BY MALLORY HARMON
Acting is something I have always dreamed of doing, but never imagined I would ever have the ability to achieve. However, when a family friend asked if I would like to look into joining a local acting studio, I experienced a myriad of emotions. Excitement? Yes. Enthusiasm? Yes. Uneasiness? Definitely.
Two weeks later, I walked into the studio to find a big room comprised of a waiting area with snacks and cushy sofas. Further in was a three-layered riser for an audience facing a quaint, staged living area, which included a door. Three cameras pointed toward the living area, and two flat screen TVs stood in each corner facing the audience. Already my nerves were jangling as I thought about getting in front of those cameras to have my face projected onto the screens.
I watched the door, which leads out of the living room, as students stated their list of objectives then disappeared through it at the command of the instructor. What seemed to be the common routine for the participants sounded a bit like this, “Alright, Hartley, what do you have today?” The instructor would say, “I have a door, activity, POV, ‘betrayed’ with Britain, and an active scene swap.” This, as you can imagine, was pure nonsense to me at the time, and my paranoid mind started to wonder if there was some sort of memo or class guide I had missed. I consoled myself by remembering I could get up and run away as fast as I could whenever I wanted, and I continued to watch as Hartley and Britain paired up and disappeared through the door.
After a very engaging class, I met the instructor, Burgess Jenkins, an accomplished actor in over 250 episodes of TV and films, contributor to 35 plus acting projects, including movies such as The Reason and Remember the Titans, as well as TV show, The Young and the Restless.
During our conversation I learned that Burgess grew up in Winston-Salem. “I read every book I could find and jumped into every workshop that came through Charlotte. I moved to Los Angeles and immersed myself there.
“After seven years of study, I learned what it meant to be a film actor and what it meant to pursue this business in a professional way.” Burgess went on to explain that after he had moved back to Winston-Salem, his agents asked him if he would be willing to train prospective actors in his hometown. He readily agreed, and Actors Group was started.
“I’ve focused much energy on teaching teenagers, because when you’re young, you may not have the ability to express yourself. Acting affords you that ability. Over the years, I’ve watched these kids come into their own and experience who they are creatively. Then, to see them put that out there in a professional sense is very gratifying.”
The next week, I started out with the basics. Burgess called me to the front of the class. My hands stubbornly shook by my side, and he gave me a knowing smile. He told me to sit on the couch and think of one person whom I really wanted to talk to at that moment. Since my sister had recently left for college, she was the first person I thought of.
“Now,” he continued, “I want you to take a moment and connect with that person. Then start talking. Remember, there are no consequences to what you say, so say whatever is on your mind.” I took a deep breath and nodded. Needless to say, I was in tears by the end, but I felt lighter and took my seat with the knowledge that nothing I did from then on would be as embarrassing.
A later assignment at Actors Group demanded that I be in a state of terror. I struggled with this for two weeks, clumsily putting on a series of unconvincing shows. Finally, I asked myself what terrifies me. I found the answer. To prepare, I marched through that iconic door, past the other students, and into the adjacent supply closet. I shut the door, turned out the light and huddled in the darkest corner, feeling my breath against the restricting corner of the room. My heart thudded. I felt helpless and terrified. I imagined never being able to escape this dark suffocating closet. The following work was some of my best and indescribably fun.
As Burgess would say, I had found what made me ‘tick.’ A sister moving away and the helplessness of a confined space fueled my work and helped me conquer my fear of public performance. Over the past 12 months with Actors Group, I have delved deeper into my personality to find what makes me truly happy, incensed with anger, and what things leave me genuinely confused. It has not been, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy transition: from putting on a show to feeing real emotions on command. However, as Burgess always says, the secret to becoming a great actor is perseverance. I will continue to explore what it means to be a method actor and work to exceed expectations, whether I am stepping through that door at Actors Group, or onto a movie set.