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.
The zen teachings advise us to cultivate “beginner’s mind”, because it is the open, flexible, teachable state that is humility’s gift to growth. It’s also a dandy way to keep you in the moment, which is something every performer wants to do.
Recently, I began taking ukulele lessons, and became a newcomer all over again. It’s been challenging, exhilarating, and frustrating by turn, but I am learning a lot, and (I suspect) about a lot more than just how to play the ukulele. Here are some of my fresh-from-the-beginning takeaways that you may be able to apply to your work as an actor—or to any new hobby or endeavor you might feel like picking up.
1. Practice, practice, practice. The ukulele is a far less demanding instrument than the guitar, which I’ve tried and failed at learning beyond hacker-beginner level many times. A uke only has four strings! And a tiny neck! And—hallelujah!—open tuning! But just because it’s easier than something else doesn’t mean it’s easy, period. There are still chords to learn, finger positions to get familiar with, and, for those of us who gave up on guitar, callouses to build up. I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t suggest that practice as the #1 thing that will turn you into a better player. And this one doesn’t ask too much of us: just 20 minutes per day! The trick is to do it every day. Because if you miss one day, it’s easy to miss two, and once you’ve missed two, you’re halfway out the door. But don’t just practice; instead…
2. Practice what you suck at. Look, I get that you don’t like to look bad. Or feel bad about your abilities, even alone, in the privacy of your own home. But as our teacher reminded us, no one ever got truly good at something by practicing what they’re good at. Do that and you will end up like me: able to play “Chopsticks” very, very well—and that’s it. Seriously: two years of piano lessons as a kid, plus two more as an adult, and that is my complete repertoire. What I’m trying to do now is devote 2/3 of practice time to what I’m bad at or find boring: fingering on the fretboard and strumming patterns, both of which feel like math problems to me. For the last 1/3, I reward myself by playing a simple song I can sing along to.
3. Add to your toolkit what YOU are most interested in. There may be some skills you need to learn that are just not fun in any way, but that are required of you as an actor. But if you’re going to stick with acting and get good enough at it to work consistently, you’re going to have to spend some of your time cultivating new skills. Try to find ones that actually interest you at least some of the time. For ukulele class, the teacher had us (a) talk about what we wanted to get out of the class, and (b) email him lists of songs we wanted to learn. Because if we can identify what it is that got us excited about the prospect of learning this instrument, and throw in a few songs that we really want to play, we stand a far better chance of staying motivated enough to learn. (For the record, the one song I asked for was “Tonight You Belong to Me,” an old duet Steve Martin & Bernadette Peters did in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Jerk. (Look for a video link in a future column—you heard it here first!)
What actor endeavors could you improve by applying “beginner’s mind”? Is there anything that you know would make you a stronger actor, but that you’re avoiding practicing on the regular? Which skills could you add to your own actor’s toolkit that might be fun to learn as well as useful to have?
BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: By the time you read this, the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be imminent or over. (And boy, I cannot WAIT to get this one behind us!) Whatever the outcome, I am going to make the rare recommendation for a semi-political (because of context), definitely culturally-anthropological (if that’s even a word) memoir: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”, it tells the story of a boy from Kentucky-Appalachian stock who made it up and out of “the holler”, ultimately becoming a real J.D., i.e. juris doctor, as an adult. It is a compulsively readable story that gives good insight into a slice of America not all of us are familiar with. And for actors, there are some truly brilliant characters to study, including the matriarch of the author’s family, J.D.’s grandmother, known as “Mamaw.”
When it comes to advancing a career, dependability rules. All things being equal—talent, for example, and suitability for the role at hand—when people know they can count on you, it goes a long way toward removing the “no,” to borrow a line from our friends in sales. So how, exactly, do you add “dependable” to your skill set?
Here are a few of the steps that have helped make me the person people feel they can rely on.
