell an occasional lie when absolutely necessary. Either way, it’s still not easy to tell the truth.

Sometimes we’re too anxious to even know what the truth is. Anxiety is a powerful toxin. You can think you’re calm, in command of the moment, and be undergoing an anxiety attack as big as the Norman conquest. Learn what makes you anxious, learn how to control it, or it will control you. You’ve probably already developed defenses against anxiety that seem useful to you. They may even seem attractive—little smiles and perky gestures—but you’ll feel better when you can drop them. There’s no power like the power of the calm and confident. Jack Nicholson said acting is 90 percent nerve. Sometimes when I’m anxious, I remember that and it helps. It helps, as I go to sleep sometimes, simply to say to myself,
I can do it. I’ve done it before, and I can do it now.

Love getting better at it, not getting praised for it. I learned that from my father, who began his career in burlesque. The comics would say of a performer who was constantly looking for praise that he was always taking bows. I learned from my father that if you’re just looking to take bows, you’ll almost always be disappointed, because the applause is never loud enough. The bow is really just a gracious ritual. If it becomes your goal, it’s a drug. The performance itself offers an ecstasy far greater than the drug of the bow after the performance is done. Look instead to love the connection you can have with the other actor, with the moment itself.

That moment can happen when you perform an art. Any art. It’s a moment like no other. And the better you get at it, the better it feels. But to say you can perform an art isn’t as grand as it sounds. It’s just a good connection between your brain and your fingertips that lets you do something that lifts the spirit. Like pitching a really beautiful fastball. I’ve come to believe that it doesn’t matter how simple the art is, it’s worth all the affection I can lavish on it.

When I was young, Actors’ Equity had a quote on the cover of their magazine. Always the same one. Each month, when the magazine came in the mail, I studied the cover for a few minutes and thought about it. It said, “Love your art, poor as it may be.” I may have the words wrong, and I forget who originally said it—it was either a Roman or Shakespeare talking like a Roman. But loving your art, no matter how humble it is, can transform you. It’s worth the trouble it takes. It’s true it can sometimes bring you despair, but it can also bring you ecstasy, just the way loving a person can.

I knew if I kept talking about ecstasy like this, I was going to make them think they could get there in some abstract way. I wanted them to understand that you have to take simple, concrete steps. For humans, flying isn’t magic; it’s physics.

It helps to remember a few basic things about acting. Show up on time. Know your lines. Respect your fellow actor, your director, and yourself.

Please, do respect your fellow actors. We’re part of a vast, convivial community. We’ve all run the same gauntlet, and we’ve all had to contend with the unemployment office, unhelpful employers, critics, landlords, and tax collectors. When your friends are up for a part, encourage them. When you’re in a play, give the other actors the stage when it’s theirs; when it’s your turn, take the stage with gusto—and then give it back to them. And when you go backstage after a show to see actors, you’ve got to remember you’re entering a burn ward. These people are raw, and this is not the time to analyze their work. You hug them and say, “You were wonderful.” You have to say
You,
you have to say
were,
and you have to say
wonderful.

Don’t try to be honest. The actor is a raw, open wound after a performance. You can’t say
, “The play
was wonderful.” That means you’re deliberately avoiding talking about the actor. You can’t say, “You
are
wonderful.” That means he’s wonderful in general, but not tonight. And you have to say
wonderful
(
brilliant
is okay, too, but nothing less). No one needs to hear they were
interesting
or that they looked as though they were having a good time.

You probably even need to say, “The play was wonderful,” even if it was a turkey. Never forget that when you go back after a play, you’re talking to the walking wounded.

And when you’re acting, remember that it’s
play.
Enjoy it, and enjoy it deeply, richly. Use your intellect as well as your emotions. Try to find out what connects the Apollonian and the Dionysian; the serious and the antic. One without the other is not as satisfying. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at the actor. One is as a priest performing rituals of reconciliation, enlightenment, and dedication…or as a clown performing acts of rudeness, appetite, and functions of the body. Find ways of serving as both.

There’s an ecstasy to acting, and that ecstasy is a glorious experience, but acting is something else, too. It’s a service to the people who come to the theater. Acting may look like the parade of the vanities, but in fact it can be a noble calling. To be able to be another person on the stage, to let an audience feel that person’s vulnerability, that person’s follies, that person’s courage, fear, strength, lunacy, as their own is to give them a chance to understand better what it means to be human.

It had taken me a long time to understand what I was telling them that day. My education in the theater started when I was nine, stepping onto the stage with my father and feeling the warmth from both the spotlight and the audience. We were entertaining soldiers and sailors during the war. Performing next to him, I felt my father’s love. He was expressing it through sharing the stage with me and allowing me into his profession. This was, I think, the most intimate he could get. He seemed embarrassed to express emotion or love in other ways.

As I got older, I was carried along by the pleasure of my contact with the audience. My sense of worth was reinforced by knowing I could please them, so I became good at making them laugh. I knew instantly how pleased they were. But it was still mostly about me.

When I got older, there was a turning point—a realization that when I went onstage, it wasn’t entirely for me: I had a service to perform. I still got pleasure out of it. It was still intoxicating, but now I began to realize I was also there for these other people, out in the dark of the audience. I’m not sure when this thought first came to me, but I think it was in my twenties when I saw the film
Pather Panchali
by the Indian director Satyajit Ray. There was a moment toward the end of the story when the father returns from a long trip away from home with gifts for his daughter, who he finds out has died in his absence. The simple power of his realization that he has missed his daughter’s illness and death hit me hard. I knew instantly that it was possible to be absent without ever leaving home. In my own way, I might have been as cool with my children as my father had been with me. A feeling of rawness stayed with me for days. It was as if something in me that I didn’t need had been ripped out of me. A way of behaving that wasn’t good for me or those I loved had been removed, not gently by persuasion, but in an instant, with violence. For a few days, at least, I had been changed by the experience of simply watching a movie. If I could go through this, sitting in the audience, what must other people be going through? It was somewhere around this time that I began to understand that the audience wasn’t only there for me; I could be there for them.

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