I’ve been studying acting for almost eleven years. I started my training at a conservatory in Hollywood, where I obtained a BFA in acting and an ego that thought she knew everything. After a few embarrassing auditions, I sought more training, and found a home with a wonderful teacher and mentor who has guided me for the last decade. In fact, I’ve studied a lot, with a lot of amazing people, who have taught me some pretty wonderful things. And that got me thinking.
I have this theory that all these “wonderful things” I’ve been taught, may not just be acting lessons, but life lessons.
Let’s put my theory to the test. I want to give you guys an acting lesson today. And hopefully, we’ll learn a little about life in the process.
Lesson Number One: BE PREPARED!
I’m going to admit this right off the bat, I hate preparation. I hate memorizing lines (my acting coach refers to it as “learning lines” because I should be learning about the character as I memorize, but whatever, it’s still boring AF). I also hate blocking (that’s when you decide what movements/actions you’re going to take throughout the material). And I hate dissecting a script. None of that feels very creative to me. I just want to get on my feet and start feeling all the colors and emotions written in the dialogue. I want to cry or laugh, and I want to make you cry or laugh or feel something, anything really. The problem is, if I try to do any of this without memorizing, blocking, or dissecting, the only emotion I will evoke from you is that of secondhand embarrassment. The preparation is necessary. Want to know what great actors do? They prepare like crazy and then when the lights go up or the director yells “action”, they throw it all away and they make it look like everything they are saying and doing is happening for the first time right in front of your eyes.
So, what are you preparing for? What goal are you working towards and are you doing everything you possibly can to be ready for the day that goal is met? When your life’s director yells “action” are you going to be so well rehearsed, so off-book (that means you know your lines), so confident, that, though you may be doing something for the first time, you’ll move through the newness with nothing but ease?
Yes, preparation is necessary, but when giving a stellar performance, it’s not the only thing an actor needs. Which brings me to….
Lesson Number Two: BE PRESENT!
There’s a really wonderful YouTube video I watch on a weekly basis (sometimes daily when the auditions are really rolling in). It’s of a women named Patsy Rosenberg, who is a brilliant voice coach and theatre director in London, (hence spelling “theatre” with an “re”, I swear I’m not usually that pretentious). The video is called “The Second Circle”. Patsy talks about three circles of energy. I’m not going to go through the whole thing because I think if you’re reading this you should stop right now and watch the video, then come back to reading my blog.
But, for all the fools who didn’t do that, the gist of the lesson is that a great performance lives in the second circle of energy or “presence”. I think a great person lives in the present. I’ve written about this before because it was the most important thing I wrapped my head around during my year of sobriety. That year, I finally learned what it meant to be present and it made me a better actor and a better person. Live in the moment. Don’t just live in it, be in it. Whenever you catch your mind trailing off down a windy path or setting sail down a sea of anxiety, stop, breathe, and notice your surroundings. Even if your surroundings are four cubicle walls you’re preparing to break free from. Notice that. Notice you’re breath. Realize that you are a miraculous bag of bones on an incredible and weird journey. No matter what your current circumstances are, stopping to recognize them will bring out gratitude and joy, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. Enough fleeting moments can really add up.
There’s another reason why presence is so important, and that reason is…
Lesson Number Three: LISTEN!
I didn’t realize I was a terrible listener until I became an actor. And the night I realized I was a terrible listener (after an eye-opening acting class), I called my mom to tell her about my epiphany. I’m pretty sure she cried tears of frustration. As a kid, I had a really hard time retaining information because I was always too in my head to hear what I was being told. I fell into that trap as an actor too. I was sort of a shitty actor in the beginning. Instead of listening to the person I was acting with, I was checking my upstairs compartment to make sure my next line was on deck and ready to walk out of my mouth at any given cue line I hopefully heard, even though I wasn’t really listening. As a result, my work was never engaging and I missed a lot of opportunities to be spontaneous. And that spontaneity is what actors dream of as they prepare to perform. (Fun fact: Dustin Hoffman’s “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”, wasn’t written in the script of Midnight Cowboy. A taxi cab “accidentally” drove through the scene and really almost hit Hoffman, he was just so present and he was listening so well, that he was able to react as the character, creating one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history).
