“Sit down, you forgot to act,” my teacher said, and my cheeks burned.
It was less than two minutes into my scene and he was already stopping it.
I was a 23-year-old acting student. The assignment was to come up with an imaginary circumstance and an activity to go along with it while improvising a scene with a partner who had created his or her own circumstance and activity. As always, I’d worked hard on my homework and spent hours preparing. So I was furious when my teacher cut me off so quickly.
“I’m not even going to bother critiquing that,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it.”
Blinking back tears, I shuffled to my seat with my head down and squeezed into my chair.
Walking home that cold November night, I replayed the day’s class over and over again in my mind. When I got to my apartment, I took a long, hot shower hoping that it would make me feel better. But as the scalding drops hit my skin I seethed more, unable to let my failed scene go.
My teacher had his favorite students and he’d let them go on for a half hour or more, even if their scenes were pointless and their acting was bad. He favored the girls who were pretty in obvious ways and lived drama-filled lives. He was especially fond of the girl who looked like she’d stepped off the set of “Baywatch,” with enormous breast implants and legs like toothpicks, and the frail beauty who used to be a dancer whose last acting exercise was about the shouting match she’d had with her boyfriend on a street corner.
But I didn’t have fake boobs or an emotionally abusive relationship. I was not one of the favorites. My teacher liked to make comments about me being bland and boring. He seemed to forget things I said, asking me the same questions repeatedly. He’d go days without calling on me while my classmates got picked two or three times. And when I finally got a chance to act, he cut me off and humiliated me in front of the class. He’d hardly noticed me before, but after today I felt completely invisible.
Then “That Thing” by Lauryn Hill came on the plastic shower radio. Listening to her lyrics I started to feel stronger, fueled by my anger. I had to figure out my next activity for class, and it had to be good enough that my teacher would let me finish it. My mind raced, searching for an idea. We were encouraged to take risks and do things that scared us. There was one thing that scared me more than anything else, and I knew it would get me noticed. So as Lauryn sang, I started to formulate my plan.
The next day when the teacher asked who had a scene prepared for class, my hand shot into the air and he actually called on me. Standing outside the classroom getting ready for it, I ran over my imaginary circumstance and activity in my mind: I had been at a bar and a guy I liked was there, but he didn’t notice me because he was too busy flirting with a girl who was pretty in an obvious way. I’d come back to my apartment to change into a sexy outfit so I could return to the bar and get his attention. This story was a cover for my real motivation, which was to show my teacher that he couldn’t treat me like I didn’t matter anymore.
I took a deep breath and barged into the room. Heading straight for the boom box, I pressed play, and Lauryn Hill’s “That Thing” blared at top volume. I threw off my long-sleeve t-shirt and corduroy pants. My heart pounded as I unfastened my bra, and then slid off my underwear.
I stood naked in front of the class as I screamed at my teacher in my head, I am not invisible and you cannot ignore me!
Stomping across the room, I grabbed my attention-getting outfit—a skin-tight camisole and short shorts, fishnets, and tall boots. As Lauryn’s lyrics buoyed me in the background, I got dressed in my skimpy clothes thinking, Notice me, motherf**ker!
Then my scene partner walked into the room to Lauryn Hill blasting and me scantily clad and shaking with anger. “Uhhh…” he said, frozen in the doorway.
“Get in there!” my teacher yelled. “She’s so alive!”
I whipped around to glare at my partner as he inched into the room. Not holding back at all, I cried and screamed, and we had an intense scene that my teacher let continue until completion.
When we were done, I turned to the teacher for my critique. He was leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees and his mouth open, silent. After a moment, he shook his head, said, “Wow,” and then gave me by far the best critique I’d gotten all year, on par with the kind of feedback he gave his favorites.
Afterwards, my classmates rushed up to me to tell me how great my scene was. The guys said I had better boobs than the girl who paid for hers. At lunch I felt like a celebrity when people from the other classses who’d heard about what I’d done came up to congratulate me. One girl from my class even dropped out of the program that afternoon because she was so appalled that it took getting naked to get noticed, and I was thrilled to have caused such an impact. And after I’d broken the seal, lots of my classmates started taking their clothes off in their scenes, so much so that our group became known around school as “The Naked Group.”
Now, at 36, there’s no way I’d take off my clothes in front of a room of 20 people to a Lauryn Hill soundtrack. I’m thankful that at 23, it was long before iPhones. The only images that exist of my acting school rebellion are in my mind and maybe the minds of a few lucky people in my class. To this day, whenever I hear the first few notes of “That Thing,” I remember how courageous I was and how I didn’t let my teacher make me believe that I was wasn’t worth noticing or didn’t deserve a chance to do a scene. I feel proud of my 23-year-old self, for doing that thing that scared me the most to prove I wasn’t boring, forgettable, or invisible, and that standing there naked, I demanded to be seen.