Last night I had the pleasure of seeing “American Moor” at the BCA Plaza. It’s elegant, powerful passionate theatre that seamlessly moves from precise control to raw emotion. Keith Hamilton Cobb drops truth with humor, grace and a total command of the stage that commands the audience’s engagement. The play is about Cobb’s experience as an actor of Color in America. I experienced both my similarities and differences to his story and left the the theater unable to contain my own vast emotions. I strongly recommend this show! American Moore runs until August 12.
The Dwarves -Pinter
No matter where you are on your theatrical journey you will receive a great deal of advice mostly from people who are not actors nor even work in entertainment or the arts. While they mean well, most of this advice should be ignored. I understand the implicit hypocrisy of writing advice to ignore advice and I remind you again to feel free to ignore me, or if you prefer think of these as letters of inspiration.
The moment a young man or woman states “I want to be an actor.” there will be no end of well meaning loved ones, friends, and strangers quick to offer such advice as “That’s a hard way to make a living.”, “Don’t quit your day job.” or “Just do it as a hobby”. Should the young person persist in their interest then the second wave of advice will come and the well wishers will say “Make sure you have a fall back.” and “Have a five year plan.”.
Should you encounter such advisors dear actor, bear them no ill will. They do not speak from a place of malice, but an honest desire for your happiness. Unfortunately, many well wishers in an honest desire to see you happy expect you to fail. Again, this is not with malicious machinations, but an honest wish to protect you from a life of tragedy. Friends and family who love you but do not see your world from the inside have a very limited view of its possible successes and failures. They will imagine you as the starving artist seeking shelter in derelict buildings, subsisting on scraps of food, walking miles through the snow in hole riddled clothes to desperately audition for steel eyed directors only to face rejection after rejection. Worst of all for those well wishers, they will imagine you unhappy, weeping, crying out frustrated in your dark hovel with only the cockroaches to hear you.
The imaginings of these well wishes is a possibility, but not a necessity dear actor. Thus unlike those who love you, you must expect to succeed. It is in the face of this loving advice that staying true to the expectation of success is most difficult. Because in those instances where the expectation of failure does come from one who is malicious, resentful, or just a dick; we have, just by living among other people, years of experience in deflecting such negativity. But such advise is most insidious when it comes from those most well meaning and it as at such times that it must be most resisted. For if you expect failure, and plan for failure, that is exactly what you shall achieve.
You may find these letters a bit annoying to read. But I am at present reading “Letters to a Young Poet” by R. M. Rilke and for the fun of writing have decided to the write the next few posts in a meandering wordy style. I implore your forgiveness in this age of efficient targeted messages. I must confess that as I working actor I can not tell you if you are any good. Nor can I tell you how to be a success. All I can do is share with you my experience in the hopes that perhaps something I have learned will be in some way of some benefit to your future goals. As every actor is a unique individual with a very personal practice and path to success what is factually true for myself will be categorically false for others. So if you find that something I have writing strikes you as complete and utter bull shit trust your instincts just as you should trust your instincts if you feel something rings true for you. In the end you must be the final judge. Enclosed are the statements I would give to my younger self knowing the roads I have traveled and the path that has brought me to the position of ambition and contentment I now occupy.
As Rilke advised the young poet. Ask yourself if you must act. Find some quiet time where you can be alone. Quiet your mind and stop all the thoughts of the day-to-day hustle and buzzing. Look deep in to yourself and ask if you must act. Ask if it is need deep within you that must be fulfilled. Ask if it is a part of your very being as necessary for survival as your, heart, lungs and breath. If you’re answer is a resounding “Yes” then go forward in your endeavors with enthusiasm. You need not know this answer for life in the moment. The first 7 years of my acting on the same date every June, I asked myself if I wanted to do this for one more year. Every June my answer was “yes”. In time I stopped asking as I now know this is not just my career but my way of life. So dear actor answer for yourself, and no one else do you need this way of life? Look within, Look deep and find your true answer.