As a species, I don’t think humans listen very well. While we engage in conversation, our minds are going a hundred miles an hour with things like “Did I leave the stove on?”, “I wonder where she got her nails done.”, “Is there food in my teeth?”, “Should I call him?”, “Is it bedtime yet?”, “God, I wish he’d stop talking.”, “Wait, I don’t even know what he’s saying!”, “He’s looking at me.”, “Am I supposed to respond?”, “What’s my line?! What’s my line?!”. Usually we mutter something like “Yeah. Totally!”, and then we part ways with zero recollection of the conversation and for all we know we just agreed to go with some half-stranger to a PBR drinking contest in Echo Park.
My advice to you is simple: Listen. That’s it. If you find yourself trailing off into a weirdly insecure inner monologue, do what I do in a scene. Start repeating what the person is saying to you in your head (don’t do it out-loud, you’ll look crazy). Repeating their words, internally, forces you to stay in the moment and listen to what they say. People will enjoy talking to you more, you’ll enjoy talking with people more, and at the very least, you will never end up on the east side of town with a long bearded, birkenstock-wearing, furniture maker, trying to convince you that bacon-flavored tap beer is the new “thing”.
Lesson Number Four: HAVE FUN!
I took a really wonderful class with a really popular casting director a few weeks ago. I’m not going to lie, I took the class hoping to wow this casting director enough to get an audition or two in the near future. I looked at it as a networking opportunity, but to my surprise, it turned out to be a learning opportunity. This guy reminded me of something that’s easy to forget after eleven years in the industry and thirty years on the planet. He reminded me to have a little fun. After all, I don’t act for the money or the fame (because, spoiler alert, those actually don’t exist in real life show business). I act because it’s fun. I do it because drama class was the only class I looked forward to in high school. I do it because I remember coming off stage after my first performance ever, smiling so much my face hurt. I do it because, like a really fun and scary roller coaster, once I’m off the ride, I just want to get back on and do it all again. I chose a fun profession, but it’s easy to forget that after all the preparation, all the hard work, all the “no’s”.
Like my job, life is supposed to be fun! And like my job, that can be really easy to forget because life is full of preparation, hard work, and “no’s”. But what if it didn’t have to be? Tonight, I’m going to say to you what this casting director said to me. (Though it won’t be an exact quote; I was having some problems listening that night, hey, I’m a work in progress too). What he said was this(ish), “Your work is there, I see it, but did you have fun? Do it again, but this time, have some fun”. And so I did it again and I took the pressure off and it was really fun! When it was over, I was smiling so much my face hurt and I thought “I want to do it again!”.
Your work is there, trust that, and have some fun.
Lesson Number Five: LET IT GO!
This is the most important lesson.
About two years ago, I auditioned for a really big part on a really big show and came really, really close to booking the job. I left my audition for this show feeling like my life was about to change because I knew I had nailed it. I spent the next three days staring at my cell phone, willing it to ring, picturing my agent’s phone number on the caller ID, hearing him say “congrats”, and getting pissed every time the phone did ring and it was one of my girlfriends or an email from my old yoga studio. I started rationalizing the time that had past, “the show shoots on the 8th, so they have to let me know by the 7th, but that’s a Sunday, so I’ll probably hear back by Friday, but now it’s Thursday and I still haven’t heard”. Ok, you get it, I went a little crazy. In one of my more lucid moments, I texted my favorite coach/mentor, and because he too is an actor, he could hear the obsessive desperation in my text message. He responded via email, with an article about meditation. He was telling me to relax and let it go, two things I’ve never been very good at (ask, literally, any guy I’ve ever dated).
I somehow managed to crawl out of the deep, dark, twisty hole I had spent three days digging, and take his advice. I started meditating on a daily basis, which has a slew of benefits, but the biggest, for me at least, was learning how to let things go.
Like one of my favorite lady bosses says, “Shake It Off”. If I can forget about a series regular contract with a guaranteed $25,000 per episode, you can forget about the co-worker who stole your lunch or the doofus who didn’t call you back or the neighbor who won’t clean up after her dog.
The more you start letting go of these little things, the easier it is to let go of the big stuff.
Let go of all the heartache, let go of whatever heavy burden has been holding you down, let go of all the negativity. Just let it go. Letting it go will make room for so much good stuff.
And that good stuff is what it’s all about. I’m not just talking about good acting, but good living. We all just want to be good, right? I think these lessons can help us do that. I think with enough preparation, a lot of presence, maybe some listening, definitely a bit of fun, and a whole lot of letting go, we can all be really good humans (and hopefully some of us will be good actors too).
Ok. Class dismissed. For now.
One thought on “Presently: Learning”
Wonderful, as always. Life is a journey, never ending.