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. 

An Actor's Heart Holds All Things

Actors come to acting for many different reasons. Some want to find an outlet for expression, some wish for fame, many want to feel more alive, and some actors come to acting because they desperately want to play someone other than themselves. They show up in class hoping to get as far away from themselves as they can by stepping into the shoes of a character. They think that this is what will save them. This is how they can escape their own life. However, once immersed in the actual work of learning to act they discover that in order to do it well they must become more fully who they are. They must become familiar and intimate with their own pain, with their own joy, with their own fears, sorrows, tenderness, humor, playfulness, and wisdom. They must do this in order to fully understand the experiences of all humans and to tell these human stories in an honest authentic way. 

 

All humans experience emotional pain. There are small ‘everyday’ sufferings in our Western culture such as being late to an important meeting or accidentally dropping your cell phone in the toilet or not being booked on the job you’ve been on hold for. And then of course there are the big ones like a bad breakup or the death of a loved one or a prolonged illness. We all experience both small and big sufferings. In this way we are all connected. We often think we’re the only one when we’re in the midst of our conflict, but our pain is shared pain and our joys are shared joys. As actors we must become intimate with these moments of suffering and also with our moments of happiness. We must be willing to open up to ourselves, to know ourselves in deeper ways in order to know others. We must be willing to be vulnerable and exposed - and this takes being very brave. We must let down our guards, take off our masks, and allow our hearts to be soft enough to be affected by the moment we are in. By doing this courageous work we learn to be present to the pain others, to truly empathize with the wounds of other people, to feel what they feel, to live in their shoes, to celebrate with them, and to grieve with them. This kind of deep inner exploration can make you into a transformative storyteller.

 

Mindfulness and the practice of meditation is the safest (and also perhaps the scariest) path I know to do this exploration. Consistent meditation practice teaches us to become intimate with our thoughts and all the sneaky ways we judge ourselves. It helps us to know ourselves deeply and to make friends with who we are, even the parts we despise. It softens our hearts and also builds resilency at the same time. We come to understand our own human condition with all of it’s foibles, upsets, and complaints, as well as all the fleeting moments of happiness, wonder, and beauty. We become comfortable with uncertainty and change - something an actor has to deal with on an almost daily basis. And then we are taught, in this silent practice, to develop great empathy as well as a light sense of humor as we extend compassion to ourselves and to others experiencing this same curious human condition. Meditation teaches us to connect to all of life by stretching, softening, and ultimately strengthening our hearts so that we can hold all things. It helps us become more of who we really are and in this way we can more truthfully embody the stories of others. 

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The Art of Detachment

Now I don’t know what the word “detachment” conjures up for you.  It may carry negative connotations, it may mean self-protection or cool aloofness to you, but that’s not the kind of detachment I am writing about.  There is a spiritual concept of detachment, which is actually a very good thing and can be a lifesaver in desperate times.  I first learned about it from a great little book by Deepak Chopra called, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.  Detachment is the 6th law he talks about in the book.  It is probably 6th because the first 5 prep you enough that you can handle reading about detachment without having an ego freak-out.  If you read about detachment first you might chuck the book into the nearest garbage can (err...recycling bin).  Despite the potential for an ego freak-out, I am writing about it anyway because there is such a valuable lesson in it.  Here’s the definition straight from the book, “The Law of Detachment says that in order to acquire anything in the physical universe, you have to relinquish your attachment to it.  This doesn’t mean you give up the intention to create your desire.  You don’t give up the intention, and you don’t give up the desire.  You give up your attachment to the result.” 

You have a dream; a deep desire and you want it to come true.  In practicing the spiritual law of Detachment you can still hold onto that dream and desire, but you must relinquish how it comes about and what it looks like in the end.  The Art of Detachment allows for something different, but just as good, or even something better.  Sure you’re on this path, you’re committed to being an actor, painter, writer, artist.  You have a vision and clear goals of what that looks like.  But you can only control so much of what you envision, the rest is up to the mystery of the cosmos and often other people.  You can envision being the next recurring star on House of Cards, but what if there is something else, something better, something more fulfilling that your heart of hearts longs for, but you can’t see yet?  Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way writes, “Sometimes you shake the apple tree and the Universe delivers oranges.”  Still fruit, still good, just a different result that what you thought.  What would happen if you allowed for the possibility of oranges in the end? …(or bananas or pineapples or avocados?!)   