Since I was a kid I thought that #growing up meant one day I would have an epiphany and know everything I needed to know. I would suddenly “get it”. I knew I wouldn’t know everything in the universe but I would know everything an adult needed to know. I mean all the adults around me acted like they knew everything. Eventually I learned that they were just acting. Because that #epiphany that I assumed was coming never came. I kept faking like I knew what was going on and sometimes the results came out in my favor and sometimes not. The good days are the ones when you can laugh regardless of the results.
But While I’ve never had the bolt of lighting sort of intuition that made all the secrets of adulthood clear I have learned 1 or two important lessons along the way.
The first big #lesson I remember was at age 36. That was the year I realized that the homeless man standing in the park arguing with the trees wasn’t talking to the trees. He was arguing with people from his past getting in those last words he never got in at the time. I figured this out because I started doing the same thing and realized the line between he and I is not so thick after all.
The most recent lesson has come in this my 45th year. It’s big and it’s simple. “Don’t solve the problem before you have it.” I finally understand that. It’s similar to the advice “don’t worry” but that has never worked for me. I’m something of a worrier. But one can worry and still accomplish goals. But the only way to solve problems that you don’t have is not to try anything, not to go anywhere, not to have any fun. I’ve talked myself out of a many experiences in life by brainstorming all the things that could go wrong until I ran out of solutions, and then never started.
So now I have a new mantra when I start talking myself out of a new experience or opportunity that feels like a “Hell Yes!” from the start. “Don’t solve problems you don’t have yet.”
Even when I worry that’s ok. I know I can get to the other side of fear and soak in the goodness.
When I was in college I heard a lot of stories about Actor’s Equity. Mostly from the other students. Depending on the opinion of the teller, the story was either so positive that once you joined the union you automatically got celebrity treatment including healthcare, first class seats on the subway and a candy lined dressing room, or so negative that you never stepped on stage again and spent the rest of your days waiting tables.
I held on to the negative stories for a long time because once I committed to my acting career I had a lot of success as a non-union actor very quickly. I avoided joining Actor’s Equity for years and worked as much as I could, for whatever they’d pay me, sometimes rehearsing and performing as many as 5 productions at a time.
During this time, I met other actors who were working in professional theaters, some union, some not, and learned that the reality of joining was much different than the extremes we’d imagined in college. In fact it wasn’t even somewhere in the middle. Still I avoided joining for a long time because of my many professional relationships with non-union theaters and my concern I would lose them once I joined.
Eventually, I changed and so did my life goals, so that membership in the union felt more in harmony with where I wanted to go, so when I got the chance to join, I took it.
I’m about half-way through my first year as a member of Actors Equity. I was looking forward to some good things to come, and I knew I’d leave some good things behind. That’s the nature of change.
One thing I didn’t expect was how being in the union would change how I felt about talking money. In the past it’s been hard negotiating fees for my performances. I always felt like the value of my craft was a moving target. When a company would ask about my fee a little voice in my head always asked: “Am I asking too much?” “Can they afford me?” “Should I just take what they offer?” I knew I was sabotaging my own confidence, but it was hard for me to overcome. What added to my self doubt is that many of the theaters I work with are run by friends and I was concerned I was letting them down if I didn’t accept what they could pay.
But being in the union changes that whole process. A friend recently sent me an announcement for a non-union show she was doing with an offer to be part of it. I contacted AEA to learn the terms under which I could perform with the theater. Once I had them which included a minimum salary, I communicated them to the theater. It was easier than I expected. Because I had an outside metric i.e. the union says my craft is worth at least XX dollars and that’s the least amount I can accept. It removed the second guessing because it helped me feel that the negotiation was not personal. I wasn’t letting down a friend by asking more than they had initially offered, and I wouldn’t feel let down if they couldn’t make it work. It was a completely unexpected benefit of membership. As of this writing the theater is trying to see if they can meet the AEA requirements.
So we’ll see what happens.