I get a call from a producer in Islamabad, almost begging me to act in play which was to be staged in 21 days. He’s a friend so I said yes. It was 2011 and I hadn’t acted on stage in over a year. And then he tells me that the play is funded by the U.S Embassy, and Allen Nause has been brought in from ART, Portland, Oregon. Only I had no idea who he was, and where Portland was. But that was to change forever.
The lead actor playing “Oscar Madison” had just quit, and I was to take his place for “The Odd couple” by Neil Simon. The producer told me to watch the movie to get familiar with the play, and come over to meet Allen. I get to the BNB where he was staying at 11 p.m. I see an old man wearing sneakers. The producer points at me and tells him, “This is who I was talking about.” And he immediately takes off.
There isn’t time to get acquainted properly, so he pulls out a script from his bag and we get right to it. I get a brief introduction about the character, followed by a question, “can you pull a New York accent?” I’m intrigued. “yes, but you’ll have to help me”, and he begins his coaching. The rehearsals aren’t enough, so we make a schedule to work outside of rehearsals.
A few days in, we’re at rehearsals, and I’m totally confused. I’ve never rehearsed like this. Different scenes, being rehearsed in different days, no run throughs yet, I don’t even know my lines yet. A particular scene with Oscar’s sarcasm is being rehearsed on repeat. The line seems funny, I seem to be saying it right, and with clarity, Allen has fixed my accent. But he’s not satisfied. He stops me at the punchline and makes me say it over and over again. I still don’t get it. I’m trying variations, but they don’t make sense to me. I’m confused.
Then Allen takes me aside. “Atif, have you ever had a really bad breakup?” I stare at his face trying to figure out where he’s going with this, and I nod. Then he explains, “See, sarcasm comes from pain. If you feel a certain pain from your past, and then deliver this line, it will work.”
Mind = Blown
I get back to the scene, and start acting. That punchline comes up, and suddenly the production crew who had been sleeping all afternoon let out a chuckle. Allen signals to keep going. Another punchline and they all laugh! It wasn’t even that funny to me. But they laughed!
I had never seen direction like this before.
During the next couple of weeks, Allen taught me volumes about acting, through simple events like the one above. We developed an unfathomable bond. I found a deep respect for him and his work, and particularly how “cool” he remains even when other directors would just lose it. I’ve never seen a more patient man. The play was well-received, and I was transformed.
So it was for sure that I have to go see him on my business trip to the US in 2015. I went to Portland and stayed with Allen for a few days, and I will never forget the hospitality that he and his wife Francis, extended to me.
It was during then, he was showing me Artists Rep, that he introduced me to Linda Alper. Linda was rehearsing for a play, and she said she’ll be coming to Pakistan that year to work with Theatre Wallay.
Allen, if you’re reading this, thank you for introducing me to this brilliant human being. I can’t wait to meet you again. There’s a new theatre family I can call myself a part of, and more things to learn from all you gurus.