                                                "Orchard Row" by  Liz West  used under  CC BY 2.0  

                                               "Orchard Row" by Liz West used under CC BY 2.0 

The Art of Detachment reminds me of the simple prayer, “this or something better.”  You don’t know how things will turn out, none of us do.  You think this thing that is happening to you right now is the most miserable thing in the world, but you have no idea where it will lead.  Many people that survive a life-threatening illness say the experience ends up being the biggest gift in their life because of what they learned and how their lives changed for the better.  Maybe you didn’t land that job because you need the fire in your belly to start your own project and if you keep booking the same kind of jobs you become comfortable, you sit back on your laurels and never take the reins and put into the world what is yours to do and share…that thing that you are really meant to be doing.  You know what I’m talking about.  There is greatness in you that longs to come out.  Don’t hold yourself back.  Begin it!  

The Art of Detachment is practiced when you relinquish your firm grasp on your dream and instead hold it open in your palm and say, “I really want this and I am working for it and I also allow for something even better to happen.”  My guess is you’ll be delighted with what the Universe can surprise you with! 

                                                Unknown creator 

                                               Unknown creator 

Do you have an experience of letting go of the results only to be surprised with something better in the end?  Share it below in the comments!  

10 Simple Action Steps for Frustrated Actors

Have you been feeling anxious or frustrated about your acting career?  Maybe you haven’t heard from your agent in a while or maybe you’ve been going on auditions, but haven’t received any callbacks or bookings lately.  The rejection we feel as actors can weigh heavy on our hearts and play games with our head.  We may begin to doubt our abilities and wonder if we’re good enough or whether we should even be doing this.  We also fear that our agent will lose faith in us, we’ll disappoint our families, we won’t be able to pay our rent, we’ll not have anything to talk about at that industry gathering next week…and so on.  All of these thoughts and feelings can overwhelm us to the point of feeling totally anxiety-ridden or even depressed. Here’s what I recommend you do right now (or the next time you feel like running back to the safety of your old miserable desk job):  Take out a pen and a pad of paper.  Write down 5 simple things you can do this week to help your acting career.  They may seem like small things, but taking any action toward your dream will help you feel more in control of your career and lighten the burden in your heart and mind.

Here are 10 Simple Action Step Ideas:   

1.     Send a thank you note.  To your agent thanking her for her dedication, or a casting director who gave you some pointers the last time you auditioned, or an acting teacher who paved a path for you, or heck, even your mom, dad, or aunt who always encouraged you to pursue your dreams.  Sending out a note of gratitude will automatically lift your spirits.  And remember, what we send out we receive back in kind. 

2.     Book a photo session.  Been needing new headshots for a while?  Look at your calendar, pick up the phone, and make an appointment.  Money an issue?  Start saving some money every week until you have enough to pay for them. 

3.     Clean up your résumé.  As we gain more experience we tend to clutter up our résumés with every little thing we’ve ever done: every student film, every workshop we’ve ever taken, even background jobs.  Now if you don’t have much experience you need to make the most of it for sure, but remember that your résumé is a marketing tool, put your best stuff first even if it was a few years ago and make it easy to read for a CD or director.  A little white space can be a good thing.  You need to leave room for what’s next! 

4.     Go for a jog or to the gym.  Get some exercise.  The endorphins alone will make you feel better and you can go to bed tonight knowing you did something good for your body and your acting career. 

5.     Sign up for a class or workshop.  It’s amazing what being in class with a room full of like-minded people who also love acting can do to lift your spirits and get you up and working. It’s a chance to perform and do what you love with the added bonus of constructive feedback so you can improve.

6.     Send your headshot and resume with a simple note or cover letter to a casting director or theatre company you haven’t read for in a while.

7.     Call or text an actor friend and make plans to see a film or play you want to check out and then go out afterward to talk about it.  As artists we need inspiration, we need to surround ourselves with fellow artists and with our art.  Witnessing good work reminds us of what is possible and motivates us to get to work ourselves.  (If witnessing good work depresses you because you aren’t working, read my blog post on jealousy, all you need is a new perspective). 