1. Deliberately build dependability muscles on your own.
Just like your voice, flexibility, and physical fitness, becoming a dependable person is something that we have to work on every day. If you don’t feel that’s the case and you’re known as a pretty reliable person, I’m guessing that you grew up in a household that modeled and instilled the reliability, duty, and diligence that is now such a part of you, you don’t even see it. Me? I grew up in a home where we learned very, very early how to fake it. So I’m good at the short run, but poop out when it comes to sustaining good behavior—which is essentially what dependability is.
If you’re more like me than those sturdy, reliable types, I humbly suggest you get yourself a thing-a-day project and some support, either real-life or virtual—or better yet, both.
Recently, I finished a year-long project where I lettered one “sign” a day—some thought, quote, or idea that appeared before me in response to a silent question, or even a question I didn’t know I was asking. For 365 days,* I showed up whether I wanted to or not, and posted a drawing to social media. I did it only to hold myself accountable (and to build some lettering skillz), but to my surprise, somewhere around the halfway mark, people started telling me how they’d come to depend on these little signs showing up in their feed every day.
*It ended up being 375 days, as I missed too many to make up in time. Guess what? NOBODY CARED AND THE WORLD DID NOT END. People still thought it was a remarkable achievement. More importantly, so did I.
2. Reverse engineer the day/drive/gig/etc.
Part of being dependable is building in enough time to actually get done the work you’ve committed to. And this includes accounting for the time required by regular human maintenance—eating, sleeping, and so forth. I am a chronic underestimator of how much time it will take to get from A to B (or deliver something from me to C).
I’ve gotten better at building in enough time by starting at the result I want and working backwards. For things I really need to get to, I first mark my calendar with the appointment time. Then I calculate the time it will take to transport myself there like a sane, rational person living in the world with other people—a lot of them, usually—who are also trying to get somewhere, and I put that time in the calendar. Then I calculate the time it will take to prepare myself for walking out the door and either add this to my calendar, or write it on my to-do list for the day.
For some people, this might be overkill. For me, it’s been a lifesaver. Even more calming than a to-do list is a to-do list with actual, actionable instructions.
3. Own your mistakes.
Whether I like it or not, I learn my greatest lessons by falling on my ass or my face. That mortifying time early on in my acting career when I missed an entrance because I was chatting up a producer backstage? It taught me the necessity of focus, even if I risked looking nerdy or uncool. That time I missed an urgent, last-minute request to show up on set before the previous night’s call time because I turned off my electronic notification device, a.k.a. pager? Taught me to never, ever turn off my electronic notification device once I’d booked a job. Or between jobs. Or, like, ever, unless absolutely necessary.
You’re going to make plenty of mistakes; it’s an inevitable part of life. The best way out is not to deny or defend in some (usually vain) hope of salvaging what you think you might have lost. It’s to own it, make it right if you can, and change what you do moving forward.
There are no short cuts to reliability; by definition, it’s something that’s won over time. But by doing a little every day, anticipating what you can, and making right what you blew, you can become the bastion of dependability we’d all love to rely on.
For a long, misguided time, I wore my perfectionism as a badge of honor. Rather than understanding it as something that stopped me from living a happy life, that kept me from “shipping,” and, most saliently for our purposes, formed the chief stumbling block to being the great actor I longed to be, I saw it as the key to people’s hearts—or at least, their grudging admiration. (That alone should have been a clue, but perfectionism has a way of blinding all who worship at its altar.)
These days, while I’m far from my stated goal of 7 1/2 years ago (“release the imperfect in favor of the good“), I find it much easier to put things out there before they are picture-perfect. As a surprise side benefit, I’m also more comfortable in my own skin and happier on a moment-to-moment basis. I create more new work, I take more emotional risks, and I find new (and often surprising) ways to make myself useful in this big, bad world of ours.
If it seems too simple that letting go of an outlook could create such a radical change, it’s not. However, like all meaningful change, it’s also isn’t what I’d call “easy.” How does one go about letting go, anyway? If I had been able to do that reliably onstage or in front of the camera, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to change at all! Experience has taught me that it’s easier to change by replacing an old, unhealthy action with a new, healthier one. Here are some “replacement actions” that have helped me the most along the way.