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At the Core

1213editorialandybarnicl Recent introspection has led to flashes of understanding that I wish I'd had 30 years ago. I also realized that after 20 years as a director and 16 as an artistic director, I have seen a lot of actors come and go, and some come and stay. The what anybody can learn; the why is a little more challenging.

Of course you need to keep your cell-phone battery charged, have pictures ready, and avoid smoking cigars before you enter a casting office. Of course you need to be pleasant and punctual, crafted and talented, determined and psychologically stable. You can find lists of those purposeful, professional things everywhere. But a deeper, more philosophical consideration should be in place. If the micro activities are not fed by a macro philosophy, the urge to fold may eventually grow over you like kudzu. If the core is strong, the daily chores seem less mundane, progress can be calibrated intelligently, and a rewarding career is possible.

As a young actor in New York, I was instructed by the trades -- Back Stage, come to think of it -- to get professional studio training, even though I had, of course, starred in college and grad school for eight years, had appeared in hundreds of plays, had all my union cards, had two seasons of LORT rep leads under my belt, and was in my mid-30s. I was cynical when I was called in for an interview with the ancient and revered teacher Sonia Moore, who had studied at the Moscow Art Theatre with Eugene Vakhtangov and whose approach was to simplify Stanislavsky's collective teachings for contemporary American actors. There were three of us. After Ms. Moore stared us into submission, she sternly asked: "Vy do you vant to be an actor?"

The first guy answered quickly: "All my life I've been entertaining people. When I was a kid, my parents used to put me on the dining-room table, and I would do Jack Benny sketches and Broadway musical numbers for friends and relatives. I've just always done it."

Actor No. 2 pronounced with casual certainty, "I look at the TV screen, and I see guys acting, getting famous, and making lots of money. I say to myself, 'That ain't that hard to do: I look as good as them; I can do that as well as them. So why shouldn't it be me?' " I could tell by Moore's grinding teeth that that wasn't the right answer.

She turned toward me as if I was the final hope of my lost generation. Trying to be at least mysterious and ethereal, I mumbled something vainglorious about a feeling of flight that I got when I took on a character in performance, the thrill of escaping myself, the glory of a job well done, blah, blah, blah.

Her response was quick and to the point: "You are all three of you full of sheet! You vant to be an actor because the art of acting has been taken over by terrible people who care little about the truth of human experience and whose only goal is to ruin it for their own fame and fortune. Get out!" I trudged home, having learned a little about interviewing teachers, if nothing else. But I have come to realize that I learned a lot more than that.

A few years after, I left New York for San Diego to begin a teaching career, while acting and directing. But what I learned from that day is still deeply useful. If you don't know why you are an actor -- or if you know but the reasons are wrongheaded, self-serving, destructive, or disrespectful for a craft that has struggled for centuries to have great meaning -- then you won't have a long career. And even if you can stay on top of things, without philosophy a rewarding career usually exists only in false perspective.

Andrew Barnicle is the artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, Calif. He has served as head of theatre at United States International University, School of Performing and Visual Arts, and has produced and/or directed more than 50 productions in Southern California.

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