Perfection is a very common trap for any Artist. I believe that we, as Artists, are born into this world with a clearer sense of perfection from the ‘other side’, and spend our lives trying to re-create that perfection here on earth. But this plane is imperfect by its very design (except in nature, of course).
Case in point: I had the great privilege of seeing my dear friend, the masterful Mark Nelson, star in the off-Broadway production of “My Name is Asher Lev”, this past week. There was a young actor, Ari Brand, who did something so revolutionary, so simple and so real . . . that it quite literally took my breath away. At the start, he walked to the lip of the stage to address the audience. I’ve seen many actors do this before, but I never saw anyone do what he did. He didn’t speak. He stood there and looked at us for the longest time, with his heart opened, daring us to open our hearts. In the presence of this beautifully opened heart, our hearts naturally desired to be open. From that moment on, he had us.
Why do we not try this in an audition situation? Instead, we want to be perfect and adored… and as a result… get stuck in our heads. We are there whenever we future-project or wallow in the past. It is not a very pleasant place to be.
However, when we are in our hearts, we are in the present moment. It may feel happy or sad (or everything in the feeling spectrum) – but always alive and yummy. The breath is the pathway to the heart.
Think about it. If we ever could create the “perfect” character, by its very definition, he or she wouldn’t be human! Humanity is imperfect and messy and flawed, and thankfully that’s what makes most of us so loveable. Allow yourself to be imperfect in your work. Factor into your work the truth that not everyone likes everyone else. Do you really believe that People Magazine does a survey around the world to come up with its “25 Most Beautiful People” issue? Some people will adore you, and some will be confused by you. But if you are lucky, you will have at least revealed something of what it is to be like you. And that beautiful sense of who you are is not centered in your head, but in your heart.
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There is no such thing as a great ‘dumb’ actor. The most famous “dumb blonde”, Ms. Marilyn Monroe, was always seen with a book in hand. And not just any book, but one of the Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoyevskey)! A good actor knows a little bit about a lot of things. In this day of reality TV, with instant celebrities that come and go like toilet paper, a great way to insure longevity is to be well-rounded and intelligent.
Why is reading so important for actors? Words, and how they are conveyed, are the vehicles of our expression. They are our paintbrushes, our violins. Words are the symbols that we use to convey images, stories and feelings (even though what we are conveying is the white part of the page). If you want to be able to do better at your readings…READ!
Once you understand how writers tell stories, you’re better able to discern the author’s intent with greater speed and accuracy.
The imaginary leap that we make between our day-to-day physical world reality and the given circumstances of the script become easier to maneuver when you are already doing it daily every time you pick up a book.
While google may be the greatest gift to actors in their ability to understand and research a role – I’m not writing about the mental benefits of reading. I’m alluding to the way that reading expands your imagination and library of images and senses.
When you read a wonderful novel, you are swept up in the sensory milieu of the character. To understand a day in the pre(and post)-Civil War South – read “Gone with the Wind” . To fully undersand the psyche and thoughts of a murderer read “Crime and Punishment”.
We are in the business of understanding and presenting humanity. The more that you read, the more you see the common thread that runs through all of us. Though people from the past may look different in pictures and paintings, they were just like us. Perhaps they dressed differently and had different ideas of hygiene, but they had more in common than we might want to admit.
Plus, if you read for just a few minutes before going to bed (rather than watching TV), you just may find that your dreams more vivid as your imagination has already been accessed.
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And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain: When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about. – Haruki Murakami
Recently in a yoga class, at a certain point, I started to feel uncomfortable. I’m not talking physical pain, but a deep existential discomfort. Normally I would just look at someone gorgeous enough to distract myself, but this time I choose to see what would happen if I stayed present in my body. It became so uncomfortable that I had to lay down. Awful sensations of pain subsided, and I was able to get up and move through rest of class. Afterwards I felt uplifted and energized as if I had been to a spa.
Later, I went to see the iconic Jane Fonda speak, and they showed clips of her astonishing work, and I realized that in most of the scenes she (the character) was under great duress – especially the comedies!
As humans in the 21st century, we have a multitude of ways to distract ourselves – alcohol, drugs, sex, eating, TV, facebook, looking at the cute guy/gal in yoga… As actors, our characters have to sit in the pain and discomfort of intimacy. If we, as actors, can’t sit through these feelings, then how are we going to have the courage to do so under imaginary circumstances?
