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A Memoir

by Alan Arkin

Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-306-81966-7
Publisher: Da Capo Lifelong

The famous funnyman gets serious about his profession.

Arkin looks back on his career as an actor, but this memoir forgoes the backstage gossip and star-studded anecdotes readers might expect. In fact, the author largely ignores his accomplishments in favor of charting his inner evolution as an artist, focusing on intellectual and spiritual epiphanies that have shaped his approach to acting. Arkin’s approach to autobiography is a bit unexpected—the intensely earnest, verging-on-New-Age tone is distinctly at odds with his familiar brusque, comedic persona—but rewarding, as the author illustrates the principles of his acting philosophy with a wealth of concrete details taken directly from his experience, resulting in a coherent and provocative manifesto. There are some intriguing glimpses at the process and personalities behind Chicago’s seminal Second City acting troupe, in which Arkin first made a name for himself, and a handful of familiar tropes about the struggling young artist looking for work. But the author’s interest is primarily in the discoveries he has made conducting improvisational-theater workshops, working with various acting mentors and performing on stage and screen. Arkin’s basic premise is that good acting is born of an actor’s commitment to the present moment, an embrace of spontaneity and willingness to give up rigid control. This Zen-like approach, which largely consists of the actor getting out of his own way, is hardly revolutionary, but Arkin has a knack for making it feel fresh and wholly sensible. He also displays a refreshing lack of egocentrism; many of the most profound lessons he recounts are the result of watching other actors, often amateurs, struggle with the challenges of improvisation laid out in his workshops. For an actor famous for his anxious, intense brand of comedy, Arkin’s tone is surprisingly cool and measured, often wry but rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

Earnest, intelligent and well-observed—less a celebrity memoir than a serious consideration of the principles of acting and improvisation.