Act Smart!: Three (More) Enduring Lessons I Learned From My (Acting) Teachers

Three (More) Enduring Lessons I Learned From My (Acting) Teachers

Just as my regular teachers taught me things that later applied to acting, my acting teachers have taught me things that applied to my “real” life. (As well as teaching me acting, of course—I mean, that’s what we pay them for, right?)

Without further ado, here are the gems that have stuck with me through the years, and have helped me as much in my day-to-day doings as they have on any set or stage.

1.  Watch who you watch.

I’ve shared this over and over: in my talks to photographers and designers, in my columns here, in conversation with random friends. I repeat it to myself when I get lost and can’t remember what I’m meant for in this lifetime, or when that thing dries up for me and I’m seeking the next thing.

Because while Cynthia Szegeti meant it to be instructive about what provided star quality (that thing each of us most longed for, whether we would admit it or not), the legendary Groundlings member & improv teacher was really giving us golden advice about divining one’s truth by the application of the simplest spiritual tool in the toolkit: attention. There is absolutely no chance of real growth or change without the application of awareness as a first step. I mean, think about it; millenia of meditation teachers can’t be wrong! (For more on attention and awareness, check out this slim book of easy-to-digest meditations or this delightful series of short talks by the late Anthony DeMello.)

Or heed the advice of another former teacher of mine…

2. You can’t get to the Beverly Center until you know where you are right now.

Tony Greco has taught and coached a number of well-known actors over the years in the Method as developed by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio. (As a very young man, Tony was a student of Strasberg, himself.) The core training of the Method as I’ve always understood it is the Basic Relaxation Exercise, which involves sitting in a simple folding chair and using a series of physical and vocal movements to get in touch with – you guessed it – where you are right now. Why? Because if you skip this critical step, you will not be taking any actions from the seat of your authentic self. You may be pretending or mimicking, but you’ll never be as affecting as you would from the capital “T” Truth.

These wise words didn’t really land until years after I left Tony’s class. (My luck with them during scene work was hit-or-miss, alas, but I figure I won the bigger prize in the end.) It took a great deal of digging, a ridiculous amount of applied attention, and hitting a whole lot of brick walls, but I finally got to my truth and it almost immediately set me free. I’m a big fan of both personal development work and spiritual guidance, even though they ultimately led me away from performance. They won’t necessarily do that for you, but in my experience, you have to be willing to give up all your ideas to get to the truth.

3. If you want to learn about acting, read a book about kayaking.

Again, I’ve shared this gem I from my next acting coach, Cameron Thor, so many times, I fear I may wear it out. I’ve even written at medium-length about it. But it’s bound to remain evergreen, if only because whatever we really want, we tend to want with such a fierce, all-consuming passion that blinds us. It’s a tricky thing, because I need the fire to keep myself going through the cold, dark stretches. But I also need to be able to let go, to loosen my death grip on the object of my desire, to allow life to swirl in, around, and through me. I’ve done very little actual kayaking, but I recall how it demanded I relax into my circumstances, not fighting the water, but rolling with it. Maneuvering that tippety vessel required that I stay light and alert and open and flexible—poised for anything.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s pretty much exactly like being in the zone with acting. So I can practice that state of relaxed alertness on a low-stakes venture, and have it in my bones when I step into the higher-stakes arena of acting.

Or, as Mr. Miyagi taught, “Wax on; wax off.” Hm. Do I see a “What Pop Entertainment Has Taught Me?” column in my future?

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BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: If you enjoyed The Corrections and Freedom, you’re going to devour Purity, National Book Award-winning writer Jonathan Franzen’s latest opus. Like his first two mega-novels, Purity is epic in scope, yet doesn’t stint on details. You get to know each of his main characters intimately, as they tell their individual stories, weaving together one massive tale of secrecy, betrayal, and the price of becoming and remaining to thine own self true. Is there a better way for an actor to learn what makes characters tick? Perhaps—but none quite so absorbing!