For two years, I spent every Wednesday night gathered with my fellow acting students for a master class with Mike Nichols as part of our training at the New Actors Workshop. We met in the upstairs room of a Greek Orthodox church on the Upper West Side of NYC. The class was filled with only acting students, and our assignment was to bring in scenes for him that we had rehearsed on our own. Any material was fair game—from Shakespeare to Neil Simon. We would prepare for hours, laboriously blocking the scenes on our own, costuming ourselves from our closets and creating makeshift set designs from rehearsal furniture.
When it was your turn to “present” for Mike, it was a big night. The ritual was to perform the scene, and when it was over, you usually sat down with your scene partner in front of Mike, and he talked to us. Three hours would pass like this—and it was the greatest education I could have ever asked for in the theatre.
Mike always made us tell the story of scene. He would ask, “What happens?” and we would go beat by beat in the scene answering this question. “This happens, then this happens, then this happens…” and before we knew it, we had analyzed the dramatic arc of the scene. It seems so simple, but it is a tool I have used to this day in my directing. We would also look for the “dead whale” in every scene. Mike would say every scene has a dead whale in it—it is the unspoken tension between the characters, and it is lying in the room like a dead whale, stinking up the room, and eventually there comes a moment in the scene when the stench becomes so great, you can’t avoid it any more, and it surfaces. All the actors I work with now know about “the dead whale.”
Even though I was an aspiring actor at the time, I now realize I received the bedrock of my directing training in those master acting classes with Mike. Even when he was not familiar with the play, he had an uncanny ability to listen to the text, watch the actors work, and, right there in the moment, formulate thoughts about the play. Together we would come to an understanding of what the “event” of the scene was. This process always involved Mike telling personal anecdotes from his life. He was remarkably open, and would share stories from his life experience to illuminate a moment from the scene or a situation a character was going through. This honesty and rapport he built with us as actors is something I have never forgotten. We were not afraid to dig into our emotional history because there was Mike, telling us about his.
Mike also quoted poets, philosophers, novelists, film directors. Bergman was a favorite; also the French author Andre Gide. I will never forget when he quoted Gide saying, “Please do not understand me too quickly,” and encouraged us to consider this in the context of not making assumptions about a character you are playing.
I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity to study with Mike Nichols. When I am working with actors, I invariably quote Mike, referring to things he taught me not just about the theatre but about life—like the time he dared us all to spend one whole day just speaking the truth in response to every question and situation, noting how much time we spend in life not telling the truth. His grace, intelligence, humor and honesty as a teacher and director are an example to live by. He lives on in every artist he has every worked with. I know every time I walk into a rehearsal room, I carry Mike inside me.
Diane Paulus is the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. She received the 2013 Tony for Best Director of a Musical for Pippin.
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