• James Stranahan

The Power of the Stage

The stage is a mystery to all actors: it is really just a bunch of wood nailed together and placed before an audience, but it can elevate you to wonderful heights and destroy you in the blink of an eye. In Jordan and elsewhere, there are stages that were built several thousand years ago, and I imagine that even then, actors found out very quickly that no matter how good they were, the stage was even better and would decide for itself what kind of night they would have.

One of the most incredible stages I have acted upon was at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in Los Angeles. Make no mistake: this is a big one, and it has hosted Grace Kelly, Adrian Brody, and Spencer Tracy, among many notable alumni. I first showed up at the AADA in 2005, ready to learn everything I could so that I could have a career as a professional actor, but what I didn’t know yet was that I still had to get past the stage.

What do I mean by all this stage talk? Well, think of it this way: the AADA’s main stage is a pretty good size. Most of the time, you won’t be the only person on it during a production, of course, but even so, you are expected as an actor to fill it with your presence. There will be times when it feels like you and the stage are one being and are working together to create a fantastic performance. Other times, however, for whatever reason, you can’t fill it with your energy no matter how hard you try. Instead, the stage looms over you, and you come up short. You’re simply one actor who is lost among all that empty space.

So, one of my first nights at AADA, I went to the auditorium to sneak a peek at where I would be acting for the next 3 years. When it wasn’t in use, the doors were normally locked, but that night, someone had left it open. I went inside and simply stopped, looking at this dramatically silent stage in front of me. Most of the lights were off, but a few shone down on the stage, so I went to investigate. Wouldn’t you?

The aisle was just long enough to give me time to see everything in detail: the chairs, the carpeting, the curtains - everything. The best part, as you would expect, was when I walked up the stairs and out onto the stage. From a distance, stage floors look immaculate, but when you are on them, you can see scuff marks from people’s shoes, tape here and there from where someone was marking where they would stand, and other evidence that at some point, this stage had been a hubbub of activity.

I saw all of this as I stood in the middle of the stage and turned to look out at the audience. That’s when I think it really hit me: I was at the AADA in Los Angeles and was just a short distance away from Hollywood movie lots. I scanned the empty seats in the audience, imagining Grace Kelly sitting off to the side and learning her lines. I looked at the doors in the back of the auditorium and could almost see Robert Redford running down the aisle, perhaps late for class (I don’t know him, so I can’t say if he was always on time or not). All around me were the ghosts of past productions and of people who went on to have illustrious careers in Hollywood.

Now it was my turn, and I suddenly wondered if I was really up to this. I am usually a pretty confident guy, but in that moment, the stage was questioning my ability. Could I live up to the AADA’s reputation? Was I really worthy of being there?

Then something eased inside of me, and I felt it: excitement. My doubt vanished, and a smile burst across my face. I was ready. I had no idea how I would do, of course, and I had a lot to learn and improve upon, but I was ready to give it everything I had and become the actor I wanted to be. The stage and I would battle many times over the next few years, but that night, I won.

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