Whenever I move through the uncomfortable feelings – I have more space inside. In the breakup of relationships– we bitch and moan and scream and complain – then finally feel the feelings and move through.
Emotion becomes much easier to access when you don’t attach the feeling s to events, but rather feel them in their purest state.
Actors try to feel pain, humans try to alleviate it. So feel the pure feeling and then cover it. Neurotic behavior comes from the actor avoiding pain.
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Babies are stinky, crying creatures that keep you awake at night and vomit on you – and yet everyone loves them because of their innocence. Puppies can be peeing, pooping, whining, barking and chewing fiends – but they are cherished because of their innocence. The reason that babies and puppies steal focus is that Humans are naturally drawn to innocence. W.C Fields said “Never work with animals or children” (and my favorite “I like children – fried”) because he knew that an audience’s eye would always go to the innocence. Innocence is different from vulnerability in that vulnerability speaks to one’s capacity of being hurt. Innocence is lack of guile or corruption; purity. You can be vulnerable and not innocent. When I’m around a baby I’m aware I’m a little closer to the Angels. Children are not thinking about yesterday or where they’re going from here. They are fully in the moment. As a result, I think that children and animals are more connected to everything. When you watch a great actor, even one that you wouldn’t think of as ‘pure’ (such as Marilyn Monroe who in every performance seems to imply that she is ‘have-able’) – there is innocence. Marilyn is never vulgar or dirty. She bravely helped make female sexuality acceptable in the 1950’s. It takes great courage to maintain one’s innocence; hence, it is very compelling.
Guile is when we walk into a room with an agenda – trying to manipulate people into liking or wanting us, trying to shift ‘what is’. If you’re behaving in any way that is not pure and you – then you are corrupting yourself in order to please. Whether you find yourself doing this with your family, or in an audition – you’re taking yourself away from your truth.
When you see greatness, it tends to have innocence in it. When people are aware there is innocence present – it creates sacredness. So how do we bring that into our acting? Start by practicing walking into situations from a place of innocence. To bring it forth more in yourself, notice it more in the world. Nature is never corrupted. One of the profound learnings for me about going to Auschwitz was my expectation of it being hell on earth… and it wasn’t. Grass was growing and birds were singing, trees that had been there since the holocaust were still blooming. You would never have known the atrocities that took place there. Nature was present, so there was no longer any corruption . Man corrupts. Nature always returns to innocence.
There is a strong correlation between depth and innocence. Innocence is noticing what your soul’s intent is… and following it. Even if it is unpopular.
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I was asked this question days before seeing the gorgeous musical “Billy Elliot” for the second time. *spoiler alert* In order for Billy to go to ballet school, he needs bus fare for the audition. Through a series of heart-tugging events, many of the miners in the town chip in to get him there. There is a moment towards the end, when Billy is alone and scared, in the dark, center stage. In an inspired piece of staging by the great director Stephen Daldry – all the cap-light wearing miners shine their beams on Billy and illuminate him in more light than he alone can muster.
So many of us are like Billy in that moment. We carry the light from our families, our friends, and even our ancestors. Many of us are a long way from home here in LA or NY pursuing our dreams. Were it not for those who came before us – struggling, fighting, starving and even giving their lives – we would not have the luxury to embark on our journey of acting.
It also serves us to understand where our fears may be generating from energetically. Where are those negative tapes that replay in our minds stored? In my acting class, we work a lot with the energetic system of the chakras through meditation.
We receive inspiration through our “crown chakra”. We process how to begin the process of bringing our inspiration into physical world reality through our “third eye chakra”. As the ideas become plans we express them out into the world through our “throat chakra”. The plans move into our hearts where we engage our passionate love for them in our “heart chakra”. We personalize and feel our desires in our “solar plexus chakra”. We move these down into our “sexual chakra” to give birth, create, and add ambition and money earning capabilities. Finally, in our “root chakra” we begin to “walk our talk” and make manifest. And that’s how we inhale our dreams. Our exhale begins to show us where we may be blocking ourselves, thereby exhausting our resources and making us “feel like quitting”.
Our exhale begins at the “root” where we can see if we are “walking our talk” and taking action. Are we improving our craft every week? Making sure our representation is aware of our existence? Keeping our pictures up to date, our bodies, minds and spirit in shape…
Moving up to the “sexual” area, which can not only create and give birth, but also abort an intention. Are we leaking out ambition? Not creating the funds necessary to support us as we pursue our dreams?
