The relationship between acting and emotions is clear, but where does human nature fit into this dynamic?
This question has been on my mind for a while now, and often comes to the fore when I’m in a production or watching theatre, film or an acting workshop.
On the one hand, an actor’s job is to live authentically within the circumstances they are given – which means being a human being, with all of the nature (and nurture) that brings with it. That in itself is often enough of a challenge to keep us busy with home work and preparation.
But, on the other hand, we are also living, breathing human beings, separate but entwined with the characters we play. Great acting requires complete commitment to the given circumstances and the moment, and in a sense that means the actor must surrender to that reality, giving up their own life temporarily in order to be real in a different way.
The challenge that I think we often miss is that human beings don’t want to feel everything. Human nature (and social conditioning) has shaped our views of emotional states, creating judgments around certain feelings.
Showing and expressing anger, sadness, embarrassment, envy and many other feelings is not something human beings openly and freely tend to do. At least not 100%.
But actors have to feel these things 100%. We’re often put into situations that we would hate in real life. Sometimes it’s a lot of fun to embrace these moments and explore things we can’t fully express in our own reality, but sometimes it’s confronting and challenging and incredibly scary.
And that’s where the challenge really is. Part of us, as actors, wants to explore these emotions and this work so that we can become real in the circumstances we’re given. Another part wants to stop us from feeling thinks like hurt, embarrassment, betrayal, abandonment, devastation, bitchiness or whatever the scene calls for.
I think these conflicting parts of our selves are often the cause for common actor problems. Human beings tend to do everything we can to not show how we feel or say what we want in everyday situations – and there are all kinds of “tools” we can use to do so, such as “collecting” ourselves before broaching a subject with someone, keeping busy with other tasks, lying etc etc.
Actors, bless us, have even more tools. We can use the script. We can pre-shape moments so that we “know” how to act, react and feel. That’s a real safety net for our human nature when you think about it.
These ideas all really me yesterday when I was auditing Howard Fine’s Master Class in Melbourne. I could see the struggles and I could see the actors overcoming those struggles, letting the challenges be in the moments rather than between their two realities. That is the goal.
At one point, Howard Fine said something that struck me as relevant not only to my theories about human nature and feelings in acting, but also in life: “The fear of feeling must not over power the need to experience.”
So it can be scary, whether it’s feeling in acting work or in life, but acknowledging and fully expressing emotions leads to more complete experiences and fulfilment in every moment.
Last weekend I went to meet a friend at Abbotsford Convent, where she was doing an acting workshop. I got there really early and decided to wander around the place, taking in the people having late lunches at the cafes, a happy wedding party and a very interesting photo exhibition that was partly morbid and partly fantastical.
I think I was fairly open to going with the flow and filling the time however I was meant to, and maybe that’s why what happened next was so strange and interesting to me.
I was in the bathroom (which has all sorts of inspired messages scrawled on it, like “I will love you no matter who you are” alongside other statements like “go vegan”), washing my hands next to a woman in her 30s and a little girl. The girl’s mum was waiting for her at the door, but she was there trying to reach the taps.
“Do you want me to help?” I asked the little girl. She shyly nodded and I turned on the tap as her mum came over to hurry her along. The woman next to me glanced towards us and started shaking her head.
“Well that may be the case but I just don think it’s right,” she said. “Just because a person goes to parties and takes some drugs in their 20s, doesn’t mean they are always going to be that person.”
At first I thought she was continuing a previous conversation with the mum, as if they knew each other, but as she kept talking I realised that wasn’t the case. I wondered if she was talking to me, or to herself? Or maybe one of the acting students that trains at the convent on weekends. But for some reason I made the decision to listen.
As she kept talking she revealed that she was “that person” who had gone out partying and taking drugs. She told me that she wasn’t accepted by her family or by anyone else, that her mum and stepdad had rejected her and that “everyone else can go and do all of those things and make mistakes and then be accepted, but I’m not”.
At some point I noticed the mother and daughter left and several more people came and went, giving the woman a wide berth, and looking at her like she was a crazy person. I stood there and listened.
She told me about how she felt strong and knew who she was but that everyone else “tries to make me out as someone I’m not”. She felt like she’d been made a victim and was all alone in the world. She said single people she knew hated her because of her independence and people in couples saw her as a threat to their relationships. I could see she was really frustrated by the assumption that she would interfere in other peoples relationships, and she told me that she had “more integrity than that”.
“I could have that,” she said. “I could go out and be in some relationship with a guy I don’t really love. I could be married with kids but I don’t want to do that if it doesn’t feel right.”
At this point I felt like I was in the middle of a scene from some kind of indie film with a message. What was I supposed to do? Drawing on my training as an actor, I decided to follow my impulses, which were currently telling me to stand there and listen. It was almost like doing a Meisner exercise, almost like repetition.
But my sense of being in a heightened moment, in a scene from a movie or a play, grew from there. Here I was, listening to a stranger open up about her struggle to find acceptance, choosing her integrity over “settling in some compromised relationship”, in a bathroom at an iconic location in Melbourne. Outside the bathroom – as if on cue – a man suddenly started belting out “I Will Always Love You”.
