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.
6×10: Or, ensuring a better tomorrow, tonight.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my almost-55 years (!) on the planet, it’s that planning is the long-term endeavor’s best friend. Passion is great, but it’s hard to sustain in the face of tedium; fortune may favor the bold, but it tends to sucker-punch the foolhardy. Planning, on the other hand, will almost always save you money, time, and aggravation, and who doesn’t want more of these? (Or at least two out of three of them.)
But cheer up! With a little practice, planning can become second nature. And practicing isn’t nearly as involved as you might think. You are literally ONE HOUR AWAY from a smoother day tomorrow by taking six small actions tonight that take just 10 minutes apiece. Does it mean that you may get to binge-watch one less episode in your Stranger Things marathon? It does! But when you are not stuck in traffic, running late for whatever, and ready to gnaw off your own arm from hunger, you will thank me. Or better yet, the You From Yesterday.
Ain’t no party like a mid-year check-in party because a mid-year check-in party means you might actually get something done (and have it be fun). Okay—maybe it won’t exactly be fun. And I’m 99% sure that’s the worst play ever on The Meme That Shwayze Started. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from my successes and failures, it’s that without regular check-ins and some kind of accountability, it’s hard to create meaningful, lasting change. So turn to (or ferret out) that list of intentions you set for yourself way, way back in December of 2015, and let’s get honest together!
In the spirit of good measurement principles, I’m including a mid-year rating for how I think I’ve succeeded so far. You don’t have to do this, of course, but what’s measured (and written down) stands a better chance of getting tended to properly. I’m also including a rationale for the rating, and a short summary of next steps, typically small, doable actions.read more
Annual Summer Reading Round-Up
Because it just wouldn’t be summer without summer reading!
If you’re like me (or me back when I was acting full-time), you probably eat, drink, and sleep material about acting. And while I love a good book about technique, not to mention curling up with a great play or screenplay, I think that reading outside of your core area of interest can be even more richly rewarding.
Last year, we took a spin down the graphic novel aisle, sub-section: memoir, because reverse-engineering a real life for where it worked (and didn’t) beats self-help anytime. (And because everything is more fun with illustrations.)
Along those same lines, for your edification and enjoyment this summer, I’m going to suggest the radical notion of revisiting some of your favorite children’s books. In the best ones, the characters are well drawn and the situations intensely dramatic; they most closely mirror the good-vs.-evil, Joseph-Campbell-esque storytelling structure of classic mythology that is so fruitful for actors to study, but because they go down so smooth and easy on a hot summer’s day, it feels more like play than work. Plus (many times, anyway) there are pictures!
Here are my favorite classics, a few of which I read once per year. But feel free to return to the favorites of your own childhood: you may be pleasantly surprised by the way they speak to you now.
5 Steps for Finding the Work You Want as an Actor
There are many books out there to help you on your way to becoming the actor of your dreams, i.e. a professional one who gets paid. Sometimes, though, you’ll find true gems for making your dreams come true from the business world—or at least the business-adjacent world.
Author/entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau, about whom I’ve written many times in this column (and, full disclosure, someone who has become a good friend), lives in and reports from that world. He made his own dreams come true by following an unconventional path, and has gone on to help many others find and pave their own unique way to happiness and solvency. His latest book, Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do, goes into nuts-and-bolts detail on how to turn your dreams into reality with the practical application of tested knowledge, fueled by a steady supply of hard work (and hopefully, a good attitude).
Lessons from halfway through
Over the almost-10 years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve accomplished several outward-facing creative projects: a two-person show with four actors (and music! and dance!), a massive crowdfunding project for a local non-profit, and a series of 21, 30, and 100-day projects. What I’ve not done is a lot of documenting of them along the way, so at just over the midpoint of a yearlong thing-a-day project, I thought I’d step back and share what I’ve learned thus far. Hopefully, it will serve some purpose for creating, adjusting, or surviving your own long-term project, regardless of what form yours takes.
1. The perfect is the enemy of the good. This applies across the board, from inception through execution. I have finessed to the point of exhaustion ideas for scripts, books, classes I could teach, and pretty much any other writerly thing one can generate; inevitably, either someone beat me to shipping—or worse, I wore out my own interest in it. If you wait for perfect, you’ll be waiting forever, when you could be learning and growing by actually making something. So yes, a little noodling and meandering is fine, but then commit, and adapt as you go.read more
Getting yourself in the right place to be plucked up.
Recently, I was invited to a first read-through of a brand new play by a renowned Los Angeles playwright. Aside from being a rollicking good time, the afternoon was instructive on many levels, from what it takes to make a story read like a house afire to the delicate nature of playing a character by letting him become you to the importance of refreshments. (Never, ever underestimate the buoying quality of excellent snacks.) So here, in no particular importance, are the things that struck me and will stick with me—and, hopefully, you—as we move through this crazy maze called making entertainment.read more