Alan Arkin. An Improvised Life: A Memoir. Cambridge, Ma.: DaCapo Press, 2011.
Alan Arkin states he realized, as an actor, that he didn’t want to just “do it” when acting, but he wanted to “be it” and become the character when acting. He dedicates the book “to everyone who wants to be the music.”
Arkin knew from the age of five he wanted to be an actor. He watched plays, listened to music, saw ballets, and felt he would become a part of that entertainment process. He envisioned becoming what he saw and heard in acting and in music. He watched movies and pretended he was there, in the scene, watching the scene through a peepholde. He took acting classes at the Academy of Music.
An an actor, Arkin is attuned to the emotions in his life. He recalls reacting to emotions for his acting craft. This improves his acting abilities, but he notes it is “not so good for the human being living inside”.
Arkin took an Acting class in junior high school, which he enjoyed. In high school, he won the lead roles in school dramas. He watched films and realized he wanted to be an actor who allows the audience to experience his characters. People may applaud wonderfully articulated dialogue, he notes, but they enjoy feeling the emotions of a convincing portrayal.
Arkin discovered he could become the character and push himself and his feelings aside when acting. He would thank and respond as that character.
Arkin received a scholarship to attend Bennington College, a women’s college that allowed a few men for their plays. He married and left the college without graduating.
Arkin got a small role in an off-Broadway play. He earned more money than other actors because he had to play a lute in his role, qualifying him for higher pay as a better paid musician. He turned down a work offer in Chicago. Yet after a year of frustration in New York, he asked if the Chicago offer was still valid. It was, and Arkin went to Chicago to act with Second City.
Arkin found his first months at Second City challenging. The Second City group did improvisational theater and he learned to be spontaneous, funny, and topical. He felt he was too serious a person for a comedy group. He developed a character he felt comfortable with that made audiences laugh. He clung to that character, and then developed additional characters. He learned to fail, which was fine, as audiences expected part of such shows would fail. He learned from failing which helped him learn and grow. The group went to Broadway for a run that ended after three months. They were invited to work at a club in Greenwich Village, where they developed a following.
Arkin received the lead in a Broadway play “Enter Laughing”. After a year, he returned to Second City and then went to another Broadway play “Luv”. He then received a role in the movie “The Russians Are Coming”. He feared a backlash of a movie appearing during the Cold War showing Russians as humans, but there was no such uproar. He went on to film the movies “Popi” and “Catch-22”. He learned to enjoy work more while struggling with it less while filming “The In Laws”. He notes audiences could tell that he and costar Peter Falk enjoyed their roles in “The In Laws”. Arkin observed different actors worked from different perspectives. Tony Perkins requires critical self evaluation. Jack Lemmon felt a certain magic to his work.
Arkin never intended to become a director. He was asked to look over a play when, in doing so, he discovered it in disarray. Having no other work, he agreed to take over its direction. He discovered he was able to make sense out of chaos. The show had a one year run. More directing offers followed, and he accepted them.
Arkin discovered many actors don’t grasp how their character fits into a role. They focus on their own lines but not on the whole script, so they don’t understand their role in the story. He also found improvisational actors were easier to direct, as they tended to develop instinctual understandings how their roles relate.
Arkin urges actors to approach their roles with open minds and to consider the many directions they could go as a character. While this may confuse and frighten some actors, he urges them to embrace those opportunities.
Jean Renoir, when directing, had actors initially read their scripts together without worrying about how to act their roles. Renoir wanted his actors to avoid making decisions too soon about how their characters should be presented.
When Arkin teaches acting classes, he observes that students often compete for attention on stage. Arkin instead wants actors to learn to work together. He teaches group awareness. An actor should understand the intentions of a character, provide an emotional context to the role, give it a feeling state, and act so that something is happening.
Arkin observes “acting is nothing more than a metaphor for life, and a pretty transparent one at that”. The drama of the stage is like the drama of everyday life.