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Worth It: 'An Improvised Life: A Memoir' by Alan Arkin

April 1, 2011 |  6:00 am

Alanarkin_2008
Is there anything more insufferable than listening to self-absorbed, lavishly paid actors blathering on about (insert affected accent here) the Actor’s Craft? It's like a bad “Saturday Night Live” send-up of Bravo's “In the Actor’s Studio," with Strasberg this and method that, and oh the trials and travails of staying in character.

So you might be inclined to roll your eyes and walk on by Alan Arkin’s new memoir, “An Improvised Life.” But then you’d miss a charming little book that throws open the door to improvisational theater, inviting us all to engage in a little “make believe.”

Arkin, 77, is well-known for a rich theater and film career dating to 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming” that  includes three Oscar nominations and one win, for the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine.” He’s less well-known for his traveling improvisational workshops, which are aimed at actors as well as anyone feeling creatively “blocked” or stuck in a rut.

Improvisation is where Arkins feels most alive and a state that he’s spent his entire life chasing, starting when he was 5 and declared he was going to become an actor -- it's the heart of the book. Arkin spent much of his life desperately trying to be someone, anyone, other than himself. He wasn’t driven by any particular trauma. He just didn't understand how to live in his own skin. So it was easier to become someone else, to mimic someone’s else’s walk or talk or manners or motivation. “[O]utside my life as an actor I had almost no life at all,” he says.

After decades spent seeking answers -- therapy, a foray into Eastern philosophies, questions about past lives, meditation -- he makes the conscious decision to sidestep the “cacophony of egos” and perfectionist tendencies exerting control over his life. Instead of becoming frustrated with the struggle to “find” his character in a new role, he decides to embrace that struggle and allow it to guide him.

This letting go is transforming, bringing new joy to his work and lending a new spark to his improvisational workshops and film direction.“Try it again without the acting,” he tells his performers. “Don’t be creative. ... Don’t be interesting,” he admonishes his improv students, which of course gives his students the freedom to do just that.

If you think improv = comedy, think again. To Arkin, it’s about living in the moment, responding purely to the unfolding events and allowing a genuine response to well up. Improv is not just for aspiring performers. "Make believe" helps students rewrite their own internal scripts. Largely light and breezy, Arkin's “An Improvised Life” poignantly illustrates this when, as he teaches a one-day workshop on a Native American reservation, he challenges a seemingly hopeless young man to step into a bright future of his own making.

An unassuming, self-effacing book, "An Improvised Life" is hardly a Hollywood tell-all. Arkin never brags or boasts and rarely names names, even when he’s saying something complimentary and even though he's worked with some of the biggest names in show business over the years. Let's hope Arkin is improvising a plan to tell that story sometime soon.

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-- Rene Lynch
twitter / renelynch

Photo: Alan Arkin in 2008. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

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