A wannabe actor finds out he’s learning from a beast of a man. 3,130 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"I cannot make you an actor," the man often spoken of as King Kahn (but never to his face) told the dozen hopefuls gathered on a Monday morning for his new theater workshop. "I’m a teacher, not God. I can, however, help you learn to think, prepare, and behave like the professional I assume you aspire to be. But that’s if and only if you’re willing to listen, accept criticism, and most importantly do the goddamn work. Understood?"
Feeling like he had somehow crashed the wrong party, Ed Saks watched as his classmates, who ranged in age from their early twenties to a woman in multiple scarves approaching fifty, nodded a bit too vigorously.
"But let me make clear," Kenneth Kahn continued, "that I am not, nor shall I ever be, your psychiatrist, your daddy, or your friend. If we were in New York, I would say if that’s what you’re searching for, go back to Poughkeepsie, Pawtucket, or Passaic. But we’re on the other coast. Where shall I say, Freddie?"
"Oxnard?" offered Kahn’s eager young assistant. "Or maybe Cucamonga?"
"Freddie’s a veritable font of knowledge. Oxnard and Cucamonga indeed."
Upon his arrival before class, Saks felt that he was entering an alternate universe. The other students spoke of Kahn as the successor to Stella, Bobby, Sandy, plus someone called Gadge, all the while referencing their own experiences at Tisch, RADA, and summer stock. It was as though another language was being spoken. That was also true when they cited stars reportedly mentored by King Kahn, plus celebrities male and female with whom he had been linked sexually.
Approached by two hipsters with soul patches and Fedoras, plus a gal with a neo-Cyndi Lauper look, Saks was asked where he studied.
"Nowhere," he replied.
"So is your focus film?" was the next question. "Or stage?"
"Stage," Saks stated. "If being a rock singer counts."
Based on the frowns, Saks felt as though he had admitted having leprosy or lice.
After Kahn’s intro, the next forty-five minutes of class were devoted to what the eight-week session would entail (subject, it was noted, to Kahn’s impulses and/or whims), plus anecdotes about the Actor’s Studio, Broadway and Yale Drama.
Then came an announcement. "We’re about to take a ten-minute break. In addition to peeing, smoking, and checking messages, I want you to prep for your first assignment, which is to pick a partner. Upon our return, I shall distribute two-person scenes. And in case you’re wondering, ten minutes means ten minutes, not eleven or fifteen."
The moment Kahn left the room, jockeying commenced. In less than two seconds, everyone was matched up except Saks and the woman draped in scarves.
"Guess we’re the pariahs," she said. "I’m Olivia."
"It’ll be funny if he gives us something where I’m your daughter."
"Not my girlfriend? Or maybe my son?"
"How about your brother?"
The scenes came from eclectic sources: Albee, Pinter, George S. Kaufman, John Guare, plus, for Olivia and Saks, Tennessee Williams.
"In an interview recently," Kahn proceeded to inform the class, "a wonderful actor named Bill Nighy lamented that today’s generation finds it appropriate to show up without having prepped, as though inspiration somehow supersedes perspiration. Here, however, you will not only prepare, you will be expected to perform without text in hand. If that seems too taxing, speak up now, since we have a waiting list."
No one uttered a peep.
Despite rehearsing with Olivia three times – first at a coffee house in Silver Lake, then on a bench at MacArthur Park, and finally at her apartment in the building where Mae West once lived – plus memorizing all his lines, Saks was nervous before the next class. He listened while King Kahn gave some preliminary instructions, then sighed with relief when the two hipsters were chosen to go first. Clearly accustomed to this sort of exercise, the two men proudly performed a scene from "The Homecoming," engendering applause from other students.
The elation quickly vanished, however, when Kahn spoke.
"If clapping is to let Mr. Pinter know he writes well, sorry but he’s dead. But if it’s the acting that’s being praised, I must disagree. Where," Kahn inquired of the two hipsters, "did you study?"
"We were at Tisch," said the one Kahn called Mr. Landy.
"Then the Actor’s Studio," added one he called Mr. Gilmer.
