Act Smart!: Breaking through The Breakthrough Myth

If you haven’t been disappointed by your supposed big break, you’re not in the game.
Bob Lefsetz, music industry veteran, new media pundit

It was an ordinary day, toward the end of rehearsals for a play my theater company was producing. In my capacity as resident graphic designer, I’d dropped by with a rough draft of the program to have the cast and crew sign off on their bios. There was some buzz among the ranks that this was THE show—the one that was going to kick an extra-special amount of ass, breaking through the clutter to gain attention, awards, and acclaim even outside the usual small community who usually enjoyed our plays.

The director sighed as he scribbled his initials beside his note, his bio, and a few other pieces in the program. “They always think that this is the show that will make them famous.”

It wasn’t, of course; it almost never is. And even if one particular thing does seem to catapult someone to fame and/or fortune, it is not the first thing, but #1,008,446 of an obviously long line of other things—including, I regret to tell you, luck, which always and absolutely figures in. So what’s an actor to do?

Keep working.

Your goal is not only to stay in the game long enough for that one lucky break, but to kick ass every single time; to behave as though each and every job could be the one that puts you over.

This doesn’t mean you approach every audition, class work, or job thinking, “THIS COULD BE IT!” (talk about adding undue pressure!), but that you treat each opportunity to work, paid or not, with the respect you would pay a slot that was going to be your mythical big break.

Moreover, this principle applies not just to acting-related work, but to work, period. If you have a day job, treat it, too, with the seriousness and respect it deserves. (And if whatever you do to put food on your table and keep a roof over your head is so distasteful that you feel it deserves none of your good juice, either correct your attitude or get a new job. Seriously!)

One reason for doing this is that it makes you much more delightful to other people, which makes them more likely to hire you, continue to employ you, or recommend you to others.

But the primary reason is that everything is practice. Training yourself to show up on time to a boring survival job also trains you to arrive early for a call that’s already at the butt-crack of dawn—and an hour’s drive away, as the early calls inevitably are. Learning names waiting tables, bartending, or teaching classes trains you to learn names of people on a set. (Clearly, I did not work enough in the food-service or educational industries.)

You might think to yourself, “When they’re paying me to act, I’ll have no problem showing up early, prepared, and cheerful!” Possibly, superstar: when the conditions are all in your favor. But what about when they’re not?

What if the second twin stops crying long enough for one take—will you be zen enough to nail it before the wailing recommences and the kid’s work time runs out? What if you lose light in 45 minutes and the director decides he’s going to shoot an entire :30-spot of rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue between you and five actors anyway? (True story, by the way. We wrapped with seconds to spare—and then, I’m fairly sure, each went home and poured ourselves an exceptionally stiff drink.)

Practicing over and over—in everything, in low-stakes situations—will help you perform when you finally find yourself in high-stakes situations. But approaching every situation with the same curiosity, alertness, and creativity you would if it were an acting job will not only help you become a better actor when opportunity strikes—it’ll make you a better, happier human even on the days you’re not acting.

* * *

BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: If you struggle with patience and humility like I do, you might find great relief in one (or both!) of this month’s selections. I enjoyed them both too much to choose just one!

Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart is a gentle, patient introduction to using the pain of the moment as a pathway to peace, both yours and the world’s. It’s filled with many excellent, real-life examples of the stucknesses that stop us, as well as exercises to (gently, patiently) be with those stucknesses, and allow them to become our teachers. It’s also funny, albeit in a quiet, rather sly way.

Remember, Be Here Now, Ram Dass’s seminal introduction to the West of awareness practices of the East, is rather bolder and loopier in its humor. Broken into three sections: the story of his own path from Western overachiever to spiritual devotee, which really sells you on the rest of the book, IMHO; a trippy, intimate overview of dharma that manages to give you a palpable sense of what it’s like to be free of anxiety and fear while staying grounded in scholarly truth; and the “cookbook”, a more straightforward, nuts-and-bolts breakdown of how dharma practice works in “real” life. (For Netflixers, I also recommend the excellent docu on his recovery from stroke, Ram Dass: Fierce Grace.)

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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