I studied acting for four years at Wagner College and had, in my humble opinion, one of the best acting teachers around. His name is John Jamiel, and he literally changed my life as both an artist and a man. He had studied with Uta Hagen and taught her method with the same passion and discipline that she instilled in her students. I hold him in very high regard, and, after graduating, I knew that he would be extremely hard to replace. I was lucky enough to be working on the road for the next three years, so I wasn't able to be in class. However, when I returned to LA, I soon had the hunger to be back in a bare studio, sitting on a wooden cube spouting some words by Coward or Williams. But who to choose in a town full of quacks? I decided to ask friends for recommendations.
The first night of class, I arrived at the studio ten minutes early. As I approached the entrance, a small, troll-like man stepped in front of me, blocking my path. He resembled a younger version of the main character, Carl, from the Pixar film, "Up": round face, short, white hair and black, square spectacles. He looked up at me with the fearlessness of a NYC bouncer.
"Who are you?!" he barked.
"Hi, I'm Noel. I'm here for the class."
He looked me up and down as if I were a potential murder suspect in a recent homicide.
"You can go in," he relented.
Stepping out of the way, I entered the studio and wondered who the hell that jerk-off was. Within a few minutes, I had my answer.
"Okay, settle. My name is Frank Gambino, and this is the first night of the month-long class."
Are you kidding me? He didn't even have the decency to introduce himself to me at the door?
Not a good start.
A fellow student came in a couple minutes late and announced his tardiness with a loud sneeze. He quickly wiped his hand on his pant leg. Frank looked at him with complete scorn.
"Who are you?!"
"Hey, man, I'm Tony." Tony put out his hand for Frank to shake.
Frank looked at him like he was a leper. "Oh no."
"Oh yeah, I'm a little sick. That's cool."
"No, no. I wouldn't shake your hand if you were healthy. Sit."
Tony swallowed his pride and took a seat.
Was this guy for real?! Could he really be such an unabashed asshole?
Frank proceeded to drone on for the next two hours about the history of the Stanislavsky method and the birth of the Actor's Studio. Most of what he spouted I had already learned in college, but I figured it never hurt to recollect the history of what I do for a living. After his sermon, he assigned us our scene partners. My partner was a lovely woman named Melody, and we were given a scene from a John Patrick Shanley play. He gave us a few minutes to meet our partners and then excused us for the night.
On my way out, I learned that Melody had been studying with Frank for about six months, so I asked her if he liked his students to be off-book for the first rehearsal. Melody laughed.
"Oh my God. We'll be lucky if we get two words out, let alone a line!"
"Oh, yeah. Just wait."
She said goodnight, and as I walked back to my car I wondered, "What the hell have I gotten myself into?"
The second night. The night of the incident. I was seated in one of the last rows of the small theatre. Once everyone was seated, Frank took the stage.
"So last night we talked about the history of the method. Who can tell me the name of the theatre that Stanislavsky founded?"
One of Frank's minions shot her hand up in the air.
"The Moscow Art Theatre."
"That's right, Alison. Good."
A Stepford-wife smile grew across Alison's face. Frank then turned his beady eyes towards me.
"Noel, can you tell me what Sarah Bernhardt said about playing Hamlet?"
I paraphrased a quote that Frank had relayed to us the night before.
"Now, is that exactly what she said, Noel?"
"Not exactly. But I think that's the essence of what she said."
"But not exactly?"
"And why isn't it exactly what she said, Noel?"
"Probably because I didn't write it down."
"Oh, you didn't write it down. And why didn't you write it down, Noel?"
I was really not liking the way he kept saying my name.
"Well, because I thought we would be up on our feet, so I didn't bring a notebook with me."
"So what you're saying is, you came to class, but you weren't prepared for class."
"I guess you could say that, yes."
"Oh, you guess I could say that. Alison, if Noel was your scene partner, how do you think he would approach the scene?"
The sycophant snapped to attention.
"Well, Frank, I think Noel wouldn't come prepared to do the scene. And I think Noel would want the scene to go the way he wanted it go."
I was speechless. This girl was making a judgment of me as an actor because I forgot a notebook?! Oh no she didn't!! My blood pressure was rising.
Frank retorted. "I think you're right, Alison. Now, Noel, how are you sitting?"
"How am I sitting? Well, my legs are crossed; my arm is resting on the seat next to me."
"Would you say you're sitting kind of casual?"
"I guess you could say that."
"Yeah, you look kind of casual. Kind of coffee casual."