I thought it was the perfect soundtrack to what she was saying: a message that we can all find love. She wasn’t so impressed, struggling to keep up the rhythm of her story and eventually turning and yelling at him to shut up.
I don’t remember if he did go quiet (but I do remember hearing him about an hour later when I left the convent). I was listening to her again. I felt like I needed to listen, like maybe no one had really listened to her in a long time. So she told me how she thought jealousy had got in the way of her relationships with people. She said her mum was jealous of her and that her friends parents had been jealous of her when she was growing up.
She said she was undermined by her two housemates (“who have mums that come and look after them”) because they were jealous. She said her life would be different if her mum had been there for her. And I thought: “maybe seeing the mum and little girl earlier is what triggered this pseudo-soliloquy?”
Then she told me her mum accused her of having mental health issues, and assumed that it was because of the partying and the drugs. She said it was hypocritical, because her mum had once lied about having bipolar disorder as an excuse for her behaviour.
“I knew it wasn’t true,” she said. “She used it as an excuse to raise her voice and yell at me like I’m yelling at you.”
She softened when she acknowledged her raised voice, like it was a beat change. Her voice was sadder as she told me that if she ever had kids she would “raise them better than I was raised”.
“And I’m sorry for telling you all of this but I just feel like it’s really unfair that other people can do things and be accepted and I’m left out.”
“It’s okay,” I told her. “You needed to be heard.”
“Yeah, it’s just really unfair,” she said.
“What’s your name?” She asked me. We exchanged names and she apologised again.
“You don’t have to apologise at all,” I said. Then she thanked me and left.
Image credit: michaelgreenhill
Three years ago I took a plane from the airport near my hometown to Melbourne. I had just one suitcase and it carried my whole life at the time. It was less than a month since I’d moved back from living in Vancouver and traveling through North America, and I was still reeling from the experiences, nursing a broken heart.
I’d moved back to Australia partly because Vancouver hadn’t felt right and partly because I wanted to fully commit to being an actor in Australia. I’d never felt like I had done that, and after some modest successes in Canada I knew it was something I had to do to move forward. Melbourne was my city of choice.
Apart from those thoughts, I didn’t really have a solid plan. I got off the plane, was picked up by a family friend and spent the next few weeks intensely searching for a place to live and a job. The living came first, with one of my best friends from school setting me up with a room in her sharehouse. The job was harder.
I thought I’d try and get some office work, just to pay the bills while I figured out the acting industry here, but somehow I managed to fail at every job interview I went to (and I was normally at my best with the interview part of the process). While trying not to go mad without work I started searching for acting events and opportunities specific to my interested and training.
I soon found Meisner Melbourne and booked in for a free class. After meeting the artistic director, Clare Elizabeth Dea, I signed up for an eight week course. Not long after I met with a writing contact who offered me work that fitted in perfectly with my newfound Meisner training. It became the perfect balance and that acting-writing dynamic is a core part of my life now.
Since then I’ve worked hard, putting in countless hours searching and prepping for roles, meeting people in the acting community, expanding my writing assignments and generally getting established in Melbourne. I’ve grown as an actor, writer and human being through training, work and other experiences. I’ve made mistakes in all areas of my life and I’ve learned from them; I think I’ve even learned not to be quite so hard on myself when I do fall down, and now favour a more constructive approach.
In the last three years I rediscovered dance, enjoyed romance, suffered betrayals, shared achievements, and faced a lot of fears (like doing the Howard Fine Master Class last year, which was wonderful and made me feel like a part of the Howard Fine Acting Studio family). I’ve been cast in films and stage shows and written blog posts and feature articles for a range of publications.
I feel like I’ve really lived, fully, in almost every single moment of my time in Melbourne. I’ve stayed true to myself and my commitment to acting, to writing, to life. I’ve also changed a lot, becoming more self aware, open and adventurous.
Melbourne is this amazing, eclectic, multifaceted, creative, beautiful city that I’m so happy to be a part of right now. But more than that, I am so grateful for the wonderful people I’ve met here. There’s a real heart to this place, to the people that live here and are drawn here. The friends I’ve made in Melbourne are my inspiration and support. My friends make me love living here, they make it feel like a home more than a place I’m just staying for a while (and maybe I am just staying here for a while, who knows? But having that feeling is so important to me).
I grew up in a town with such a strong sense of community that it will always be my home and always have a big part of my heart. But I’ve found a community here that is beyond anything I expected. I came here with a churned up heart and soul and, three years on, I feel like I’m on the path I’m truly meant to follow, wherever it leads from here.
I love trying new things and after getting really sick three or four times last winter I’ve become particularly interested in all things health and fitness.
So last year when I was looking for something new and feeling inspired by the handful of springlike days that graced Melbourne, I happened to get an invitation from Mamamia for a gym trial.
