Updated: Jul 22, 2021
When I was a student at UMD, I frequently became frustrated with my acting teachers. I mentioned four professors before, but truly there were three that I spent most of my time with: Leslie, Mitch and Leigh. These people formed the Triforce of my acting foundation. Prior to meeting them, everything I knew about acting came from watching film greats: Pacino & De Niro (my two favorites), Nicholson, Denzel, Pesci, Freeman. Before UMD, I hadn't really learned anything about acting - I just knew how to copy others, and I did a decent enough job of it. If I’m being honest, I still do this relatively frequently. It's my default/lazy version of acting; I can get away with it sometimes, but probably not as often as I think.
Each of these instructors fed a vital part of me in my journey toward becoming an artist. Let me distill their philosophies down very simply:
Leslie - Body
Mitch - Mind
Leigh - Soul
In school my peers and I were often distressed because it felt like these instructors were at odds with one another, or teaching us contradictory methodologies of acting. For example, Leslie believed very strongly in the idea that all actors needed to be a tabula rasa (that’s the Latin term for ‘blank slate’ . . . ever seen that one episode of Lost?). She taught us how to remove body tension and exposed our deeply ingrained habits. For example, my shoulders slouch forward and I always have to remind myself to stand up straight. To this day, I carry tons of tension in my shoulders and neck. My left foot turns slightly inward when I walk, and so on. Leslie sought to expose and set our habits back to neutral so that we were capable of being a blank slate, and thus embody any type of character that our imagination would allow. Makes sense, right?
Mitch's philosophy was quite different though, and in my mind was a polar Opposite. He argued that every actor brought themselves into every character. When he had me play Brick in the opening scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he pressed me to draw on my own memories, experiences, and personal images to make the role my own. It's impossible to do otherwise, of course. People are people, how could I not bring myself in? Our lives and experiences influence everything we do. Makes sense, right?
But these contradictions were infuriating as a young student. I would go from one class to the next, being pulled in Opposite directions (Leigh mostly pulled me back toward Balance rather than toward myself or any character, which is probably why she was always my favorite). What I realized years later was a simple metaphor: these people weren't teaching me how to act, how to be an actor or even how to create a character. They were giving me Tools, Tools for an acting Toolbox. How I use them, how I engage in creativity is entirely up to me, the artist. This was difficult to realize when attempting to please vain professors for a grade (though if I’m being honest, getting good grades in theatre school wasn't super hard), but this realization changed my art.
Think of Picasso for a moment. Or Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, your best friend, whoever, a visual artist you admire. Someone whose art you can picture in your head. Somebody taught them how to hold a paint brush. They probably learned the history of art, who had come before them, different styles, how to use color. But nobody taught da Vinci how to paint the Mona Lisa. Nobody taught Michelangelo how to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or to sculpt the statue of David. I've seen David in person, up close. It's incredible. So simple, so beautiful. I remember the moment clearly, and it truly took my breath away. Michelangelo studied the human form, he used the Tools he'd learned from those that came before, and he engaged creatively. In his own words, he "saw the angel in the marble and carved until [he] set him free." Others can help you unlock things within yourself, but you can't teach someone how to be an artist. The process is too personal.
I used to imagine my teachers having big arguments about how best to instruct their students, and that their differing styles were the result of digging their heels in, stubbornness, a refusal to collaborate. Honestly, that might have been the case. I see now though, with perspective, that Leslie, Mitch and Leigh were not necessarily at war with one another, even though they were frequently in Opposition. I can see a different image today: the three of them sitting in a room, talking calmly about how best to divide the skills that an actor needs. Mitch taught me about how to pursue an objective, about tension, about imagery. Leslie taught me how to embody character, how to use my limbs and stomach and chest and pelvis, rather than just my brain and voice. And Leigh taught me how to free that voice, how to warm my body up, how to allow my emotions to soar, not in service of acting or to be ‘method’ in a performance but how to be open and honest with myself and others, just in life.
These are valuable Tools. Wonderful Tools. This Triforce pulled me in so many different directions, and the tension was sometimes too much to deal with. I saw some of my peers snap under this intense pressure. I would argue it was too much, and if i'm being honest I don’t think my professors collaborated as much as they should have. I feel this way for lots of reasons, but mostly because I had to come up with the Toolbox metaphor myself, years later, to contextualize all that I'd learned. I couldn't act like Mitch, or act like Leslie, or act like Leigh. Mitch was right: I am myself and I act the way Matt acts. Leslie was right too, though, and so was Leigh. It’s difficult to accept contradictory ideas, but truth always lies at the center of Opposites, and truth is what the most beautiful art is about. If I use all of my Tools when appropriate, if I have my different size chisels and brushes and canvas and smock and all that other shit, I can make something beautiful too.
So why do I share all of this? Why am I so preoccupied with acting teachers of my past? Because I don’t want to keep my Tools to myself anymore; I want to share them with my friends, my family, and anyone else who wants to listen. I don't mean just acting Tools, though I have many and I think they bring a lot of value to everyday life, but all the others I've honed and picked up along the way. Some I've had since childhood, others I learned in college, and I've picked up a few more in my decade in “the real world” since.
What value do my Tools bring? Why me? Because I want to. I want to create a more empathetic Dialogue in my community, collaborate with my friends, and have fun. Empathy, Collaboration and Play are all Tools that I’ve learned and that I love, and I see them so infrequently in the Dialogues happening around me . I want to share them with you. I don't share often enough. I feel overloaded with Stories and ideas and I hope you choose to listen, because I want to hear your Stories and ideas too. If living through 2020 has brought any light into my life, it’s the recognition that there are Heroes and Good People all around me, even if I have to peer through a screen to see them. I want to open this Dialogue to all of them and all of you. I want to Evolve the way my friends and family connect with one another and with strangers by sharing what I’ve learned about empathy and communication. And I want to inject positivity, fun and compassion into a dark and turbulent year.
I mentioned before that I was on a mission, and that I was a traveler through Time and Space. You’ve chosen to spend some Time sharing this Space with me; I’d finally like to share my mission with you -
My mission is to Show my Toolbox to my friends, family and a general audience; to Share the Tools that I've acquired over the years, including compassion, patience, humor and self-awareness; to Elevate facts, science, experts and Good People of all stripes; to Redefine what it means to be a Hero and reveal the identities of so many living among us; to prioritize my own Evolution above all else, because I have learned that before a Hero can help others, they must first face their own Self; and to do all of this by Sharing Stories, both those that have inspired me and those from my own life.
Space can be scary and Time is terrifying. Monologues get boring fast; Dialogue is so much more interesting. I see an angel in the marble of our nation, and I pray that I'm not the only one. It may be hard to see through the darkness, but if you squint hard enough in your Mind's eye, it's there. I’m just one person, but we, the People, can do so much more together. Together I believe we can tear down the walls of divisiveness within our country and build up a more United States of America. Together I believe we can pick up our Tools and set the angel free.
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