I met some wonderful new people at a New Year’s Day party. Peeling away coincidences in conversation with a young woman (“Oh, really? I lived in Topeka, too.”), only to discover I had been a groomsman some forty years earlier at her uncle’s wedding, in another state, before she was born. There was more, but the details aren’t the issue. The degrees of separation John Guare so brilliantly espoused in his play (the title of which became more renown than the writing itself), is not the point; it’s the connections. When I go to a party, I tend to want find a corner, talk to my Darling, and avoid making the effort to speak to people I don’t know. (Never doubting she is the most interesting person there.) But, I force myself to go chat, even when I am clearly being given the cold shoulder after I’ve sidled up to a knot in the kitchen. (Bubble over guests head: “Crap. Who is that asshole? Is he really going to stand there with that stupid smile on his face nibbling the pate until I have to acknowledge him?”) Yes, yes I am. I may start out with something mundane, dip my toe in ribald, or highbrow, but I will spend enough time to find out if there is a genuine person in the circle. After a few minutes, if you realize it is folly go back for another hunk of pate and target a different click. Allow folks to talk about themselves, which is what everyone wants to do, until they feel so very good they’ll get around to asking you something, so you can talk about yourself, too. Anyway, if the party is being given by someone you enjoy, the guests are probably cool. Aren’t you?
I’m not suggesting we start chatting up everyone we stand next to in a queue, but in a social situation, get over yourself, your reluctances, make an effort to talk, or even better - listen. Hard to do, listening. Hard to stop preparing the next brilliant thing we intend to say as soon as the jackass opposite shuts up. The word “I” can be dead weight in a dialogue; an effective ear plug, so if sentences mostly begin with “I” someone isn’t listening, but launching. Improvisational conversation can be a kind of a jazz dialogue of several terrific conversations, feeding and building from what is offered around, but it can fall flat if not connected to what’s been played. There is risk in stepping into the stream unless you’re in earnest, pay attention, and do it for the right reasons: to make music, rather than to blow your horn. Listen with your eyes. Are you seeing a polished performance by the person you are engaged with, have they given this “speech” too many times? What are they doing while you’re speaking? Are they looking around the room, is the light behind their eyes dimming, or do they focus in concentration?
I worked with a famous acting coach and director, Robert (Bobby) Lewis, who no one knows now but theater historians and actors he taught, like Linda Hunt, Jeff Goldblum, Montgomery Clift, Maureen Stapleton, and the late Ron Silver. He was a member of the Group Theater and one of the founders of the Actor’s Studio for starters, and therefore, a major influence on American theatre and its acceptance of Stanlislavski’s “Method” technique, now tossed around as a joke (like psychology) by the uninformed. Here is the connection: this renowned method teacher, who you’d think would tell us to dig deeper into personal experiences, told us, repeatedly, to get out of “your own lousy psyche.” In other words, imagine the life of this character, this person you are trying to play. (My favorite line he used was, “If crying were acting my Aunt Minnie would be Duse.”)
Even if you fail to make a connection, you’ll come out better for the leap. Be patient, watch people like a birder and hear their call. There lies benefit, be they wise or foolish.