Acting Class

By Michelle Railey

Originally published in January, 2013. Does that matter?

The Ansonia Building, New York. January, 1995. (Image: Amos Media, Michelle Railey)

I have multiple alma maters. (Winner.)

One of them is the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

Yep. It exists. Here’s a link. They get federal student aid funding and everything.

I went there.

One of my classes was “Acting.” I know, it’s crazy. What in the heck would a Dramatic Academy be doing making acting classes mandatory?

Well, they did. And I had to take it. Two semesters.

So I did. (Sheep.)

The first semester was taught by Stewart Z—-y. (See, in order to protect the innocent, we resort to the methods of nineteenth-century novelists.)

He was, at the time, to my stupid eyes, the spitting image–the spit!– of Bill Murray.

He was, in all honesty, a very good teacher. Encouraging, inspiring, challenging, occasionally aggravating.

I never had the nerve to tell him not to cross the streams. (It was the ’90s so a Ghostbusters reference was outdated, yes, but not yet antiquated.)

Stewart (Mr. Z—y) had us scream “I’m sick of this s–t!!!” at the top of our lungs. I didn’t swear then (I was both idiotic and boring. I hope I have the good sense never to publish this.) I tried shouting “I’m sick of this crap.” Needless to say, that was neither cathartic nor effective and I’ve since learned the stunning efficacy and, yes, brilliance of the word “shit.” Much like Martin Luther, I’ve discovered it’s one of my most favorite and utilitarian of words. (Seriously, read him sometimes. It’s everywhere.) (Also, my new first favorite word is actually ‘fuck’, so I’m pretty sure I’m past my prudish phase.)

Well. It’s like Revenge Against the Needlessly Prudish. I use it all the time now. Coffee’s too hot? (Shit.) Fat-fingered a really easy word on the keyboard? (Shit.) Bulldogs lose a game by one point? (Arrrgh. Shit!).

Very useful. Z—y has his revenge. Daily.

Which didn’t make me a better ac-tor (emphasis on the “or”).

But that wasn’t Stewart’s fault.

And I won’t even blame my obscene prudishness (a paradox! a paradox, a most convenient…et cetera).

I’ll tell you straightaway: I lacked confidence. I lacked conviction. I lacked…(dare I say it?) talent.

I lacked talent.

And I was homesick as all billy-hell.

But here, (finally, gasp, praise jesus), is why I loved, loved, loved Stewart Z:

Assignment 2.5: Go follow someone, anyone. Watch how they walk, how they stand, how they speak. Watch them. For a week. Make notes. Learn them. What does it say? For this I chose Nick. Nick worked at a Greek 24-hour cafe, roughly 75th-ish and Broadway. Nick was 60 going on a hundred. That owl in Clash of the Titans? Nick. Quiet honesty bearing free baklava with the purchase of coffee on weekdays? Nick. Slightly hunched over, dentures, nobility, humility? Nick.

Midwestern stereotype of Goodly Immigrant Cafe Watchman? Nick.

He had thick glasses. Watery eyes. Very thick-soled shoes. Yellowed but supposed to be white perma-press oxford shirts. Nick. Nick. Nick.

Get a falafel for 49 cents next door and then go sit at Nick’s for hours with coffee and your free baklava. Nick, Nick, Nick.

I watched for hours. I noticed Nick shuffled with his left foot. His right foot was fine. By the end of his shift, Nick’s spine was, roughly speaking, a perfect “S.”

I loved Nick. I loved Stewart because he made me watch Nick for hours.

And I thought, weird and voyeuristic as it was, there was something, actually, real about it. Not for an acting exercise (god, please) but for an exercise in humanity.

I still love Nick. I still love Stewart. Stewart Z.

Stewart taught me to pay attention to the heart and soul, inscrutable and insistent, that belongs to Nicks, all Nicks (and, I think we are all Nicks). Stuart taught me that the sound you notice in jails is the sound of keys jingling on the belts of policemen. (Oh hell, that was probably just a good story to tell the Impressionable Youths. But still, A bit or more…honest.)

Acting aside, Stewart took a corn-fed Indiana girl and forced her by threat of a good grade to look outside of herself at someone else. To consider the sound of keys on the ears of those without freedom. To consider the expense of laundry, dentures, time, and worth. Free baklava is never really free, now, is it?

That cost a fortune, FAFSA-wise. And it was priceless. Thank you, Stewart Z.

He also scrawled across my theme paper (AMDA did, on occasion, actually require some semblance of academic pursuits) “Keep writing. You do it well.”

And for the lessons of Nick and for keys; for the love of all things Bill Murray, and for the love of one who was always being told “You know who you look like?”…thank you, Stewart Z.

Thank you.

And now, please, if you could only teach me not to regurgitate words and memory obsessively and publicly, that would be helpful. But perhaps, rather above your pay grade.


1.) AMDA New York has a brilliant new website and their New York campus is now split between a thing on 61st street and (where it used to be) the Ansonia building, 2109 Broadway. Also, they now offer an actual Bachelor of Arts. So. (Angry huff. I was there too damn early.) Oh! And fancy student lounges… well, shit, it looks like a much better experience now. But maybe they have better web designers and publicists?

2.) Stewart (Mr. Zully)— well, his IMDb profile is here. His most recent picture doesn’t show it but he did used to look like Bill Murray. He’s real handsome, though, ain’t he? In 1994, he would occasionally wear a beret. But in his defense, it was cold out.

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