It started with an email in August inviting me to be part of the site’s Opinionator trial for Fernwood Fitness, a women’s gym operating around Australia. I got two weeks there in exchange for writing about the experience as a Mamamia Opinionator (see link above) and really enjoyed it.
The team there and the members were so friendly and I enjoyed both working out on my own and doing classes. I had only previously gone to a gym three years ago, when I was living in Canada and I’d never done classes there.
My Opinionator experience has since led me to look at other gyms and fitness options available in Australia, and also inspired me to write about it. First of all, I’ve discovered that most gyms offer trials, whether it is one day, one week or even two weeks. You can sometimes even find them on the back of shopping dockets (which I’ve also done).
Some, like Fernwood, also offer free fitness assessments and tours to show you how things work, so you don’t end up feeling like you’re thrown in the deep end if you haven’t used a gym before. It’s a great way to figure out what a gym is like and whether you want to go there on a more regular basis. But I couldn’t help wondering what options are out there if you want something more flexible.
What if you work for yourself and don’t want to commit to a contract? What if you have young kids and can’t commit to a regular timetable? What if you’re a uni student or between jobs? Working out at home or doing a team sport are go-to alternatives, but I also think sometimes a gym is a nice refuge from weather or lack of motivation.
The more I’ve thought about this issue, the more I’ve wondered if we need some other options. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that there are some smart people and businesses filling in the gaps between membership options. Take Michelle Bridges 12-Week Body Transformation program, for instance. I’ve never done it, but I’m following the Mamamia team that’s involved now and think it’s a really great, flexible program. I love that you can do it from anywhere and still have the support of a trainer and a community of people all going through challenges during a 12-week period. It seems like a really affordable way to change things up and kickstart or boost health and fitness goals.
There’s also new technology that makes keeping track of your fitness easier, like FitBit, which helps track your steps, distance, calories and many other measurable health markers. Mamamia’s Natalia Hawk has also written a great post about other fitness apps, all of which cost less than $5 and can be used pretty much anywhere.
Another option I came across a few months ago is FitUsIn. This Australian startup offers temporary gym passes, class entry and other packages at locations all around the country, often at much lower prices than you would get at any gyms currently offering day passes. I actually came across the app in an article in the newspaper one weekend, got really interested in it and went straight onto the website to explore.
The whole premise of FitUsIn is to make it easier to visit gyms and get active wherever you are and whatever lifestyle and budget you have. So if you’re new to working out, a traveller or want to change things up a bit, you can search for nearby places on your phone or online.
It is the brainchild of Vanessa Picker, a 22-year-old whose future looks very bright. Already the company has graduated from the ANZ Innovyz START accelerator program and was a finalist in the NYC Next Idea competition.
The team behind FitUsIn seems just as inspiring and just as motivated.When I was first exploring the site, for example, I had a couple of issues and sent an email through about it. I got a response from the team almost straight away, and was encouraged to give more feedback and suggestions whenever I wanted. I’ve since contacted them about a couple of local gyms they could get in touch with, and have been kept in the loop about progress.
Towards the end of 2013 I also had a few chats with FitUsIn Co-founder and Director Liam Darmody about the app, and was really impressed with his passion for encouraging healthy lifestyles and supporting change in the health and fitness industry.
“We’re not here to do one off promotions that are unsustainable. We’re trying to get more people in the door and fill the gaps when gyms have downtime,” he told me. It’s this kind of creativity and open-mindedness that makes me really excited for entrepreneurs and fellow health and fitness enthusiasts like myself. Because the more options and flexibility we have, the easier it is to stay motivated and inspired.
I had so much going on in Movember that I didn’t end up spending much time asking for donations or promoting the cause. I did make a point of smiling at everyone with mo’s though, and I did get a couple of donations and words for my annual Mo Poem (in bold below). I think what I’ve learned this year is that it’s not about how much you raise, but how much you care. I hope that shines through here.
It was a slow progression
But day-by-day his life changed
From happiness to depression
As complacence rearranged
His outlook towards sums:
Figures in the bank
Pushed meaning into the doldrums
And his life’s meaning sank
Down to money and ticked boxes.
Now he just sits and watches
The screens in front of him
Trying not to think of doctors
Or the help he needs within.
See he’s lost all his power
Like a defamed plenipotentiary
Braking promises by the hour
He’s forgotten there’s such a thing as being free.
The spiral pulls in everything
And he’s numb to the world
Blocking out what he can
So feelings can’t be unfurled.
He’d rather be the sheep at the back
Than the bellwether in front
Better to hide the cracks
And run away from the hunt.
He lost his love of life
Everything turned grey
And he realised too late the strife
That came from turning away.
Until the day came when something novel
Snapped him out of the grey,
He was lifted from his fearful hovel
By moustaches gone astray
For a month of the year
Meant to get men to talk and cheer,
Supporting one another
Through the challenges and pain.
Backing the cause snapped his daze
Reminding him that he had dreams
And finally the dam broke
The sheltered, dreary life ripped at the seams
As he gathered his friends and spoke
About what he felt had true meaning.
It was a gesture that started
As a thirty day thing
But instead of ending it’s lasted
Because everyday brings meaning.
