Life Is Not a Stage

Free Life Is Not a Stage by Florence Henderson

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Authors: Florence Henderson
southern drawl and midwestern twang. Whenever Teresa Gnassi from the Bronx and I got up to speak in class, we were made fun of, but in a nice way. “The accent you have is one of the most difficult to lose,” my wonderful speech teacher Aristide D’Angelo said. “It’s almost more difficult than a foreign accent.” Before I could get totally discouraged, he added, “But if you really follow my advice and really practice the exercises I will give you, pretty soon your ears are going to hear what you’re doing and you’re going to be able to correct it.”
    Seeing my accent as a huge obstacle to my goal, I was an eager and motivated student in his class. We took the bull by the horns. The girl fresh out of Rockport would say, “Aiiiiice creeeeem,” stretching out those vowels as if I had all the time in the world. “No, it’s ‘ice,’ like ‘eye,’ not ‘aiiiiiii.’” I’d go home and practice, practice. “It’s ‘down town,’ not ‘daauuun tauuuuun.’” “Repeat—down…town…down…town.” Another tough one was “that.” My version seemed to go on twice too long—“tha-eeeeet.” Mr. D’Angelo wanted me to talk more in clipped Middle Atlantic syllables.
    Just before I went home to Rockport during a break to visit for the first time, I went to Mr. D’Angelo. “The people back there are going to make fun of me, too. They’ll think I’ve gotten all snooty.”
    He replied, “It doesn’t matter. Practice. Use it. Hear the difference.” That’s exactly what I did. It worked. I brought with me my new Mid-Atlantic accent, but when I was with family, I would revert back. Mr. D’Angelo was brilliant, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for his patience with me.
    While I was getting rid of my accent, the other teachers got to work to take whatever raw talent I had in me up to a higher level. One day, one of the acting teachers, Ed Goodman, asked me in class to do something to demonstrate a point about human behavior. “All right, Florence, you look out the window. Just start looking out the window.” So I went over to the window and that’s what I did. I kept looking out the window, keeping quite still and concentrating on the task. I thought to myself, “This is not so difficult. I could stay still like this for hours.” Nothing broke my attention for a few minutes until the teacher’s voice broke the silence.
    “Now, that is not human behavior,” he said in critique of my performance.
    “But you told me to just look out the window,” I shot back, wondering what I could have possibly done wrong on something so simple.
    “Well, that’s all well and good,” he explained. “But a normal person would change their posture, fold their arms, shift their weight, or do something.” The devil was in the details.
    Another kid was doing a scene, and Mr. Goodman lashed out: “For God’s sake, why are you sitting like that? Do you have a problem with your entrails?” The word “entrails” threw me for a moment, especially said with his British-sounding inflection. “Oh, he means intestines,” I realized. Mr. Goodman was not the only teacher who could be tough. Perhaps it was their way of helping us develop a thick skin in preparation for the certainty of a critic’s bad review. Being judged was never easy and nothing new to someone with a Catholic upbringing. You get used to it, and just try to find a way to get through it.
    Mr. Goodman also said something that I immediately took to heart and have passed along to others countless times: “Keep a cool head and a warm heart.” It’s so important in this business.
    We learned in the acting classes that it was more than just rehearsing your lines. You had to dissect them and be able to answer anything about your character, the “who, what, when, where, and why.” We learned how to do our own stage makeup, and how to make ourselves look older. One of the first important tips I learned was that you didn’t have to make up your face

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