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Down With the Real People

When Irish actor Stephen Rea was shooting The Crying Game, he played opposite non-actor Jaye Davidson. In a scene toward the end of the film (as Rea described it to interviewer Carole Zucker in her book In the Company of Actors, Routledge, 1999), Rea's character, Fergus, weeps while talking to Davidson's character, the transvestite Dil. But in each take, picking up on Rea's emotional state, Davidson cried, too. What non-actors sometimes do, Rea explained, is pick up the tone of what the other actor is doing, whether it's right for the scene or not. However naturally talented they may be—and clearly Davidson was plenty talented—they don't necessarily have the know-how to make certain choices and stick to them.

Added Rea, "What happens with a non-actor is that a scene more quickly loses its shape." A trained actor knows how to develop and repeat a scene, whereas a non-actor, relying on instinct, won't necessarily be able to. The trick is to shoot the scene quickly.

In Rea's case, he found himself by chance working with a non-actor—or, as they're variously called, non-professionals, non-trained actors, or "real people." But other actors deliberately choose such situations. For them, what are the hazards and rewards? I talked to actors from two companies that mix professionals and non-professionals as part of their artistic mission.

One is Cornerstone Theater, which creates and produces adaptations and original plays with (and for) specific cultural and/or geographic communities. Now working primarily in Los Angeles, Cornerstone previously traveled the country, creating plays on site. Casts are usually about 80 percent community members; the rest are Cornerstone actors and guest artists.

The other is award-winning San Francisco filmmaker Rob Nilsson's company. Nilsson mixes actors with residents of the city's seamy Tenderloin District to create site-specific dramas from initial scenarios, which are then developed through improvisation. Known for inspiring loyalty among cast and crew, Nilsson is currently wrapping Attitude, the fourth of his gritty 9 at Night series.

In Nilsson's group, many of the non-professionals, selected from among participants in a free monthly Tenderloin acting workshop Nilsson runs, are the indigent and the troubled. Recently one non-pro drank a large quantity of Jack Daniel's on the set and, as one frustrated actor politely put it, "changed the nature of the scene."

Said Los Angeles-based actor Robert Viharo, who trained at New York's Actors Studio and has been appearing in films and TV since the mid-1950s, "There is no such thing as a non-actor. All humans 'act.' Seldom are we in touch with the truth. Trained actors learn tricks, things to give ideas of character." Viharo, a veteran of Nilsson's films, hates slick, overly polished performances and loves working with real people.

"It can get a little Wild Westy on the set and in the workshop," admitted another Nilsson actor, David Fine, a 12-year SAG member. He plays a gangster in Attitude. But he added that although the non-pros can get nervous and uptight sometimes, so can pros.

Mickey Disend, the lead in Attitude, was a bit less nonchalant. He said some of the non-trained actors can be insensitive to others' need for space and silence; they may "act out" on the set; they may lack the powers of concentration; and they can even be loud and obstreperous. He's also had the experience of non-actors relating to him as though he actually is the character he's playing, which can be unsettling. On the plus side, he said, "Acting is a positive disease. You can light their fires." For him, the challenge of working with non-professionals is a small price to pay for the gift of working with Nilsson.

Right Here, Right Now

Christopher Liam Moore has been a Cornerstone Theater actor for 15 years. When he appeared as Hamlet in Cornerstone's residency in the badlands of North Dakota in 1986, the local grocer, who was playing Polonius, entered and instead of saying, "How now, Hamlet" said, conversationally, "Hi."

"It was a powerful first step for me in my journey with Cornerstone," recalled Moore. "The moment became by necessity not about my own ego but rather about what was happening then and there in a way that has served to make me a better actor—and a better Hamlet. It wasn't a matter of we have to get back to the lines; it was a matter of what's happening in the scene. Once I gave him the space and put him at ease, it all came back to him."

On the other hand, when Cornerstone staged Romeo and Juliet in Mississippi (with founding member Amy Brenneman as Juliet), the community participant playing Romeo knew his lines before anyone. "There can almost be a larger commitment to the task at hand than in all-pro situations," said Moore. "They don't take it for granted. They understand what it is to listen. Listening is hard to do and hard to teach, but it's amazing to me that people with no training whatsoever are able to do that."

However, unusual situations can arise. When a Cornerstone cast included a group of crack addicts from the House of Uhuru, a lockdown in the facility one night prevented them from showing up at the theatre. Also, non-pros sometimes fail to attend a rehearsal for one reason or another and don't understand the importance of calling the stage manager in advance. Or someone else can't stay past 10 because she has to get up in the morning. A non-actor once fell asleep and missed her entrance, although seven-year Cornerstone actor Shishir Kurup swore he's seen that happen with pros, as well. When Cornerstone created a show in Watts, a non-pro headed out the door five minutes before curtain. "I'm sorry, Teddy insulted me, I'm leaving," he said. (He ended up staying as a favor to Kurup, then thanked Kurup for persuading him.) "Sometimes there's a frustration—you don't get as far as you'd like to with a given scene or rehearsal," said Moore.

Dropping the Director Role

Cornerstone's professional actors regularly help the non-pros learn their lines and give them simple instructions about actions and objectives, motivation, obstacles, and the like. "Sometimes trained actors can get too laden down with jargon or psychological shenanigans," said Kurup, who has a B.F.A. in acting and directing. "You can sometimes talk yourself out of ever getting on your feet. Here [with non-actors], you have to articulate the basics: Who am I, where am I from, what do I want, what's in my way, how am I going to get it? Things become pure that way. It's great to see these actors jumping into it the way you did before you started taking it for granted, asking the questions you should be asking now but aren't."

His Cornerstone colleague Armando Molina, trained at New York's HB Studios, said that when he performed in his first play with the company, he had to re-evaluate the meaning of professionalism. Non-actors don't necessarily know to cheat out. There may be shyness, volume problems, untimely laughter, self-consciousness, breaks in concentration. "You have to let go of preconceived notions, have patience for people who don't have the tools you've spent years cultivating. It's about not judging," he said. In his onstage experience, no non-professional has ever committed a faux pas that a professional has not.

It's interesting to note that reviewers sometimes say they can't tell the difference between Cornerstone pros and non-pros. "For some that might be an insult, but for Cornerstone it's what we strive for," said Kurup. "I don't think we're disrespecting the work actors have done learning and studying their trade." He added, "Coming from a conservatory background, I can understand why actors might be threatened by this: We're intentionally blurring the lines between folk and professional. Red flags come up: You're going to take away my livelihood."

For Cornerstone, the question is, how do you respect the craft and at the same time create new ways of looking at theatre? "This is a constantly evolving experiment," said Kurup.

There are, though, certain caveats. Molina, used to helping the non-professionals during rehearsal, occasionally finds himself overacting, or indicating, when performing, in an effort to make things clear to the non-actors. "The challenge is in dropping the directorial role when you're onstage," he said.

Agreed Kurup, "You have to do your own work even as you're busy helping others with actions and objectives. Otherwise you can be the weak link."

"The big lesson for an actor is, you learn to take what is given to you," concluded Moore. "If you're doing a scene and they're not giving you enough, the problem is not them, it's you. You have to find a way to make it work. It will only help you, and the film or the play, be better—learning to just respond to what is given to you instead of having a set of expectations." BSW

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