All it took was a spark
Of interest, and persistent curiosity
Scratched away the damp ashes
To relight the fire in his heart.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about any books, but two of the most recent non-fiction works I’ve read have inspired me to explore the relevance and importance of context in literature.
When a family friend and former bookshop owner recommended Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, it came with a comment that it might provide insights into life in Iran and the cultural differences we could face when relating to Iranians now.
Since moving to Melbourne I’ve become friends with quite a few people from Iran and it’s been interesting to see how different people react when they hear that. Particularly – and I kind of hate saying this – people from small towns or regions where there is not a lot of cultural diversity. But you can’t know what you don’t know, which is one of the reasons I love reading non-fiction works.
Anyway, when I was reading Nafisi’s memoir, I found myself not only engaged by the difference in experiences she had living and working in Tehran, but also questioning what it is like their now.
Reading Lolita in Tehran primarily deals with Nafisi’s time teaching Western literature and living in Tehran, between 1979 and 1997. There are insights into the political context, particularly during and after the revolution (1978-81), university regulation, religious beliefs, small rebellions and society in general.
It definitely opened my eyes to how different life can be when you are born in a different part of the world. While it’s easy for us to pick up a copy of Lolita or The Great Gatsby or any other novel considered a classic, at the time that Nafisi reflects on in this memoir it was often a struggle to find these books and even illegal to read some of them.
Still, Nafisi saw value in considering these classic texts of the Western world, and her passion for them saw her fight to teach them and highlight similarities and differences between the cultures of these works and the ones she was experiencing. It’s a fascinating insight into life in Tehran at the time and how our social context can affect the way we read literature.
But I would argue that it’s not an insight into life in Tehran now. It’s from a time in the past and, while there were events that have undoubtedly affected Iran since Nafisi wrote her work, unless we experience life in Tehran firsthand it’s hard to say what it would be like there now.
Change and Cultural Perspectives
What similarities are there between the Tehran Nafisi lived in and the Tehran people know now? What differences are there? How has history affected this city and country in the years between?
These questions have always fascinated me when it comes to context and history. But our perspectives on these questions are also shaped by our own contexts. I have no experience of Tehran, but I do have an opinion on it based on what I’ve read and the Iranian people I’ve spoken to. That opinion is (and should be) constantly evolving the more I learn.
I’m still aware, however, that someone who has lived in Tehran would read Nafisi’s book with a different set of eyes and thoughts on it. Maybe they would agree, maybe they wouldn’t and maybe they would see more of what has changed and what has stayed the same within that culture.
These things are what I experienced when I picked up another memoir, Tracks by Robyn Davidson. It’s the story of Davidson’s nine-month journey from Alice Springs to the west coast of Australia (ending up at Hamelin Pool, some 750 kilometres from Perth).
In Tracks, we hear about Davidson’s two-year preparation for the journey, which started with a move to The Alice in 1975. She writes about her experience as a city girl moving to the outback, her journey to learn more about camels and finding the four that would travel with her and her faithful dog Diggity.
She also writes about her experience a woman in the Australian outback in the late 70s, and her observations of how Aboriginals were viewed and treated. While the majority of the book, to me, was about Davidson finding a relationship with the land (and this country), there were some very fascinating and poignant insights into Australian life.
Some of what she wrote about different Indigenous communities (and they ways they were viewed), for example, sounds like they could have been pulled from discussions today.
“It also became apparent to me that the majority of whites now involved with the Aborigines are fighting alongside them to protect what is left of their lands and their rights, and eventually to reach the point where the blacks are autonomous,” she observes at one point.
“Whether this is possible, given the rural white backlash, the racist attitudes of Australians generally and the genocidal policies of the present government, and given that the rest of the world seems neither to know nor care what is happening to the oldest culture in the world, is a doubtful thing.”
I’ve heard many people say similar things over the past few years, though perhaps using slightly different language (people appear to be more cautious about using terms like “blacks” and “whites” in my experience).
I think just as many people would agree and disagree with her statements now as they would have done then. The big difference, as far as I can tell, is that there does now seem to be much more open conversation about Aboriginal culture and the socio-political issues they face.
The government has apologised for many of the wrongs done to Aboriginals since colonisation (for what that has been worth). There are ongoing discussions and concerns. People actually do care about what is happening to and for Aboriginal people, and I got the impression that the concern I’m aware of now was incredibly rare at the time Davidson was writing about her experiences crossing Australia.
My point is that some of Davidson’s observations still ring true today, while others are not as relevant now. And I have a stronger opinion about it than I did with Reading Lolita in Tehran because I do live in Australia. I wasn’t alive when Davidson started her journey, but my opinion is informed by the Australia I’ve grown up with.
As a result, I know firsthand what I see as different and what I see as the same in our culture. But someone who has never been to Australia, who read this book, would get a very different picture of this country if they took Davidson’s observations as true for today. I think the same can be said for me or anyone else reading a memoir like Reading Lolita in Tehran and assuming that is what life in Iran is like.
