The Rule of Three
by A. Frank Bower
He called me chucklehead every time I messed up, which I did so often he nicknamed me Chuck. I wouldn’t mind Charlie or even Charles, but none of them work because my name’s Harold.
His is Fred Badger. He was my faculty advisor, director, mentor and the man who taught me the Rule of Three.
The first question he asked at my intake interview was, “Mr. Dyer, why do you want to study theatre?”
“Well, my first love is literature. I expect I’ll teach English some day. But, I’ve acted in about a dozen productions between high school and the military.” I breathed and flashed back to the only lead I’d played, in a comedy about a two-timer in a blackout. “I’ve never felt more alive than when I was on stage. The total concentration invigorates every fiber of my being. And the feedback from a live audience is an experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” I thought it was a good answer.
“So basically, what you’re saying is that you want to skate through college by performing instead of cracking the books.”
I thought, What is he, a mind reader? “Not really. My minor in English will keep me lugging books around.”
Mr. Badger stared at me through orange-rimmed glasses, his salt-and-cinnamon hair appearing windblown. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered with combs. He sighed. “I repeat: why do you want to study theatre, particularly if you plan to teach English?”
“I’m not sure of that. If I’m any good, I may take a stab at an acting career.”
“Why not writing?”
“Oh, I do that. I doubt I can make a living at it, so I’ll need a regular job.”
Mr. Badger laughed at me. An inflated vein in his forehead irritated me. “You think acting is a secure career? Come on, you can’t be that dumb.”
“I said, ‘If I’m any good’.”
He leaned forward. “Do you know how many good actors are out there auditioning every year without ever getting hired?”
I pushed my gaze off him to the left wall without moving my head. “Um, no.”
Badger settled into his seat, smug. “Try eighty-seven thousand.”
I gulped. “Thousand?”
“That’s not counting the ones who sometimes find a gig, but can’t quit their day jobs. I have a friend who’s been trying-out in New York for twenty-three years and hasn’t worked yet.”
“My point exactly. So, are you sure you don’t want to change your major?”
I imagined myself standing in a classroom, trying to interest high school students in Ethan Frome. Snore city. “Positive. I’m going to be an actor.”
Badger half-masted his eyelids. “You just changed your career goal in front of my eyes. If you vacillate this easily, you don’t have the commitment acting requires.”
How dare he judge me? “We’ll see about that.”
He grinned. “Yes, we will.”
I tried out for Badger’s production of Genet’s The Balcony because he assigned it. Having never heard of it, I wasn’t interested and had no idea what to use as an audition piece. I found a strong soliloquy in a black power play and used it, assuming I wouldn’t get a part no matter how well I acted. Skinny WASPS simply can’t be convincing as African-Americans, with or without makeup.
When the cast was posted the next day, I was surprised to see my name. I flipped through the script until I found the character. It was a non-speaking role.
I went to Badger’s office. “What’s with the mute part?”
Without interrupting his reading, he said, “Your audition was atrocious, Mr. Dyer, but if you’re going to act, you need roles. We’re starting with movement motivations.”
I bought that. “The stage directions say he’s naked to the waist and his body’s covered with ‘leprous running sores.’ That’s gross.”
Badger raised his head to eyeball me. “If you read the play, you’ll see it makes sense. And I want to see if you can stretch yourself to be depraved. It’s called acting. You’re not a sicko, are you?”
“Of course not. Isn’t there anything else?”
“The cast is set. The die is cast... something like that. Good day, Mr. Dyer.”
The crew built the set before the first rehearsal. On forestage left, a group of boulders was my spot. Badger told me, “To tap into your reptile brain, slither in over the rocks like a snake. Take your shirt off.” I tossed my pullover into the wings and hid behind the leftmost stone. Slowly, I bellied in s-curves up the mini-path that led toward front center stage, reached the peak and veered right until I found the floor near the middle. Rolling onto my side and pushing up with one leg, I squirmed upward until erect.
From stage right, Badger said, “Chucklehead! Don’t just stand there. Do something.”
I stood immobile, wondering how to show depravity; Genet gave no hints. Badger ran to three feet in front of me, eyes saucered, mouth widened, tongue extended downward and shook his head back and forth. Somehow, his tongue was limp. It fluttered with his head shaking. He bent at the knees and upper back and drooled. His spittle splashed the stage floor.
He switched to his normal persona. “I can’t do your acting for you. You have to bring it out from inside yourself.” He jabbed his finger into my breastbone. “Somewhere, somewhen, you had warped feelings. Find them.”
Badger strode back to stage right front. In the moment his back was to me, I sought decadence from within, but found none. I substituted, remembering a time I burned an inch and a half long turtle with lighter fluid when I was eight or nine. The repulsive image made me wince.
While he watched, I swallowed, held the picture of my transgression in my mind’s eye and replicated Badger’s motions. I’ve never shaken the guilt; I wanted to barf.
“I don’t believe you, chucklehead.”
My substitution missed the mark. Guilt wasn’t the soul of the moment. Extreme sexual tension was. I sighed, lowered my head, shut my eyes and visualized a vagina six inches in front of my face. I jerked my head upward, widened my gaze as if to leap into the image and licked my lips.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
I heard Badger’s voice. I knew my chosen visual wasn’t perverted, but I felt it work. It was a peak moment on my learning curve. I smiled.
