I had been a member of The Actors Studio for a little over a year when it was announced that Al Pacino would be moderating a Friday session at the Los Angeles branch. It became an exciting opportunity, not just for the studio, but particularly for those who would be performing that day and receiving critique.
As fate would have it, there was a cancellation of one of the two scenes to be put up that Friday, and I was next in line with my scene partner Jamie Marsh to take the stage. For context, it usually takes up to three months to secure a Friday session slot.
Jamie and I had been working on a scene from Shem Bitterman's"The Job" for a couple of weeks when the opportunity to perform before Pacino arose. We jumped at the chance to get in front of Pacino. I was further encouraged to be doing the scene with Jamie, as he is a very experienced working actor. As an original cast member of "Lost In Yonkers" opposite Kevin Spacey on Broadway, Jamie also starred in a couple of tv movies.
Friday arrived and so did the pressure. Pacino drew out the crowd. More than a handful of recognized star name actors attended to observe this legendary icon teach.
I remember pacing the stage back and forth, warming up, and trying to chi myself with the space. The audience continued to pour into the theater taking their seats. Everyone was excited in anticipation of Pacino's entrance to the theater. As I continued to pace and stretch, I kept looking at the vacant front row center seat where the designated moderator would sit. I ran my lines in my head and tried to think of the choices that I had worked on.
The theater was at full capacity, including people seated on the aisle steps and surrounding stage floor – but that one front row center seat was still vacant. I thought to myself, "Where's Pacino? Is he still coming?" I was on stage by myself as Jamie was off stage preparing for his later entrance. So I paced… stretching and trying my best to relax.
It seemed as though hours were passing as I waited while hearing the mumblings in the audience. And sure enough on my tenth or so lap, I looked down and magically Al Pacino appeared, sitting in his front and center seat. I totally missed him walking in.
I distinctly remember him sitting low in the chair (like in Carlito's Way) sipping a coffee and holding a notepad. We were face to face. I made direct eye contact with him, his glasses slung low on his nose as he looked at me directly in the eyes. I thought, "OMG, Scarface is staring at me." I immediately stopped pacing and took my seat on the stage.
Pacino gave the studio announcements and the names of the two scenes and the actors that would be performing that day. His voice filled the theater like a God. The power and the resonance of his voice was humbling – an immediate and natural takeover of the space, though he was still light-hearted and easy in his delivery. He had arrived.
The scene began: I sat on stage reading a newspaper wearing a suit and tie as my fellow actor Jamie entered the stage playing drunk. My first line, "You're late. I was expecting you at 10:15, not 12:30. What do you do with your time? You got a lot of friends? Do they call you on the phone?" Jamie replies, "I'm here, I"m here now. I came to get my pay." The scene continued for 10 minutes to its end.
Now the moment of truth: the critique.
I was looking down Pacino's barrel, loaded with his iconic reputation and experience. As he began his assessment, he talked about how to move forward from the exact choices we made in the scene. To my surprise and encouragement, unlike any critique I had ever received, Pacino stayed on point discussing how to improve upon the scene, and he never once said what we should have done or ask why we made the choices we made. He kept pushing us to move forward from where we had arrived.
It was as if Pacino had some secret knowledge. I thought to myself, "Well, he is Al Pacino – one of, if not, the most revered actor in the world. I have sat in front of great artists who critiqued my work at the studio, but the approach Pacino used made me feel like I could do anything; there was no criticism, even though I knew the scene did not go as well as I had hoped. To his credit as a teacher, he said to us, "Just keep asking questions for your character and that will bring out real behavior." He continued to encourage and praise us for what we had discovered thus far with the scene.
When Pacino finished talking, the audience was instructed by the stage manager to clear the theater to prepare for the next scene. I went backstage to gather my belongings, and when I came back out on stage to exit, Pacino was alone in the empty theater. He looked at me – again face to face – and reached his arms out to give me a hug. We embraced, and as he patted me on the back, he said, "Good work." He was like Santa Claus, he was so present, so heartfelt, so confident, powerful, and humble – similar to all the characters I had seen him play for decades. I told him, "Thank you."
As I reflect on the experience, I am left with great admiration for the craft of acting and humanity. Acting is art in action – it's never finished. It's a also spiritual journey, or as I was once told by Howard Fine (a past instructor), "You are as good an actor as you are a person."
I further wonder: Am I present? Am I heartfelt? Do I really listen, or am I thinking of what my reply will be before the speaker is finished? Am I breathing? Do I hear the birds, the crickets, the wind, the rain? Or am I just reacting to my obsessions? Do I listen to the universe guiding me through all of its nuances and clues to persuade me to let go a little more every day and trust that I am right where I am suppose to be and fulfill that moment, that purpose?