Producers announced that Alec Baldwin (30 Rock and newlywed) will be returning to the New York stage this season in the first Broadway production of Lyle Kessler’s acclaimed drama Orphans. This news probably causes you to think a number of things such as “isn’t that the play that made Steppenwolf actors stars?” or “wow, it will be great to see an actor of Baldwin’s depth and star magnetism back on the stage” or “I hope they have an ambulance on standby at that theater for fallen paparazzi.”
However, my first thought was “Orphans? People actually do full productions of that play instead of just scenes in acting class?” You see, if you’ve spent any time in an acting program, you will be acutely aware that there is a syllabus of plays that are done and done and done–until they’re done–in acting classes. They are performed so frequently (and often with such…well…lack of finesse) that they lose all meaning as freestanding works of drama and begin to feel like they were written for a text book like those mysterious reading samples on a standardized test.
These classic Acting 101 scenes are popular because they break down into nice, easily memorizable 5 minute chunks and feature two (preferably youngish) characters, few props and a set that can be made from two or three wooden “acting cubes”. For your edification and amusement, let me break down the four most popular scene types (in this case from Contemporary American Drama, though there are analogous examples from Shakespeare, the Greeks and Chekhov) with video aids from actual acting classes. [Note: I recommend you skim across these videos like delightfully buzzing hummingbirds, getting a nip of some of the sweet, tantalizing nectar then moving on.]:
Orphans by Lyle Kessler: Two low life Philly brothers hold an older man hostage only to discover that they might be the ones being played. In this example, we actually have a monologue but in most acting classes a second performer will not really change anything about the performance of the first performer other than slow down their cues.
Ideal for: 2 men, usually the two straight or straight-hopeful guys in the acting class who feel the need to announce and/or prove their masculinity, no matter what anyone else may say, by playing criminal types or street toughs. Accent is optional. Yelling and/or mumbling mandatory. These scenes are dedicated to their acting heroes Sean Penn, Robert DeNiro, Vin Diesel. See also True West by Sam Shepard.
Fool for Love by Sam Shepard: A couple hashes out their complex relationship (she’s my lover, she’s my half-sister) in a seedy, steamy motel. In our example, the gorgeously named Kalogeropoulou Aspasia & Sheldon Charron attempt to smolder for a film study class.
Ideal for: 1 man & 1 woman, usually the most attractive duo in class. They want permission to work out their sexual tension in front of strangers (and therefore they are born actors). Trashy western wear is optional. Off-hours rehearsal time spent doing improvisations exploring the “physical dynamic” of Eddie & Mae’s relationship is mandatory. See also, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang: A couple meets for a 1970’s blind date; absurdity and revelations of homosexuality ensue. I can not comment about the clip because I’m too distracted by the doo-rag choice made by the young actor.
Ideal for: 1 man, 1 woman, usually best friends (often a young gay man and his gal pal) in the class who refuse to kiss in a scene (because, like, that would be gross) but would like to say shocking things and throw glasses of water at each other. Like on Smash. See also a drama variation, The Heidi Chronicles.
Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley: Three eccentric southern sisters deal with the aftermath of a shooting in this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/drama. Oh my goodness, we’ve hit the motherload with this video. It is not only an acting class scene; it is a stage combat scene. Yep. Girl fights. [Best slapping/hair pulling begins at 7:45.]
Ideal for: 2 women, ie. most of the class. Women outnumber men so heavily in most classes that these kinds of plays get a real workout. Toss in the ripeness of high comedy turning to female bonding tears and this is irresistible to the young actress. Fighting over who gets to be the cute or sexy sister is optional. Deciding you want to play the homely sister because “Charlize Theron/Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for deglamourizing herself” is mandatory. See also, Vanities.