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Maybe There Is Something to This Acting Thing

First Person

May 22, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Truth be told, I don't like actors. Too often, I think, their smug, self-satisfied, "Hey, look at me!" habits taint the way the rest of the world looks at Los Angeles and often how we see ourselves.

We're the home of Hollywood. So even half-attractive, minimum-wage waiters and drink-slingers with little else going for them can act as arrogant as they wanna be. Because, actors do. Their narcissism rubs off on all of us.

To my mind, this city has two overrated shticks demanding a cache of cool that ridiculously outweighs the talent it takes to do them: acting and surfing. I mean, what about teachers, single moms or jazz saxophonists?

So I was dismayed to learn that a nest of these actor types gathered each Tuesday night in my next-door neighbor's living room. For one thing, they nabbed all the street parking. You could see them, pacing the front lawn in the dark, with their cigarettes and their scripts.

But one thing didn't make sense: I like my neighbor, an articulate single parent with three of her five children still at home, a struggling artist who wrote her first novel while her then-infant son took his morning naps.

All I knew about Deryn Warren was that she had directed a few films, including "Black Magic Woman," with Mark Hamill, and "Apollonia," which I'd seen on HBO. And that she had directed a play starring Anjelica Huston.

Yet in the three years I've known her, Deryn has rarely spoken of her professional life. After she became a single mother in 1993, she decided to stay home and raise her brood, despite any repercussions to her career. To make ends meet, she manages an apartment building she owns nearby. And she teaches her weekly acting class.

One day over the sideyard hedge, I confessed my bias against those who made a fantastic living reading other people's lines. Deryn said I didn't really grasp the acting concept and invited me to come see her students at work.

Reluctantly, I agreed.

*

OK, I admit it: I was intimidated by this stellar cast perched on chairs throughout the room. Young or old, they were 14 of the most poised people I had ever seen. And they weren't just pretty faces. Students must audition to get into Deryn's class. Six act full time--in commercials, TV gigs and feature films, doing speaking and silent roles.

One class veteran, Sal Lopez, produced and acted in the new film "Luminarias." And new student Reggie Currelley just auditioned for a film to be directed by Denzel Washington. But there is little envy among their classmates, Deryn says. Rather, they cheer on Reggie. Most went to Sal's premiere.

For these actors, class is a gym workout. Each week, Deryn scours for offbeat, funny and dramatic scenes to test their range. The students both read and improvise.

In the first exercise, they took turns reading a scene in which two people exchange uncomfortable, flirtatious dialogue in a coffee shop. On paper, the words fell flat. But each pair of actors brought nuance to the roles, whether through pauses, hand gestures or speech rhythms. While the lines remained the same, in each reading the characters emerged unique.

Next came the hard part. With partners, students improvised scenes. Standing before their peers, they let the dialogue fly. The purpose, Deryn explained, was to embody a conflict and answer the question: "What am I fighting for?"

One pair showed a daughter arguing with her mother the night before her wedding. Another had a white woman admitting to her African American fiance she hadn't told her parents he's black. In another, a designer informs her male model she wants him to walk naked onto the runway.

*

Each skit was tense. I could see actors take chances, shift gears, miss moments. Often painfully, they did more thinking on their feet than I do in an entire year.

Swiftly, after each performance, came the criticism. And I learned why students clamor to take Deryn's class: Her comments were dead-eye accurate. If you've ever been unable to explain why you liked a movie, then next time take Deryn with you. Because she knows why.

In class, she catches little things: Actors sighing before uttering dialogue. ("It lets all the energy out," she says.) Turning their backs to the audience. Sleepwalking through scenes by reading their lines rote and not incorporating the presence of the other actors. And most important of all, she says, good acting is listening, not merely waiting for other performers to finish their lines.

A career actress with a resume in theater, film and television, Deryn studied under famed acting coach Michael Shurtleff, author of the performer's bible, "Audition."

She eventually filled in as instructor. And when Shurtleff retired, he referred students to his new protege.

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