New York, July 28th 2013 | Susan Kelechi Watson
When I graduated from college I knew it all. I was not an actor, I was an Artist (if this were a French keyboard I would have added the accent mark over the “i”. That is how confident I was). I was ready for the world. There was no play I couldn’t do, no television series I wasn’t ready for, no film I couldn’t get a respectable role in. The last thing on my mind was going back to school. I was ready, I tell you. I had trained enough! Now, I should clarify that, though I LOVE my alma mater and had wonderful professors that sowed great seeds of character and presence into me, much of my acting training was inspired by the genius and the diligence of those students I shared classes with. We were a dedicated bunch. On occasions when we didn’t feel challenged by the curriculum, we took matters into our own hands. We went home and did the work. We rehearsed with each other way after hours and even challenged ourselves to do and perform pieces the professors hadn’t asked for. We were focused because we loved acting. We wanted all we could get from it. We longed to give it all we had. So after I left school, I decided that I had been through the trenches and had won many battles. I was prepared for the war. (Oh, how I miss that precious time in life when I was sure I knew it all).
My theory came crashing down that same summer when I began to study with one of the most distinguished master teachers in the business, Ron Van Lieu. Before I left college, I had decided I would study Shakespeare for a few months because I was so in love with it. Besides, that wasn’t really going back to school. It was one summer studying great works at a beautiful and prestigious Off- Broadway theater. Once it was over, I would be headed straight for the “big time”. But then, as I mentioned, Ron happened.
Every time I got up to perform in his class, he’d say, “Again. This time let go. Dive into the deep end.” So I’d get up, do it again, give it all I had, turn to him for kudos, and he’d say, “You only stuck your toe in.” I couldn’t believe it. I was at the top of my game in undergrad and here I was only “sticking my toe in?” Was this man crazy? Just the opposite, in fact. And deep down inside I knew it. Working with him bought me to a new realization. I needed to follow this man wherever he was teaching. I was becoming a deeper, richer, smarter, more courageous actor and I yearned for more of it. It was something I couldn’t learn at home alone in my room, and, as brilliant as my college classmates were, they were still my peers and they were on the same journey I was. What I needed was someone who was a master in the craft; who had been there and done it, seen it all and studied with the greats. Someone who had years of experience and hard work under their belt. Someone who loved the craft, been tried and tested in it, and was still in love with it.
My experience with Ron Van Lieu bought me to grad school (can you believe it?) where I spent the next 3 years of my life learning the skills and techniques of acting. There, I had many master teachers pour into my life and completely transform the way I approached the craft. It made me the artist I am today. It’s given me tools that I can share with others.
The exchange program that Almasi Collaborative Arts has started will give Zimbabwean actors the same opportunities I had. They will get firsthand experience from people who are masters in their respective fields. It will allow an artistic community (that had previously received a script, taken it home, worked on it on their own and then bought it back to a room to perform with a cast) the chance to learn the craft, technique, and unique skill of acting. It will help actors find their individual voice, fully maximize the potential of their physical instrument, and bring their talents to the stage in a professionalized environment. In turn, they will have something to pass on to others. This initiative is that important. This initiative is that necessary. It joins our voice to theirs. It gives Zimbabwean director and Almasi Co-founder Patience Twengwa a change to shadow Tony winner and acclaimed director Emily Mann so she can return to Zim and establish something powerful within her own community. It will bring Obie Award winning playwright/ actor Nikkole Salter to Zimbabwe in order to mentor playwrights, many of whom are unfamiliar with the works of August Wilson, Lynn Nottage and other great playwrights. It will bring Adam Immerwahr over from the McCarter Theater to direct a play by one of their country’s own, Danai Gurira.
You know, one great thing about knowledge, skill, and technique is that once you’ve attained it, no one can take it away from you. But what’s even greater is when what we’ve learned becomes more powerful as a result of being passed on to others. So…Dear Almasi, I’ve got my bags packed (along with a few choice words from Ron Van Lieu). See you soon, Susan Kelechi Watson