Fantasize in the Extreme!

On Nathan Fielder’s 'The Rehearsal' and Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel 'Acting Class'

Alexandra Tanner
Drama

When I moved to New York in 2013, I moved for drama school. The program I’d be attending, to study as a playwright, was known for its immersive repertory style and its focus on devised theater — together, as an ensemble, we’d create from nothing many of the plays we’d perform. At my first day of orientation, there was a lot of talk from the teachers, from the administrators, and from the second- and third-year students about how we were going to suffer, about how we were going to have to work harder than we’d ever worked, about how we were going to learn things about ourselves we didn’t want to. I wanted immediately to quit, but I didn’t; instead, like they all said I would, I suffered.

The head of the playwriting department kept telling me that my work was devoid of both feeling and desire. I tried writing myself into one of my plays so that it would be harder for her to criticize me; this led only to the painful experience of having to cast someone as myself, give them notes on their intonations of my own words, listen to them tell me that they didn’t think that I would say the words I had written, and watch them try to replicate my body language for several hours each day. “Alex doesn’t want anything,” my playwriting teacher told me upon sitting in on rehearsal one morning. “She has to want something. What does she want? Let yourself fantasize in the extreme!” I wasn’t sure which Alex she was talking about. When I asked her to clarify, she couldn’t.

I was, I felt, already in the extreme; I didn’t need to fantasize my way there. I’d moved from Florida, and it was my first winter. I kept getting windburn on the walk to class. One of the teachers would bring in her kitchen recycling and the actors would have to use it to build sets. We would sit in chairs with our knees touching and ask each other probing questions — “When was the last time you had sex? How does it feel to be on lithium? Are you really ready to marry your fiancée?”. The playwrights could get the actors to kiss. The directors could get the playwrights to cut scenes. The actors could cry in the hallways, drawing sympathy, and then reveal they were just thinking through a scene for later. One of my teachers was supposedly the inspiration for the character of Loretta Castorini from Moonstruck. One of my teachers was on The Americans. One of my teachers got one of my classmates pregnant. I spent my weekends going to confusing puppet shows at La Mama. Twice – once for a rehearsal and once for a final performance – I brought nail clippers to class so that I could cut my nails in front of my classmates as part of an assignment in which my only job was to cut my nails in front of the others as realistically as possible. One of the actors grew his fingernails very long, seemingly in service of the clipping exercise — but soon it was revealed to be a symptom of a mental break, and after an ambulance collected him from the building late one night following a bad rehearsal, he left school.

These days, when I cut my nails, I still sometimes wonder whether I’m doing it in a way that would seem real to someone watching me do it.

Fielder’s work has always been about the wild joy of finding in people a host of details that are stranger than fiction.

Actors say their bodies are their instruments — not just something they inhabit but tools they use. This makes the body of the actor seem magical, limitless. But the opposite, actually, is what’s most painfully true about the craft of acting. The body of an actor, and all that’s within it, is a constraint. Once an acting teacher asked me how tall I thought my character was and I told him I thought she was probably 5’7”. When he asked me how tall I was I told him I was 5’5”. He reprimanded me for being false with myself; I was 5’5”, so anyone I ever played would have to be 5’5”, as well.

This summer saw the arrival of Nathan Fielder’s television show The Rehearsal and Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Acting Class; two acutely paranoid meditations on how even the greatest performance of the other can’t escape the trap of the self. It’s a gift to have them appear so close to one another — and yet I’ve wondered more than once whether their twinned début is perhaps part of an enormous, Fielderesque, Trumanian, Cotardian scheme my playwriting teacher has orchestrated to trick and to shame me. That’s because both The Rehearsal and Acting Class, of course, are about the rewards and the terrors of fantasizing in the extreme: as a creator, as an actor, as an observer; as a human being just trying to go through life somehow ensnared into one or more of these horrid little roles.

