My Life in Porn




IN MY SHAKESPEARE CLASS, we were working on scenes from The Tempest. I usually taught voice and speech, but this summer at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Academy I had successfully lobbied for an addition to the curriculum: Beginning Shakespeare. “Alice Adams” had volunteered to read Miranda, the girl who had never seen any man other than her father. Her first crush would be a reed-thin 20-year-old who insisted on carrying wood (forest-grown wood!) for her. Though not the dewiest Miranda in memory, Alice grinned like a drunken toddler through the scene and spoke in such fits and starts, we all believed love had rendered her inarticulate. So after class, when she asked me if I would be willing to help her with dialogue for a film audition, I agreed without hesitation.

I had not counted on Alice being a mid-level porn star.

Her entreaty was not related to her performance of sex or the simulation thereof. She was fine with that. Every fledgling porn star I subsequently coached was fine with that (“I’m on top of it,” was how my first on-set “student” categorized her acumen.) All the girls I worked with wanted their speaking performance to at least equal their sexual one. Only Alice had resolved that the study of Shakespeare would be the most efficient way to accomplish her goals.

Thus in the spirit of anything can be better and being better makes the enjoyment of all things better — ever read Candide? — I began coaching the actresses, aspiring “box-cover” girls every one, on their acting.

For years, I heard the precursor of a belly laugh whenever I used the term “dialogue coach” in the same sentence as “porn movie.” This was usually followed by “There’s talking?”  

The porn stories emerge in conversation about my pursuit of an acting career in Hollywood in the ’90s. Usually my fellow conversant is, like me, a survivor of the aforementioned place and time. Our hair is still blond-ish and our measurements are still terrific but we no longer drive to Studio City at 5 p.m. for a 5:30 go-see with a producer who is just old enough to be our child. No matter how much we loved the creative possibilities innate in acting work, we’re clear: no one is ever again going to tell us we should lose 10 pounds overnight or unbutton our blouse for effect just before we stride in to meet investors. Our collective desire — well, at least my singular desire — to repeat the trajectory of Hanna Schygulla, beautiful ball-buster she of Fassbinder movies in the ’80s, has been permanently retired.

My faith in the power of language, however, has never retired. But during the brief interval of my career as — what was my job title? — a porn coach, it was sorely tested.

When I first arrived in Hollywood, I miraculously booked the first onscreen job I auditioned for. I remember sitting on set for an episode of Murder She Wrote and being possessed with hope. George Grizzard (A real actor! His picture cropped up regularly in so many published scripts of award-winning plays from the 1960s and ’70s I read! What an honor to work with him!) occupied the canvas folding chair next to me. A gardener on the Chatsworth property adjacent to our shoot location insisted on mowing and mowing and mowing his client’s expansive lawn and thus despite countless entreaties — “This is for a television show!” — production stalled. We sat in partial shade and traded remarks (George Grizzard) or retired to the privacy of the trailer (the truly wondrous Angela Lansbury) or took respite in Sophocles’ The Theban Plays (me). Minutes of delay ground on toward hours and Mr. Grizzard finally resolved to interrupt my reading.

“Sorry to bother you but — wow — impressive. Which one are you reading now?” I think I changed color a little and managed a reply: “Antigone. I love that play.” He laughed. “Me too.” A breeze rearranged the knotted arms of the bougainvillea and the sun located Mr. Grizzard. He stepped into its spotlight, shaded his eyes and sighed back toward me and anybody else within earshot, “I love the theater.”

My heart truly leapt. I gushed back a collage of half-cooked phrases including, “Oh yes, me too. I’m in a play right now where I have to climb tons of stairs, play the piano, weep buckets and die folded over a balustrade and here we are just sitting around and I’m wearing a suit the color of sand which I would never wear and I am making so much more money doing nothing — it’s…” He laughed again and stopped my torrent of words with a pat on my arm, “Kid, this job will earn you the time to do the work you love. It will. Hang in there, learn your lines and say thank you. Really.” Really?

So I coached and screamed off-camera for Miami Vice and wore three layers of fake skin for a Star Trek episode so that could I afford to do Brecht’s Puntila and His Hired Man Matti for three dollars a show.

