Uncovering The Secrets Of The Acting Cult

I can’t act. I don’t even do well with public speaking. When I was in college, I read a short story at an open-mike night. My hands shook. My voice quivered. I had an out-of-body experience. I considered public suicide. After I had regained control of my legs and peeled myself from the stage, my forever-deadpan brother said, “Dude, your face was twitching.” “Thanks,” I said, and never tried that again. But I admire people who can act. It’s partly the blasé attitude toward potential public humiliation that impresses me. Also, what exactly are they doing up there? Good acting looks so easy, like they’re just talking.

My friend Alyssa works for Black Nexxus Inc., a New York– and L.A.-based acting school run by Susan Batson. Ms. Batson’s students have included Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Juliette Binoche and Madonna. She’s been thanked at Golden Globe Award acceptance speeches. She’s apparently very good at teaching acting.

Recently, Alyssa-who fights for the mike at karaoke bars-insisted that I take Susan’s Saturday class. It’s open to the public, which means that for 30 bucks any fool off the street can attempt to do what it is that actors do. If you like the class, you can enroll in a month-long course for $250. “You wouldn’t believe how terrible some of them are,” Alyssa said encouragingly. “You won’t be the worst.”

I decided to take the class. How bad could it be? Maybe this Susan woman could break through my shell and liberate my inner actress. Maybe the Parker Posey in me was screaming to be heard.

Black Nexxus is on Broadway and Bleecker Street, hidden on the sixth floor of a nondescript loft building. I stepped out of the elevator and into a line of 12 beautiful people. They were young and stylish in a downtown way. One of them wore a Crunch Gym baby T. Another had neat dreadlocks, silver hoop earrings and perfect skin. They all had svelte figures, Bumble and Bumble–type haircuts and shapely eyebrows. I hadn’t plucked mine in over a week.

I paid my fee and sat down next to a six-foot-tall black man with delectable biceps. He had on headphones and was leaning against the bare wall like he did this regularly. I pulled my magazine from my bag.

Then Susan arrived. Barely five feet tall, with wild black hair and crooked, bejeweled fingers, she reminded me of an elfin, aging Diana Ross. She introduced herself to everyone, shaking hands with those she didn’t know and hugging those she did. She seemed to have a cult-leader-like fascination for the students.

We filed into the tiny studio. Everyone except me pulled water bottles from their bags. Susan flipped a switch on the stereo, and dance music came on. We all stood in a circle while Susan explained the routine: One by one, each of us would be called into the center of the circle, where we would “explore and discover our character.” Meanwhile, everyone else would follow that student’s lead. She pointed to a lanky German first. Dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and disheveled hair, he looked like Nick Cave. He started to move. He danced, he howled, he pounded the floor, he kicked the air, he tugged at his face. It felt like a revival meeting. I followed along as best I could and tried not to think about the inevitable: At some point, Susan would call my name.

And soon she did. So I did what everyone else had done: I hopped into the circle and started screaming. I can faithfully say that I made a fool of myself. I figured, if I can’t do something well, I can at least do it loudly. I jumped, I hobbled, I grabbed at the air and scoured through nonexistent dirt; I was going for a “digging” motif. Susan chanted from the sidelines, “Stay with her! Stay with her!”

I had a feeling I was not easy to follow. She called out another name, and I was back on the sidelines.

Next exercise: Susan instructed us to reach back to a time when we wanted to kill someone. “Go to that moment,” she said. “Feel it, smell it, remember it. What did it taste like?” We had to “find our need.” Apparently, people with murderous tendencies need something they aren’t getting. People started crying; they were howling; they were yelping. There was a lot of heavy breathing. The woman next to me called out for her daddy. I have to admit, there was something incredible about reliving one of my more unpleasant life experiences in the company of attractive strangers.

It was intense-but not as intense as the prison-fight monologue we were handed immediately afterward. We had 20 minutes to memorize our lines before we performed it beneath a spotlight. The two Latinas who went first were fabulous; they had the “motherfuckers” and “fuck yous” down pat. No release of the wounded inner child there. The well-dressed German was wooden; the prison slang was tough for him. The man with the sleek biceps was cool and fierce.

As for me-well, I remembered about 40 percent of the lines and recited them quickly. I did not “return to that place of anger,” as Susan had suggested; I did not look into the eyes of my enemy. The only thing I felt when I stared at the lights and at my classmates was a humiliating sense of my own ineptitude.

To finish off the day, we sat in folding chairs while Susan critiqued our performances. That little woman with the husky voice and wild hair-and the bosom she kept readjusting as she spoke-didn’t hold back, but that part didn’t scare me. I had already decided that this class would be my public service for the week: These aspiring actors would leave knowing they could be a lot worse.

Then came my turn to be critiqued. If there was any doubt about my ability, this resolved it for me. Susan asked my classmates to comment on my performance. There was pure silence. She turned to me, her face crumpled with pity, and said, “You have to look inside yourself and decide if you really want to be an actress. Don’t worry about being good-leave that aside. Do you want to act?”

I looked back at her and said, “I’ve never acted before in my life.”

Now was my one moment of glory. I was no longer the sad, talentless wretch worthy only of pity and scorn. I was the willing virgin, I was the ballsy one who welcomed public humiliation, I was a risk-taker .

“What made you climb those steps? What brought you through those doors?” Susan asked theatrically.

“I wanted to know what actors do,” I said.

“Do you want to pursue the art?”

I shook my head. “I’m a writer; I usually do all this in private.”

She handed me a candle-everyone got one, sort of like the lollipop after a shot from the doctor-and sent me back to my seat. I was elated. I had made a fool of myself publicly and was still standing. I looked around the class. The roomful of beautiful faces looked up at Susan, their mentor, their leader, their Stella Adler. Clutching their candles, they waited for her to give them direction. She led them to the enrollment desk.