I don’t know whether it’s being a September baby, someone who doesn’t tolerate heat well, or just a plain old nerd, but my favorite season has always been fall, a.k.a. Back-to-School season. Just like the new chronological year, a new school year speaks of possibilities, potential, and other great, clean-slate things.
Even though we don’t live with academic years as adults, we can borrow the best of those good old school days to rejuvenate our acting lives. Because doing the same thing with no variation can lead to a lackluster approach, and acting hardly thrives on that. Here are a few ways to add some new-year newness, starting now.read more
I don’t know about you, but these days, the mere thought of adding one more thing to my plate makes me feel like my head will explode. And yes, decluttering is great, as are quick things you can do to improve your life/health/career, but during the dog days of summer, sometimes the best thing you can do is the old switcheroo. Here are a few ways I’ve found to switch one thing for another that helped me; hopefully, one or two will spark an idea for you, too.
1. Leave five minutes early instead of five minutes late.
Uncharacteristically, I did not plot out my goals this year, publicly or privately, as I have in years past. But while I don’t have a normal mid-year “recap” to share, I still believe in being honest with oneself, preferably out loud, every six months or so, to ensure that too much time doesn’t slip away unnoticed. Think of a mid-year check-in as a way of seeing what adjustments you might need to make in the areas you feel need your attention. The first step toward changing anything is focusing your attention to that which needs to be changed: either to do less or more of something.
For the past 3+ months, I’ve been enjoying my first time back among the ranks of the fully-employed in 25 years. And I’m not kidding when I say “enjoy”—far from finding the 9-to-5 (or in my case, 8-to-4) burdensome, I’ve found it quite freeing, and in ways I wasn’t really expecting.
Since many, if not most, actors need some kind of day job to survive, I thought it might be worth enumerating what I’m learning from my new gig, how it’s shaping the rest of my life (including my creative outlook—and output!), and other reasons why that thing you may be regarding as a set of shackles could be the very thing that frees you.
If you’re an actor, chances are you’re working too much. In the beginning, you’re working three jobs, by default: the job of training yourself as an actor; the job of working as an actor (which includes auditioning, performing, and attendant/appropriate business activities you have, such as marketing and networking); and, unless you’re independently wealthy, the job that puts food on the table while you work the other eight or so jobs you have of “being” an actor.
With all of that working, you somehow need to free up time to play, relax, and stay fresh. (Or not, but trust me, it’s going to be hard to keep that acting fresh if you’re a scattered, nervous wreck.) You likely don’t have much wiggle room in that day job, so it’s up to you to learn to manage your time and energy on fronts performance-related. That’s going to mean saying “no” as well as saying “yes”: simple in principle, but never easy when there are carrots being dangled or guilt trips being booked for you.
For staying power, play in the moment.
Whether it’s the weather, or the uncertain state of the economy, or the endless grind of politics, things have been a little grim lately, a little serious. And while the tendency during hard times is to bear down and get serious along with them, I am starting to believe that the answer, while wholly counterintuitive, is to ease up—to play.
People—and I include among “people” everyone from audiences to casting directors to colleagues to fans (present and future)—are starved for levity and passion. Those can be hard to muster in the face of grim times and prospects, but as artists, it’s our job to lead the way. We have to be the change we want to see in the world, to get all Gandhi-fuzzy on you; we have to put aside that life is hard and times are tough, and get back to the spirit that brought us here: play. But how do we, the artists, get ourselves there when the getting is hard? How do we keep ourselves fresh and alive, and, if you want to get down to it, marketable?
We’ve each gotta do what we’ve gotta do to get the bills paid. If we’re really lucky, we’re getting paid to do the thing we want to do the most, i.e., “acting for dollars,” as my friend O-Lan dubs it.
But there are inevitable stretches where life can start to feel like one of two very dangerous things.
The first is a fairly common phenomenon for most of us at some point in our acting careers, especially the beginning point: that head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone, bring-home-the-bacon (or appropriate vegan substitute) time. You know—the months (or years) when it feels like we’re scrambling to make rent, pay the utilities, and keep ourselves in current headshots. During these times, it’s extremely helpful to have what friends in the recovery world call a “B” job: some non-taxing, reasonably well-paying job that covers our monthly expenses and leaves some time and resources left over to pursue The Vision, a.k.a. the for-now dream of becoming a professional actor.
What does politics have to do with acting? Nothing—nada, zip, zilch, zero. (And for the record, whatever yours are is fine by me. One of the greatest built-in features of the country where I’m writing this now is the right to free speech in all of its forms.)
But what, you might ask, does politically-motivated action have to do with acting? More than you might think!
Here are three performance-related insights I’ve gleaned for, and about, myself over the past month or two.
1. Taking an action is far more difficult than thinking about one.
Before I took my first real acting class, I had so many opinions about other people’s acting and so many ideas about how great an actor I was going to be. All of that changed the moment I stepped onstage (and later, in front of a camera) because I suuuuuuucked. And not only that—I sucked for what felt like a long, long time.
I am not sure how I missed the class on the importance of action, but I suspect a part of the problem is that I was pretty good at most of the things I’d both wanted to do and tried doing right at out of the gate.
Happy New Year! Yes, it’s also just the next day in the week, but there’s something about 1/1/whatever that begs for a fresh start, a huge launch, an audacious goal. The problem is choosing which thing on a long list to sink your teeth into first.
If this is your conundrum (as it has so oft been mine own), allow me to humbly suggest “the frog”—that is, the nastiest, gnarliest item on your to-do-for-a-better-“me” list.
Go On: Dig In!
The phrase “Eat That Frog!” came to me via motivational self-help speaker/author Brian Tracy and his terrific book of the same name. (He lifted the phrase from Mark Twain, who originally put it like this: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”) In his preface, Tracy calls your frog “the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment,” and he goes on to exhort you to get in the habit of tackling that biggest-bang action item first every day, before doing anything else.
This logic is easily recognizable as the advice to address the nasty before indulging in the tasty, e.g. to exercise in the morning rather than putting it off until evening (when it will never, ever happen, especially in winter), or to dig into your creative work upon rising, rather than rolling over and checking email or social media. Not only do you have the advantage of getting it over with early (especially during a reboot, when it can seem like an onerous task), but you often get a bonus rush of righteous accomplishment that can push you through the rest of your day.
Most artists have little trouble coming up with visions of what they want from their lives and careers, and actors are no exception. Usually, there are some pretty ambitious goals on a given actor’s to-do list, including (but not limited to) acquiring “A-list representation,” landing a series lead, and winning a small (but weighty) statuette. While these are all wonderful things, too often items like these fall under the category of “visions” rather than actionable goals. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a vision—or seven—calling it a goal can create a lot of frustration and heartache.
This point hit me hard recently as I sat down to do my annual list of accomplishments and disappointments, the first—and for my money, greatest—of the exercises in my favorite goal-setting book (see “Book of the Month” below). While there were still many more on the “plus” side than the “minus”, daily lettering project aside, this year’s pluses were the unsexiest bunch of accomplishments I’ve racked up in 10+ years of using some form of this system.