Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Drama: An Actor's Education

Drama: An Actor's Education, by John Lithgow
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Third Rock from the Sun

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

As I posted last month on my regular blog, I adore John Lithgow. We saw him perform in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" on Broadway a few years ago, and we both laughed out loud during every episode of "Third Rock from the Sun."

Lithgow had me tearing up during the introduction to his memoir, when he shared a poignant tale about taking care of his elderly father during an illness. His love and admiration for his father, who was a Shakespearean director and teacher, created the impetus for this book and Lithgow's one-man show, Stories by Heart.

He takes us through his actor's life, starting with childhood and up through his recent experiences. Much of the book centered on his formative years as he was just starting out as an actor in plays directed by his father. Articulate and funny, Lithgow is a wonderful storyteller. I could not put this book down.

I found this book especially fascinating given the period of my life, as my 8-year-old is rehearsing for his first professional theater performance. One evening I read the book while waiting in the theater lobby for Kieran while listening to the shouting and singing overhead.

Lithgow actually wanted to be an artist, but acting chose him. This line particularly resonated with me during this time in my family's life: "If you hear enough applause and laughter at a young enough age, you are doomed to become an actor. After my performance as the young damsel-in-distress, my fate was probably sealed."

Even though Kieran's worn out at the moment from play rehearsals five days a week, I have a feeling that his fate will be sealed, too, once he starts performing five shows a weekend beginning next Friday. That applause and laughter will seal his fate.

Another time I cried while reading Lithgow's book was when he shared that he and his first wife had a premature baby who died shortly after birth. I am deeply touched each time I read about someone who has had a preemie or a medically fragile child. "I experienced the first genuine tragedy in my life. Jean gave birth to a son nine weeks early. For a few hours the little boy struggled for life and then gave up the ghost. It was a devastating loss for both of us."

Lithgow wrote about how his father found it too difficult to comfort him. "My mother was deeply comforting. My little sister wept compassionate tears. Actors in the company clasped me in long, heartfelt embraces. I honestly cannot remember my father registering the slightest reaction." I remember people in my own life who could not fathom what to say to us while we endured our own premature baby crisis (even though in our case our baby lived)...or later lived through repeated miscarriages. As our dear friend Doug says, "Grief reorders your address book."

Another thing I admired about this book was that Lithgow did not use names when he had less-than-pleasant reports about any of his theater colleagues. Gracefully, he used pseudonyms to protect people's reputations.

He writes about the mistakes he made...for example, getting married too early and suffering through adolescence in his 30s, leading to the death of his first marriage...and starting up a theater company without knowing what he was doing...and throughout it all, he weaves through the themes of family and lifelong learning and growth.

I would dearly love to see Lithgow on stage again someday. In the meantime, I'll have to satisfy myself with rewatching some of his old movies, and perhaps some of his new roles as well.


  1. Thanks Marie - I just put this in my library queue. I hope your son breaks a leg!

  2. Thanks, Colleen! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.