At my college, the theatre majors were the hardest working students on campus. In addition to a full load of classes which included a core liberal arts, math & science curriculum, we also had to put on six shows a year. In addition to 5-7 days a week of rehearsal or performances of those shows, we were also rehearsing scenes for acting classes and directing classes, plus, working in the ticket office, scene shop or costume shop. In our classes, we didn’t have mere assignments or papers, we had “projects” that were demanding and time consuming. Every minute of the day was accounted for and it was not uncommon to have a midnight rehearsal with a scene partner, but, still make it to an 8:00 a.m. “World Cultures” lecture the next morning. I loved every moment of it.
Because we worked so hard, we also partied even harder. Our parties were legendary – often thematic dress-up affairs – and students from all fields of study craved an invitation or just openly crashed a soiree. We didn’t mind. The more the merrier. It was far more likely to see a frat boy or sorority girl at one of our gatherings than vice versa. And while these parties may have been host to a little smoking and/or drinking and, oh, a LOT of hooking up, I don’t think debauchery was the real draw. At least, it wasn’t the only draw. There were also the costumes. For me, what made these parties so great was the dancing.
We were a passionate pack of wild young theatre artists bursting with energy and drive. To quote our school’s fight song, we were full of “pep and vim!” The very best way to express all this emotion and passion was to dance it out. The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” & “1999”, Bonnie Tyler, G. Love & Special Sauce, Ace of Base and so many more artists and power pop songs of the 80’s and 90’s can instantly take me back to a sweaty Mid-Western basement. These were days of freedom and a future full of possibility. Since junior high, I’d always been a “dance like nobody’s watching” kind of person. These parties gave me the chance to do that with a room full of my closest friends, to share our passion with each other and to throw off any care or worry for a few hours.
In the fall of my junior year of college, I got to spend the semester in England. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life and I’ll go into greater depth about all that at a later time. It was also my first experience of going to a real honest to goodness night club. We didn’t go just to meet guys or to pay £10 for a weak drink. We went to dance. In the huge clubs of London, the smaller clubs of the town where our school was and in the basement bistro of the Victorian manor where we lived and studied, I danced my heart out at every opportunity. Coming back to the States was a strange culture shock on many levels, but I came home with even more passion, inspiration and desire to live life to its fullest. One adjustment to navigate was that all my old friends had new friends. There were all these new Freshmen running around I didn’t know and who didn’t know me. All of this contributed to the outburst that would become known as my signature catchphrase.
It was toward the end of that Spring semester at a party in a new off campus house rented by some of my theatre peeps with whom I had been in England. The hosts were my very close friends and since I was planning to live in the same house over the summer, I felt a sense of ownership about it and this party. It was a comparatively smaller home than some rented by theatre majors. The kitchen and backyard were the main gathering spots (bedrooms reserved for the residents and their bed companions) and there was really only one viable place for a dance floor. This was in the living room, which also housed a couple sofas, a rocking chair and the front door.
The full swing of the party had already come and gone, but there was still plenty of nighttime and life left. The crowd was thinning somewhat but it was far from over. Some of us were trying to dance. And some people were just getting in the way. There was a group of Freshmen sorority girls sitting on a sofa, hardly talking, looking bored and sticking their damn feet onto my dance floor. There were other groups of people just standing around and generally taking up space. After the third or fourth time I had nearly tripped over a hooker high heel and bumped into a stock still snot who might as well have been a statue, I was over it.
I turned up the music. “Dance! Or, LEAVE!” I said at the people on the couch. They looked at me dumbfounded. I walked over to a group of standers and repeated myself. “DANCE or LEAVE!” I said with raised voice and all seriousness in a sorority girl’s face. I turned to another group blocking my freedom of movement. “DANCE!! OR LEAVE!!!” And then I went back to dancing. Some left the room and some bolted out the front door. A few stayed. The girl whose face I got in stayed. She danced. She was a good dancer. She reminded me of the incident the following fall when she and I were already well on our way to becoming lifelong friends. I hadn’t thought about it since it happened, but it had very clearly stuck with her and resonated. “Dance or Leave” became a running gag and a sort of pseudo-notoriety spread around it. It’s a phrase that has been revived again in recent years through Facebook and continues to be tossed around amongst my people. It has become a new mantra for me.
The official title of this blog is Shut Up & Act, but it could just as easily be called Dance or Leave. They mean the same thing – do something. Don’t sit on the couch and talk about being an actor, get up and do it. Get involved or go home. Work at it every day. Watch the classics. Take classes. If you can’t afford classes, read books and scripts. Learn some monologues and tape yourself performing them. Don’t put those tapes on YouTube, just watch your performance. Are you overdoing it for the camera? Are you faking it or are you being it? If you want to be an actor, BE an actor. Create your own projects and invest your best into them. Whether you’re in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas or Appalachia, there are acting opportunities around you. Audition for local or regional commercials or the community theatre. Volunteer to be a reader at your church or to do patient reenactments for medical schools. You don’t have to be in a night club or the Royal Ballet to dance.
The general consensus is it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Have you invested that kind of time to hone your skill? Reality TV has made it possible for the un-trained and inexperienced to become “celebrities.” If being famous is your only goal, go home. You’re mucking up the field for the rest of us. If you don’t think studying the craft is crucial, get out. If becoming the very best actor you can be is not your primary goal, please leave. You’re just crowding the dance floor.
Read more of Shut Up & Act! by Lita Lopez