The Rehearsal’s plot has been much-tread-over, with the bottom line seeming to be that no one but Fielder and his producers can know what’s real and what’s not real, so I won’t recount it here very thoroughly. Fielder — Willy Wonka with frontal lobe damage — seems as genuine as an animal throughout the whole show, though he makes a conceding little moue when his rehearsal partner Angela complains that he’s a liar and a manipulator. Fielder’s work has always been about the wild joy of finding in people a host of details that are stranger than fiction, impossible to invent; a gas station attendant who boasts of drinking his grandson’s pee, a religious nut with a Linus-like attachment to the memory of his totaled Scion TC. Nearly everyone can appreciate the excruciating, gelatinous feeling of free-fall one gets when an ostensibly benign conversation takes a hard left; just last month, in a flower shop, a florist told my father (Jewish) that his suppliers liked to Jew him down. Sensing an opportunity for a great story, my father — as any Jew would — stuck around to see what the man would say next. Within minutes, the florist was talking about how his one regret in life was not having had a larger penis; of course, this guy used the word “pecker.” Sublime. Fielder wants to bring the hapless authenticity of the other to the screen — but of course, no one is authentic when they’re being watched, and that’s where he turns our brains to jellies.

The joy of Drnaso’s Acting Class rests on a similar propulsion: when we’re watching each other closely, odd and terrifying things happen. The novel opens with a simple scene: in a little booth in an ugly bar, a man makes tepid jokes; a woman complains about her last relationship. They’re on a first date until they aren’t. They’re married, and role-playing. They’re tired of each other. They’re pretending to be other people. They’re not very good at it. So when they hear about an acting class — free for four sessions and, according to rumor, guaranteed to change their lives — they decide to take it; they think it might save them. Everyone else at acting class is there to be saved, too, and the thrill of moving through the novel lies in the dread of wondering what’s wrong with everyone. Often, Drnaso makes the answer worse than the one you first imagine. The novel’s titular class is led by a man who introduces himself as John Smith, and who offers his students no credentials except to claim that he’s taught a lot of different things in a lot of different places over the years. Over the course of a few weeks, John goes from giving his class’s participants simple directives for their improvisations (such as you’re the boss and you’re the worker) to using the scrim of authority to bully and expose his students (as when he tells a figure-drawing model named Thomas, stone-faced, that he senses a terrible darkness within him and fears him wholeheartedly).

Drnaso and Fielder both have a profound interest in pushing dissociation to its furthest point.

There are lots of things I noticed reading Acting Class so soon after watching The Rehearsal. Both center their emotional climaxes around the wildcard inclusion of an ill-prepared child in the proceedings, with six-year-old Remy coming to believe that Nathan is his daddy and a three-year-old named Marcus, brought along to acting class when his mother can’t secure childcare, failing to become a useful participant when he breaks character after another student taunts him for being a “baby” during a grueling, Meisner-esque character exercise.

Both Drnaso and Fielder hold to the light how people act — on a fundamental level, on a craft level. “The Fielder Method” is pulled out of Nathan’s ass and into existence in order to encourage a group of struggling actors to combine The Method with some light stalking, while Acting Class pioneers a brand-new way to immerse oneself in a character: pure dissociation from reality, entry into a fugue state, full abandonment of the self and all that comes with it. When John Smith encourages his class to lie down and craft scenes in their heads, most of the class’s participants quickly fall asleep, entering one another’s dreams until near-dawn — at which point most of them startle up, angry that no one woke them earlier; they have jobs to get to, families to care for. John claims the exercise was too beautiful to bring to a halt. One of his students, Angel, doesn’t wake up for four days — she wanders around the city, joining a group of hikers on a trip up and then down a mountain, eventually coming back to her own consciousness covered in dirt and confused about where she’s been.