When I arrived at Alice’s apartment for our first meeting — I still had no idea what we would be working on — my main concern was economic: how much should I charge for this session? She had presented this idea so blithely, “I’m happy to pay you. Just let me know what you need and it’ll be fine.” Then she grinned and stuck out her hand, requesting a handshake. I returned fire with a smile of kindred wattage and murmured, “Great. How about Tuesday? 11 a.m.?” She nodded, dug into her tiny bag, extracted a business card and handed it to me. We looked each other in the eye and we shook. Done deal.

All my previous gigs had been under the auspices of university theater departments and privately licensed acting schools or studios (Disney seemed to process invoices in slow motion as it took months and months to get paid. It was astonishing.) When I signed my teaching contract with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, my salary was a non-conversation. If you were young and unpublished as I was, negotiation played no part in contractual employment. In Los Angeles, people made proposals — “Help me with this accent and I’ll buy you dinner” or “Work with me on this scene and I’ll give you $50.” — and I weighed my time and energy and said yes or no. But now, at this juncture in my career, I felt a great need to establish rates. I really wanted to help Alice. I liked her and wow did I appreciate her straightforwardness. She believed my insights were potentially of value to her career. What did I believe about my worth? How should I measure the expenditure of my time and energy?

I rang the bell thinking I would ask for $100 an hour.

Alice swung open the door and then lurched forward to give me a hug. Until that hug, though I surmised she had succumbed to the lure of breast augmentation, I had not realized how significant her purchase had been. In an embrace those things hurt. They felt like Ds or Quadruple Cs and must have cost a fortune. “So glad you’re here,” she chirped, hugging me even more tightly. “The script is really good. Come on in!” she released me and gestured toward her foyer, an unfurnished hallway awash in beige.

I resolved to ask for $75.

I am an English teacher’s daughter — a non-athlete raised in a hotbed of football enthusiasts from southwest Texas. Not even a cheerleader. A reader. From elementary school on, library books and a nifty mini-flashlight for illicit post-bedtime reading were shelved under my bed. A systematic reading of biographies led to memorable Halloween incarnations including Martha Washington, cotton balls glued on a sculpted plastic wig, and my favorite, Marie Curie. For my namesake scientist, I wore a white lab coat with a breast pocket nametag that read “Marie.” This required explanation at every stop, “Honey, do you want to be a doctor when you grow up?” all the nice mothers with the big hair asked as they shoveled candy into my pumpkin-shaped basket. “I’m Marie Curie,” I intoned. When their facial expression did not change I added, “She invented radium!”

It wasn’t that I imagined myself accepting multiple Nobel prizes in physics or marrying my lab partner. “Radium,” no matter how many times I re-read the science passages, remained mysterious. But I identified with the way Madame Curie simply persisted no matter what the obstacle; how she changed the world doing work she loved. I stockpiled books about her as if the print on the page somehow contained this character, this other Marie. It felt like magic. When I turned the page, it did not matter that I was seven, lived in Texas, and was terrible in math. I could join Team Curie without having to exit the softness of my blue-flowered nightgown. Late fees were incurred.

This conviction about the transformative power of reading, the power of language, was at the heart of my obsession with acting and with classical theater literature. I pursued the study of phonetics as if I were eternally in a laboratory — perhaps a touch of Mrs. Curie stayed with me after all — evaluating the sensation of individual speech sounds in relation to the emotional sense in the communication. (“…a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat to scratch a man to death!” — Mercutio’s sputtering jaw-dropping-open-and-then-pinching-shut exit unto death from Romeo and Juliet). Words conjured life; previously unimaginable energy became accessible and if an actor had the strength and psychological flexibility necessary to inhabit this brave new world, revelatory action or, as they liked to say in acting school, behavior was inevitable. All manner of stories could be discovered, told and re-told. It was like a book only better; it required flesh and blood. If this constituted the life’s work of an actor, and I believed it did, then acting and the study thereof became a transcendent endeavor. It became a profession I would be honored to chase.

