“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. “–Rainer Maria Rilke
“In the circle of light on the stage in the midst of darkness, you have the sensation of being entirely alone… This is called solitude in public… During a performance, before an audience of thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle, like a snail in its shell… You can carry it wherever you go.”
— Constantin Stanislavsky (An Actor Prepares)
It’s a jungle out there.
An actor pursuing professional work has to contend with all kinds of daunting challenges, including headshots, resumes, managers, agents, casting directors, social media, auditions, callbacks, unions…the list goes on and on. And that’s all just a part of finding work. Once an actor books a job, there is a whole new set of challenges: lines to be learned, breaking down the script, rewrites, the director, the producer, the other actors, the camera, the crew, the audience. If you found this all a little overwhelming, you wouldn’t be alone.
As work on the project unfolds, the one thing you can count on is there will be adversity. Some projects will be harder than others, but because making film and theater are collaborative enterprises, you are bound to bump up against some people who make your job, doing your job, harder, occasionally by design, but more often because they are pursuing some goal that is at cross-purposes with your own. The biggest single candidate is the director. Directors bear a huge amount of responsibility and have a lot of power. The result that they are trying to get from you may run counter to all your intuitions and instincts, but refusing to accommodate them can come at a huge cost. They may push you for results when you are still finding your way around the script. They may change their mind frequently about what they want, or constantly pressure you to come up with something better, without telling you what they are looking for. Other actors can be challenging as well, at times. So all of this means that when you are doing professional work, there is a lot of adversity involved. You need to try to enter into the necessities facing a character while putting out forest fires of various kinds in your immediate environment, constantly. This is a fact.
It’s difficult to survive under such conditions, to say nothing of thriving. The death of Amy Winehouse is another grim reminder of the terrible toll that the creative life can exact, for all its rewards. The wise actor looks all of this in the face at the outset, and arms herself accordingly. How does she do that? Well, there is no one single path, but I think for a lot of people, it involves finding a context in which you can develop your facility where the stakes are not too high, and where you are in the care of well-wishers who will always prod you to do better, but never judge you for falling short. One such context may be an acting class.
The advantage of knowing who you are, artistically, when you walk into an audition, cannot be understated. Knowing what you value, what you are capable of, and what you are looking for not only fortifies you against rejection, but it also makes you stronger and more confident, thus reducing the likelihood of said rejections. When you feel clear about what acting is, and you know you have done it and done it well, not once but many times, you carry a conviction and a clarity around with you that will shield you from a lot of the toxic sludge that is out there in the business. There is nothing like self-knowledge to protect you from the prejudices and misjudgments of others.
It’s for this reason that I applaud actors who give themselves plenty of time to take classes and develop themselves before subjecting themselves to the vicissitudes of the professional life. Acting well is hard enough when that is the only agenda in the room. Being able to do it well when there are a lot of other demands on your attention and ability is a very, very formidable challenge. Most people’s skill will be undermined in such environments. That’s why I believe it is enormously valuable for actors to give themselves plenty of time to develop an understanding of what they do, and skill at doing it. That way, when they enter the maelstrom of production, they have an inner artistic compass which points steadfastly in the direction of fulfilling the creative challenge at hand.
I remember watching a movie with my mom as a kid. The movie was about a talented young tennis player, Maureen Conolly, and the tennis player wants to study with a prominent teacher, Eleanor “Teach” Tenant. Teach agrees to take her on, but stipulates that Maureen, or “Mo”, is not allowed to play with anyone other than Teach. A few scenes later, Mo is playing with someone else, and Teach comes onto the court, hands her something (I can’t remember what), and tells Mo that she can no longer study with Teach, as she had broken the rule. I think Mo does continue to study with Teach somehow, but in any case, I remember being very impressed with this episode. The teacher felt that the student needed to shield herself from deleterious influences by playing only with her.
I don’t run my classes this way, and I understand that not every teacher is right for every student, and even if there is a fit, breaks are sometimes needed and are very healthy in any case. So while I am glad when a student continues to study with me, I am ok when one doesn’t, as well. I think artists need to find their own way, and I wouldn’t seek to fence anyone in in the way Teach does with Mo.
Nonetheless, I think there is something inspiring about the kind of “cocooning” period that Teach is proposing. By minimizing and muting the “noise” of the outside world, the student has an opportunity to discover, define, and differentiate themselves. She is not trying to please everyone at once, or be all things to all people. She has artificially but deliberately narrowed her world in order to find her center and her direction. For doing so, she will likely reap many benefits.