"And no one ever mentioned something called interacting? Acting is never, and I mean never, about individuals. With Shakespeare, Beckett, or even a bedroom farce, what matters is what takes place between characters. Clear?"
Both hipsters nodded glumly.
"Next victims," Kahn then stated, pointing first at the woman wearing yet another neo-Cyndi Lauper outfit, then at her bearded partner. Together, they began a scene from "Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf," only to have Kahn stand less than two minutes later.
"Stop!" he exclaimed, glaring at the actress. "Do you have something in your eye?"
"Then why in God’s name are you crying?"
"It’s the emotion surging forth from within," she murmured.
"Your emotion, but not the character’s. Martha, if I’m not mistaken, is goading, teasing, and badgering poor George. Yet you’re making her the victim. Do you see?"
"Guessing, dear girl, means not understanding the text. Let us all take a break.”
The dozen students returned to class with much trepidation. This time, Kahn pointed toward Saks and Olivia. Silently reminding himself that if all else failed he had another life as a rocker, Saks took a deep breath and nodded to Olivia. Then the two of them began their excerpt from "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Fearful of once more being reprimanded, no one in the audience dared make a sound after the scene was over, creating a silence that endured until Kahn faced Olivia.
"Where have you been working, my dear?"
"On a soap," Olivia said softly.
"On a soap opera."
Laughter erupted around the room, causing Kahn to grimace. "That’s supposed to be funny?" he snarled. "Anyone ever heard of Julianne Moore?"
"How about Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Larry Fishburne, Tommy Lee Jones, and someone named DiCaprio? Anyone want to guess the common denominator above and beyond a certain measure of talent?"
"They were in soaps?" one young woman offered ever so meekly.
"Bingo! So here’s the big question. In contrast to Olivia, who just performed for us so deftly, how many of you artistes make a living solely through acting?"
When no one chose to respond, Kahn faced Saks. "So tell us, kind sir, what was your motivation during this scene?"
"To feel what Stanley was feeling," Saks answered sheepishly, drawing a few titters around that room.
Kahn glared at those who had laughed. "That, too, is funny? What a joy
for me to find someone so blissfully free of the jargon that over-intellectualizes our art, rendering it lifeless."
Kahn took a long breath for dramatic effect, then turned again to Olivia and Saks. "Lovely work."
At the end of the session, Saks and Olivia found themselves chatted up by their classmates. Then suddenly a loud and resonant voice was heard.
"Mr. Saks, if you please –" said Kahn.
Self-conscious, Saks stepped toward the acting coach, who studied him before speaking. "Are you aware that in New York City there’d be no chance of someone with zero background gaining admission to my class?"
"So I’ve heard."
"But I’m happy you’re here. Tell me, though, what led you to me?"
"I’ve always been intrigued by acting."
"I figured at the worst, it would help me on stage when I’m playing music."
"You should know that a Brit named Nicol Williamson was a brilliant actor who sang wonderful rock’n’roll. May I ask a favor? If you’re playing somewhere, please let me know."
The next week, Kahn began class by handing out copies of Hamlet’s soliloquy. "Hopefully," he stated, "this is already somewhat familiar to you. But please take a moment to peruse it."
Saks did as told, reading then re-reading the speech.
"Any volunteers to give it a go, text in hand, with appropriate meaning and emotion?" asked Kahn not long afterward.
Seeing a redhead named Polly Arnold nod, Kahn smiled. "Please –"
"To be, or not to be – that is the question," she began. "Whether ’tis nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune –"
"Stop!" said Kahn abruptly. He pointed to a tall fellow in a black t-shit and vest. Then he, too, was stopped after only two lines. The same was true with yet another student. Then Kahn faced the class.
"Anyone want to venture an explanation as to what was missing or misunderstood?"
When no one offered an explanation, Kahn turned to his assistant. "Tell them, Freddie."
"Context indeed!" Kahn exclaimed. "Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. In contrast to far too many so-called playwrights of today, he didn’t have to suggest beat here, beat there, beat everywhere, because there was a clear and established rhythm to the words."