“Be here now,” I repeated to myself as I walked into Alice’s living room. The over-stuffed couch partially blocked the entrance to the kitchen. Alice squeezed through the gap between and began the rummaging through her refrigerator. Ankle weights and running shoes were positioned in front of a full-length mirror to the right. To the left, her desk was a marvel of organization: pens, clips, stamps and tape, a computer, a printer, stacks of resume shots — Alice in a bikini, Alice in a plaid shirt with a plunging neckline, a full body shot of Alice in blue jean shorts so short as to be non-existent — and a daily calendar pockmarked with phone numbers and post-its. As I ambled toward the couch, I glanced notations about schedule and shoot dates and an entire week filled with the letters V E G A S. The message light pulsed on her answering machine. She was running a business.

The sun poured through the sliding glass doors, washing the couch with light. “Do you want a soda? I’ve got Coke and Diet Coke,” Alice reported, jogging forth from the kitchen and smiling brightly at me. “How about water?” I called back, sitting down in the sunniest corner. Cable TV magazines were piled up on the coffee table next to what appeared to be the script.

Though I had managed to secure a steady-ish stream of work as an actress, it had taken me the better part of a decade to realize that my aspirations with regard to acting did not represent a business plan. Alice might not have knowledge of “suit the word to the action and the action to the word,” but she grasped the importance of marketing. Perhaps her business acumen contained a lesson for me. For all the good it did my heart, Shakespeare did not always pay the rent.

(In one of my first meetings with a potential agent in Los Angeles, she studied my thick-with-Shakespeare-festivals resume and counseled removing all “the classical stuff.” I remember stammering something about these being the best parts only to be silenced with “It’ll confuse people.”)

I heard a small explosion of soda from the kitchen, some muttering and then the clunk of glasses onto a tray. I picked up a copy of the audition scene and began reading. The scene went something like this:

“And why do you not behave?”

“I’ve never been properly trained.”

“You want my help. Tell me you want my help. Down on your knees. Beg for my help.”

“Yes. I want your help. My office is nearby.”

“Find me a drink. Now.”

The scene takes place in a bar of sorts and Alice’s character appears to be a professional dominatrix, hence the impatience (Dead giveaways, whip and leather lace-up corset were also mentioned.) Details about the identity of the man are limited to the mention of a briefcase and his wearing a suit and tie. During the course of this barrage, the script asks the man to drop to his knees, to open his mouth in submission, find her a drink, caress the whip, and mutter, as per the above sequence, “Yes. Oh please. Scotch? Yes. I don’t know.” Meanwhile, she is instructed by the text to maneuver him toward the back of the bar, near the pool table where the next scene will take place. Pool cues adjacent. The next band of text reads: “SEX.”

I lifted my eyes to meet Alice’s gaze and she immediately began speaking, “I usually do girl on girl so this is a big opportunity for me. The director called me and he’s really good. He wants to go legit eventually.” My face felt hot. Alice continued, “I know it isn’t Shakespeare. But I want to do great at this audition.” The corners of her mouth maintained the posture of a smile. Her eyes were brown as coffee beans and she stared straight through me. Maybe she understood everything — that I had not anticipated this material, that I felt awkward, that I wasn’t sure if I should or even had any idea how to help her. But she felt her request was legitimate and she trusted me. All I could think was that if I refused her, I was a small-minded prude.

It’s just sex, I told myself. Porn is not news. People had been making money off porn films for decades — including the female stars. Didn’t Traci Lords move from porn to John Waters’s Cry Baby and then on to guest spots on Friends? In the early ’90s, Sharon Stone spread her legs in Basic Instinct and, roll the tape forward a couple of years, wound up with an Academy Award nomination. Way back when in the ’70s, the Mitchell Brothers (whose famous strip club was on my route when I walked to my big deal acting school in San Francisco) made Behind the Green Door featuring Marilyn Chambers, no relation, and included the first interracial sex scene. People still know that title! Granted, it was what it was and Marilyn uttered not a syllable. But that was then. Now it was 1999, Alice was not underage — if anything I suspected she was more overage than she would have preferred — and she had dialogue. We all needed to earn a living.

I took a breath. Alice winced, then thrust her chin up and forward. In that moment, she looked like someone waiting to be disappointed. But Alice brightened and managed a chuckle as I sighed out, “No, it isn’t Shakespeare. But let’s see what we can do.”

