Alternate Title: Just In Time For The Ides Of March 2010, Let’s Flashback To My Finest Moment As An Acting Student With A Monologue From Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

I was a far better acting student than I ever was an actor. In fact, I’m not quite sure what drove me to study acting, other than it sounded like a fun thing to do and a fun way to meet people and it was something to do besides go to a real school and learn a real trade.

There was probably more to the story than that — like my secret desire to be a world-class movie star — but during the course of my days at the mouthful that was The Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting – West, I never took acting nor the business of it too seriously.

The school can now be found in the space above the Hollywood Wax Museum, but the conservatory’s original home was further east on Hollywood Boulevard just south of the Walk of Fame on Argyle. Like many of the landmarks of my past it’s gone, bulldozed in the early ’90s for the Hollywood & Vine Red Line subway station.

The year was 1987 and I was 22. My technique teacher was a fellow named Arthur Mendoza, and I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better one. He was flamboyant, outrageous, outspoken and fully centered in his own universe, but he was also quite perceptive, motivating and intuitive, which are things a student wants from his acting teacher.

As to my fellow students, there was a bunch of talent there, but there weren’t too many names to drop from that class in particular — save one you’ll certainly recognize: Benecio Del Toro. Arthur referred to him as “Beno.”

I was never stand-outish or talented enough on the whole to be worthy much of Arthur’s attention never mind any sort of nickname, but I did have a breakthrough moment that garnered Arthur’s respect and praise in the form of the fulfillment of an assignment that involved costuming a character and performing a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

No “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” for me. Instead Arthur assigned me a speech from the very opening of the play, given by the tribune Marullus in outrage at some fickle and short-memoried Romans who have taken the day off work to celebrate the end of civil war and Caesar’s return in somewhat treacherous triumph over his previous ally (and son-in-law) and otherwise cherished hero of the Roman Republic, Pompey:

MARULLUS
Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day with patient expectation
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

So I memorized the lines, and I fashioned not too bad a toga out of a bedsheet and some gold braid and when Arthur called my name I got up on the stage all uncomfortable in front of everyone, took a deep breath and began.

Arthur stopped me almost immediately. Told me nice toga, but crappy acting. He said I didn’t have a clue what the monologue was about and all I was doing was wasting his time reciting some really old words without understanding the truth behind them. And he was right.

Next thing I know he gets this idea and he’s calling up a fellow student named George Bujold up on stage. A diminuitive fellow of slight build, Arthur tells George he is going to play the corpse of Pompey that I’m to bear across my arms as I deliver Marullus’ reprimand.

So I pick George up and he goes dead in my arms and I start the speech, and immediately I’m into it. Suddenly Shakespeare’s words carry with them the literal and figurative weight of connection and urgency and intensity that wasn’t there before.

Trouble was George wasn’t small and light enough, and it was right about “O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,” that he started to slip from my grasp and when I felt myself about to drop him, short of flinging his body over my shoulder like a sack of grain, I broke character and chuckled nervously, stopping and setting him down feet first.

Damn if Arthur isn’t on top of me like a ton of bricks ordering me to my seat and yelling at me that I started off wonderfully but that I threw it all away because I was too amateurish and unprepared and immature. He told me if that was the best I could bring then I didn’t deserve the privilege of standing up on the stage.

He was harsh, but again he was absolutely right. I slunk back to my chair angry at myself and embarrassed. I’d felt the powerful performance I’d not known I was capable of and I quit on it. Almost in tears it took all I could to man-up and stay stewing in my seat rather than bolt out of the small theater.

Arthur saw this, but didn’t say a word until the last student had performed. When people started packing up, Arthur told everyone to hang on a minute, and ordered me to get my ass back up there with him.

I did so, expecting the worst. Instead, Arthur wagged a “why I oughta” finger at me and instead asked if I wanted to try again. I was terrified, but I told him I did, and he motioned for George to come back up too. George complied. Good old George.

This time Arthur told me to fight with all I had to keep Pompey from falling. I told him I would, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen. It would take someone a lot stronger than me to hold him aloft throughout the entire speech.

But I hoisted George up and I looked out at the people in the seats before me not as my fellow students but as my fellow Roman citizens and I launched into it with all I had and all the anger I felt from my first failure.

This time I got as far as “…the livelong day with patient expectation to see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome” before his body became too much for me to support. But instead of breaking, instead of laughing in embarrassment, instead of stopping and setting George down, I kept on, struggling with the weight until tears came to my eyes. Finally I was forced to kneel and slowly and tenderly I lowered him to the ground whereupon I continued speaking solemnly while looking upon him before me.

And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?

Then I rose stoic from him at me feet and fighting for my composure I surveyed the crowd silently before unleashing my scorn and fury:

And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

In the chasm of silence after I finished and before Arthur spoke, I just looked out at the wide eyes of my classmates who looked as if they were in shock trying to figure out what had possessed me and where could they get some.

Then Arthur said first, simply and without flourish, “That was fucking brilliant.” He said some more things over the applause that followed and as I helped George to his feet, but they’re lost in the ensuing ecstacy that came from redemption.

Thank you Arthur, now artistic director of the Actors Circle Theater — and George, who has his own IMDB page (and looks exactly the same as he did 23 years ago!). I couldn’t have done it without you and it’s a triumphant memory I will always cherish.