Acting,  naturally

By  Elaine Hardman,  Alfred Sun
What would you expect from an acting workshop?  Bill Pullman wanted to know what everyone anticipated would happen during his workshop in the sun-flooded dance studio in Miller Hall (Alfred University) on Friday morning.  He asked everyone to jump a mental-mud puddle though because, in giving the answer, he said, “You must lie.”

I went to the workshop intending just to watch but when everyone started striding around the room with bare feet thumping, I jumped in and then immediately wondered what got into me.  “Flow,” he said, “loosen up.”

Afterwards, at the Women’s Learning Center, Carol Burdick (retired, English Department) asked me what an acting workshop is like.  I told her that I walked about and then later became comfortable staring at a wall.  “Well, alright,” she responded as if I had given the most reasonable of answers.

Bill Pullman started the class after a simple introduction.  He was from the first word warm,gracious, natural.  He joked that he expected a dozen people and was trying to re-work his ideas to suit a larger group.   Pullman talked about the process of performing and the vocabulary of playwrights and actors and then he directed everyone to begin walking.  The crowd began roaming here and there and then flowed into an orderly, predictable circle.  The changed when groups broke off in new directions, filling the floor evenly for a bit but eventually becoming, again, that orderly donut of walkers.
Pullman asked everyone to stop and to begin a verbal exercise – almost a chant.  He said, “My name is Bill.”
The group responded, “Hi, Bill.  My name is _.”  Each person finished with his/her name.  Bill announced his name several times, changing the tone so that his voice admitted defeat or struggled to against exhaustion or boredom to push out the words.  Sometimes the announcement perked with joy or excitement.  Everyone answered, trying to mimic the attitudes in his voice.

When many voices speak together, they blend into a rich, iridescent sound and so it was with the first part of [the]statement but when they each broke off into their own names adding different sounds to the mix the sounds tangled, more music than words.
After this game of “Hi, Bill,” Pullman began to talk with individual students.  His purpose was to teach them to lie – with style.    

It’s the lie beneath words, Pullman said, that gives words their excitement and makes acting fun.  The friction of lie against truth adds heat to conversation.  He started conversations with individuals asking them about their classes or lives expecting truthful responses.  After a short exchange, he then asked what they expected from the workshop and that’s when they were supposed to lie. 

Lying, he suggested, takes a nice glaze of sincerity if one nods while talking.  These students were great.  With or without nodding, I believed every word they said.  It all sounded genuine and plausible as if the direction to lie had been ignored.

 Another exercise involved writing a 4 sentence scene.  He gave a framework for the scene (Your boyfriend betrayed you.  Your friend embarrassed you.  Your parents are divorcing.) and a few minutes of time and then asked everyone to sit back to back in pairs.  One person in a pair would speak the lines while the other listened and then he played with the people and their words.  Pullman asked the listener to look or he changed something about the framework and asked the readers to come at the scene from another direction.  With many repetitions, the scenes felt different.

Bill Pullman talked about working to be natural, to be simple in face, body, voice and mind.  He said that the face is difficult to work with because one must learn to take emotion and intellect and force it from the face into the depth of the eyes.

As the class ended he talked about the enormously difficult task each of us has in learning who we are and why we are and what other people are all about.  He went into acting to learn to understand himself, a task he had to tackle whether he would be an actor or a pharmacist or a farmer.  As it has turned out, he has been able to learn about himself and be paid for it, a situation that seems to bring him great delight
Laughing, he said that he loves being alone in elevators.  That’s one of the places where he practices focusing on self-awareness.  He stares at an elevator wall to practice his skill of being relaxed and natural, simple and ready, and aware of every part of himself. 

Members of the workshop attempted that, each trying to be comfortable with the wall and then trying to hold that sense and turn to look at everyone else while being natural - a skill so intensely and naturally mastered by this teacher. 

This class ended with continued generosity and warmth when there was a photo op with Bill Pullman for each of the many cameras that popped out of pockets and bags.

 copyright 2007 Elaine Hardman
Originally published in The Patriot and Free Press, Vol. CXLIV, No. 9.


Bill Pullman gives an acting workshop at Alfred University.
Photo by Elaine Hardman. Copyright 2007.  All rights reserved.

Pullman demonstrates a technique in his acting workshop.
Photo by Elaine Hardman. Copyright 2007.  All rights reserved.

Bill Pullman
Photo by Elaine Hardman. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.