The ottoman became the man. We used a chair from the kitchen for her bar stool and a rolled newspaper for her whip. The newspaper proved to be unwieldy and we went to a fly swatter instead. “It’ll be more like a riding crop anyway,” Alice explained. Initially, her impulse was to say the line and then execute an action — i.e., kick him, whip him, slap him. Action or behavior happened separately from talking. Not good. Thus the bulk of our session consisted of finding physical actions to perform on the word and inside the line. If she moved toward the man when she started speaking she could deliver a de-rigueur kick on the final word of her line, as in “Down on your (blam!) knees!” With the exertion and freedom of movement, Alice relaxed. She took a bigger breath, her voice became stronger and she actually enjoyed tormenting the poor ottoman. It was as if her confidence grew in concert with her enjoyment. What a paradigm!

I felt proud of what she had accomplished and returned to my original notion: I asked for $100.

She paid me in cash, thanked me profusely, hugged me again (ouch) and promised to report on the outcome later that week. As I headed down the stairs to my car, she opened the door and called after me, “Do you want to keep a copy of the script?”

“No thanks!” I replied, twisting my head back up toward her. Backlit by a wall of midday sun, she sort of glowed. Then she smiled and waved and I smiled and waved back. 

Every time I go home to visit my father, I marvel at the number of books he’s kept. They bloom on the coffee table in the living room or are tucked into the corner of the big chair in the den and the sleeper in the laundry room. Their pages are dog-eared and bear the stain of numerous red ink underlines to note the really good parts. Exclamation points congregate in the outside margins of his favorite sections of King Lear. His written responses snake into the centerfold of his copy of Gilgamesh. “What a story!” he would trumpet aloud as he read along, pen in hand and an enraptured look in his eyes.

For years my father harrumphed at the paragraphs with the “best writing.” Or he flat out laughed. More recently I’ve seen Daddy change color as he reads passages from the Shakespeare sonnets, then put the book down and take a long slow breath, eyes focused on nothing that is visible to me. We lost my mother four years ago and, especially in her last years, I know he used to read them aloud to her. Now I believe he reads them in silence to find her again. It seems entirely reasonable that books containing such fierce reminders of what it feels to be alive maintain pride of place on the table by the brightest lamp.

But not all texts are meant for such positions.

Once I found an old copy of John Updike’s Rabbit Run hidden in my mother’s sewing box. Nothing was red inked in this book. But the paperback cover curled out as if it had been folded into a pocket. This really did not seem like a book belonging to my mother (She taught math and read manuals.) I thumbed through and studied a random passage: something about basketball, cigarettes, and a nervous married man. I was eight and though the innuendo of all this sweat and sport largely escaped me, I accepted the fact that this book somehow required a more private storage. I put it back, never said a word to my parents and there it remained. Not an unworthy book, but a book with a life not meant for coffee tables.

Alice aced that first audition. Producers raved about the improvement in her acting. She got more and better auditions. She believed the quality of the films was genuinely on the rise. In truth, revenues for the porn industry were significantly higher than in recent past and by early 2000, VIVID, one of the largest production companies, went public (These folks gave us Kim Kardasian, Superstar in 2007.) Alice was particularly thrilled with the real-world legitimacy implied by her industry’s presence on the stock market. She brought me a dark gray T-shirt emblazoned with the logo VIVID in velvety black letters. When I tried it on, I discovered it was way too small and the letters across my chest were unreadable unless the viewer got eye level with the print. Alice told me this was perfect.

Over the next three or four months, I returned to her apartment and worked with her on the scenes and she kept getting the parts. She always paid me in cash. Enterprising force of nature that she was, she decided I should work with the other girls too and began a business-like campaign of phone calls, emails, and on-set chats. Subsequently “Brenda” and “Karen” and “Jill” phoned me asking for assistance before a shoot. More pink to beige apartment walls. More whips into the soft flesh of ottomans. They also paid me in cash. Like Alice, they were diligent about the business aspects; they sold their cassettes, they hawked their photos at “trade” shows in Los Vegas and they even peddled what felt like soft-tissue replicas of their breasts (“These tits are better than mine!” Alice crowed when she showed me her newly minted set.) They made money and bought condos, TVs, and cars or blew a pile of cash on luxury vacation packages with their boyfriends — just like everybody else.

