I was a theatre major in college at the Catholic University of America, not because I was Catholic but because they have a highly touted Drama Department. At the Drama Department on campus was an area we students called "The Fishbowl." It was a lobby area with two offices on either side, one with a receptionist's window and on the far side glass walls with a glass door leading out to the courtyard. When you sat in there you were in full view of the receptionist sitting at the window and anyone in front in the courtyard, or just passing by in the hall, hence the name "The Fishbowl."
The Fishbowl was a place to congregate, talk about class, discuss new plays, smoke and relax. It was also an area to observe fellow students going into the office of the Chairman of the Drama Department, Dr. William Graham, who had one of those offices on the side. Students would discuss plays, acting or class schedules with Dr. Graham, a gracious yet gruff man. He was large and imposing with grey hair and a voice that was booming even when he whispered. If you want to get a good visual representation of him in your head for this story, simply cross Brian Dennehy with Jackie Gleason, or just choose one or the other to be your visual representation of Dr. Graham.
Dr. Graham was a determined man who never (it seemed at least) went anywhere or did anything without a purpose. He had no time to dilly dally, as it were. One phrase of his that lives on in my household, and probably in the household of anyone who went to college with me, is "walk with me." If you saw Dr. Graham leaving his office and needed to ask him something he would not stop for you. He would say, "walk with me." Forcefully. Not scarily, although to new students he was quite intimidating, but forcefully. "Walk with me." It meant, "I'm not stopping but if you can get your question out and I can answer it before I reach my destination I'll oblige you." And so you walked with him. And you walked quickly.
I had the pleasure of having Dr. Graham as an acting instructor in my senior year and it is the best acting and one of the best learning experiences I have ever received. He taught Classical Acting and he was a master. First, we watched videos of actors at the Old Vic telling stories of past performances and demonstrating how to properly do soliloquies and scenes in Shakespeare. Among those present in the video were Ben Kingsley, David Suchet, Judy Dench, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Those videos alone were worth going to class for. Then we did soliloquies and scenes from Shakespeare and Johnson and were guided by Dr. Graham as to how to best capture the moment in each reading.
He did something invaluable for we students as actors. He told all of us that if the very first reading of our soliloquy was not absolutely one hundred percent over the top he wouldn't even pay attention. Odd, you may think, but the point he was making was that too many actors attempt to hone their performance from the get go and Dr. Graham knew that you must first explore wild abandon and then, and only then, start to edit and refine and pull yourself back in. What was amazing was that when we would watch the videotapes (he recorded us) none of us were nearly as over the top as we thought we were. When you grow up in an age of naturalistic acting you quickly lose the beauty of the classical acting art form. You don't understand it. The classical actor needs to play his role differently than the naturalistic actor. The classical actor is reciting lines that in many cases are completely unfamiliar to the average theatre goer if they are to simply read them. So the classical actor must make greater use of emotion and mannerism to convey what the words mean to the audience.
During one of those classes I was front and center doing a soliloquy in which I had to show anger. I do not now recall the piece now or even what play it was from. I simply remember the emotional experience. I performed my piece for the class and naturally, to my mind, thought I did a splendid job of hitting just the right notes of fury with my reading. Dr. Graham was not impressed. He got up and walked over to me. He knew that the first step was feeling the emotion. As a trained actor you are not supposed to feel it every time (that would necessitate a lack of control), instead you should recall the emotion for your performance later, but to recall it you need to first feel it. Dr. Graham was not one to employ tricks on actors where one goads them into doing something by deceiving them as many lesser directors feel it necessary to do. No, not Dr. Graham. But he did understand that simulating an emotion sometimes required a physical act to set it on its course. He held his hands out in front of him and told me to slap them as hard as I could as I read the piece. I chuckled at this, thinking it overly simplistic. He insisted. I started slapping. Hard. He told me I wasn't slapping hard enough and to start over. I began again and was shouting my lines at this point. He would shout back (much louder than me) "No good! Start again!" I would start again. I would get into a rhythm. He would stop me. "Harder! Start again!" This went on two or three more times. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph I do not recall the piece now, all I remember is this: By the end of my exercise with Dr. Graham, I - WAS - ENRAGED! Veins were popping out of my forehead, my body was shaking, I was sweating. And Dr. Graham? He was at ease, collected. "Excellent. Sit down."
So now you should have a pretty good picture of Dr. Graham. To use the old cliche, he was a man of bold strokes, not gentle flourishes. He believed in speaking one's mind, in strength of character and actively pursuing one's own purposes. He was a great teacher and mentor and an admirable role model. Which brings us back to that fishbowl that started this whole story off in the first place.
There we were, myself and my theatre student compatriots, huddled around as always, smoking cigarettes (back in the day when you could smoke indoors) and talking. Fellow student Patrick walked into the fishbowl and towards Dr. Graham's office. He needed to talk to him about points being taken off a paper because it had been turned in late. As best as I can recall he had what he felt to be a suitable reason for turning it in late. He wanted to get the points back and was there to argue his case with Dr. Graham. Once in his office we heard nothing as the office was fairly soundproof with it's concrete walls and two-ton wooden door. But whenever that door was open Dr. Graham could be heard. Always.
Inside Patrick argued his case to Dr. Graham. As we soon found out Dr. Graham was not impressed with his reason and stood by the docking of points. Dejected and defeated Patrick emerged from the office, hand on door knob to close the door behind him.
And then, at that moment, an extraordinary act of fate occurred.
Patrick stumbled and lunged forward. He held onto the knob to keep from going face down which resulted in the door slamming as hard as any door has ever slammed in the history of door slams. It practically shook the building.
Immediately Patrick went into a panic. "Oh my god, " Patrick said to we huddlers, "he's going to think I slammed the door because I was angry with him for not taking my side."
Being sympathetic twenty-something college students, we laughed. It was just too beautiful a conundrum not to. He asked us if he should knock, open the door and explain what happened. "Sure why not," we said, "if it'll make you feel better," but honestly we didn't care. Patrick hemmed and hawed for a few seconds then gently knocked on the door, opened it and explained what had happened. He apologized profusely and said it was wholly unintentional.
And then... then there was silence. For Patrick, an unbearable silence. One second passed, two, three, four seconds until finally Dr. Graham spoke. The door was open. We all heard that familiar booming voice:
"You should have left it with the slammed door. It made more of a statement."
This has been a Cinema Styles Anecdotal Film Review of Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg.