Inside the actors' studio, with Zach Braff

'Scrubs' star, a Northwestern alum, advises theater students

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Zach Braff

Northwestern alum, actor and director Zach Braff leads an acting class in a workshop at the Mussetter-Struble Theater on NU's Evanston campus; walking by is Mary Poole of NU's theatre dept. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune / May 9, 2013)

Zach Braff (Northwestern University, class of '97), the third most popular Zach in Hollywood (after Galifianakis and Efron), went back to his old school last week. He'd returned to teach an acting class, a one-time workshop. The day before, he tweeted: “Illinois, I am in you.” Then later, more nostalgically: “Northwestern University, I'm back. Are we good at sports now?” I had assumed Braff was not a big deal anymore — that, though “Scrubs” reruns remain a fact of life and memories of “Garden State” linger, his voice acting (“Oz The Great and Powerful”) and Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a “Garden State” follow-up spoke volumes.

And yet, that campaign has raised $2.5million (and counting), and the lobby outside the classroom, the Mussetter-Struble Theater on the Evanston campus, was an undergraduate mob scene.

So I waded in. Besides, every year about this time famous people offer vague and sunny advice to college students, and Braff, speaking to a small, more specific pool of hopefuls, might get real, practical.

I was right.

Braff sat in the front row of the theater, beside David Downs, associate professor emeritus in Northwestern's theater department (and one of Braff's former teachers), and Mary Poole, longtime Northwestern senior lecturer in theater. As seats in the small house filled with students cradling notebooks and chewing pens, a handful of junior and senior theater majors huddled in the wings, between the curtains, waiting to go on. The plan was: They would split into three teams and work through scenes from “All New People,” Braff's first play, which debuted off-Broadway in 2011. Then Braff would tell them what they did wrong or right. (Just before the students went on, Poole gave a joshing pep talk: Remember, none of you will get a job out of this, so just have fun.)

When class began, Downs stood and explained that Braff was here at the invitation of the School of Communication, part of an endowed guest-lecturer program. Then Braff stood and said Downs was “the best teacher I have ever had, much like Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society,' opening those kids' eyes up …”

He sat.

The scene, Downs said.

Oh, right, Braff remembered, jumping up. “When the curtain opens,” Braff explained, “the lead character (Charlie) is standing on a chair, a noose made out of an extension cord hangs from the ceiling. Charlie is about to kill himself, he is about to step off the chair and end his life, and all of a sudden …”

Eyebrows raised, scene set, Braff lowered into his chair, rigidly upright, as if impersonating a hunting dog.

Two students walked out, and the scene began.

Charlie stands on a chair, noose before him, leaning back to light a cigarette, when the door bursts open. Enter Emma, a manic Brit. She screams, Charlie chokes. What are you doing here? he wants to know. She asks the same. We learn they are in an island beach house, which she is showing to prospective renters. She is a frantic Diane Keaton type, stoned, talking a mile a minute. Also, we learn Charlie killed six people.

And end scene …

Braff sprung up:

“That was awesome! You both have the ultimate high-class problem: You're not pausing for laughs, so we can't hear the next sentences. You're doing it so good, you have to slow down. … But it's tricky because every single audience is different, and we did this show in New York, in London, and when you do a show, those 600 or 700 people will never be in the same room together again. You know what the big laughs are, and the audience will roughly follow the same path, but you'll have a joke that will kill one night and the next, there will be a titter and you won't have any idea what happened!

“But this opening sequence is very hard because it's setting up the whole tone of the play, which is, yes, you're going to laugh, but it's ultimately going to be a balance of zaniness and tragedy, some very deep things. And Charlie has the onus of keeping this dark tone alive, but also, keep in mind that Emma is very stoned. And I don't endorse that behavior but I did a little research while I was at Northwestern. What the audience will learn is she is on the verge of being deported and doesn't want to go back to England, and that's why she is manic and crazy. But play her lightly, the audience doesn't like her. That's one of the things we figured out: She's funny but, (expletive), this guy's on the verge of killing himself!”

He sat down.

The students nodded and walked off. A new Charlie and Emma, more nervous than the first, walked out.

Charlie urges Emma to leave. The doorbell rings. It's Myron, a firefighter, who is bringing drugs to Emma. We learn Charlie lied to Emma: This is not his house! It is the house of his stockbroker friend. Myron does not trust Charlie, who, having established that he has murdered, threatens to kill them if they don't leave.

And end scene …

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