But they were also part of an income-producing machine and the machine made demands. Performers were required to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases as well as AIDS. By the end of the ’90s, whatever the willingness quotient, no one performed a sex act of any kind without a medical clean slate. Individual pay scale fluctuated according to the strength of video sales — sales largely attributed to the heat of the star on the cover of the cassette box (i.e. “box cover!”). So product-specific physical dimensions — 40–23–36 seemed to be the proto-type — had to be achieved. If sales rose as the bra size increased, then like calculating businesswomen, they acquired bigger boobs. If fleshy thighs equaled no sale, then they did three extra sets of prisoner squats (According to Alice, “just keep your back straight, bend your knees and get back up. That’ll do it — if you do it a lot.”) Sports bras and shiny elastic leggings fluttered from every improvised laundry line on every balcony of every apartment/condo I visited and power bars seemed to be a constant substitute for lunch.

I always hoped the work I did helped counteract some of the stress related to the body image requirement. No one had any expectations about the dialogue. It was simplistic and cliché-riddled at best. Other than saying the lines there were no requirements. So if the actress could give the words some kind of spin, use language to generate an energy separate from her physical appearance, she could maintain a specific on-camera identity. Maybe even a sense of control. Even on the set of a porn film. Though “sense of control” in this context may sound like an illusion of the most extraordinary dimension, as they say in a great play, “Oh reason not the need!”

But, no matter what I hoped, the entire equation hinged on a mindset that allowed these actors to perform private acts in public. This could be forgotten when we worked on the scenes in a tidy living room in Van Nuys. But on set, money changed hands in response to the sex acts the camera was allowed to record. As in, only girl-girl sex for actress A. Fine. Boundaries were negotiable. But understand — actress A will earn much less money than actress B who is comfortable with a bisexual three-way. “It’s what the fans pay for,” Alice explained to me with her no-nonsense good cheer.

The industry even arranged their own Academy Awards: a great long weekend usually in Vegas for the fans. Producers, publicists, and yet more fans congregated while porn actors sold preexisting merchandise (videos, signed photos, and fabricated body parts) and drummed up business for products currently in production. Then there was a gala awards presentation with categories such as “Best Couples Sex Scene” or “Best Girl/Girl Sex Scene” or “Best All-Girl Sex Scene” in addition to “Female Fan Favorite” or “Best Actress.” As per Hollywood, these events provided significant potential for the boosting of income and the further glorification of the “box-cover” girl. This had been the “VEGAS” I noted on Alice’s calendar during our first session.

Ultimately Alice resolved that the best use of time and energy would be to have me on set during the filming. How she managed to enfold the director and producer into her larger business plan — and secure a fee for me during each shoot — I do not know. But she did it and, yep, the production company paid in cash. During the sex scenes, when I had absolutely nothing to do, I confess I used to imagine what my acting career might look like if Alice was my agent.

The first time I was hired to be on the set for a porn film, I arrived early. The location was a warehouse in Boyle Heights, an industrial area in downtown Los Angeles. The loading dock doors were wide open and natural light flooded the entrance. It was weirdly quiet. When I walked in, the only person on set was the camera operator. He had a light meter in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He inclined his head as if calculating the weight of an unwanted package and squinted at me. “Are you the new girl-on-girl?” he shouted. “I’m the dialogue coach,” I chirped as I moved toward him extending my hand. “I’m Marie.” “OK…” he managed to squeeze out in a remarkably even tone as he shook my hand. I quickly asked directions to the production office and sped toward the direction of his gesture.

This awkward moment was replayed every time I arrived on set. But I always found the office, checked in with the director, collected my fee (cash upfront) and set out to find my “student.” Then we would rehearse the words. I ended up simply running the spoken lines over and over and over. Working with the girls away from the set had been fun, creative even. But this… Between makeup, hair, mirrors, onstage moaning, and an endless stream of essentially undressed people wearing stiletto heels who popped in to beg a cigarette or share a tidbit of gossip about the brother of the guy who used to date the director’s present wife, also a porn star, it was difficult to accomplish anything.

