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Scuba Diving and
the Art of Acting

© 2000 by James Dolan


In late 1996, a friend of mine told me about acting classes he'd been attending, and how much he'd enjoyed them. He said, You should go take some classes there. You would really enjoy it. Nah, nah, I said, I don't need to do anything as frivolous and hopeless as film acting class. The conversation turned another direction and I more or less forgot his comment.

Summer, 1997. My friend Jackson's comment comes floating back into my mind. Where did it come from? Who knows? I picked up the phone, called Jackson. Hey Jackson, what was the name of that studio you told me you were taking film acting class in?

So, you're ready to get started, hunh? Cool, I think you'll like it. It's called the Michele Condrey Studio, and they're in the Bob Rice Photography studio right there in your neighborhood near the intersection of Sylvan and I-30. The phone number is 214-834-8770. Give her a call.

Hello, Michele, this is Jim Dolan, my friend Jackson Bailey told me to call you about acting classes. ( What the hell am I doing? I asked myself. I've got a professional career going, one I've pursued since the late 70s, why the hell do I want to do something as vague and hit or miss as Acting?)

Here's what I want you to do, said Michele. I want you to come by and audit one of my classes and then I'll put you in the beginning classes that my associate, Nancy Chartier, runs. You'll stay there until she says you are ready to come to the advanced class with me. You could be there two weeks or two years, it's all up to you and how fast you catch on.

(WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING? this is TERRIFYING! why am i so weirdly compelled to go through with this?)

I audit Michele's class and realize that I have no idea at all what the hell they are doing. Everything seems too quiet and understated, there doesn't seem to be any 'acting' going on at all. I am intrigued.

My first day in Nancy's class is a Film day. Meaning, the work we do today will be filmed and then viewed and critiqued by Nancy along with the rest of the participants. GULP!!!!!!!!! We do a scene from Silence of the Lambs. The idea is to read the script without appearing to be reading from the page, a technique called 'sight reading'. We are working with another actor who is offscreen called the 'offscreen reader'.

Somehow, I blasted through my reading, just getting from one end of the page to the other, without the slightest clue as to what I am doing. It is something like being taken out in a boat, being handed scuba gear (without having any idea what it is) and told that you are to fetch something on the bottom, 100 feet below.


Anyway, the replay showed a person bobbing his head up and down, looking back and forth furiously between the offscreen reader and the script, apparently fighting the urge to flee and never return. Not too bad, said Nancy, for your first time. Try to work on keeping your head still.

Then on to the next actor's segment. My heart sank then soared. I had survived. The shame and humiliation was not so great as to destroy me!! Onward and upward! I was hooked. Anything that caused that much adrenalin was definitely going to hook me. It really was like diving, and truly, I am a Diver.

My second week was not so much fun. I began to struggle with the reality of the task. Acting for the screen is not pretending. It is Being. Being the person on the script page. It is not creating a character which you then pretend to be. When you do this, you come off looking like Nick Cage in ConAir. Horrible. The idea is more like Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. BEING that person. Every emotional ripple, current, eddy visible to the observer.

I am a middle aged male, and I have spent a lifetime with my emotions carefully concealed behind a wall of dissembling. Unconscious, involuntary dissembling. Always careful to never let the true emotions roll, to never lose composure. Now I am asking myself to do that in front of a roomful of people. On camera.

Plus, I have spent the last near quarter century practicing the craft of psychotherapy. What a great hiding place that is! My office, my domain, I am the person looking in. I am the expert. You are paying me.

We learn as therapists to monitor our every response, to know that every emotional signal from us has its echo with the patient. We learn to be careful, very very careful. As we must. People don't want therapists who are shocked or horrified or grossed out or turned on or saddened , they want someone who can remain somewhat outside the emotional melee and see what is essential in what they are describing.

And this is the first instinct I brought to my acting classes. When confronted with emotion, remain cool. Which means that you are about as interesting as a telephone pole on camera. I was beginning to see that the move from the Nancy's beginner class to Michele's advanced class was going to take far longer than I had ever suspected.

I could see that the challenge to learn as an actor is the challenge to encounter your own defenses, to see yourself a little more accurately as a person. I could see great advantages in the possibility of learning to not take myself so seriously, to get and accept honest criticism. One of the great dangers of life as a therapist is to become all wrapped up in your expertise, the mantle of Authority Figure. This leads to isolation, isolation to emotional remoteness, emotional remoteness to disease, disease to.....I saw that if I never earned a dime as an actor, the effort would be well worth it.

It took me 18 months to move from Nancy's beginning class to Michele's advanced class. I stopped even thinking about making the move. I resisted vulnerability, I resisted taking the classes seriously, I resisted, resisted, resisted....Why? But I kept going to class. There was always that adrenalin to make me come back, the opportunity to venture a little farther into the countryside of myself, to discover what was there. Slowly, things began to come together, and I started being more believable on camera. One day, Michele called and told me I could move to her class the next week.

Since then, I have hit several more plateaus. I almost immediately fell backwards upon entering the feared ADVANCED classes. That is to be expected. I continue to see my acting classes not as a path to fame and fortune, though that remains a possibility, however remote. I see them as opportunities to continue encountering my own defenses, and as ways to access my creative process.

They have been invaluable to me in my life as a poet. Now when I confront a room full of listeners, I don't care what they think of the poem, I move out to the audience, and engage them. Being concerned with the process, not the outcome. I am thankful to have chanced into a couple of committed, caring, honest and supportive teachers in Michele and Nancy. I have appreciated their courage in confronting me and not letting me get away with bad work. They are a couple of real pros.

Being in classes with Michele and Nancy led me in the summer of 1998 to make contact with James McDonald, the young Irish director in whose film,
Nemesis, I have a starring role as the bad guy.. You can see a little more about the film by clicking on the link to the Web site elsewhere on this page. I was really glad to get this much time in front of the camera. It was a great way for a new actor to get a lot of camera time, and I was very happy to work with a director as positive and encouraging as James. The film will premier this summer and then be sent to film festivals all over the English speaking world.