He said, “Keep working on that, Chuck. Now let’s break down the beats.”
“Acting is like music. Each moment is a beat. A simple character might use two in a whole scene. A complex one could use two dozen in one bit of dialogue. Do you read Shakespeare, Chuck?”
“Read Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech in Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene iv. In some forty-two lines of verse, I find at least twice that number of actor’s beats.”
“I’m still not clear about what a beat is.”
“Any change. It could be an impulse to move, an underlying motive not being expressed with the words, a subtle shade of meaning shown by a raised eyebrow. Mercutio’s soliloquy is the most compressed and variegated in the English language; and probably the most challenging for an advanced actor.”
Badger snickered. “You don’t have to worry about that for a long time. For now, let’s just get your three down.”
He shook his head. “One, you enter slithering. Two, you stand. Three, you display your perverse mindset. End of your scenic moment. Milk it for all it’s worth.”
“Three beats isn’t much.”
“It’s all you have. Make the most of them. If this was comedy, the Rule of Three might help your rhythm.”
It seemed to me he was hitting me with too much to take in all at once. “Mr. Badger, what is The Rule of Three? Is that why I have three beats? Or is it only in comedy?”
He rolled his eyes and sat on a stage rock. “Your scene just happens to have three beats. It has nothing to do with The Rule, which refers to comedy but exists everywhere. In comedic performances — or story jokes — patterns or setups are repeated three times.” He paused. “Like priest, minister and rabbi jokes. The priest’s line is the setup, the minister the builder and the rabbi the punchline. Have you ever seen Buster Keaton’s silent movies?”
I nodded. “I love Keaton.”
“Watch them again. His films are riddled with threes. Physical comedy depends on it. Imagine there’s a ladder against that wall on stage right. You walk under it once, stop, look up and back out of it. A while later, you almost go under it, shake your head, wave your finger at it and say, ‘Oh, no’. The third time you encounter the ladder, you’re in a hurry, run at it, try to dodge it at the last possible moment. You kick the leg and it falls on you.
“If that happened the first time, it would be tragic. The Rule of Three sets it up to be humorous.”
I smiled, envisioning the three ladder steps. “I see.”
Badger stood. “I hope you do, Chuck. Now let me see you be perverse.”
I returned to the start rock, bellied onto it and imagined I was Jim Morrison in leather pants.
The next semester I worked under another director in a modernized version of A Servant of Two Masters. Its main set piece was a large wooden wagon brought on stage by a Clydesdale. The main characters interacted on the cart in front of its wall with three doors.
My character was Chinese, one of three Zany Brothers who were of different nationalities. We appeared thrice through the wagon doors to present food to the lead characters. Mine was egg roll first and Moo Goo Gai Pan, second. Three desserts, all pies, were next. I offered Sub Gum Cream Pie. The main character did a take, glanced at it nastily and shoved it into my face.
Fred Badger directed Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life the following semester. I auditioned as Walter Brennan doing Hamlet’s speech to the players. “Talk the speech like I said ya had oughta,” et cetera. The effort netted me the role of Kit Carson, a barfly in his mid-fifties who told tall tales in order to cadge free beers from customers.
During my two-page soliloquy, I needed to motivate myself to move from table to table, drink leftover glasses of beer and accept those offered by others. I was concentrating on the speech; Carson had told the stories so much they’d run together in his mind, become fragmented to a point where they no longer worked. His language was fun.
My rehearsals were disastrous. I paced about the set spouting words.
Badger got increasingly frustrated. “Chucklehead! Why are you going there?”
“To get that drink.”
“I know that. Show them.” Abashed, I altered my patterns of movement, seeking rhythms to justify each of the eight beers I gulped during the scene. I never found the proper motivations.
Badger finally gave up and decided to have me sit at a corner table from the opening curtain until the final blackout — and beyond. He left me there during the curtain call. I got the message.
My third performance; that point was also clear.
Now I’m in my third year of teaching tenth grade English. I think of Mr. Badger fondly and thank him for the vital lessons. I learned to play to my strengths: teaching and writing. Students respect me; I’m able to motivate them to read and ask relevant questions about good literature — even Shakespeare. Of course, I refuse to include Ethan Frome in my classes. Even I have my limitations.
I’ve published a novel and one short story collection, so my creative juices work well when I go solo. Each year I also direct a play at the high school where I teach, an experience that has increased my regard for Mr. Badger’s approach with performers. I shake my head often and think, Was I this bad?
I read Mr. Badger’s obituary last week in our local newspaper, which inspired this homage. He had attended all three of my directorial efforts, the most recent being Our Town a month ago. I’m sure Wilder wouldn’t have been wild about my desecration of his work. As I said, I’ve learned my limits. After the performance, Mr. Badger came backstage to say the last words I was to hear from him.
“Chucklehead, I was hopeful that the third time would be your charm, that you’d finally display some competence in theatre.” He sighed and shook his head. “I was wrong. You direct worse than you act.”
I said, “I appreciate your honesty.”
“I read your novel. Good stuff. Go home and hug your laptop.”
Copyright © 2010 by A. Frank Bower