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. 


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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