Tapping his hand on the wall, Kahn began to recite the soliloquy with the correct emphasis. He took a breath before again addressing the class. "This is not a case of a so-called actor mumbling, scratching his privates, or imposing his 21st Century will and woes upon a Danish prince from long ago. Context, context, context means work, work, work! Please think while we take a break. Then I shall hand out new monologues for cold readings: Zooey’s speech at the end of Salinger’s ‘Franny And Zooey’ for the women, Vince’s speech from Sam Shepard’s ‘Buried Child’ for the men."
As most of his classmates started to leave the room, Saks approached Kahn. "Since you asked me to let you know where I’m playing… Next Monday I’ll be doing an acoustic set without my band at an open mic night in Santa Monica."
That evening, Saks was midway through the second tune of his three-song set at a coffee house on Pico Boulevard when in stepped King Kahn, who immediately raised the average age of those present by at least twenty years. Trying not to be rattled, Saks focused on his guitar work and vocals while finishing the ballad he was playing. Then, after a bit of banter, he performed an up-tempo number. Greeted with applause, Saks grinned and then approached his acting teacher.
"If I knew you were coming," he said, "I would have used iambic pentameter."
"Like Solomon Burke or Little Richard? Very nice indeed."
"Come meet my girlfriend." Saks gestured. “Kenneth Kahn, Jenny Lyon."
"So happy you made it," said Jenny.
"As am I. Buy you two a drink somewhere? Or something to nibble on?"
"We don’t want to impose," stated Saks.
Driving home after a Thai feast of coconut milk soup, vegetable curry, and duck, Jenny turned to Saks, who was at the wheel. "He didn’t seem so scary."
"You haven’t seen him in action."
"But he’s fond of you."
"And even fonder of you. The way he undressed you with his eyes?"
"C’mon," said Jenny with a playful frown. "The guy has taught and dated stars."
In bed later, Jenny turned to Saks. "Think he was serious about helping me get a job in the theater?"
"I thought you were happy at the gallery."
"More like not overly unhappy."
"Well, he certainly knows everybody. Call him."
"Since he took my cell number, let’s see if he calls me."
The next class got underway with the prepared monologues. This time Olivia began by doing the last fifty lines of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, which she did so movingly that there was no fidgeting, coughing, or glancing around.
"So," asked Kahn of the audience once she finished, "no more titters about soaps?" Then he eyed Olivia. "One suggestion if I may? From time to time, instead of building up such a powerful head of steam, pause momentarily as though you’re reflecting. Understood? Then, as it were, find a word. But lovely, my dear. Absolutely lovely."
Next came Saks, who took a breath, then spoke softly. "He stopped believing," he stated sadly. "That’s it, that’s why he failed… He quit." Saks paused, as though reflecting. "So much talent, so much potential but he stopped believing in himself…" Another breath. "He lost his way cause he couldn’t figure out what to do next with his career." Saks bit his lower lip. "I guess all the stress added up and finally broke him…" Saks gazed upward for a moment. "His music was great… I would listen to it all the time. It would get me into a pumped-up emotional state and his lyrics never got old." Saks frowned. "No one gave him a chance but I think in today’s world that doesn’t matter. He didn’t give himself the chance to take control of his career the way I knew he could have." Saks stopped for a moment as if searching for an answer. "Maybe it was fear."
"Tell us what that’s from," Kahn asked.
"A play called ‘Wasted Talent’ by Joseph Arnone."
"And tell us how you prepared, if you please."
"By putting myself in the place of a musician who’d just lost a dear friend."
Saks faced the other members of the class. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "That is the key to truth in acting. Now take a break and reflect upon that. Then pick new partners for two-person scenes I will assign."
Not surprisingly, both Olivia and Saks found themselves very much in demand.
Over dinner that evening at an Ethiopian restaurant, Jenny smiled at Saks. "Heard you were great in class today."
"A little birdie told you?"
"No, some sacred monster known as King Kahn. He says he really wants to help me make a switch."
You’re not upset?"
"Why would I be?"
"He’s your mentor."
"All I’m doing is taking his acting workshop."
"So you won’t be annoyed if I meet with him?"
"What pleases you pleases me."
Three days later, Saks got together with redheaded Polly Arnold to rehearse a scene from "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" for the second time. After discussing it for a few minutes, then trying it with text in hand, they decided to forego the Tennessee Williams dialogue and do the scene in their own words. Pleased, they then did it again in the original.
