26 Sep Acting Lessons with Dr. Wayne Dyer
I take a deep breath then knock.
The door opens and I see Dr. Wayne Dyer standing there with a smile, “Good morning, Alan. Come on in.”
“Hi Dr. Johnson,” I say, nervously. “Sorry I’m a little late—”
“No, no worries. Have a seat.”
“Okay, cut.” I say, stopping the scene. “That was great. Let’s try it again, but this time, before we go to sit … what’s something you might do to make a patient feel at ease before a consultation?”
“Maybe … offer a glass of water?”
“Perfect. So then—we say hello, you notice I’m nervous, offer me the water, then we go sit. Let’s try it again.”
Ten years ago. I found myself in the windswept, coastal town of Monterey California, giving acting lessons to international best-selling author and speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer. We were two days away from our first day of shooting a feature film about Wayne that I had been hired to conceive of and direct. Instead of a traditional documentary about Wayne’s life and his ideas (there was deluge of “talking heads” films in those days) I had somehow convinced Reid Tracy, Wayne’s publisher at Hay House, to take a risk and do something a little more post-modern. The idea I proposed was to make a narrative film, a “movie–movie,” about a rag-tag film crew (played by actors) going to interview Dr. Wayne Dyer (played by himself) about his new book. The whole film would take place at Asilomar, a picturesque conference center in Monterey, where we could meet other characters involved in various story-lines that could help bring Wayne’s ideas to life.
Of course for the concept to work, Wayne would have to be at the center of it all, playing himself, yet also acting. And Wayne had never acted a day in his life.
“Hi Dr. Johnson, sorry I’m late—”
“No problem. How are you doing? Would you like a glass of water? Some tea?”
“Oh, thanks, but no. I’m fine.”
“Okay. Well, come on in…have a seat.”
I stop the scene there. “Okay great. Now, let’s say I’m a patient of yours who’s had some scary test done and I’m here to find out the results, which you already know came back negative. So, once we sit, I’ll avoid the topic for a while, ask about your new drapes or something, but then eventually I’ll ask about the test results.”
“Okay, and how should I respond?” Wayne asked.
“Tell me I’m going to be fine. Doesn’t matter how you say it, the main thing is to comfort me with the words.”
Thinking back on that crazy time, I am amazed (and humbled) by how much both Reid and Wayne trusted me with this project. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure the idea would work, and with the weight of a full feature film production riding on my shoulders, it was definitely nerve-wracking. The actors we had cast around Wayne were all solid, and for the most part old friends of mine. People like Michael DeLuise and Portia de Rossi, whom I could trust to help support Wayne as he boldly switched careers from writer to movie star … at age 67.
Although it seemed like a challenge, I was pretty confident that I could facilitate a good performance from Wayne as long as I could get him to understand one simple secret about acting. Something that I had assured him would only take one short acting lesson to learn.
“Have a seat.” Wayne says.
I sit on the couch nervously looking around the room. “Is there something different with your office?” I ask. “Something looks different here.”
Wayne held my gaze, with his full attention, then said simply. “We had some new drapes put in.”
“Ah, I see. Well…” I clear my throat. “I guess, I’m wondering if you have any, um, news for me?”
“Alan … You’re fine.” Wayne nods with a compassionate grin. “The test came back negative and you are going to be fine.”
After a long beat we both burst out in laughter.
“Good, good.” I say. We had run through this improvised “doctor greeting patient” scene about a dozen times now, each time going a little further until we had finally reached the end.
“Okay, now,” I say with a sly smile, “That was just the warm up. Are you ready to do some real acting?” I pull two sheets of paper out from my backpack and hand one to Wayne. “This is from an actual off-Broadway play that a friend of mine wrote. Let’s just read through it.”
Wayne looks slightly nervous at first. But as we begin to read, he smiles and understands. Almost verbatim it was the same scene we had just “improvised” together.
The secret is simple. It’s a technique I’ve used before to help children with acting. Don’t make them learn lines. Don’t even show them a script. Don’t let them get lost in their heads, keep them in their bodies, present by focusing on the meaning of a scene and not the words. Eventually the right words will come.
Wayne of course, was not a child. But he possessed a childlike openness to the world around him, which is why I thought that this little acting trick might work. To let go and not perform is conversely the key to a great performance, because an audience doesn’t want to see acting they want to see being. And Wayne was a pro at that.
Wayne passed away a year ago. He was a good friend. A guy’s guy, always ready to joke around, and yet always sincere. On set, I playfully referred to him as Sir Lawrence (as in Sir Lawrence Olivier). Wayne was also a great inspiration to me. His message about not dying with your music still inside you really hit home, and was a big part of why I wrote my first novel, What Lies Beyond the Stars. My only regret is I didn’t finish it in time for Sir Lawrence to read it.
– Michael Goorjian