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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Replant Yourself to Grow

Have you ever repotted a plant? A plant will stop growing when it’s reached its full capacity in a small pot.  It’s roots have taken up all the space in the soil that is available and it’s stems and leaves have taken up as much space as they are able given the size pot it’s in.  As long as it has a source of light and water it continues to live just as it is, not growing or shrinking, just staying the same.  But take that plant and repot it into a larger pot and watch what happens!  It grows!  New bits start to burst out from the ground, the leaves get greener, fuller, wider, reach farther.  It expands and takes up as much space as it’s given. 

                                "Houseplants and Clean Air" by  Chiot's Run  used under  CC BY 2.0

                               "Houseplants and Clean Air" by Chiot's Run used under CC BY 2.0

Do you need a new, bigger pot?  Are you longing to replant yourself into something that will allow you to grow?  Sometimes we need to uproot ourselves and find a new pot to grow in.   That pot could be anything: a new job, a new location, a new relationship, a new hobby, a new class, a new dream, or it could be something simple like a new perspective, a new attitude.   

Here’s the catch though, when you take that plant out of it’s old pot, it is vulnerable.  You’re suppose to shake out the roots a little, stimulate the bottom of the plant so when you put it into new fresh soil it will take root.  It’s also important to give it water right after replanting it into that bigger pot with all that new soil.  The water helps to stimulate the roots, it makes the energy of the plant active, able to feed on the new materials, winding its way around this new territory.

It’s the same in our lives, we must be mindful of how vulnerable we are in the midst of transition. We can just pick up and go, we can move to a new location, we can change jobs, we can make new friends, we can get a new life.  We can shove ourselves into a new pot.  But unless we tend to ourselves, unless we water ourselves, unless we give ourselves the sunshine we need, we won’t take root.  We won’t grow like we need to.  We will continue to create the same situations with the same kinds of people over and over again because we’re still living in the old pot in our mind.    

The replanting isn’t just finding a new pot, the real task is caring for ourselves and our dreams once we’ve made the transition and being patient with our rate of growth.  Go easy on yourself.  Sometimes we want to be big already, we want to fill up the new pot right from the getgo, but as you know with a plant, it takes time, you can’t pull the green shoots out of the ground before they’re ready to come forth.  We must wait…but the waiting isn’t idle.  We are consistently watering it, exposing it to sunlight, and giving it love.  We are actively caring for ourselves and our dreams which needs to be acknowledged as progress in and of itself.  Just because you can’t see the results yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t growing. We must have faith and trust the plant will grow if we are tending to it properly. 

And if consistently cared for you will soon see the results of your patience and labor.  It will continue to grow…and grow and grow until one day you have to replant it again, or move it outside because it’s too big for your house!   

What's been your experience of replanting yourself?  Share in the comments below.  

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!

You Are Enough

You Are Enough. Those are the three words that I learned from my badass Meisner instructors last summer at The School at Steppenwolf that meant the most to me. That is the sentence that I wish every actor and artist could embody. You are enough. Think of the work we could all do if we truly believed it! And what limitations would you rid yourself of if you believed this was true? Doubt? Fear? Jealousy? Self-sabotage?

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