I took a class last weekend with acting coach Tom Todoroff. I’m no actor and I had no idea who Tom was so you might wonder why I went. Simply put, someone I respect in the Florida Speakers Association arranged for members to attend Tom’s intensive workshop and because I’m trying to be more open and spontaneous to new opportunities, it just seemed like a good idea. By coincidence we had gone to see Joseph Adler direct the very powerful play Masked the night before and were blown away by the intensity of the acting and the story. So spending the following Sunday afternoon in a little walk-up theater watching aspiring actors expose themselves on stage seemed almost fitting.
The other reason I went was to pick up some techniques on stagecraft that I could use to improve my presentations. I believe that if I learn just one tip I can put to good use, or meet one person I can develop a relationship with, then my attendance at a class or conference is time well spent. And I certainly fulfilled that intention. But what I didn’t expect were the number of powerful life lessons that Tom dishes out with every acting critique.
The first guys up on stage did a scene from Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn where a worldly rake is trying to help his naive kid brother have his first sexual experience. Although I thought the actors’ first walk through was pretty good (they say a nod is as good as a wink to a blind mule — I guess this proves it), Tom pointed out lots of things the actors could do to make their parts better. He coached them through their delivery with lines such as “be the part, don’t show the part,” and “acting is a contact sport.” He talked about ways actors’ personal issues can affect their ability to portray the characters, even uncovering that the actor playing the younger brother was just as inexperienced as the role he was playing. Tom didn’t just tell us that actors must learn “to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable emotions”; we saw it happen on stage.
Next, Paulina and Victoria played two sisters fighting over their love for the same man. As the two of them really fought it out on stage, Tom reminded them to “fully feel everything” because “you don’t play the part, the part plays you.” He then broke down the motivations behind the scene with an often profane explanation of “the three Fs of conflict — fighting, fleeing or f***ing.” (I’ll let you fill the last F in for yourself.)
After a break, Michael got up on stage to play the courtroom scene from The Producers. Another tentative performer, it took Michael a good 45 minutes of presenting his part over and over before Tom was able to humor, chide, push, goad and intimidate the reluctant actor into playing his role with power and vigor. But that didn’t happen until Tom finally leapt out of his director’s chair and bellowed right into Michael’s ear: “When are you going to make the decision to stop screwing around?!” Tom didn’t just mean the part; he was also talking about Michael’s acting career and his life in general.
What I found so absorbing and moving was not just how the actors improved dramatically with Tom’s coaching (they did!!) but how his words were equally applicable to life as to the stage. Tom’s admonishments to “always do your best,” to “move towards the love,” to “prepare scrupulously,” and that “the most direct route to self-love and success is to make a series of commitments and keep them no matter what” were universal truths as relevant to succeeding in life as to succeeding in movies and plays.
I guess Tom took his theatre training seriously and paid attention during English Theater 101. After all, as Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago in As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage.”