In the “solar plexus”, are we feeling too much? Are we filled with fear or self doubt that may cripple us in moving forward?
Has our “heart” shut down for not wanting to experience the feeling of rejection? Has our heart been broken one too many times?
Is our “throat” too embarrassed to speak to others our intent of acting? Do we not admit to our friends and associates what we really want, for fear of their judgment, thereby ruling out their ability to assist us?
Have we ceased engaging our “third eye”, our unconscious in being intuitive and trusting our impulses.
And finally, have we forgotten that it is our “crown”, our ability to co-create with Spirit that moves us forward in ways that we never would have anticipated on our own. When we co-create, we are tapping into the universal energy of the miraculous.
More than ever before in the history of civilization, actors have a spotlight and microphone thrust in front of them. When, God-willling, it happens to you… what do you want to say?
Even successfully working actors can get lost in fear when there is no script to support them. I am often called in to assist young stars in “media training”. I don’t give them sound bites, or warn them what “not-to-say”. I inspire them to find out what speaks to their hearts, and encourage them to remember that message when they have to get up at 4 AM for hair and make up to appear on the morning show in Albuquerque. If there is a chance to talk about rescue animals, body image, teen-pregnancy, bullying – their ministry can inspire them to show up more fully present and with a message! George Clooney raises awareness of Darfur, Matt Damon raises money for ONE campaign, Angelina Jolie makes third-world adoption seem doable. All these actors use their celebrity to make the world a little better. What will you shine your cap-light on? When you succeed as an actor, will it all be worthwhile if you haven’t left the world a little better for your efforts? Wealth and fame are empty motivators and will exhaust you long before being of service to others.
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Not necessarily more than one acting teacher at a time however…
First of all, I am heartened by this question. The thought of someone caring about their craft enough to want to work with numerous teachers already lets me know that the actor is not only disciplined, but aware of the motto “knowledge is power”. To have true power as an actor necessitates that you know your craft.
I heard one popular audition ‘teacher’ in Los Angeles poo-poo technique, made the class laugh at Stanislavski’s photo, and mocked ‘knowing your objective (i.e. your paycheck! Ha ha.). If you took ‘cold reading’ from this poseur, you would be getting mixed messages when you study with a real educator. I think there are teachers for one-line-day-players, and teachers for actors that play complex roles. There are no shortcuts to great acting. Mediocre acting can be done by many – great acting by very few.
Take an acting technique class. If you have the time and money – take a voice class (yes, Scarlett, even in movies and TV where you are mic’d). If I had a STARmeter point for every time I’ve heard that an actor’s inner work was good, but it wasn’t reaching the camera due to a lack of vocal vitality – I’d be Ryan Gosling. Take a movement class (Feldenkrais, Alexander, Yoga, Martial Arts, Dance, Movement for Actors, etc.) to release the tensions in your body. It is important to be supple vocally and physically for the deep emotions you’re feeling inside to be expressed. Take improv to free up your impulses and trust the moment.
Choose classes that enhance the acting work, much like a Conservatory. Only… you get to pick your teachers, your hours, your course of study and you don’t have to live on campus or build sets!
The various classes that you choose must enhance one another. Meisner and Strasberg technique are fantastic for your tool belt, but they don’t always compliment one another. Cold reading is another tool in the belt. I love Chinese and Italian food – I don’t want them on the same plate. Also, don’t confuse “workshops” with classes. “Workshops” are to get you in front of casting directors, not to teach you to act (with a few exceptions who happen to be friends of mine!).
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The rest of the world is beginning to catch on to what we, as actors, have always known…it’s not about the “resolutions”, it’s about the “intention”. If we can set an intention to be, rather then the resolution to do – we tend to manifest what we want (and have a better time in the process). This year, instead of setting “resolutions” that aren’t followed through; let’s set an “intention” of our soul’s purpose! Our intentions cannot be stopped by bullets, nations, or Hollywood producers. Our soul’s purpose will not stop for depression or laziness or aging. It allows us to co-create with something larger than our own petty egos.
When we set a clear and positive intention we become aware – all things conspire to assist us. Make your intentions big and bold! I intend to be courageous, more loving, patient, creative, joyful, committed, disciplined, compassionate, playful, conscious, sober, and healthy.
The world (and our families!) tend to judge us for our actions not our intentions – we are not afforded that luxury as actors. It’s our job to remain open-hearted. So never judge your characters by their actions – let your intentions speak louder than words.
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