There are many reasons that I love reading, but one of them is to learn more about people and the world, both now and in the past. Memoirs can provide unique insights into a particular time and place (then and now), but above all they provide insights into the life of one person. Through that person (the author), I learn more about myself and the world around me.
As children we all play these different games; cops and robbers, doctors and nurses, superheroes and villains and many others too. While a lot of people would say we stop doing this at some stage and “grow up” I think we still do it as adults, just in a different way and to a different extent. We behave in certain ways based on the people around us. How you behave at work, for example, could be very different to how you are at a party.
I think of it as showing different sides of ourselves, and it’s something most actors are very familiar with because we have to do it more consciously and (often) to greater extremes. In order to be truthful under the imaginary circumstances we often have to do things very different to how we normally would. And say things we wouldn’t normally say (and find a way to believe them in that setting so that the audience believes us). I think Meryl Streep contextualises it best:
“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”
The challenge comes when you’re playing someone really different to who you normally are. Like a generous, nurturing actor playing a serial killer, or someone very shy playing a power hungry narcissist. How do actors find that in themselves?
There’s all kinds of different techniques that you could use, but at the core of it I think is finding something that could or would make you feel that way. I remember one actor I was working with saying that when he had to kill someone he thought about how much he hated mosquitos and how satisfying it was to kill them. That was something in him.
My friend, actor and creative director of Meisner Melbourne, Clare Dea, has taught me that we can find and explore these parts of ourselves by being open to them and not judging them. She says we have all these different parts in ourself that can influence the ways we act on screen/stage and in life. For example, we all have a part of ourselves that is very critical (you know, the one that critiques your work or what your wearing or what you’ve just said to someone?), and a part that is very supportive.
This is just one way to contextualise who we are and what we do in any situation, and it frames what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Once we start growing up, we come across lessons about certain behaviour. It’s “bad” to be rude or aggressive and “good” to be polite and friendly. So the parts of us that are rude and aggressive get pushed aside in favour of the “good” parts. And suddenly we’re judging parts of ourselves.
As an actor that is incredibly detrimental to the craft. One of the most important things for acting, as I see it, is to be emotionally available and open to expressing whatever is required in an honest way.
As many acting coaches, teachers and the developers of techniques practised all around the world have said, it is bad form for actors to “judge” their characters. So how does it affect us as human beings if we judge parts of ourself?
I don’t have an answer, but I do have some observations around this question. Years ago I was incredibly judgmental about being (what I perceived to be) selfish. To the point that I would stay hours late at work to make sure everything was right or give up time I’d set aside for myself to do something for someone else. I was always so worried about everyone else, and it got to a point where I got really, really sick. And suddenly I forced to look after myself. I realised that it wasn’t selfish, it was responsible. A friend said to me at the time “How can you help other people if you can’t help yourself?”, and it really hit home: because I was scared of being selfish I’d gone so far the other way that I never did anything for myself. So I found a balance.
That’s just one example, but I’m pretty sure everyone could think of other events in their lives that have had similar outcomes based on judgments, fear or both. The easiest thing is to ignore these feelings, to just go on in the same way and deny that there is any judgment or fear. But that denial can be really counterproductive.
I recently read a Huffington Post article by Anthony Meindl where he talks about embracing all of life, even the parts that suck. I think the same thing applies to our selves. “By embracing our lives totally (even the stuff that “sucks”),” he writes, “we get through them.”
“The Armed Forces have no other choice. If they’re out in the Iraqi desert or in the mountains of Afghanistan, the only way they’re going to get through those challenging experiences is by embracing them.
But for us with our modern conveniences and propensity for denial, we can distract ourselves, numb ourselves, fool ourselves over and over to avoid, disconnect, ignore, postpone, procrastinate and put our heads in the sand when we don’t want to look at what is. And that’s ironic since the denial of something simply extends its presence.”
The thing is, judgment is judgment whether it’s about yourself or someone else. And denial is denial whether it’s about a situation or something in ourselves.
So maybe the real question I should be asking is this: how does it affect us as human beings if we embrace all of ourself?
In the last two weeks I’ve had several inspiring conversations about life and how to live. Almost all of these discussions have explored the idea of having things other than work and/or passions in everyday life, and I think that is a really important lesson for me to learn.
Both actors and writers draw on experiences for their work. As an actor, knowing how I behave in certain situations when I am my authentic self means I can make choices about what parts of me I use and find out how that affects my behaviour. As a writer, well I think Stephen King put it best when he said you write what you know (to paraphrase). I also think that in both fields you also get to explore imagined circumstances, but what you know is always an influencing factor.
This idea of life experience, of “needing” it for my craft, had a huge impact on me from a very early age.
When I was in my teens I used to do certain things for the sake of getting life experience as an actor. I knew that as a young person (especially as someone younger than the majority of my peers) that I needed to get as much life experience as possible to enrich my acting life.
