Advice to a Young Actor

This is in response to questions sent to me by Anne Berkowitz. It was an assignment for her school in which she had to interview a person in the career of her choice. Anne is fine young actor who has appeared in some major roles at People’s Light & Theatre, though she’s not quite 20 yet.

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Here are the questions…

1. What have been the greatest aspects of your career so far?

You’ve found me in a somewhat dark mood, so I’m going to have to dig for this one. I guess the journey itself is the reward: the sense that I am given the opportunity to explore new worlds in each play I do. Tied to that are the gifts of working with people I love and admire, in an art I am devoted to. The fun of it is a gift, as well as the fact that I choose it, rather than do it out of some sort of grim obligation. Recently, the feeling that my work connects me to a community of audience members who need me/us, the sense that we are doing something vital and important in the lives of others, the belief that making art is very real way to change the world for the better. The acknowledgment of my peers matters too, hearing that in the eyes of those I respect I have improved somehow, or surprised them. Being able to chart my own development and holding on to the sense that I am ever-growing is vital.

2. What have been the worst aspects/sacrifices?

Money, money, money. I recently told my students that we live in a country in which money, or the acquisition of material comforts, is at the top of almost every professional ladder. If you’re an actor, I told them, you take money off the top step. It’s just not a part of the career goal – and if it is, you’re deluded. So something else has to go on the top step (see answers to #1). But the stress of financial insecurity is relentless and the consequences – especially if you have children – are very real. The psychological exhaustion from it can be debilitating. Tied to this issue is the reality that artists are not taken seriously in mainstream America. I feel constantly marginalized, and my endless explanations of what I do to the parents of my kids’ friends wear on me (“no, I’m not on T.V. . . .”)

Sadly, many theatre institutions contribute to these difficulties by choosing to put their own financial resources elsewhere (like scenic arts), or pay a lot of actors little money instead of a few actors more money. And theaters make it very difficult for theatre artists to live anything close to a normal life by insisting that we rehearse on weekends (I can’t spend time with my kids when they’re free; I can’t go to church/meeting/temple/mosque), and by being so inflexible when comes to scheduling. Many theaters make a big to-do about being “family-friendly”, but try getting them to work with you on your child-care dilemmas. You’d think you were asking for some flexibility so you could go buy crack. “Family-friendly” in theatre-speak means that theatre presents plays for families, not that it is friendly to the families of the actors it employs.

3. What kind of an education do you recommend?

Even though I teach acting to undergraduates in a conservatory BFA program, I am not in favor of these programs generally. First, they usually promote the lie that if you study there you will have a successful career as an actor. Even the most cursory look at actor employment statistics will tell what a bunch of hooey that is. So I find a fundamental dishonesty at work at many of these programs. I try to deal with that in my own classes by devoting some time for discussion (partly based on my book) about the actual lives of actual actors (see answers to #s 1 & 2 above).

Call me old fashioned, but I believe a good liberal arts education at a college/university with abundant acting opportunities, both curricular and extra-curricular, is the way to go. Actors should be educated and curious and have a life-long love of learning. They should be able to think well and incisively, and enter their careers with with a broad education in the arts and humanities. Then, if the student wants to specialize, graduate school is the way to go – after a few years of adventure: living the life of the young actor, auditioning, triumphing, despairing, etc. But beware of graduate schools too and the implicit lies they tell. There is no school that can guarantee you anything professionally.

4. What have you learned about yourself the most through theater?

That I am like a dog with a bone. I told my students the other day the story of my first professional audition, which was such a nightmare that they were writhing in their seats in embarrassment for me. It occurred to me then – again – wow, I must really want to do this. Thinking about about all the shit I have had to endure, I know that I am quietly relentless in my art. This aspect has an edge to it, a not altogether pleasant one. It makes me defensive and prickly. It can bleed into my work and I can become so fixed on an aspect of a character, or problem in rehearsal, that I become obstinate. When push come to shove, I will trade tact for truth – the truth as I see it. Some folks like this about me, some don’t.

But the upside of this is that I am passionate. There is nothing ambivalent about my work in the theatre. I suffer from grandiosity and it leads me to a kind of Joan of Arc relationship both to my own work and to the work of my peers and actors everywhere. At my best, I can be inspirational and an example to others. Whatever else directors may think of me, they know they get 110% from me every second I am present. Acting has made me punctual and organized. I know I am a professional with professional standards I hold myself and others accountable to. This includes the right to speak truth to power when one’s intuition demands it.

I have learned that I have universes inside me. It may be the height of hubris to say it, but really, there’s nothing I can’t do. There are things I can do better than other things. But my goodness, I just finished playing Katharina the shrew for God’s sake. A year ago I was a Puritan minister. Before that a comic swamp monster. Before that a young Dad. I am able to transform, which is a gift I have been given, and I cherish it.

5. How do you use performance to give back to the community?

Before most performances, I say a brief prayer: “God be with me, God be through me, I am the faucet, turn me on.” I am very clear now that each performance is an offering I give to the people there to witness it. The best shows are the ones in which I feel that energy flowing through me to them, and then feel them send it back to me. Sometimes you can absolutely feel the communion Stanislavsky writes about. Those shows are precious and rare. The others, the ones in which the connection feels more common, or tenuous at best, are acts of faith. Faith that I am serving that little community by virtue of performing the role as I have learned it, in collaboration with the other actors and artists who bring the play to life each time. Acting for me, and its connection to community, is an act of faith. Like any faith, it isn’t easy to feel all the time. I don’t believe in it because I know it, I believe it because I choose to believe it.