I thought to myself, that would make a great name for an LA coffeehouse…Coffee Casual. But I digress.
Frank plowed ahead. "And I'm wondering Noel, what is casual about our conversation right now?"
"Um, I guess nothing is casual about it."
"Well, you're sitting there like we're friends having coffee You're not my friend. So why are you sitting and talking to me like I am?"
My heart-rate was skyrocketing, and I could feel the anger brewing in my gut.
"Noel, why don't you show me the steps of the relaxation method I taught you last night. Or do you not remember those either?"
"No, I remember."
"Then please, show the class."
Alright asshole…I'll show the class.
"And then what?" the gnome asked challengingly.
"You raise your arms out to the sides--"
"WRONG! You start to roll the neck!"
I corrected myself by lowering my arms and started to roll my neck.
"You would know that if you had WRITTEN IT DOWN! What's next?!"
"You start to make a sound as you roll the neck."
"NO! The arms are next! Then the sound! START AGAIN!"
I felt like a soldier being torn apart by a drill sergeant. And I wasn't responding well. I was getting very angry. And I was also running on very little sleep. In defense of what I'm about to reveal, I had spent the last few days falling in love with a girl I had been doing a show with. I had been getting very little sleep and when I'm over-tired, my emotions can be triggered by simply breathing on me the wrong way. Frank's relentless attack was pushing me to the edge.
I started again. Feet flat on the ground, start to roll the neck, raise the arms. Then I started to make sound. With each head roll, I let out a low moan.
"What's next?" Frank jabbed.
"You release the shoulders--"
"WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! ARE YOU STUPID?! Alison, tell Noel what comes next."
As Alison proceeded to give the correct answer, the floodgates opened, and I broke. Rolling my head around and moaning, the tears started to roll down my face. I was overwhelmed with so many feelings; anger, embarrassment, exhaustion. There I was, a 33 year old man, sitting in a plastic chair, weeping like a scolded child. And I was paying good money to do it.
Frank relented and after the class watched me crumble, he told us to take a five minute break. The minions filed out of the space, and I was left alone to collect myself. One guy strolled over to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
"That was great work man. Seriously. Really great work."
As he walked away, I sat there in complete bewilderment. I had just been verbally attacked by a man with a Napoleonic Complex and this guy thought I had done "great work"?! Had I walked into a Scientology convention?! Was I supposed to do LSD before entering class? What reality were any of these people living in?!
The class ended about 30 minutes later. As I drove home, I was still filled with vile contempt for Frank. He had "broken" me, and I was drenched in shame. I fantasized about various ways to retaliate…most of them involved farm animal excrement and various medieval torture devices. I vowed never to return. But then I realized, if I didn't return to class, Frank would win. And I could never let that happen.
I later worked with an actor who was a walking oxymoron, a musical theatre performer who was also a Marine. When he heard I had studied with Frank, his eyes filled with Marine-like intensity and he said, "Frank Gambino? That's one of the only people that I wouldn't hesitate to shoot in the face." Now I obviously don't condone shooting people in the face, but I did feel good that someone else felt as strongly about Frank as I did.
Christmas Eve, a few weeks later. I was getting ready for bed when my phone rang and an unrecognizable number popped up. I decided to answer, thinking it must be a friend calling from some random place to spread some Christmas cheer. I was shocked to hear Frank's voice on the other end.
"Hello. Is this Noel?"
"Hello, Noel. It's Frank Gambino."
My body instinctively tensed.
"I just wanted to call you because I saw that you didn't sign up to continue with class. I wondered why that is."
"Well, Frank, I want to check out some other classes right now."
"I see. So what you're saying is, your shopping around for a class rather than actually committing to a class."
His temerity was unbelievable.
"Actually, that's not what I'm saying. I took your class, Frank, and I found it to be a waste of my time and my money. So now, I'm looking to take a class that will actually teach me something."
He paused for a minute.
"I see. Well, good luck with that."
"Take care, Frank."
I hung up the phone and took a deep breath, quieting the ire that was stirring inside. And then, surprisingly, I had a brief moment when I actually felt compassion for Frank. Here it was Christmas Eve, and he was calling me to try and get me back into his class. He wasn't sipping eggnog with family or friends. I suddenly saw him as a sad man who maybe had to teach because it was his way of feeling needed in this world. I certainly didn't need him, but apparently others did. And if that made him feel validated, then I guess his class and his "method" served a purpose in this world.
I wish Frank all the best, and I sincerely hope he never crosses paths with a Marine who can sing a rousing 16-bars of "Swanee".