“The people who pick up flyers and show up to free classes tend to be restless searchers,” John tells his students, after remarking that there must be something wrong with them if they’re here. When one student takes offense, John assures her he means this as a compliment. This scene takes place early on in Nick Drnaso’s unsettling new graphic novel, Acting Class. What starts out as a low-key portrait of a group of ordinary unsatisfied people trying something new winds up a sometimes sinister but always philosophical meditation on the quest for deeper meaning.
Acting Class by Nick Drnaso Drawn & Quarterly, hardcover $29.95, 248 pp., drawnandquarterly.com. Drnaso appears Wed 10/26 7 PM with Ling Ma (Bliss Montage) at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, womenandchildrenfirst.com.
Drnaso nimbly sketches in the lives of the acting class participants before they each see the flyer and make the fateful decision to see what it’s all about. A longtime couple tries to reignite their faltering relationship by playacting dinner as strangers. A man bakes cookies for his coworkers that they’re afraid to try because none trust him. Another must fundraise door-to-door as community service for an unrevealed crime while fighting his cripplingly negative inner monologue. A grandmother worries so much about her mentally fragile granddaughter that her care may be doing more harm than good. A single mother pours all her own problems out to a son who’s too young to understand and may later be crippled by her lack of boundaries. “Just don’t turn on me the way I had to turn on my parents. This situation will be totally different,” she begs as she rocks him to sleep. She must know it isn’t different, that whatever flaws she inherited keep getting passed down generation to generation.
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As the teacher said, each of these people is looking for something. The question, which Drnaso wisely keeps close to his chest, is what they’re actually getting in this generic institutional basement. On the face of it, these strangers gather in a community center in the evening to try out some acting exercises. It’s a thing to do with your free time instead of watching TV, a way to be creative, to be engaged. None in this group comes off as aspiring thespians. This is not a first step to their new career on stage or screen. It’s more like therapy: an attempt to look deeper into themselves.
Drnaso’s drawing style is somewhere between Mike Judge’s King of the Hill and those airplane evacuation card graphics. His people are lumpy with small, barely rendered features. There were many times while reading the book that I got mixed up about which character was being depicted. But this isn’t a criticism. By leaving them half-realized and vague, his heroes become universal and also easily relatable to a variety of readers. They’re like unfinished costumes anyone could slip into. The acting exercises do nothing to lessen the characters’ interchangeability.
“It may seem like we’re moving unreasonably fast, but I don’t believe in building up all this suspense around performing. I’ve found it’s best to jump in awkwardly and work it out as we go. And again, it doesn’t matter, and yet it does, but it doesn’t, if that makes sense.”
To explain his approach, John says he’s trying to break down his students’ barriers and inhibitions. But to what end? Clearly their lives are not going so well that they couldn’t use a change. As one man remarks to a new trainee at his job, which involves mindlessly personalizing dolls and other souvenirs with names written in a variety of fonts, “I learned a long time ago not to hang too much self-esteem on a job.” What John offers instead of the drudgery of their everyday lives is a kind of mindfuck that takes on cultic overtones. Each week’s class seems to take in a different location and doesn’t conform to any set format.
As the book goes on, the line between everyday life and make-believe blurs, then vanishes. For some in the class, this is a dream come true. They like the characters they’ve invented much more than the personalities they’ve been saddled with up till then. For others, it’s a nightmare they’re increasingly desperate to escape. The gap between polar-opposite perceptions of the same event will be familiar to anyone engaged in the online world.
The ending may be a bit too Twilight Zone for its own good in being weird for the sake of weird but if I ever see a flyer for a free acting class, I will run the other way. I might even tear it off the wall and throw it in the trash as a public service. Some doors are best left unopened.