I have several friends and colleagues who’ve studied with the late great actor, comedian, director and drama teacher, Charles Nelson Reilly. They’re all very talented artists in their own right, which coupled with how fondly they speak of Mr. Reilly, makes me wish I had the chance to study with him. Their stories are so colorful and memorable. Here’s one told by my close friend and phenomenal actor, Gareth Williams…
I was thinking recently, for reasons I won’t go into, about what I consider to be the single greatest acting lesson I ever received. I was fairly new to the whole acting thing, though I’d been working in the scene shop and backstage for a bit. I was apprenticing at the Burt Reynolds Theatre and Charles Nelson Reilly was the “Eminent Scholar” and one of my more significant influences.
I had done a scene from Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadow Box,” after which we, my scene partner and I, sat in our chairs for our criticism. Charles, in his inimitable voice, asked ‘what we wanted in the scene?’ Being quite green, I literally reached in my ass and somehow pulled out the word “Love,” which was an accidentally perfect answer. Everything we do, always boils down to ‘Love,’ the absence of it, the need for it, the abuse of it, etc. So… perfect, I lucked out and answered correctly… vague and broad sweeping, but correctly.
The young woman I had done the scene with answered; “I wanted to leave!” At which point Charles rocketed up, literally exploded out of his chair and started yelling at us; “Start the scene again… don’t worry about the props or the furniture… just start the scene and DON’T stop until you’re at the end of the scene, go… go… GO….!!!”
We stumbled back into the scene and got a couple of lines in when Charles pulled this young woman toward the door of the rehearsal hall, then out the door… guided her down two flights of stairs, then out another metal door and into the parking lot… all the while screaming at her; “YOU SAID YOU WANTED TO LEAVE… LEAVE… GO… GO… GET OUT… LEAVE, YOU SAID YOU WANNA GO… GO!!!”
I found myself at the huge plate glass window, looking down at her in the parking lot, gesticulating wildly and yelling my lines in the blind hope she might understand where I was in the scene, and from all I could gather she was doing the same from down below. We muddled through the scene til we had each exhausted our own individual lines and she came back upstairs.
We sat back in our chairs for our criticism and Charles simply said; “Ya can’t make that choice, can ya?”
Greatest acting lesson I ever got. It came at such an early phase, so it had even greater impact than it might have were I to have received it much later, after studying for a few years. Not only was it a great acting lesson but also directing, writing, producing, storytelling of any strain, and actually a true life lesson. ‘No one ever stays where they don’t want to be!’ Ever! Our first job is to answer the question why we remain IN that relationship, that job, that location, that situation… It’s true in life! No one ever stays where they truly do not want to be. Until they don’t. Then they leave.
Have a great Memorial Day Weekend!
P.S. – This topic came up in a recent Vs. Tuesday Night Reading of Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story.” Why does Peter stay on the bench when this seemingly insane stranger, Jerry, accosts and interrogates him? The actor playing Peter must figure this out.
P.P.S. – For more on Charles Nelson Reilly, check out his one person show, “The Life Of Reilly.” It’s superb.