What is it about acting that can grab a person’s full attention — and often hold it for a lifetime? Recently I got to dramaturge Holy Ghosts for the Sullivan Players. Romulus Linney’s drama concerns the life-and-death passions of a snake-handling cult. An actor’s devotion can be just as committed. So I asked some cast members to talk about what has become, in effect, their calling. I wasn’t looking for a definitive answer — I doubt there is one — just personal responses.
JOE NESNOW. “My daughter and wife think I’m addicted to applause,” says Nesnow, 76-year-old retired Navy, “but that’s not even the frosting — or the sprinkles — on the cake. It isn’t applause. It’s when an audience is with you, hanging on every word. You can feel this tremendous emotional feedback. That’s a connection like nothing else.”
Nesnow’s been acting over 50 years. As a youngster, however, it never crossed his mind. He was a singer “and loved that applause (I’m a middle son and needed it).” When he joined the Navy just before the Korean War, the brass wanted to stage a musical comedy to entertain troops. Since the job would free him from mess cooking and fire watches, Nesnow volunteered, “thereby breaking,” he laughs, “the age-old military rule.”
What surprised him: even for long hours, acting never felt like work. “It was always exciting, creating something, making a whole life. The only real work was learning the lines.”
Although the show never made the stage, since the players kept getting shipped out, Nesnow “got hooked REAL BAD.” He took every class he could and began a lifelong pursuit.
Nesnow’s acting-hook has two prongs: the charged connection with the audience, and a vanishing. “I love telling stories. I love to draw people in and disappear into the role, so that people forget I’m Joe and just see the character. If I can do that, then I win.”
MELANIE SUTHERLIN. Asked what she’d do if she couldn’t act, Sutherlin stopped cold. “I’d be trapped. I wouldn’t be me. I don’t want to THINK about that. Acting is my passion. It’s like air for me. I have to do it…have to do it.”
The 22-year-old former theater arts student at SDSU recalls doing grammar school projects “way above and beyond” the instructions. At Scripps Ranch High she played the sousaphone. “It’s always been there, that need, not just to show what I can do, which is part of it. It’s almost as if creative energy is something you set free. It wants to move through you and out. Otherwise it gets trapped.
“I can have a really long day at work” (like most San Diego actors, Sutherlin has a full-time job, and most make a similar claim), “but even if I’m dead tired, the second I walk onstage it all goes away. It’s hard to describe, the creative juices, the wake-up. It’s like you have all the energy in the world! Plus, you forget about the world outside. It all disappears. I love that forgetting.”
When she watches a movie, a voice inside will say, “God, I want this part!” It isn’t just studying different characters and digging for details, she says, “it’s luring the audience into a story so deeply that the outside world disappears for them as well.”
MICHAEL BARNETT. “I have always worn my emotions on my sleeve,” says Barnett, 49. “I got teased about it when I was a kid. But I couldn’t help letting them out.”
In grammar school he was a teacher’s aide, reading stories to second graders. “I began giving the characters different voices and sounds. The kids would mumble things like ‘he’s weird’ or ‘that’s strange,’ but after a while you could hear a pin drop.”
At home, he and his mother watched afternoon movies on Dialing for Dollars. She had acted in several shows and skits. When he saw how avidly she watched old movies, Barnett “realized she wasn’t just a mom. She was a girl who had dreams. And acting became mine.”
Building a hairdressing business — he’s now in such demand he asked me not to name his salon — and caring for ailing family members — made him set the dream aside for decades. Seven years ago, his partner, Daren Scott, an actor, inspired Barnett to give it a try. The “pretend for real” nature of acting had an overwhelming appeal.
“Some people, my brother’s one, try to erase their feelings: X might hurt, people might not like Y. But an actor’s training says, ‘Be in touch with every emotion.’ That’s so natural to me it doesn’t seem like acting. What I’ve had to learn — and am still — is when to feel them: when to go to Level 8 at the right point, or Level 10 or 12.”
Now that he’s felt the call, Barnett vows it will become “a much bigger slice of my life’s pie.”
ADAM MARCINOWSKI. “Some are born with acting in the blood,” says the 30-year-old part-time high school teacher. “Some catch it at an early age, while others get plagued later.”
Six feet five inches tall, Marcinowski played tackle and tight end for the University of Washington, 1996–2000. He came to acting two years ago when he got a job as an extra on the TV pilot Viva Laughlin and “got the bug. If I started young, it wouldn’t have been a good thing. I didn’t have the life experiences.
“Acting for me is like athletics, not so much in the physical sense but in the mental preparation and that feeling of having your stomach tangled into a million different directions. I was an offensive lineman in college. Sometimes you mess up a blocking assignment and have to make the best of the play. ‘When in doubt, fire out,’ the coaches always said. “Go full speed into your mistake.’
“Acting’s like that. You have blocking, and if the scene gets broken up, you have to make the best of it on the spot.”
He gets a thrill from performance: “It can be truly scary sometimes, but when you channel it, fear can become energy you can bank on.”
Giving up a teaching career’s been difficult. Marcinowski struggles with his decision to become an actor every day. “But it’s a fire I can’t put out. If your path is unclear before you, then create it as you go. So I struggle. But you know what? Screw it! I’m a dreamer that can’t see myself doing anything else. Acting is my redemption, my crowd noise, my feeling of whole. It scares me to death, but damn, it’s exciting!”
JO-DARLENE REARDON. “I was an extremely quiet and shy young girl,” says Reardon, now 65. She stayed home and watched Bette Davis movies. When she was 13, in the late 1950s, her parents sent Reardon to Junior Theatre to overcome her shyness. “Petrified and excited,” she sat in a corner, wanting to audition but “scared to death.” She went several times “but just sat there.” Eventually she landed a part as a dancer in Aladdin, and it changed her life.
“I still hold my emotions close,” she says, but when she’s onstage the shyness goes away. “A very good friend used to say I had two personalities.
“Actors get labeled, but I’ve never met such a variety anywhere else —all walks of life — and theater accepts them no matter what. I can’t think of many other fields that do that.”
An SDSU grad who taught speech therapy and special education in the schools for 30 years, Reardon learned the piano for Holy Ghosts. On opening night, she played five traditional hymns like a pro.
During the fourth week of rehearsals, tests revealed a tumor in her bladder. “I have cancer,” she told the assembled cast, “but I’m not quitting the show.”
She had an operation on April 29 — and will require another. Holy Ghosts opened May 3 (and closes this weekend). Reardon never missed a rehearsal or a performance.
“When I heard I had a tumor, rather than mope, I said to myself: ‘I don’t care what it is. I won’t stop living or doing what I love.’ ”
The day she got the biopsy results, Reardon decided to audition for a bit part in Vanguard’s Annie Get Your Gun. The tryout called for singing and dancing. She did both, with all her heart.
Oakley Hall, San Diego-born novelist, died Monday, May 12, in Nevada City. He was 87. He wrote Warlock (which Thomas Pynchon ranks “among the finest of American novels”), he founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and, for 20 years, he directed the nationally ranked creative writing program at U.C. Irvine. When I was a grad student in literature at Irvine, Oakley had an office across from mine. He became a great friend and mentor. I learned two things fast: never play poker with him (he had a novelist’s eye for “tells”), and heed every word he says about writing. For years, as we headed off to classes, he gave me an ongoing, off-the-cuff master class on the “delightful drudgery” of writing. He wrote two books on the subject: The Art and Craft of Novel Writing and How Fiction Works. I can’t recommend them enough — and couldn’t miss him more.
To read Justin Wolff’s 1991 interview with Hall, click here. You can hear the writer and the teacher: he knew the craft like few others.