My undergraduate degree is in Theatre.
Yeah, that’s right, “theatre,” with an “re.” Just so you know how pretentious I am. Which, ironically, is not that much; I’m just a slave to the right word. Theater is a place. Theatre is the transformative artistic experience of interpreted literature that elicits an emotional transcendence. (I had to reinforce the pretentious thing. Couldn’t help it).
I was trained as a professional actress. Five days a week for three years, I started my day the same way: with the same 20-something 20somethings. We all wanted to learn how to Act. At some point we all had dreams of being the next Sarah Bernhardt or Tom Cruise. We all did our Animal Work, resulting in a literal and proverbial zoo. (If I remember correctly Ebs Burnough’s snake ended up cornering my tamarind monkey underneath a chair. It was, actually, pretty traumatizing). We used metaphors to work on Chekhov; my Masha was “a runaway train.” We had our fair share of Meisner repetitions, which is especially amusing during understated Pinter dialogue. (“Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you LIKE some TEA?” and so forth..)
The reality of the 21st century is your undergraduate degree is pretty irrelevant. With few exceptions, your BA or BS (or BSSP in my case) is simply a necessity – you will not be considered for most well paid positions without finishing college, but that’s about it. It is now simply a hurdle, no longer a certification. The first day of our program, my acting teacher – who was also the department chair – reminded us that theatre is actually an excellent training for almost anything. And he’s right. I often tell people I have a degree in collaboration, communication, and executing projects on time and under budget. That’s pretty relevant in any position. (He also told us not to sleep with each other. I find that’s still a pretty good tidbit.)
I often don’t get into the nitty-gritty of what an acting class is really like, because it perpetuates a certain stereotype that all actors are crazy and dumb and self-indulgent. Which we are. But who needs to reinforce that?
But my acting teacher taught me countless lessons about far more than “just” acting – about work, and about life. These are just a few.
1. “There are three parts of your life: your work, your primary relationship, and your home. If two outta three are good, you will be happy.”
This was part of a series of lectures our senior year designed to prepare us (aka: frighten us) for the reality of being a working actor. “Your first years out of school your working life will not be fulfilling – so find a great apartment and a lover because otherwise you’ll be miserable.” I have often returned to this advice over the years because it’s accurate no matter what your profession. Work sucks? Make your house a refuge and go on a date. Love life sucks? Pour yourself into work and repaint your bedroom. It’s a simple triad, but its true — and more importantly, it works.
2. “What do you know about this?”
I heard my teacher repeat this phrase a thousand times. A successful actor simply presents a mirror to the audience – and shows them themselves. In order to do that, as an actor, you have to recognize yourself in a role. You must be human. You must reveal yourself in the most vulnerable, honest, sometimes ugly ways. (It’s no wonder that so many actors and artists are alcoholics and drug addicts – the simultaneous pressure and fear of this can be unbelievable destructive.)
Now, in my day-to-day life, when I approach something somehow foreign, something scary, possibly insurmountable, I am able to stop and ask: “What do I know about this?” What part of this is familiar? Where can I find a toehold in this seemingly unscalable mountain? Because there is always a toehold. And once you find one, you find another. And before you know it, you’re halfway up.
3. “Let it land.”
This is a hard lesson to learn, especially when you repeat the same lines over and over, night after night. You already know the realization the audience should have – you have had it with other audiences a hundred times already. But each and every audience is different, new, and you take them on that journey for the first time. When you deliver an especially key line – Let it land. This is so true in everyday life I cannot emphasize it enough. In my current profession (fundraising) it is an invaluable lesson. If you can present to someone all of the information, with just enough of a hint, and you can restrain yourself enough to Let it Land – they will come to the conclusion on their own to support you. You have not convinced them, you have helped them convince themselves. This is vitally important, because once you go away – they are still convinced. And, possibly more important, they are now in the position to convince others.
4. “Work in the High Thin Branches.”
This is just as scary in real life as it is on stage. It’s so easy in a role to “phone it in;” to play at an emotion instead of playing it. The metaphor here is this: when you’re climbing a tree, the safe place to stop is in the first fork in the trunk. The branches are thick as your torso, and there to support you and if you do fall, it’ll only be four or five feet and you’re likely to not break any bones. The higher you get, the more flimsy your support, the more careful you must be – because one misstep and suddenly you’re plummeting to your death. So why on earth would anyone climb to the treetops? First, because of the view. It’s amazing what you can see from up there. And, possibly more importantly, the exhilaration. As an actor, it’s amazing what you can see and experience in the “high, thin branches.” It’s amazing how you feel.
The same is true in life. The greater the risk, the great the return. If you always stick to what you know, and where you feel safe, you will not grow, you will not develop, and you will not accomplish great things. There are thousands of adages that encourage this (‘leap and the net will appear’ and all that) – and I think there are so many because it is so very difficult to do. The fact of the matter is, working in the “high, thin branches” can be exhausting – always watching your step, getting vertigo from looking down – but it can also be the most fulfilling place to work.
5. Don’t be a professional artist unless you have to be.
Our summer reading before our acting class started, we were assigned Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke. This is not an easy read, for so many reasons. The core of the first letter is: Do not do this because you want to do it. Do it because you have to do it. I’m pretty convinced that half of my acting teacher’s job was to weed out the weak ones and convince the rest of us that acting was the worst profession. In reality, it’s the best lesson he could have taught me. There is no romance in constant instability. There is no pleasure in auditions (a good ratio: 100 auditions to 1 callback. Imagine if that were a dating scenario, or any other job search). Acting is brutal. And somewhere in those three years, I realized I simply was not cut out to be a professional actor. There were other things that were too important to me.
The next thing he taught me, though, was just as important and is still core to my sense of self now: You will always be an actress. Getting paid for it is a silly way to judge whether you are something or not. And frankly, the most important things to me, those most core to who I am, are things I will never be paid to do. That’s okay. Your job is just a part of your life’s work.
6. Do not put anything in an email you wouldn’t want the world to read.
Alas, this was not a lesson he was trying to teach, but it was taught all the same. The year after I graduated, and two years before his impending retirement, my acting teacher sent an email to one of his students. I cannot say I know the full details – nor do I feel comfortable repeating any, rumor mill being what it is, and all – but he sent an inappropriate email to a student. You can only imagine the ensuing drama, but needless to say he went on a year-long sabbatical and then retired and I have no idea what happened to his pension or anything… And honestly, I have learned this lesson myself once or twice. We all make mistakes.
And that, perhaps, is the best lesson my teacher ever taught me. For three years, I think he brought us on a personal and spiritual journey about learning who we were, and what we were capable of. Nearly ten years later, I still draw on the things I learned from him almost every day. And yet, he made one bad decision that ended his career. Do I choose to remember him by that? No. I don’t. But instead, I choose to remember him as a human being. All his flaws, all his idiosyncrasies, but also all the joy he brought us, and challenges he made, the lectures and the encouragement and the love.