8.     Find and work on a new monologue.  Even if you are mostly an on-camera actor, having a couple good monologues in your arsenal is not only a good idea, it’s necessary for certain auditions.

9.     Do some online networking.  Find some acting groups (even in other cities) to connect with, see what people are up to, make some connections and let people in the industry know what you want to be doing.  Putting yourself out there can be scary, but in my experience it tends to open some windows if not doors.

10.     Do some visualization work.  Imagine yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing.  See yourself playing that dream part. Take yourself through your ideal day as a working actor.  You can go there in your mind for free, anytime you want.  We underestimate the power of the mind, but everything that has ever been made or achieved by human beings started in the imagination; from the 4-minute mile to Google to the chair you are sitting on.  You can achieve great things too!      

Now pick one thing to do today.  And do one thing each day for the rest of this week and watch your frustration dissolve as you take charge of the things you do have control over.  Post the words of William Arthur Ward, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it!" 

Bring Joy in the Room

Bring Joy in the Room

You’ve heard the phrase, “leave your baggage at the door,” well, I’d like to introduce you to a new phrase: “Bring joy in the room with you.”  A happy attitude can get you closer to booking a job, and at the very least it helps you build stronger relationships with the people that can hire you in the future.  Having a joyful spirit is seen and felt by everyone you come into contact with. It also seeps into the camera lens and past the fourth wall.  Happiness is magnetic and people (including the ones who can hire you) want more of it themselves.  If they see you’ve got it, something in them wants to have more of you around.  Now I’m not talking about faking like you’re happy or playing joyful like it’s the word you drew in charades (although if that’s all you’ve got, then use it!).  I’m also not talking about hyper, over the top, spastic behavior.  I’m talking about real genuine goodwill that flows from the inside out.

 How do we cultivate genuine goodwill?  It’s simple.  You’ve already got it in you.  It’s not something you have to invent, you just have to get in touch with it and then let it out.  How difficult is it to wish someone well?  Try it (silently) on the casting director who happens to be eating a sandwich while you audition.  Even if she never has eye contact with you, you’ll feel more in control and better about yourself.  I think what happens to some of us when we feel like we’re being judged, critiqued, or worse yet, not really seen, is that we get a tiny bit defensive, we clam up, we are a bundle of nerves, we think it’s all about us and not screwing up the lines, so we have nothing to give beyond just getting through it. 

 But what if we gave just a little more than we think we have?  What if we gave joy as soon as we walk into the room?  Forget the lines (well, don’t forget the lines!), but do your prep, have your stuff together, know that you are an equal player in this creative process, and then bring another gift besides your awesome talent and abilities…bring joy.  Just try it.  See if it makes a difference in how you feel.  So the next time you’re on deck to go in the casting room, take a big breath in, and secretly say to yourself: “I bring joy in the room with me.”  Now go kick some acting ass in your joyful way!

Don't Play a Nun

Don’t Play a Nun

This past weekend I gave a student in my workshop a scene from the screenplay, Doubt.  It is a 3-person scene and all three actors assigned to it are talented, driven performers.   The actress reading Sister Aloysius, the older nun, was very precise and her intention was clear, but she was so formal in her read that it seemed she was “playing a nun” or what her idea of a nun would be like, sound like, act like.  I asked her to drop the “sister act” and just use herself within these imaginary circumstances.   She knew exactly what I meant and read the scene again giving the character all of her own humanity.  It was engaged, passionate, conflicted, and super fun to watch.   She made her own discovery in our discussion afterward that the costume itself (if she was hired to play this role) would be enough to indicate “nun” and that she didn’t have to help sell it in the scene.  Exactly!

I believe it is always best to start with what you know and to use yourself.  Of course part of the fun of shaping a character is playing with physicality, voice, mannerisms, etc., but I believe those things come after you connect with the humanity of the character.  Start out playing the scene as you in the circumstances so you can really feel and understand the heart of the character and then begin playing with the outer layers to shape and form the differences between you.  

Do you feel like you step into the shoes of a character right away or do you work from the inside out? Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments below!