My First Hundred Years in Show Business: A Memoir

Free My First Hundred Years in Show Business: A Memoir by Mary Louise Wilson

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Authors: Mary Louise Wilson
Tags: BIO026000, BIO005000, BIO013000
showing her grief? Her beloved father used to say in bad times, “Worse things happen at sea.” In any case, we determined that the time for our play to take place would be just after Vreeland had been fired.

Acting Lessons
    I
WAS AUDITIONING FOR THE LEAD PART IN MUSICAL AFTER MUSICAL and not getting hired. One thing that didn’t help was the current call for “kookie.” Goldie Hawn on
Laugh-In
was “kookie,” meaning funny and cute. Not in anyone’s wildest dreams could I pass for kookie. Much less cute. “Ethnic” was another big casting trend. I blame “ethnic” on Barbra Streisand, who was zooming past us on her way to the stratosphere. In her wake, it became the thing to have a New York accent. Somehow if you had a New York accent you were more believable. I was a hopelessly well-spoken Presbyterian.
    I had no clue what I was doing. I had nothing to hang on to, I was going out there on a wing and prayer. I decided to take some acting classes. In the 1960s, there were three major acting schools: the Actors’ Studio; HB Studio, run by Herbert Berghof and his wife, the renowned actress Uta Hagen; and the Neighborhood Playhouse, run by Sanford Meisner. I signed up to study with Uta. The first scene I did was from a J.D. Salinger story, which took place between an adolescent and her older sister’s boyfriend. I remembered when I was that age, having a self-conscious fixation on my big feet in their orthopedic shoes. On instinct, I concentrated on my feet through the whole scene, and every line got a huge laugh. Uta roared. Following protocol, we repeated the scene the next week, but this time there was not a laugh in a carload. What happened? Uta would surely know, she would be able to tell me what was different, but she threw her hands up. She had no idea. Comedy was not her strong suit. She assigned parts to me to work on, like Hilda Wangel in
The Master Builder
. Uta’s method to make it real was to study the boots Hilda wore, maybe she had corns from all her walking to get to that house; and her corset, maybe it itched; her hair, what soap she used; her surroundings, family illnesses, the weather, all the minutiae, the physical facts. But Ibsen was miles away from me, across a vast expanse of ocean. I hated Ibsen.
    A year or so later I started taking classes from Sanford Meisner. “Sandy.” Sandy had this exercise he was crazy about, and had us doing it for weeks on end. It was called the “repeat” exercise. Two actors sat facing each other; one said something mundane like, “You have brown hair,” and the other repeated the words back, then he repeated them again, and so they would go back and forth for an interminable length of time. The object obviously is to learn to respond to the tone of voice rather than the words. It can be very boring, but it helped me enormously.
    Sandy, like Uta, gave us scenes from podgy old plays like
The Children’s Hour
and
The Gordian Knot
, but when I was doing a scene in class I just concentrated on that one thing, what the other actor was giving me. Sandy’s favorite saying was, “Acting is reacting.” His other favorite was, “Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” He helped me join in my mind being funny with being truthful.
    One day Sandy stood in front of us and told us about his vacation cabin in the Maine woods, how he got up at dawn and raced down to the frigid lake and jumped in, how he made a wood fire and cooked an enormous breakfast, flapjacks and syrup he got himself out of his maple trees, and on and on until we were mesmerized, and then he said he made it all up. He actually had a place in the Bahamas. He was not a proponent of sense memory, the idea of which had always made me squirm. The few times I observed it in various other classes I had dropped in on, people were reliving their rape scenes and such with abandon and I felt personally violated. He believed that emotions could be called up by the imagination. Everybody

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