Once an entire shoot had to be postponed while the set designer built a set no one previously told him he needed to build (He hadn’t read the script.) I was huddled at a desk in the production office when he realized “Nobody told me we needed a fucking bar. Nobody told me. Fuck. Who did this?” He exited the office and kept repeating this mantra as he marched across the set and into the scene being shot, upending everything planned for the next three days.

Once the director stopped production and asked me to rewrite the big “talking” scene eliminating all multi-syllabic words for the male star while sustaining the plot point that he was a PhD-wielding psychiatrist. This. Was. Sort. Of. Hard. Try. It. Oh.

Aside from the absence of clothes, the bodily fluids, and the killer heels — I swear, those women never took their shoes off — it looked remarkably like any other film set: sweaty guys in T-shirts moved lighting equipment or peered up toward what had already been jerry-rigged for the next scene; a trio of set decorators, holding vases and muttering to themselves, scurried from one half-built room to another. The makeup area was adjacent to the craft services table complete with bowls of M&Ms, cookies, celery and carrots, coffee, pastries, lunchmeat, and always bananas. Admirers, boyfriends, publicists, and the occasional producer trickled past the front door en route to the set or the office or the dressing room area. And it all seemed to run on cash.

The best job I ever had in Hollywood did not make me rich. It was a play, a modern dress production of Romeo and Juliet performed on the back lot at the CBS studios on Radford. I was Juliet — six feet tall, more willow than cherub and decades past age 13. In the first scene, my costume consisted of yellow capris and a short-sleeved T-shirt covered with hand-painted pink hearts. My first line was uttered from the balcony window of the old facade for the set of “My Three Sons.” Sometimes birds sailed past me as I called out to my nurse below. I remember how the words used to hang in the air before I scurried down the stairs and flung myself into one of the patio chairs; as if I might be able to catch the sound of my voice as it fell to earth; as if my words harnessed the same force of life as my arms and legs; as if Juliet’s language had settled onto my flesh like skin. No matter what I wore or didn’t wear — jeans, wedding dress, T-shirt, bed sheet — I always felt naked; vulnerable to any idea delineated by the text. If I surrendered the collective force of my training and my imagination into the realization of “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” my height, my age, my history washed away, leaving only Juliet — not a well-made invention from 1597, a messy flesh and blood human.

I leaned beyond the edges of the window frame for the famous balcony scene, Romeo’s voice answered mine from the shadows below and, no matter what the radiance of the fading light (we were outside!), it always felt sunny. Phrases tumbled out of our mouths the way laughter chases pleasure. No matter how many times we played the scene, no matter what had befallen us prior to our arrival at the theater, we never feared falling into the arms of this text or each other. That’s the beauty of the theater, of Shakespeare in particular. The structure, especially the sounds in the writing, forces the actor to be physically accountable to the narrative. The only way out is in.

Audience members consistently presumed Romeo, my dear colleague Michael Arabian, and I were lovers. We were not. We were simply Romeo and Juliet.

For years afterwards, people would recognize me at casting sessions and rush toward me with outstretched arms, “Juliet!” This included guys running the camera in commercial auditions. They would turn off the tape, swivel around to the casting director — usually a put-upon creature clutching piles of resume pictures and a Diet Coke — and exclaim, “She can act!”

After that play, I did not book anything for almost two years. Everybody wanted to see me. There were innumerable close calls. How many times can one woman fail to be selected as a possible love interest for Frasier? My height appeared in black and white at the top of my resume. Yes, I was taller than Tom Cruise but I had been taller than Tom Cruise since the first audition — and everyone is taller than Tom Cruise. One casting director confessed he called me in for everything because he loved seeing me work. He figured my number would have to come up sometime. It never did.

The manager I had acquired during this period, a genuinely nice woman, referred to me as her “art project.” Thank god for teaching.

The last porn movie I worked on was filmed somewhere in the Hollywood Hills. The house featured crumbling facades and palm trees encrusted in vines. A fountain with a cherub, head to toe green with moss, leaked water onto the stone path leading to the front door. When I arrived at 4 p.m., in full sun, the entire house appeared to have been devoured by shadow.