I was reminded of this fact at the recent Howard Fine Master Class in Melbourne, where Fine himself joked that “sometimes we live so we can act” (I may be paraphrasing). I also realised that sometimes I still do that. Definitely not as much as I did, but it’s like one of those habits you get so used to that you barely even notice it. I’ll stay out all night and do a walk of shame because I feel I “should experience it”, or go on dates with someone I’m not sure about because so many scenes involve an awkward date…these examples are pretty tame but I think it’s clear to see where I’m heading with this (and maybe by extension where I’ve been).
While I could chalk any of these acts up to “living” or “trying something new”, there is usually this small part of me recording each experience and filing it away for future use in my acting or even my writing. It’s really hard to switch that part of me off and just be.
So there is this risk that I will spend too much time focused on my acting life and not on my actual life. But the problem then is that it is really easy to become disconnected from reality, to find that the only time a connection is strong is in acting work or training or writing (to some extent). And that is not a way to live.
What I’ve realised over the last few years is that it is just as important to make time for my actual life as it is for my work/creative life. I remember talking to a friend about this very thing last year. After returning from a lengthy work trip, my friend was feeling adrift and somehow lacking. I knew the feeling well. I suggested finding things outside of work because, like me a few years before, work and work-related activities (including research, reading, meetings, training etc) took up the majority of time. And it makes a difference to “live a full life”, as Howard Fine also said during his most recent time in Melbourne.
Finding perspective and balance
My good friend, acting coach and actor Clare Elizabeth Dea told me earlier this year that if you spend all your time doing acting stuff, that you lose perspective and get so caught up wanting to be given every opportunity that you forget to enjoy the moment, the smaller successes and the process itself. How true that is, not just for actors but for anyone who spends a lot of time on one thing.
It’s like focusing too much on one thing means that you lose focus. You lose perspective. It doesn’t even have to be work.
Several years ago at the Brisbane Writers Festival I went to a talk with three successful photographers. One of them said that he had recently started making a point of leaving his camera behind when he did things with his family, because “when you are taking photos you’re viewing things from the outside, not experiencing them.”
This sentiment seems to be everywhere at the moment. Sophia Ford Coppola expressed it during the release of her latest film, The Bling Ring. Writer and deputy editor at Mamamia, Lucy Ormonde, noted how much smartphones and social media have changed the way we experience things (or don’t).
Research has found over-use of technology to sleep problems, stress and depression and, while the explanations of these links vary, one theory from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, suggested that it is because people are reaching out to their friends and family primarily through technology instead of face-to-face, or IRL.
All of these things suggest that we are getting caught up in doing certain things, for whatever reasons, rather than being and experiencing.
I don’t know that there is a right or a wrong way to live but I think it’s important to have a full life in every way. And yesterday I came across some words from actor Ralph Fiennes that sum it up perfectly:
“The people I consider successful are so because of how they handle their responsibilities to other people, how they approach the future, people who have a full sense of the value of their life and what they want to do with it. I call people successful not because they have money or their business is doing well but because, as human beings, they have a fully developed sense of being alive and engaged in a lifetime task of collaboration with other human beings — their mothers and fathers, their family, their friends, their loved ones, the friends who are dying, the friends who are being born. Success.. is all about being able to extend love to people… not in a big, capital letter sense but in the everyday. Little by little, task by task, gesture by gesture, word by word.”
So here’s to success!
For a while now I’ve been exploring what an actor is and what actors do. I previously wrote about the craft itself, particularly how important it is to be emotionally available and find connections with people. Now I want to look at what I could and should consider “work” as an actor. A big part of it (and the part most people, and maybe most actors focus on) is a production. If you have a show in rehearsals, on stage or in some part of production for film/television, well that’s work.
But last year I started to think that it might be more productive to think about the other things an actor does that count as work. There’s not a whole lot of roles up for grabs and competition is high, but does that mean actors stop working when they aren’t cast in something or going to auditions?
The way I see it, auditioning and/or getting a role is just the top layer of what an actor does for work. Because we have to keep our instruments sharp no matter what.
That means doing activities to stay emotionally open, finding and preparing monologues or scenes for auditions, taking classes, reading plays, watching films, television shows and live theatre, talking to other actors, directors, writers, producers, agents…the list goes on.
Then there are the other practical things an actor has to do. We should work with our bodies (whether that means working out, doing yoga, dancing etc), stay on top of our finances (particularly superannuation, which can be erratic for actors not on a long-term, contracted role), maintain and update our headshots and regularly re-edit our showreels…there are so many things that can and should be considered part of the work for an actor, and they are often overlooked by actors and observers alike.
Acting is an interesting career choice, to say the least. Actors often have “day jobs” to help pay the bills, and I suspect we spend a lot more than people in other industries when it comes to training and development. But it is a labour of love. I don’t think anyone truly committed to being an actor would invest so much time and money otherwise.
Redefining The Term “Working Actor”
Traditionally, a “working actor” is someone who has a current gig or gigs in some shape or form. Someone who has got their break and is making the most of it.
As a result of this perception, and our own inherent insecurity and self-criticism, is easy to get caught up on the roles you miss out on, or the fact that you haven’t been in production for a while. But it is also counter-productive and often short sighted.