Drnaso and Fielder both have a profound interest in pushing dissociation to its furthest point; Fielder’s bland “Oh, okay,” deployed in response to some of the most insane shit imaginable, mirrors Drnaso’s flat, muted visual style; a style in which everyone kind of looks the same, making it hard to recognize at first when something actually strange is going on. Nathan’s uncanny downness for anything and Drnaso’s characters’ frighteningly mild faces leave room for us to project our own horror at what’s unfolding onto the drama. You suspect that the two of them, as creators, are doing all this so they can watch us react; perhaps so they can learn how to be, perhaps so they can see what their own work means. When, in a widely discussed scene from The Rehearsal’s fifth episode, the Fielder Method student who’s come to be known as Fake Angela accuses Nathan of being unable to feel, she’s doing what everyone who interacts with him does to him. Antisemites, pathological liars, desperate people who’ll change their legal names to make a lousy grand: they peacock for him, almost like they know the cameras all around them have him powerless. He can’t leave a trace of who he is for anyone. When no one knows who you are, no one can know who you aren’t. This isn’t just the great secret of acting, both Fielder and Drnaso seem to be saying; it’s the great secret of creating.

Drnaso and Fielder seem to be fantasizing in the extreme about, more or less, the same thing: American life. Both have moved, in recent years, from a position of smug delight in its stupidity — found in the pages of Drnaso’s début, Beverly, and in Nathan’s sketch work on Jon Benjamin Has a Van — to one of real fear. Drnaso’s Sabrina casts its eye on a serial killer who tapes and disseminates footage of the titular woman’s beheading, and on the Army-reserve everydude who takes in the victim’s boyfriend — and then watches him become, through his obsession with an InfoWars stand-in, convinced that his own partner’s death is a tool of the deep state. Nathan For You saw Nathan face a fair share of creeps, but The Rehearsal has brought encounters with antisemites, conspiracy theorists, and warmongers to its center in a way his work hasn’t before. Whether by coincidence or by design, Nathan’s rendering of America — a silly place full of wannabe reality stars — has shifted significantly, showing us just how easy it is to find oneself shacking up with someone who believes Satan runs Google.

The characters who populate Acting Class are similarly dangerous. In scenes that reminded me of better versions of Susan Choi’s propulsive but unsatisfying drama school story Trust Exercise, Drnaso uses the metaphor of an acting class — and the profound trust that being in such a class requires — to show us that our democracy is essentially dead because our trust in our neighbors’ good intentions has died.

The Rehearsal and Acting Class tell us that not only are the goals of good acting confusing and contradictory, they’re in fundamental tension with the goals of good sociality. Divorce yourself from your self to authentically inhabit a new self. But bring something uniquely of your true self to your new self while hiding who you are. Project feeling. Appear desirable. Become consumable. Resist being consumed. Everyone’s been talking about the ending of The Rehearsal, in which Nathan realizes he might’ve inflicted a deep psychic wound upon a fatherless child actor who was, it turns out, too young to realize he was an actor at all. Both Acting Class and The Rehearsal — both Fielder’s and Drnaso’s larger oeuvres — tell us that existence is performance. That we are created from contact with others, but that we can’t ever know each other. And so, most of the time, we can’t ever know ourselves.

At the end of my first year of drama school, I called the administration office to tell them I wouldn’t be returning in the fall. I was nervous to make the phone call, but I didn’t need to be: a lot of other people, the woman on the other end told me, were dropping out, too. This was normal. The department accounted for it, in fact, when they built their incoming cohorts each year, inflating their class sizes with the knowledge that most of us wouldn’t make it through to the other side. I thought about my shitty nail-trimming, my fear of fantasizing; the guy who mimed getting a blowjob from the big mouth while our class watched Beckett’s Not I in the black-box dark; all the fake crying, all the ma-ma-maaas and da-da-daaas and ta-ta-taaas; the actors in commedia dell’arte masks, rolling around in trash, spanking each other; the girl who'd played me, badly, in my play about me. I told the administrator on the other end of the phone that I agreed with her; that this kind of work wasn’t for everyone. I hadn’t seen a good performance all year.

Alexandra Tanner is a Brooklyn-based writer and the fiction editor of Triangle House Review.