Somehow the shoot crawled on into the night. It was midnight and I had exhausted my reading material. All I had left was the unworkable Friday New York Times crossword puzzle. The sex scenes had taken forever due to technical difficulties with the male performer (Friendly naked girls did nothing to assuage the situation for hours. Imagine.) Now the last scene with talking needed to be finished pronto (i.e., shoot these five pages in under five minutes). It was as if someone knew the house was going to be set on fire or worse yet, the nice cash-strapped people who surrendered their home for the filming would reclaim their territory and it needed to feel that we, the porn movie, had never been here.

My “charge” for this shoot seemed incapable of speaking her lines. Forget about the order in which I repeated them or the fact that she insisted on working on them from her bathtub. After numerous unsuccessful repetitions, bubbles miraculously holding steady just below her collarbone, she told me the words really didn’t matter as she “lit up” whenever the camera was rolling. Though I knew that she genuinely believed this — her sea blue eyes seemed to widen when she said the word “camera” — I did not. The idea of waiting for somebody else’s light pained me. I could not think what to say so I just smiled and nodded. Her skin had acquired the texture of new but inexpensive leather, and try as I might, I could not imagine light escaping through any of her available orifices.

The set change was in process when Marilyn Manson, kabuki-faced, Goth rocker of decreasing cache, appeared with his band to perform some dreary facsimile of a song. The plot twist inspiring his presence on set and in the film now eludes me. But in the moment, everyone was thrilled. “He’s famous!” the girl on girl star cooed. When I asked her if she liked the music, she replied she had never heard it. My face must have sagged in an unattractive way as she quickly added, “It’s just music, you know.” I nodded and clutched my crossword puzzle closer to my chest.

After a quick setup, the music began. A mass migration to craft services and then the performance area ensued. Though I retreated to the furthermost corner, the walls hummed in time to the thud of Marilyn’s drum or guitar or could that be his voice? It was Thursday and way past the hours of acceptable noise. Surely the police would be here soon. They would discover fistfuls of cash stowed underneath every object in the house. Though I had never witnessed any drug use whatsoever, given the abundance of cash maybe there were drugs and with this “sting” the porn industry or at least this film would die right here in Hollywood. This would be the end.

The music careened on and my imaginary police force never arrived. What was I doing here? 

I remembered an undergraduate professor with a legitimately English accent who asked us to dash across the classroom as we spoke our lines. “The quality of mercy is not strained” — gasp gasp and then off again — “it droppeth as the gentle rain from heav’n.” Then, once through again but only pronounce the vowels. Now repeat and only pronounce the consonants. We sounded like puppies learning to sing — our lips fluttering like butterflies through the consonant sequences or jaws swinging open and closing slowly in the sustained melody of the vowels. No matter what my student actor brain may have planned, these sounds and this language made me something unpredictable. Notions of identity or character snuck up on me. I stood stock still reckoning how iambic pentameter’s 10 syllables — unaccented, accented, unaccented, accented et al — synced to the meaning in the line of verse and how that pulse echoed my heartbeat and then how the language began to propel itself through me as if I had invented it in the same moment I drew breath. As if I were as free as thought itself.

I flashed on Alice and the Stella Adler Shakespeare class, a circle of chiseled arms and zero body fat, every one of them bright-eyed and telling me they wanted to become better actors. Not objects. Not corporate entities. Actors. And oh how very much I meant to deliver an understanding in the experience of studying Shakespeare.

Now, cash in hand, I sat in a deserted back bedroom while incomprehensible music seemed to shake the wallpaper from the walls. Much as I appreciated Alice, there were no books worthy of coffee-table placement here. We all needed to earn a living. But this could not be my job. It had nothing to do with what I loved and, whether it was wise or convenient or fiscally responsible or not, what I loved was a requirement.

I grabbed my bag and exited the building. Ankle-high garden lights revealed themselves and led me down the path away from the house. As I marched diagonally across the street toward my car, quiet began to drown out the noise of the music from the porn set. I felt like skipping.

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown / and what strength I have’s mine own…” I wondered if Prospero felt like this at the end of The Tempest.

I stayed in touch with Alice and, at last sighting, her can-do optimism appeared to be undiminished. My father is still reading Gilgamesh and I am no longer chasing work as an actress. But Shakespeare remains on my coffee table near the very brightest light.

¤

Marie Chambers is a Southerner by birth and an Angeleno by choice.


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