Some of the best work I’ve seen actors do has not been in any production at all. I remember a moment during the Howard Fine Master Class I audited last year when one of the actors had just had a breakthrough about their prep for the role in the scene. Hearing the actor talk about what they’d just realised, seeing their elation and the exhaustion that came after doing such great work made me realise THAT is the work. That’s what we do, whether it’s on set or in a classroom.
Howard Fine outlines this further in his book Fine On Acting: A Vision of the Craft (written with Chris Freeman), arguing that people who are not prepared to do all of the work rarely have a sustainable career.
“Let me be clear,” he writes, “this is a process and a lifetime of hard work.”
“Acting is a comprehensive art form. You have to know so many things in order to play a wide range of roles…You really have to think about a career, because what are you going to do if you have a little splash of success? Are you going to go back to waiting tables after you’ve been famous? It’s a very interesting thing that I have seen time and again, where somebody had some initial success and they just weren’t prepared for the long haul.”
What I take away from this perspective is that it is not about whether or not you get a break (though that definitely helps), but what you do for your career. And that can come in many different forms, because acting is about being human.
Explaining Acting Work To Other People
So here is the part where it can be a struggle for other people. If all of this – performing, auditioning, rehearsing, training, reading plays, learning lines, auditioning, keeping fit, getting photos done etc – is work, why don’t we get paid for it all? Other people in other jobs get paid for all of their work, right? So if you spent more money than you make on acting (or close to 50/50), doesn’t that make it more a hobby?
The truth is there is never enough money in this industry for us to get paid to work on ourselves. There are very few companies willing to invest in our professional development, so we have to do it ourselves. But the actors who are committed to their craft 100%, they are not doing it as a hobby, as something “on the side” from their office job or hospitality and retail work. They are doing it as their chosen career and profession.
I sometimes struggle to explain this idea to people, so I like to use an analogy to help convey how I see the acting profession. Last year I watched a documentary about elite athletes training for the Olympics. Many of the individuals and teams spend years and years training. Some, like female gymnasts for example, have spent most of their lives training for this one event.
Often they have to pay a fortune for their training, the costumes, the meets and the qualifiers that help them on the road to the Olympics. And then only a few go on to the actual event that the whole world can see.
When I realised all of this about Olympians, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to acting. We spend so much time and money training, go to hundreds (thousands) of auditions and then one day get to do something that our friends and family (and many strangers) finally get to see.
Not every actor will get the role they want when they want it, just like not every elite athlete qualifies for the Olympics. Some athletes end up as coaches or commentators on the industry, just as some actors may teach or become critics at some stage of their careers. But all of the work we do to get there still matters.
I was recently lucky enough to go to a workshop with the very talented actor, producer, director and teacher Ted Brunetti, who is a faculty member at the Howard Fine Studio in LA and Melbourne. During his time in Australia, Ted held a workshop in association with Equity called “Be Prepared To Work – Not Audition”.
One of the first things Ted said to us that night was that “every appointment you get is an opportunity to work,” including auditions. He said one of the biggest problems actors have is treating auditions as a stepping stone to “something else”. What I took away from him was that the expectations can hinder the preparation.
“Auditioning is working for free,” he said. “Working leads to payment”. We just don’t know when we will get paid. But as Ted put it (with an apt analogy of his own):
“Most of the work to get a rocket to the moon happens on the ground. Once you get the bastard up, the energy is negligible (in comparison).”
Ted Brunetti has been applying and teaching this philosophy for years and a quick chat with a few of the other actors in the room suggested we all felt instantly better thinking about every individual task as part of our work. It makes it so much easier because you can apply the same standards and value to every thing that you do. In turn, that takes the pressure off feeling like every audition or interview or networking event you go to has to have some kind of outcome. It doesn’t, because it is the work and you can get out of it whatever you put in.
Since that class with Ted (which was around the start of June), I’ve avoided using the word audition at all – partly because it sometimes frustrates me to have people ask “How did the audition go? When will you know if you got it?” and partly because I probably have some judgement around the word that could influence my actions before, during and after the event.
So on Ted’s advice, I’ve tried to refer to everything I do for acting as “work”. And something interesting has happened. I work harder regardless of the job at hand, I don’t feel as down if one gig doesn’t lead to something else straight away. I’m enjoying myself more and I am giving 100% all of the time.
I think the lesson I’ve really learnt in the last year is that as an actor, it is not what you are working on, but what you are doing for your career that matters. If that’s a gig, great. If it’s reading, teaching, watching movies, documentaries, television shows, learning about the industry, researching funding bodies and theatres or developing an arsenal of characters, shooting a showreel, shooting an ad, getting an agent, signing up to the union, organising finances, training, teaching, devising, networking, writing…well, all of that can be just as fun.
I know not all actors will read this and agree with what I’ve said, and I know that not everyone will get it, but it is working for me. And what I keep coming back to, whether I am motivated and inspired or feeling disheartened and frustrated, is a particular line in Howard Fine’s book that sums up exactly how I feel about acting:
“This is a journey worth devoting your life to.”
