Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Essentials Online starting soon. • Call for a Free Informational Session • (323) 836-2176

an inconvenient truth

“Athletes, dancers, and singers never outgrow their need for the basic conditioning that makes their crafts possible. Neither do actors.”

–John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Acting Through Exercises

Suppose your dream were to become a concert pianist. How many years of daily practice would you expect to put in before attempting to appear publicly as a pianist? 5? 10? It will depend to some degree on your inborn ability, but as Malcolm Gladwell and Gary Marcus and Josh Waitzkin have suggested, it actually depends more on time, diligence and a sustained focus on getting better at what you do.

But no one, I would venture to say, would take piano lessons for three months or six months or a year or even two years and then attempt to present themselves to the public as a concert pianist. It would be inconceivable, and, barring a true prodigy, an adventure doomed to end in failure, not to say humilation.

So where am I going with this? An actor should not put themselves out there to appear in a film, play, webisode, or whatever, until they have taken five years of classes? I wouldn’t presume to say that. Such projects, if you can get them, can be learning experiences. Although as I have written about previously, production situations are not always conducive to the actor working in a process-oriented way. There is a lot of pressure to produce results than can lead to shortcuts being taken, shortcuts that can compromise the final product. More dangerously, these shortcuts can become habits, habits that can eventually become “bags of tricks”, ways of being that actors rely on to avoid having to deal with the newness and strangeness of the material and the situation they find themselves confronted with. Real-world experience can be great, but there is also a danger that in the hurlyburly of production ideals and values fall by the wayside in the rush to get to the finish line.

So, the answer, quite simply, is to keep studying. Book a project? Great! Can you keep studying while you do it? Have you looked closely to determine if there is a way you can stay in class, thus staying connected to the sources of your values and priorities as an actor? I was impressed with the desire of actors in the last play I directed to stay in class even while they were in the midst of a demanding rehearsal schedule. These actors knew that it’s enormously valuable to keep reflecting on their work and the values and distinctions that define it, even as they worked on a production. But maybe the schedule is such that you can’t keep studying. What can you do? Study the Alexander Technique? Most AT teachers will let you schedule one-on-one sessions at your convenience. What about some voice work with a Fitzmaurice-trained teacher? What about some movement training? In short, anything that keeps you open and looking at things in new ways will help you stay connected to your commitment to do the best work you are capable of.

But as soon as the project is over, what should you do? If you’re serious, you get back into class. You need to reconnect with basic principles, to re-embrace your commitment to process and growth and continuity in your artistic work, to going beyond what you already know and can do. If you are an actor who is also an artist, you find a way to act whether or not anyone wants to pay you to do it or provide you with an unpaid opportunity to do it at this particular moment. You act because it is a form of attesting to the wonderful meaningfulness of everything, and this attesting gives your own life meaning. Complacency is totally incompatible with being an artist.

For an actor who is an artist, finish lines and sabbaticals are anathema. You keep going.

That is all.