How a Zoom Acting Class Helped Me Find a New Role in Quarantine
Voting for the Tony Awards started this month, even though there haven’t been live shows on Broadway for over a year. That plucky, against-all-odds attitude of theatre is why I’ve had a life-long love affair with it. And it’s the reason I’m taking my own unlikely stab back at it during this stage of my life.
I almost chickened out. As I sat in Zoom’s virtual waiting room, I debated pressing the END button.
I could make my escape and give up this folly of a midlife crisis before anyone saw my face.
The truth is I’m getting too old for a midlife crisis, but lately I’ve realized they come in stages. My latest happened a few months ago as I got ready to celebrate my second birthday in quarantine. Nothing like a plague to sharpen the realization you are mortal.
The result was I was sitting in front of my computer about to take my first acting class since college almost four decades earlier.
Ever since I was a little boy, I have dreamed of being an actor. In high school, I starred as the romantic lead in several plays which gave me my only experience in adolescence of kissing girls.
When it came time to pick a college major, my mom allowed me to choose Theatre. She believed her children should make their own choices even if it meant they most likely would spend their life waiting tables.
I was quickly cast as the young lover Lysander in Midsummer’s Nights’ Dream giving me my only experience of kissing a girl at Miami University. But my collegiate competition was fierce, and it was clear others were more talented than I was. I decided if I couldn’t be the best then I shouldn’t pursue a career in this highly competitive field. I focused instead on directing and eventually moved behind the scenes to television production soon after I graduated.
But I never forgot those heady days on the boards. In my thirties, I bragged on a first date I had starred as Tom Sawyer in high school. The guy just looked sad that I thought this fact might impress him. (I was very good!).
In the years since, I’ve attended over a hundred Broadway plays and often wept while watching the Tony’s lamenting the life I left behind.
I stayed involved in theatre after I moved to LA writing and directing plays. I eventually thought of acting as a whim of my youth. But something changed during this last year of Covid and quarantine. The shift began during several Zoom reunion meetings with old college theatre pals. As we reminisced over stories: “Remember when you fell into the orchestra pit and the trombone player tossed you back up onstage, I was reminded of the passion that had never quite left my soul.
In December a friend asked me to play the Innkeeper in a virtual nativity play for kids. By the time I told Mary she could give birth in the manger, the theatre bug had bit me so hard it hurt.
“I think I might take an acting class,” I said to my husband Saul. He wasn’t surprised since I had been taking zoom classes all year such How to Get Your Book Noticed by Agents and Pilates for Beginners in an effort to keep improving myself. He liked they distracted me from trying to improve him.
The very next morning I received a random email from a local theatre offering acting classes on the internet. I decided if the universe had listened to me, I needed to listen to the universe. The class started the following day. I thought about it overnight and signed up in the morning.
But as I sat in the waiting room, I began to get cold feet. I had gone to enough Writer’s Workshops to know you can tell in the first ten seconds whether or not it’s going to be good. You either have a gifted teacher and very committed students, or someone leading the group for the money and a class full of bored, slightly sociopathic misfits. Once you are in, you are trapped unless you pretend you have to use the bathroom and make your escape.
As faces began popping up on my computer screen, I nervously scoped the room. Everyone seemed fairly normal. One woman around my age told the class she had been a ballerina and then a paralegal but wanted “the last third of my life to be creative.” The rest had similar stories and their motivations for taking the class weren’t so different from mine. The teacher seemed good too. After I introduced myself, she remarked I would probably work more than anyone else in the class.
“Really?” I said hoping they couldn’t tell I was blushing.
“Yes,” she replied. “Casting agents are always looking for older men.”
Ouch. I mean I guess I was aware I wasn’t an ingenue anymore, but still…
“Yeah, you got that John Malkovich vibe!” a kid in his early twenties called out.
“Yes!” everyone else chimed in excitedly. “You do!!”
Sure, he’s a good actor, but he’s never been one of People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive. I don’t think he even had made it into their “Sexy at Any Age” section.
This was a far cry from several years ago when a guy tried to pick me up at a bar and said I looked like a young Harrison Ford.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me I looked like a young Harrison Ford?” I asked a friend later.
“Because you don’t?” he replied.
I had always assumed he was jealous but now wasn’t so sure.
But as the class got under way, I was able to shake her comment off. I was nervous but plunged in.
When I had to play a scene where the only dialogue between my partner and I was:
I was in heaven.
I’m certain it would have made most of my friends roll their eyes, but I loved every minute.
When the class finished, Saul noted a joyfulness in me he hadn’t seen in months. I wondered myself why I felt so happy.
Then I thought about this last year and how, like so many of us, I’ve spent it continuously pushing rocks up steep hills. I’ve been exerting tremendous energy trying to move things forward in a time of inertia and stagnation. I had been doing my job at full capacity without going into an office; trying to get my book published when people only want to read about Covid and Trump; and keeping our marriage vital while spending every second of every day together.
It was such bliss to finally do something simply for fun. I didn’t have to achieve anything. The world was not anxiously awaiting my comeback. Simply doing it was the prize.
But there was still another perk I didn’t see coming.
A few days after my first class, I was assigned my first scene by email from the Broadway play, The Inheritance. I was going to ask which part I would be playing but realized it was obviously the much older man. I related much more to the kid in his twenties.
But as I started rehearsing with my partner, I slowly began to embrace the part. And something miraculous happened.
Working in television, I work hard to stay relevant. Sometimes I feel ashamed and embarrassed simply for getting older. It’s like I’ve somehow failed. But as I tapped into and embraced those “mature” aspects of myself in this scene, there was a sense of liberation. I was becoming my true self by playing someone else.
I have no idea what will become of this class. Maybe it will just be a fun lark or possibly I’ll start getting involved in community theatre.
Or perhaps one day you’ll hear my acceptance speech on the Tonys—maybe not for Hamlet but perhaps his murderous, calculating uncle?
Game on John Malkovich.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is a writer and actor. His special skills are first-person narrative and speaking in a cockney accent.