There is no definitive answer to that question but it’s one that has come up a lot for me over the last few weeks. My answer is constantly evolving as I do more and work with or talk to more people, so I thought I would share some of my current thoughts on the subject and hopefully shed some light on acting as a craft and profession (or open up the discussion for people).
Acting has two sides to it, there is the literal process of “acting” and there is the business side. But let’s start with the former (I’ll explore the latter in part two). I think every actor has their own idea of what acting is, and probably everyone who has ever seen a movie, watched television, been to a play or studied acting has an opinion about what it involves.
For me, I go back to a definition I’ve heard many times, particularly in the context of the Meisner Technique and Practical Aesthetics:
“Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”.
That means finding ways to believe and behave in an honest, authentic and organic way within the constraints of the work you are doing as an actor. It means every moment is different, so every take of a film, every night of a play and every rehearsal is as varied as life.
The approaches that actors take, however, can vary significantly. So you have a range of techniques and methods that actors will subscribe to and promote, as well as artists who explore everything and approach each role differently.
In my training with Meisner Melbourne, Clare Dea built on the idea of “living truthfully” through work on the self. We explored different parts of our selves to find emotional and personal states different to how we normally are. I remember when I started training with Clare I was very scared of feeling anger, bypassing it and going straight to tears. But after a few months I had found parts of my self that were open to feeling and expressing anger including, for example, a Bitch and a Protector.
Something really important that Clare drilled into me is that every emotion is important. Some of them don’t feel nice, and a lot of them we judge (which I have written about before), but as an actor it is vital that I am open to feeling every emotion and exploring them 100%.
This framework resonates with me but I’m also aware of other ways that you can “act truthfully” in any given moment. When I audited the Howard Fine Master Class in Melbourne last year, one of the things I took away from Howard Fine, David Coury and the actors working with them was that you have to be open to figuring out what works for a particular role. There’s not really one formula that will get you there every time.
I could, for example, find one role that hits close to the bone with me and brings up emotions and reactions organic because of the familiarity. Just recently, actually, I was working on a role that reminded me of the project I used to run for young people at risk of homelessness in Brisbane. I didn’t really have to do much work on my mind state to feel like the lines I said were truthful in the moment.
At other times actors get to explore things so alien to them that imagination (and a strong hit of empathy) may be the only way to find the truth. For example, I was once cast as a returned medic from the war, suffering post traumatic stress disorder and rebelling against a family that didn’t understand. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never had post traumatic stress disorder and my family is pretty cool, so I had to explore ways to find the truth of the character in myself (which I did find, and I think it is one of my strongest roles yet).
When I was in my first year of uni I was working on a scene with a girl where we had to have a fight. I was lucky enough to have the very talented Andrea Moor (actor, director and teacher) as my teacher and in the very first rehearsal she showed the class she stopped me two lines in. I was standing down stage and my scene partner was sitting up stage.
“Ah, you’re doing something a lot of young actors do Amy. Why did you walk away from her?” she asked me. I said it was because I was angry with the other girl in this scene.
“Would you do that in real life?” Andrea went on to explain that so often young actors (and some very experienced ones too) will think it is better to internalise their character and emotions, to “work off themselves” in a sense. But, she said, it is more powerful to work with the other person in a scene. She got me to try the scene again, staying with the other girl and responding to her. It suddenly felt so much more real.
That one moment inspired me so much that I went on to do more training with Andrea, who has worked with the Atlantic Theatre Company to bring David Mamet and William H. Macy’s Practical Aesthetics technique to Australia.
At the same time as I was working with Andrea, I met a much more experienced actor in the same course as me who had trained in the Meisner Technique at the New York Playhouse. Kate taught me the basics of repetition and working with her reinforced how important it is to connect with the actors you are working with and to react truthfully to what they do, moment to moment.
The importance of connection has stayed with me since then, and it’s something I’ve been able to explore in theatre productions, short films and particularly in training with Meisner Melbourne, Howard Fine Acting Studio Australia and, most recently, with Brett Cousins at Red Stitch Actors Theatre where I’m currently doing an acting intensive.
When I first spoke to Brett, one of the things he said to me was that “connecting with people” was something he loved about acting, and a lot of the work we have done so far has been around that idea of connection.
After the first session with him, while we were tidying up the lovely Red Stitch theatre, we got to talking about what acting is in relation to different techniques. Something I’d realised during the class was that physical activities (which are designed to get you “out of your head” and into the moment) can help create the action in a scene, but it is always the other people that take precedence. It’s really easy to get caught up in the “doing” of a scene and, indeed, some people describe acting as literally “doing” something. But whatever activity you are doing becomes secondary when you have a connection with someone; instead of doing something, you are being. And that, to me, is what acting is really about because by being truthfully in the moment, you can connect with not only the other actors, but also the audience.
NOTE: There is so much more I could say about the craft of acting, this is really just scraping the surface and a reflection of where I’m at right now, so I’m very interested to hear other perspectives and views on acting.