Acting brings out the best

A Sunday afternoon at the Southwest Minnesota State University Black Box Theatre this month turned into a trip down memory lane.

I wanted to see the Theater Department’s production of “Unnecessary Farce” because it promised to be a fun comedy about a “major” sting operation against a big-city mayor that turned into a series of incredible mistakes. I thought the matinee performance started at 1:30 p.m. when it actually started a half hour later, so I had plenty of time to kill before the curtain went up.

I asked the ticket taker, who wasn’t busy yet, if she was a theater major. She wasn’t but mentioned always liking plays. I asked if she knew Bill Hezlep, a professor emeritus at SMSU who was a mentor for me when I took an advanced acting class as an elective.

As luck would have it, shortly after I asked, Bill showed up to see the play. We enjoyed about 15 minutes worth of catching up on what’s happened lately for us and for SMSU.

It went back all the way to when I was an undergraduate who wanted a challenge as part of general studies. We had the option of taking a more advanced course than 101 if we felt we’d meet the grade and learn more in the process.

I felt like “shooting the moon.” I asked for the 400 level capstone course in acting known as Acting Techniques. Bill cautioned me that I would be in a class with very talented experienced actors, most of whom were considering trying to land jobs in theater companies or broadcast media.

It seemed like what happens in other kinds of professional or recreational interests. Any time a person gets a chance to “play with better players” he or she should take advantage of the opportunity. It’s one of the best ways to learn.

I definitely wasn’t disappointed. When assigning quarter-long partners for graded scene performances, Bill paired me with one of his very best actresses. She was patient and kind. I apologized several times for not doing all that great with scenes, but she always responded that I did fine.

During the grading period I also had scenes with other classmates. An actress with a gift for comedy helped me to show humor on stage. Bill often stepped into scenes with students. In my case, we worked on one of the most important scenes in Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar,” as his Cassius and my Brutus formed a conspiracy for Caesar’s assassination.

For finals my acting partner and I chose the final scene of Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House.” She was Nora, a young wife who made a bold decision by leaving her older well-to-do husband Torvald. We were the same age, but we managed to portray a couple with an age difference.

The class was a great way for me to take final steps toward coming out of my shell, from branching out as a shy child to being ready for work as a newspaper reporter and later an education and outreach coordinator teaching about soil and water conservation followed by a job teaching local and regional history.

A stereotype against performers is that they’re phony. It depends on the person. A huge percentage of them are definitely genuine people.

When President Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980, many of his critics stated that it was silly to have an actor for president. It was even said that Bonzo, his chimpanzee co-star in the 1950s comedy “Bedtime for Bonzo” would have been better qualified.

Reagan came through for his supporters and surprised many detractors by earning the title of “The Great Communicator.” He definitely knew how to present himself.

Acting, news interviews, and teaching involve a more complicated process than speaking with the safety of a podium and notes.

Someone has to know how to make the most of good opportunities to relate to an audience, and how to improvise when something doesn’t unfold in quite the way that was planned.

It’s important that all students look for opportunities to be everything they can be. Nothing’s impossible as long as there’s self confidence, a willingness to keep trying, and the desire to learn.