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#1 me, watching an actor work.
photo: Geoffrey Wade

#2 Matisse's "workroom" The Red Studio, where there are no hands on the clock & most everything is unreal but the art.

#3 A letter from Tennessee Williams a few weeks after he cast me in his Vieux Carre at the theater bearing his name in Key West. He died about one week before we started rehearsals.
photo: my iphone

#4 The cast of La Ronde, performed by my students in Antaeus' A2 company, directed by Young Ji.
photo: Geoffrey Wade

#5 The artist's studio from my production of Cousin Bette by Jeffery Hatcher, set design by Tom Buderwitz.
photo: Michele K. Short

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Thursday
Oct112012

Talent & Personality  10/12/12

     Thankfully, persistence is a great substitute for talent. 
STEVE MARTIN / / The progress of an artist is a continual self-
sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. 
T.S. ELLIOT / / Genius
is personality with two measures of talent. 
PABLO PICASSO 


All of us know incredibly talented people who can't get arrested. & we know people with one or two notes in their range who work all the time. What accounts for this?

How does who we are -- our values, our background, our strengths & weakness, our ability to manage our relationships (or not), keep impulses in check (or not), exercise self-discipline & positive self-esteem (or not) -- impact on our talent & our capacity for great work?  

The duality of talent & personality fascinates me. It informs the space of every coaching session & class I teach & my journey in my own acting work. It’s a dense, complex topic. I’ve written a lot about this for my next acting book: this post is part one of many more to come.

I don’t think there’s one obvious answer, i.e. get thyself mentally healthy & voila: the path to greatness. The wonderfully talented Sean Penn even while accepting an Oscar acknowledged his personality deficits, which are clearly both his vice & his virtue. He thanked people for appreciating him in his role, then added, “And I know I don’t always make it easy for you to appreciate me!”  

As we all know, highly successful, narcissistic brats prance around on every set. At the same time I sometimes think there are no nicer, kinder, humbler human beings to be found anywhere than actors who are not just talented, but supremely talented.   

I'm starting here just by posing questions. & as we go, I want share observations & perceptions from my vantage point as a teacher & coach. Everything I've jotted down for years about acting in all my many notebooks in all different paper & electronic formats circles around this. I am not so much talking about success & personality, though that comes into play along the way. I'm talking about how personality influences / grows / stymies / glorifies / crushes / expedites / paralyzes / feeds & fucks-up your talent. & mine.  

This is not a new concept. The greatest acting teachers have always been able to zero in on specific, idiosyncratic personality traits that serve to release or choke the actor’s gift. (So much so as to sometimes cross a line into dangerous territory that I personally believe belongs in a therapy session & not an acting class.) But I think we're lucky when keenly perceptive teachers & directors flush us out. I keep hearing Nikos Psacharopoulos in great frustration exhorting a group of students working on Uncle Vanya: “You are all so adjusted! Your problems are all so -- solved! But your job is to be maladjusted! Have problems!”

So, back to the million-dollar question: what personality traits are conducive to growing talent & what stifles it? Does talent supported by a highly functional personality = the propensity for great acting? Or, do high scorers for neurotic, dysfuntional behavior rule as most creative? 

Sidetrack: In the late 90's, I stop auditioning/working as an actor for about 4 years, as I tried (unsuccessfully) to have a baby. While injecting myself every morning with various hormones & waiting for the stick to turn blue, I decided to start a class as a way to hold onto my craft & sanity. Forming my own class brought actors to me for private coaching. A few key referrals from a talent manager & some fast success with new clients booking jobs right out of the gate launched a new world for me.

Within six months I was coaching actors 4 or 5 coaching sessions a day, six or seven days a week. Since then I’ve worked with hundreds of actors, one-on-one, sometimes for years. Repeated exposure means we both feel more free to try new things, work faster, go deeper, hit harder, risk more. I couldn't begin to grapple with this topic if not for the intimacy & honesty that comes out of this kind of day-in, day-out ongoing process with so many of you. So, no baby, but -- a different kind of gift that I can care for & help grow for in a similar way. 

The vibe of the talent/personality meta-problem is pervasive in my studio-workroom. Insightful text analysis & sussing out strong, interesting choices emerged early on as only the half of it. The elephant in the room, the -- boom! -- the really big deal: how does the actor’s talent manifest under pressure? How do aspects of personality -- fears, insecurities, desires, self-control, anger etc.-- swamp or support the expression of her talent?

One clear answer from the trenches: nothing is either "good" or "bad" when it comes to shaping talent. When any character trait is harnessed in service of the work, all is terrific. When this same trait is enlisted (consciously or sub-consciously) in service of self-sabotage -- horrific.

Personally -- oh yes, been there, done that. Knowing intimately the writhing, pounding-on-the-steering-wheel agony of getting in my own way. Coasting along on a breeze of confidence for years -- & then all of sudden -- second-guessing & over-thinking everything. A twitch under my eye as the camera rolls. Perfectly memorized lines drying up in the call-back for producers. Overtaken by -- what? Fear? Self-consciousness? Insecurity? A jolt of adrenaline? The flight or fight response in a situation that didn't merit either of those? Anyone know what I’m talking about?

Through the years, I start documenting things I observe in myself & others. I ask actors to report back to me after each audition, day on set, rehearsal. I report back to myself, in my own audition journal. &, in my workroom, I experiment. My actors & I come at it all different ways. We rinse & repeat. We stumble on / develop some solid techniques for confronting & being fully present to the “meta,” as I like to call it. I see movement, in myself & in my clients. More on these as we go.

But this I am certain of: there is no one “key.” Or, if there is a key, it is radically different for every individual & different for every type of audition / work experience. 

Talent & Personality = has for a long time been the title of my next acting book. Consider this the intro: much much more to come.

QUESTION: what do you want to talk about on this topic? My "inspiration stream" posits a lot of questions. What questions do you wonder about regarding the relationship between talent & personality in other actors? What are you interested in when you look at yourself?

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Reader Comments (2)

This is THE conversation every non-celebrity actor has throughout the years, and it's essential to have it in a constructive, uncluttered way. I ADORE what you wrote, it all resonates, and it inspires me to continue to clarify the process for myself.
I don't quite get what you mean by juxtaposing or contrasting talent and personality. But thinking about it in this way makes me realize that I usually reject any connection, and refuse to admit that the Personality is often what the people who cast actors are swayed by.
So interesting, such good food for thought here.

October 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEve

Thanks Eve. Trying somewhat to keep the "celebrity" (read massively successful) component out of this -- because celebrities are like the 120,000 families Romney wants to give cuts to -- they seem really big & they get a great big share of the money pie, but they actually are just a sliver compared to the rest of us. Inevitably the topic veers into getting a job, or what is it about certain actors' personalities that make people want to hire them again & again -- but I am really am trying to stick to: How does your personality affect your gift? On my WORKROOM FB Page i just posted a great op-ed article about personality which is appearing in the NY Times today...your comments & questions help me clarify my thoughts, too. It's a hard topic to write an intro to, & looking forward to getting into the rich stuff ahead. I am so happy that my words are resonating with such an amazing actor like you, Eve! Thank you!

October 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterJeanie Hackett

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