Act Smart!: Four Enduring Lessons from My Teachers

Just as a gratitude list sharpens awareness of the riches in life, a lessons-learned list reminds me of the long-term value of “ordinary” lessons. Best of all? Lots of those “ordinary” lessons are readily applicable to the acting life!

I have always been an avid student, probably because I was always certain that the next big, personal breakthrough was just a book/workshop/seminar away. And it may have been, although I now regard most epiphanies as final-straw situations, rather than insta-wisdom handed down from on high.

No, I now know that most knowledge is gained the hard way—i.e. slowly, after much real-world application. I doubt I can save anyone any steps; we learn what we learn when we’re ready, and not a second sooner. Possibly, though, one of these will strike a chord with some other note that’s earwormed its way into your brain, and resonate with you.

1. People remember the way you make them feel, not what they hear you say. That this is only one of two things I remember from my two years of yoga is pretty much proof of concept. The yoga teacher who delivered this gem did it in her every action, as much as her actual yogic instruction. She was almost always peaceful and happy, and when she wasn’t, she was still honest and kind. In other words, she always used the “script” of yoga, whatever it was that day, but she let the universal feelings animate everything. Imagine if we as actors could do this with every script we got! The biggest P.O.S. tripe writing could come alive! Well, okay—maybe it isn’t all salvageable. But as this amazing audition scene from Mulholland Drive shows, truth-plus-feeling not only makes so-so scripts watchable, it can raise the honesty and watchability level of fellow performers.

2. Three deep breaths. This is the only other thing I remember from those two years of yoga, and really, I wish I could remember it more often. Rarely do I have the time or wherewithal to calm the f**k down when I really need to, which makes me need it even more. My other likable yoga teacher, an older yogi who also taught meditation (none of which I remember), taught me this one. And come to think of it, he also did it indirectly, by being so simple and peaceful that I was impelled to do a little Google-sleuthing, which turned up a small book he’d written (it’s good! And cheap!). So there’s a two-fer, really: not only can you take the short road to peace with three deep breaths, but if you’re actually that compelling, you reduce the need to market yourself. NOT BAD.

3. _______ is not an excuse. Not liking a teacher does not mean you can’t glean valuable knowledge from them. I disliked my high school geometry teacher even more than I hated geometry itself, and that’s no small gap! An exasperatingly impassive, goody-two-shoes type, on one particularly horrible day of snow—and this was Chicago, where the snow got bad, brother—a few people came late to class, very reasonably (we thought) blaming the weather. I mean, how could we get there on time if we were dependent on the buses, which were all delayed by weather? His answer: walk. Like he did. Three miles each way. So yeah, there’s always traffic in L.A., transit delays in NYC, and those vicious, homework-eating dogs all over. There’s also adding an extra buffer of time rather than cutting it close. And if you’re still late? No excuses—apologies only!

4. Read all the instructions first. Frances Kent had the best legs of anyone I’ve ever seen, and most definitely the best of any eighth-grade teacher I’ve met. But even more than those killer sticks, I remember her wry smile (cum evil grin?) while watching us take a pop quiz she handed out one day. The very first instruction was “Read all the questions before starting any answers”, but as we quickly noted that there were far too many questions to read in the time allotted, much less answer, many of us gave up at around page four, went back to page one, and started filling in answers. Turns out that last question was “Put down your pencil; you don’t have to answer any questions.” There’s a lesson in there about faith, most likely (this was a Catholic school, after all), but also a lot of good learning about acceptance. Things happen in the time they are supposed to, and not on your timetable. How many scripts have I picked up and started “acting” before even reading all the way through? Too many to make me a great actor, that’s clear. (Remember, commercials were my bread and butter. And how long are commercial scripts? EXACTLY.) Doing my (boring) homework before locking into performance mode makes for a far better performance. Thanks, Mrs. Kent!

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Colleen Wainwright is a writerdesignerperformer 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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