Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Memories of Freehold: Me and Freehold by Norman Bell

Me and Freehold? We go way back. I remember when I was just a wee lad in my mid-20’s, and Freehold was just a youngster too. It was 1995, and Freehold was just four years old at the time.

That year, I took my first Freehold class - Intro to Acting I with George Lewis. The class was in the Oddfellow’s Building on Capitol Hill, Freehold’s original space. It was there that I learned that acting wasn’t about pretending you were someone else. It was about finding that person in yourself, and about “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. It was also about being curious about what emerged right in front of you in the present moment. As George used to say (and probably still does): “Doing is doing. Doing is doing.”

I soon became a Freehold junkie. I took Intro I & II, Scene Study, and the first Meisner class, and had a lot of amazing (and sometimes frightening) experiences along the way. Each room in the original space at the Oddfellows Hall had its own feel – Rhino, Workspace, The Loft. Each teacher had their own style. But it was all grounded in Freehold’s exploratory approach to acting.

In addition to the classes, I had the privilege to participate as a stagehand for Freehold’s production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”. Directed by Robyn Lynn Smith, with an all-star cast that included George Lewis and one of Freehold's founders, John Billingsley, the production was a sight to behold. Every night, me and a fellow stagehand would sneak under the bleachers in Rhino, Freehold’s original theatre space, to watch Nina’s tragic final monologue. “The important thing,” the actress playing Nina said, “is learning how to endure.” It gave us goosebumps every time.

In 1997, I stopped taking Freehold classes and started travelling – over the course of seven years, I lived in Alaska, then Japan, and then Spain. I continued acting in plays, and even a movie or two. But then in 2003, I came home for Christmas break and met up for coffee with an old friend. One of the many signs I got that day that this was the right person for me was when she mentioned that she’d been taking Freehold classes. That person - fellow actor and Freehold junkie Zoe Wright-Bell - is now my wife.

I came back to Seattle in 2004, and a few months after that, I started taking Freehold classes again – but this time, I wanted to write and perform my own work. So I took Playwriting I and II with Elizabeth Heffron, and Original Performance with Maria Glanz, and then with Marya Sea Kaminski. Out of these classes came my first two solo pieces, “Little Hand” and “Mango”. I performed both of these pieces in the Freehold Studio Series, and then went on to do two more, “Subprime!” and “Enlightened”. I actually ended up making “Subprime!” into a full-length solo play, which was directed by Freehold’s own Gin Hammond.

Performing in the Studio Series was one of the best things I’ve ever done. The opportunity it gave me to perform my pieces in front of a live audience was invaluable. And it was so fun and satisfying to meet other performers and feel that “Hey-kids!-Let’s-put-on-a-show!” spirit backstage. (Note to current Freehold students - If you’re thinking about doing the Studio Series, do it! You won’t regret it!)

Right now, I’m taking a little break from Freehold. I’ve got a ten-month old baby daughter, Sophia Rose, and lately all of my performing energy has been dedicated to her. But mark my words - I’ll be back. And I have a sneaking suspicion I might be bringing someone with me soon enough. We’re already starting to see a little performer emerging in our daughter, so maybe it’ll only be a matter of time before Sophia Rose makes her way down to Belltown to take her first “Intro to Acting I” class at Freehold.

Photo at top: Norman Bell performing in the Studio Series his piece Subprime.
Photo at left: Norman and his daughter Sophia Rose.

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