Monday, September 21, 2009

life is not a dress rehearsal -- or is it?

I love actors. (I used to be one, so it's fair to say I'm biased.)

The dedication actors put towards mounting a show is amazing -- like marathoners training for a race, or chefs preparing for a banquet. They put so much energy into learning lines, understanding their characters, trying on costumes, mapping out blocking... it's all part of the work. Everything an actor does to prepare his or her role makes for a more fulfilling and galvanizing performance. And good actors take time every day to make sure that they're adequately prepared for opening night.

Another reason I love actors is that they're the perfect metaphor for personal growth.

Personal growth also takes time and energy. While there are no lines to learn, there are lines to unlearn (like the stories we tell ourselves inside our heads, or the beliefs we have about who we have to be) and that process takes quiet time spent with pencil and paper, or in discussion with others. Actors try on the lives of others, but you (assuming you're not an actor) can spend time trying on your OWN life. Studying your own character.

Here are some tips for exploring your own character, taken from my time as an actor:

1. What's my motivation?

When a character walks onstage, generally it's because he/she wants something. The playwright has chosen to show us this moment in time because it matters. In your life, every minute is also valuable, and you, too, are walking around with an agenda. From moment to moment, your motivation can range from "sixteen Oreos sounds like a good idea" to "I want to create world peace," but add up all those moments and there is an overarching agenda that helps define you as a character. Or, you know, a person.

When an actor learns and studies a character, she looks for that big arc (the one that carries the character from the beginning to the end of the play) and then looks at all the moments in between to see whether they are heading the character towards or away from the big picture. You, too, can do this. What is it that you want to do with your life? Who do you want to be? What are you passionate about? If your life were a play, what would you want your character's motivation to be?

Once you discover that, align your moment to moment motivation with that goal.

For example, if your overarching agenda is "to connect with people authentically," then moment to moment actions like writing letters, making phone calls, and having dinner with friends is in better alignment than eating alone, reading books, and playing video games. (Not that the latter are negative things -- they're great -- but they don't serve your character.)

Find more and more ways to connect your character to his/her agenda, and your "performance" will be deeper, richer, and more fulfilling.

2. Be accepting

It is impossible for an actor to fully embody a character on whom he or she is sitting in judgment. I once played the role of a psychic hooker, and there were many times when it would have been easy to say that she was stupid, easy, or a victim (because, hell, she got beaten up even though she was psychic!). But to do that would not have been in service of her, and I would have been warping the playwright's intention.

It's the same with you. You may have days when you FEEL stupid, easy, or like a victim, but if you judge yourself and label yourself that way, you'll never get to what's great about your character. The playing out of your life will ring hollow and false.

Sure, every character has a flaw (or twelve). But that's part of what makes drama so delicious. Think about the people close to you -- they all have flaws, don't they? And you still love them anyway, don't you? Allow your own character to have problems that don't define him or her and see what magic The Great Playwright in the Sky* brings to you.

3. Commit commit commit!

To my mind, there is nothing worse than a flaky or uncommitted actor. It is a profession wrought with challenges and to pursue it half-heartedly doesn't seem worth the (pathetic) effort. So many actors are out there following their heart's desire, and are hellbent on making art and connecting with people in a deep and meaningful way, and we can learn a lot from them.

Those dedicated actors are never late to rehearsal. They are off book when they say they will be. They have done the research on the time period. They're already wearing the character's shoes. They've read other plays by the playwright. They know the character inside and out -- because all of this matters to them.

You can do the same thing in your own life. Show your life some integrity. Be honest, live up to your potential, and commit to being the kind of person you want to be.

The one thing my high school drama teacher, Mr. Luongo, told us over and over and over again was "Be on time. Know your lines." And that means being responsible, reliable, and present.

*I'm painfully aware of the high cheese-factor of this statement.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

frighteningly good words to live by

Dear Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips,

Did you ever listen to the lyrics of your show's theme song? I didn't, not really. I mean, I heard them, I could hum along, and I knew there was stuff about One Day at a Time in there, but it wasn't until recently that I actually sat down and paid attention. (Please don't ask me why.)

"This is it; this is it.
This is life, the one you get,
so go and have a ball!
This is it; this is it,
straight ahead, and rest assured,
you can't be sure at all.
So, while you're here, enjoy the view;
keep on doing what you do.
Hold on tight; we'll muddle through,
one day at a time, one day at a time!
So, up on your feet; up on your feet;
somewhere there's music playing.
Don't you worry none,
just take it like it comes,
one day at a time, one day at a time!"

The show had bad hair, bad clothes, bad comedy, and bad repercussions for the stars afterwards, but I've got to say, all in all? Not bad lyrics.