Marian Seldes: On Inspiration

Marian Seldes was a great friend to me from the time I met her in November of 1978, while on a high-school drama-club trip to New York. Marian chose to believe in me and read everything I wrote and helped me to meet the many people who made Follies of God possible.

I asked her one afternoon about inspiration and endurance. It was in 1999, weeks after the death of her husband, Garson Kanin, and just as she took over a role in Ring 'Round the Moon from her friend Irene Worth, who had suffered a stroke. Marian, as always, seemed confident, graceful, energetic.

Inspiration is a daily requirement not only for the actor or the writer, but for everyone. When I was a student at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I worked alongside a number of remarkable people, not all of whom chose to continue as actors, but I saw how their lives were improved by the admonitions we received at that school--from Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham, particularly--to search always for new things to learn and to love and to emulate. When I taught at Juilliard, not every student remained for the full course of study, and even some who did later chose not to be actors or to have a life in the theatre, but their lives--in whatever profession they chose--were enhanced and enlarged by the studies we impressed upon them.

So much will be asked of us in our life, and I have always believed that the great plays and films and books and pieces of music and art reveal stories that speak to us or that can enlarge our perceptions. I was always afraid of running out of time, and I was always afraid--still am--of not fully using my time here each day. There is so much to do: getting up and getting out; paying the bills; cleaning and feeding oneself; being a good mother and friend and neighbor; a good teacher and actress. You can easily feel that it can't be done, but I always did those things in such a way that I had time to be open to whatever experience might arise, and I always find something to inspire me.

If you work with a student on a scene or a play, all that can be brought to the work is what that student has experienced and felt and observed and believed up to that point in his or her life. This is often interesting, but it is rarely sufficient, particularly for a great, rich role. So you ask questions. You lead the student to other plays or works of art. It isn't difficult to offer to a student a line of succession from a role in a classic play to a play that opened last season. There are great characters--archetypes--that show up over and over in plays, crafted in a unique way by writers, and then they should be draped with the unique qualities that the student can bring to it.

What we have--in history; in our means of taking in information; in our ability to share what we understand and feel--these are some of the things that will make us utterly unique, so that our take on a role you've seen before will be different, and you will be different when you see it. We've seen plays together--revivals--and I've told you that I now understood in an entirely different way what the writer intended. I have changed, of course, but the actor or actress inhabiting the role brought their inventory of experience to the role.

Students of every field arrive with an idea of what they should be, what they should become, and it is rarely in line with what I used to see as a teacher. So many people who did not see their beauty or hear their voices or understand how touching and dear their understanding could be. They wanted to be like someone who was popular at the time. They were looking in another mirror not their own.

It is a myth that anyone can be made into a successful actor through training. By successful I mean able to work and make a living. I do not mean fame or ability. Success in the ability to regularly work and work well is so capricious, but the study of the world in which we live will make us successful people, friends, citizens. We can and should enrich ourselves all the time. It--the inspiration--is all out there, ready for us to take and husband and pass on to others.

 ©  2017  James Grissom


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