Sunday, March 25, 2012

An Improvised Life: A Memoir
by Alan Arkin
Da Capo Press, 201 pages.

Alan Arkin, if you believe his father, knew he was going to be an actor at the age of five, a fact which would seem to belie the title of his book: despite his claims, there's the distinct sense that his professional life went more or less according to plan. An award-winning actor and director, Arkin is best known today for playing old curmudgeons, such as in Little Miss Sunshine and The Change-Up (he also has a cameo in The Muppets). But he's appeared in over 80 films and has a theatrical track record that most actors would with envy. No doubt about it, Arkin's life doesn't truly seemed to have been improvised at all: he made a plan when he was five and stuck to it. Or at least that's how it seems in An Improvised Life, which skips over almost all of Arkin's personal struggles and focuses entirely on his philosophies on acting and a life in the arts. It's an enjoyable read if you're an artist; anyone else, I suspect, will find it (amazingly) lacks drama.

Raised in the world of Second City (he was one of its founding members), Arkin has a refreshingly practical approach to the world of acting. He has no patience for the theories of Stanislavski, the father of The Method. For Arkin, acting is a lot more straightforward and he springs from the school of thought associated with acting scholars like Michael Shurtleff. In the book's second half, where Arkin details the improv workshops he has run for several decades, An Improvised Life most takes on an echo of Sanford Meisner's seminal book On Acting, which details the events of Meisner's classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse: Arkin elegantly demonstrates his theories on improvisation, character, and drama through illustrative examples culled from the classes.

Stanislavski? Shurtleff? Meisner? If you're scratching your head, it's because you're not a student of acting theory and probably opened An Improvised Life expecting a book rife with Hollywood anecdotes, all embedded in a rags-to-riches story of a young man's fight for success. But Arkin has no desire to talk about either Hollywood or himself. This is too bad as all evidence suggests Arkin's had a fascinating life, complete with blacklisted parents (they refused to name names in the 1950s) and a pair of failed marriages. A more personal glimpse at the background to his life might have made this book more accessible to the less theatrically inclined. But this may not have been Arkin's intention - in which case, calling this a "memoir" is a little misleading. It's a memoir of a craft rather than a life.

Taken as a book on acting theory, then, Arkin has written a solid companion piece to Audition (by the aforementioned Shurtleff) and On Acting (by the aforementioned Meisner). There isn't much here that's revolutionary, but it has some engaging anecdotes and occasionally enchanting recollections from a man who has spent literally his entire life in pursuit of the wicked stage. It's also written in a simple style as straight forward as Arkin himself, so readers unfamiliar with acting theory may still find it a fascinating glimpse into the art that lies at the heart of theatre, TV and film.

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