There are more direct ways I can use performing to give back to community. Talking with audiences after shows is one. Working with young people is another. There are many disadvantaged communities that are starving for creativity (public schools, prisons, retirement homes). I have become interested of late in getting more involved, somehow, in reaching out to these communities.

6. How do you work through/keep your performance fresh during the 8+ shows a week?

You learn to develop the ability to stay attentive. The beauty of live performance is that nothing ever happens the same way twice. So it’s no “act” to really watch and listen to your scene partner(s). The freshness doesn’t lie with me, it lies with them. Even if I can tell their bored or spacy, boy, that’ll get you focused fast! Martha Graham wrote about the “queer dissatisfaction” all artists feel. I like to put a more positive spin on it and call it a boundless curiosity we cultivate. Each character I play is endlessly fascinating, perplexing, mysterious.

Now look, there are some shows when all I can think about is ________ (fill in the blank with mundane real-life issue). So we have to be forgiving of ourselves, and trust our technique and practice enough to deliver a stage-worthy show even if we’re constantly distracted by fantasies about lunch, or the hottie in the front row.

7. What kind of balancing is needed through and through?

Not sure what this question means, but I’ll take a crack at it. I think it’s important for actors to have things/activities/people in their lives that as important as acting but not directly connected to it. For me, the obvious people are my children. Being with my kids is a joy and occasional challenge that is at the very center of my life and only peripherally connected to my life as an actor. My kids have a wonderful way of straightening out my priorities, of making the disappointments matter less and temper the successes as well. They are an endless joy which would continue if I never acted again in my life. And my writing is a vital and important creative outlet that I have complete control over. It rewards me on its own and it needs no theater or director’s permission to enjoy. My wife has a similar outlet through quilting. I have come to believe that it’s important for actors to have these kinds of callings and activities which exist independent of acting. They balance the dependent nature of acting: dependent on all the other forces required to align in the right way to allow the actor to act. This quality of having a multifaceted life is central to the archetype I have named the “citizen-actor”. It’s important to note that it flies in the face of an old-school attitude about acting, which says that the actor must sacrifice everything to her pursuit of her art, and be unencumbered by other concerns and distractions. Not only is this horse-shit, but it promotes a damaging and myopic relationship to one’s art and life.

8. What kind of management do you recommend?

None. I naively believe that an actor should be in full control his career and the contracts he enters into to. This is easy for me to say because there are no negotiations around contracts in my acting. I’m sure that for the high-rollers in NY and LA agents and managers are necessary, but I have very limited experience with all that. I sense in my gut that managers/agents are part of a larger evil in which actors are treated as commodities and bought and sold in the entertainment marketplace. Yuck.

9. How do you prepare for an audition? What is running through your head before you step into the room?

I try to read the whole script I am auditioning for. I spend an hour or two each day for the couple of days leading up to the audition just rehearsing the sides, making simple but visible choices. If I have questions I feel like I need to ask before I begin, I make sure I can articulate them clearly and politely. If there’s an accent or dialect involved I focus on that challenge, often marking up my script with simple notes meant to remind me of how the sounds are different. I have learned not to over-prepare. Over-preparing for me leads to anxiety and self-consciousness. I want to arrive with some clear and easy to execute choices that I’m not too attached to, so I can drop them on a dime if the director asks me to. I try to dress appropriately for the audition. This doesn’t mean arriving in costume, but in general it means looking as good as I can within the style of the play. I ask myself, does this character need a jacket and tie? Jeans and a t-shirt? Sneakers or cowboy boots?

Before the audition, I tend to want to be quiet. I’ve never been a chit-chat guy in any situation, so if I see friends, I say hi, I’m not rude, but I will keep to myself. I try to cultivate a sense of excitement, and I notice my nerves jangling around. This is good, I think to myself, that’s your creativity raring to go.

As I go into the audition I am mindful of a few things. A) it’s an advertisement of “Ben”, as opposed to a performance of the role. So I want “Ben” to be as appealing as possible. That means being cheerful and professional, and executing those choices as well as I can. B) it’s a chance to perform, which is a blessing. I LOVE performing, and so I allow my love of performing to shine at my audition. The trick is to focus it through those choices I mentioned before. C) being at an audition is a sign that my career is alive, whether I get the role or not. I remind myself that the goal is to keep auditioning. Getting the roles isn’t up to me. If I can leave the audition and say to myself, I did the best I could do today, that’s the cake. The rest is icing.

I remember standing on the sidewalk outside an agent’s office in NY, rehearsing my monologue (yes, I was rehearsing my monologue in public, on the sidewalk, and no one batted an eye. That’s NY.) I finished, and the heavens opened, and I heard a voice that said “you cannot control the outcome of this audition.” I almost cried, the relief was so great. I auditioned for said agent in between two filing cabinets and she free-lanced me for a while. A year later I left NY.

10. What are your “words of wisdom” for budding actors?

What, the first 9 isn’t enough??

I will defer to Max Ehrmann and his poem:

Desiderata 

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.