Carla del Poggio’s eyes widen when the curtains open in Variety Lights.  It’s one of the oldest stories in showbiz, yes?  The dewy ingénue clawing her way to the top.  But who hasn’t harbored the dream of being a star, of making it big, even if it’s that brief moment while watching You Can’t Do That on Television:  I can do that.  I can say ‘I don’t know’ and get a bucket of slime poured onto my head.

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Every year, for their final project, the high school seniors in the theater mounted a one-act play.  My final year, I was invited to play the Valet in No Exit.  I was never a full-on thespian — rather, I was someone who ate lunch in the theater room because my friends were in theater.  Still, I thought, Why not?  I put on a dark suit, white-powdered my face and drew black tarry streaks under my eyes, and memorized my lines.  There are two theories of acting:  that one can find one’s self in every character, or that one can find every character within one’s self.  For me, it was neither; the character I played was simply myself, speaking the lines the way I would have said them normally:  Silly questions, if you’ll pardon my saying so. Where’s the torture-chamber? That’s the first thing they ask, all of them.

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At brunch recently in New York, my friend and I ogled our waiter:  he wore dark-rimmed glasses and had his hair in ringlets.  He seemed like a graduate student, studying something liberal artsy.  English, for example.  Or classics.  We had arrived in the bright-morning crush, and he graciously acceded to our useless requests.  More coffee?  A bit of honey, please?  Maybe he sensed us watching, the way a passer-by is dimly aware of being watched by window-side restaurant patrons.  But he left work before we finished our meal, carrying a Strand Books-branded messenger bag.  This cemented our conjectures further.  We asked the other server, a spunky blonde, what she knew of him.  “Oh, he’s an actor,” she said.  We asked our server what she did.  “Well,” she said, “I’m in acting too.”

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A student told me that, for a summer job, he was auditioning for Sea World.  I didn’t know one had to audition for Sea World.  Yes, he said.  Since I don’t have any animal training, I can’t work with the animals.  But they have other shows and performances.  Does one even notice other humans at Sea World?  Who can compete with a school of dolphins, a killer whale?  I wish I’d known what I wanted to do with my life earlier, he told me.  He was a biochemical engineering major.  I didn’t discover acting until high school.  I wanted to tell him that I had had the exact opposite experience.  If I had asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ and he answered, ‘I don’t know,’ no slime would have fallen from the sky.  Acting is a calling as much as anything else, but know this, my young friend:  there will always be starry-eyed dreamers, and there will always be broken bulbs on Broadway.

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