The Land of Make Believe, for Art and Profit

I was deep into acting and singing in high school, and in that small pond, I thrived. It got so deep into my soul that I wanted to pursue a career in performance. My Dad, generally a reasonable type, nonetheless decided he had to take a hard line. In his experience, far too many truly talented people simply never hit the big time. This doomed them, he said, to a lifetime of economic mediocrity and frustration.

Therefore, he refused to pay a dime for my education if I decided to pursue acting or singing as a career. That effectively ended the matter. At 17, I had not yet amassed enough assets to strike out on my own, and even in those pre-Reagan days, student loans wouldn’t cover the entire nut. I clicked down to other options.

Gene Hackman, here in Crimson Tide, got a lot done by not overdoing it.

Gene Hackman, here in Crimson Tide, got a lot done by not overdoing it.

Take it easy on my Dad. Even then, I didn’t blame him, although I chafed at the idea that a young man in what purports to be the freest country in human history should be foreclosed from his heart’s desire. I understood my Dad’s history. While they never approached starvation, my Dad’s family had to pick their way carefully through the Great Depression, picking up every penny they could every way they could. (Having enough to eat and taking care of the kids was always a priority. The only thing, ever, about which my Dad was completely obstinate was this: he would not, I repeat, would not take a serving from a dish of food on the dinner table until everyone else had done so first. It was a kind of workaday prayer for him.)

My Dad wanted the best for me, and for a man born in 1923, that meant a chance at a high-paying job. The idea that richness can also come from doing what you love, money-attracting or not, had not yet come into common parlance.

One of the relics of this formative time in my life is a heightened appreciation for the craft of acting. I’m probably no more qualified than any other consumer of theatricals, but somehow I feel as if I see it better. No matter; I like it. I continue to be fascinated by this simple but awesome fact: a human whose identity you know can, with virtually no change in his appearance, get you to believe completely that he is someone else. That accomplished, he can engage your mind and caress your heart in powerful ways.

The examples of this are legion; I need cite only a few. In movies, Gene Hackman never altered himself much; never adopted an accent in any of his major films that I remember. Spoke and moved like…well, almost always like himself. Yet he was consistently convincing in everything from The French Connection to Mississippi Burning to Unforgiven. Meryl Streep did adopt accents, but so well and after so much study that their understatement alone was admirable. Robert De Niro did more without talking that any actor I have ever seen.

Liam Neeson and Laura Linney were riveting in The Crucible on Broadway.

Liam Neeson and Laura Linney were riveting in The Crucible on Broadway.

Stage acting is another matter; fewer of us have seen the same performances because movies get around so much more. But take it from me: my wife and I saw Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in a Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and we’re still talking about it more than a decade later. Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson shined darkly in the Broadway tryout of Macbeth that we saw in Pittsburgh 25 years ago. Bernadette Peters enchanted me in Into The Woods; I wept like a baby at the London production of Les Miserables.

What is it? I have a hard getting my mind around it, to this day — and let me tell you, my mind wraps around plenty of things, some of them truly complicated. But acting? When you meet many skilled actors, they seem as normal and untouched by holy fire as a person can get. But that’s clearly not the case.

I asked a friend who had reason to know (movie industry connections) what he thought the secret was. “None, really,” he said. “These people who can work this magic…they’re simply utterly unafraid to put out there everything that’s inside them. Time and again, they have told me that it only works if you can do that. Either you have to be one of these people who really want to do that, or needs to do it to get something out of yourself. Or if you’re afraid of it, you have to overcome that fear. That’s the key.”

Think about that. Tall order, perhaps the tallest. Is it any wonder, then, that some great actors are famously guarded when not “working?” From their point of view, they have given all they have to give, and they’re repulsed by efforts to dig out the dregs for what amounts to morbid fan-mag curiosity.

Could I have done all this? In truth, I don’t know, although naturally I like to think I could have. It’s well-known among my friends that I still ache to be an opera singer, and would gladly offer in trade all the hard work it would take to earn the “Bravos!” bellowed at La Scala. But at 52, and as the owner of a bundle of other blessings, I know that opportunity has passed. And let’s face it — had I stood up to my Dad and somehow gone to drama school or to Juilliard to become a great baritone, I would likely not have met my wife and created our son with her, or had a two-decade career in the golf industry.

So I don’t sit around and brood. Instead, I sing while I’m cooking, and when I watch movies, I marvel at the magic doled out by the generous souls of artists.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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One thought on “The Land of Make Believe, for Art and Profit

  1. Just renewed our season tickets for Mad Cow Theatre’s 17th season in Orlando. I am in awe of people who can act. I can’t conceive of memorizing that many words, let alone adopting an entire persona, and then be able to flip the switch and go home for the night. Amazing.

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