"Okay if I ask a favor?" Polly asked once they were done.
"No, I won’t elope," Saks said playfully.
"Way to break my heart! A casting director wants me to bring someone to do a two-person scene with me tomorrow at 3. Can I impose?"
"But I’m not really an actor."
"Sure fooled me. And King Kahn."
The next afternoon, at a production office in Hollywood, Polly and Saks began their scene for hyperkinetic Melissa Sklar, whose twitches diminished as she became more and more engrossed in their work.
"Very nice, Polly," she said once they were finished. "Consider me sold." Then she turned to Saks. "As for you, Ted –"
"Are you SAG-AFTRA?"
"That mean you’ve been doing stage?"
"I’m basically a musician."
"Really! There’s a part in the film we’re prepping that calls for an actor who plays guitar, and we’d prefer somebody who won’t have to fake it. We’d have to Taft-Hartley you. While I check on whether that’s an option, can the two of you come in tomorrow afternoon to meet the director?"
"You’re working Saturdays?" asked Polly.
"With shooting looming, we’re working every goddamn day."
Jenny was riding the stationary bike in their living room when Saks arrived home with takeout food from Zankhou Chicken. “About that hike tomorrow we were talking about –" he began. "Can we do it Sunday?"
"Yours truly has an audition."
The next afternoon, Saks was on the sidewalk outside the production office when Polly arrived. "How can you look so calm?" she immediately asked.
"I’m really just here as your sidekick."
"Well, I’m nervous enough for both of us."
To the surprise of both Polly and Saks, there was virtually no wait at all before Melissa Sklar led them into a room where a guy in black jeans and a faded Knicks t-shirt was pacing. "Tim Horton, say hello to Polly Arnold and Ed Saks."
Horton focused first on Polly. "Why do I feel I know you?" he asked.
"Truthfully? You once told me I was too old, and you once told me I was too young – and you once hit on me at the Next Door Lounge."
Horton sighed. "Well this time you’re neither too old nor too young, plus I’m engaged." Then he turned and eyed Saks. "I’ve seen you in something."
"He’s the musician I told you about," interjected Melissa.
"Then it must have been when you were playing," said Horton. "What’s the name of your band?"
Horton cogitated for a moment, then nodded. "You guys are good. Why aren’t you famous?"
"Why aren’t I playing in the NBA? And why aren’t you Scorsese?"
Horton’s gaze turned into a fierce glare. "Fuck you!"
"Fuck me?" responded Saks without flinching. "Fuck you!"
Horton stared at Saks for what felt like an eternity, then suddenly chuckled. "I was just playing with you. But that’s exactly the attitude the Lester character needs." Horton turned to Melissa. "Sign ’em both."
"Don’t you want them to read?"
"When people are right, they’re right."
"With Ed, since he’s not union, that’ll mean a Taft-Hartley."
"Your problem, not mine."
"Somebody’s leading a charmed life!" Polly exclaimed as she and Saks stepped out into the street. "Thanks to you, my run of bad luck has turned. I feel like we should celebrate. Maybe hit my place and you know –"
Saks shrugged. "How about if we just stay acting partners and pals?"
Instead of calling Jenny with the good news, Saks planned a surprise. He stopped on Melrose for a chilled bottle of Moet & Chandon, then headed toward La Brea for her favorite dessert, a Tarte Tropezienne.
When he unlocked the door of their apartment, he heard strange noises inside. Tiptoeing toward the bedroom, he was stunned to find Jenny in bed with King Kahn.
Thunderstruck, Saks gaped until at last Kahn broke the silence.
"Guess who promised never to be a psychiatrist, a daddy, or a friend."
Saks nearly responded, but instead turned and walked away.
Seated in his car, Saks stewed for ten minutes, trying to cope with the feelings of hurt and rage from the dual betrayal. Then, realizing that life must go on, he glanced at the Champagne and Tarte Tropezienne on the seat beside him. After a deep breath, he pulled out his phone.
Trying desperately to rally, he placed a call to Polly, who answered immediately. "About that celebration—" Saks forced himself to say.