Strong Back, Soft Front

Beneath technique lies the heart and soul (a.k.a. my teaching philosophy). 

There is an American Zen Buddhist teacher named, Roshi Joan Halifax, who has written many books on developing and nurturing compassion for ourselves and for others. I read an article a few years ago about her practice of sitting with people who are dying. She used the phrase: strong back, soft front. In the article, she was speaking to how we can offer our presence, equanimity and compassion for those at the end stages of life. It struck me as a beautiful message for living in the world as honest participants of our experience. How to have the confidence, courage and resiliency needed to get through our struggles all the while staying sensitive and compassionate; allowing ourselves to be moved by pain and joy. 

 Image from QuoteFancy 

Image from QuoteFancy 

It is a beautiful mantra for actors, who must all at once have a thick skin and a vulnerable open heart. How do we allow ourselves to touch and express our pain, our joy, our fears, and our love? How do we muster the courage to vulnerable - to be affected by both beauty and suffering? How do we also take care of ourselves, and develop the confidence needed to ask for what we want? How do we stand strong for those that can’t stand strong for themselves and give them our attention and voice?

 

Over the twenty years I’ve been teaching, I’ve observed similar threads that run through the minds of the hundreds of actors that have participated in my classes and workshops. They have similar blocks, similar trust issues, habits of thinking, and doubts. I have become adept at identifying where the problem is and how to gently, but firmly guide them toward truth; creating a safe space for them to let their guard down and allow something magical to happen. I reward for risk-taking, even when it doesn’t work, because I know that is how a creative person grows. I encourage them to foster what the poet David Whyte calls, “the arrogance of belonging.” Artists need to know in their bones that their voice matters, their work matters, their effort matters. They need the courage to take up the space they need to offer their unique talents to the world. 

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I tell my students all the time, you are not just telling stories and being believable, you are embodying extraordinary moments, once in a lifetime moments, in people’s lives and you must be able to do it truthfully. Plays and films are written about people with pain and how they cover it up or confront it and work through it and hopefully find love on the other side. You must develop a deep curiosity of what it means to be human, in all its tragedy and glory, if you are going to achieve a level of excellence you are satisfied with.

 

So beyond teaching technique, which is vitally important and the foundation of actor training, I am also interested in helping the performer dig deep, become more courageous, less fearful, more capable of trusting their gut and taking bigger risks. My work is to help them achieve a strong back and soft front in their lives both as a human and as an artist.