explore & enjoy.

#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

#6 Click on the image to visit my WORKROOM board on Pinterest. &/or create one of your own!

are credited at the end of each blog post.

« Embrace the Crisis 11/8/12 | Main | Bad Material/Good Audition 10/19/12 »

To Compete Or To Create  10/27/12

          Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative
people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on
the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten
traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the
mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows,
creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows

From a NY Times op-ed article, The Creative Monolopy. The idea: how the competitive mind-set serves to undermine creativity. Creativity & competition = polar opposites.

From my vantage point in the workroom, the lure of the competitive arena is tricky. Winning is fun. 

Competition, after all, is kind of all-American. & for some, in small doses, it's healthy. But when actors come through my door consumed first & foremost with besting the competition, I smell disaster. In most cases the mind-set useful for the track meet / gladiator ring only serves to smother the actor's talent. 

Ours is an extraordinarily competitive profession. Some estimate a ratio of 3 - 400 actors (depending on how you count it) submitted for every available job. Which suits the industry’s wonky law of supply & demand: to function optimally it needs a large pool of actors available & ready to work (i.e. unemployed) at all times. Add to that the sheer number of jobs actors interview for during the course of a career. Under these circumstances no wonder it feels like a race / battle / fight to the dreath. 

Recently a talented actress I coach, let’s call her Kay, went up for a recurring role on a series that about 300 other accomplished, well-known actresses also were in the running for. How did she know? The casting director via her agent inadvertently sent her the full list of everyone being considered. She showed it to me. All were industry if not household names. Most had at least one series-lead credit. I looked at the list in horror. Kay's name was not on it. How could this not sabatoge her mind-set?

At least half the women on the list were marked as “available & interested” & I'm sure they were. It was a good role for a woman over 50 on a good show. I felt for my client & everyone else on the list as well: the paucity of good roles for actresses of a certain age is gut-wrenching.

But no one is immune. During my first summer as a non-equity actress at Williamstown, I overheard Christopher Reeve on the pay-phone in the backstage hall-way talking to his agent. He was devastated that he was not being considered for a role that someone else had been offered. I was astonished. At this point in time he was already a movie star. I was naive enough to think that once you reached a certain level, the sense of being in a contest went away. 

What happens to the actor when winning the race & beating out the competition hold sway? Here's what Brooks has to say about what happens in politics: "Candidates enter politics wanting to be authentic & change things. But once the candidates enter the campaign, they stop focusing on how to be change-agents. They & their staff spend all their time focusing on beating the other guy. They hone the skills of one-upsmanship. They get engulfed in a tit-for-tat competition to win the news cycle. Instead of being new & authentic, they become artificial mirror opposites of their opponents."

Easy to translate to acting: I bet you know the routine as well as I do. You start thinking a whole lot more about what you don’t want to do rather than what you want to do. "I don’t want to make that choice because I'm afraid that's what everyone else will do." / "I'm not going to follow my instincts because it might not be what they want." / "I don't want to risk taking it slow / fast / emotionally / unemotionally --" whatever my idea is. "Forget about what my voices are telling me, my strategy is to differentiate myself from everyone else & at the same time, figure out what I think they want & give them that." 

Thinking about setting yourself apart from the competition & second-guessing what they're looking for means you also relentlessly stratigize about how how you should “be” as a person --  how you come off in the audition, rehearsal, on set. / Do I make small talk? / shake hands? / shut up? / be aloof? / be personable? / etc.? A wonderful & risky idea that came to you in the middle of the night now seems like a massive faux-pas as you wait for your name to be called. A spate of joblessness seems to require a re-think of your entire self-presentation. Instead of playing to win, you are playing not to lose.  

Back to Mr. Grotowski. In that NYU lecture that I mentioned in my last post, the celebrated Polish director said something else that stayed with me all these many years. He asked us not to only think about how we were running on our chosen path. But to ask ourselves if we were running on the right path.  

I now think running on the the right path = not playing. It means ignoring the competition, the mind-numbing statistics, even blatent evidence of the show-biz facts of reality. Years ago I interviewed Frank Langella for my book about acting Chekhov. Our conversation veered to how he dealt with the insurmountable odds that actors face. Early on, he said, someone tried very hard to talk him out of being an actor -- saying how difficult he would be to cast, how competitive the business was in general, how few actors ended up with a career, how he in particular would have a hard time, etc. I'll never forget Frank's attitude, his succinct reply. “All this may be true,” he finally said to this unencouraging person. “But it doesn’t apply to me.”

How liberating is that? When you make a conscious decision not to compete, you open the door to becoming fully & supremely yourself. You’re undisturbed by the competition because you're steeped in the principle that no one else can be you. You’re not trying to be anyone else, not second-guessing, not caring whether your name is on the list. You see for the first time that there isn't even a playing field.

Sylvia Plath once said: "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." In my experience, self-doubt stems from being more involved in competing than being connected to your creative vision, your mission statement for yourself. (What is your mission statement for yourself, by the way?)

When you're fully centered in your mission & your values, your unique identity starts manifesting as your own particular "brand." According to Brooks, that means "doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity." When that happens, casting people say, you become the only person they can think of for a particular role. No competition.

We all know actors like that, don't we? Singular. They have stayed true to who they are. They embrace their strengths instead of trying to cultivate their weaknesses. They are competitive to the extreme when it comes to fully connecting to & mastering the role. But they compete only with themselves. Here's Olympia Dukakis, from in her wonderful book Ask Me Again Tomorrow: “Thankfully, it became clear to me that when I compete, I lose my connection to the passion I have for my work.”  

The more you try to adapt your unique and only-you brand to what you think someone else is doing better, or what you perceive "they" want --the more you divest yourself from the sources of your talent. Like someone from a small town in Nebraska trying to pretend she’s cosmopolitan: you cancel out your unique strengths. (I don't mean that you are should never act a role that is the opposite of yourself, just that you must honor who you are while doing so.) And since what you are trying or pretending to be doesn't really exist, you're left with nothing.

Wear on the outside who you are & where you're from & what you stand for, rather than hiding it on the inside. Discipline yourself to focus only on what your instincts tell you to do with the role, rather than imagining what your competition might do. Center yourself in your creative dream, what you're dying to say as an artist. Articulate, explain to yourself why you want to play this particular role. Create a monopoly on a certain kind of thing no one else can touch but you. 

& with consciousness & intention let’s move away from war & sports metaphors when it comes to talking about our work, shall we? We all want to celebrate our friends' success & Facebook is a great way to keep up with what all our actor pals are doing. But instead of trumpeting "I got the job!" -- I wish we would all say things like: “I'm going to play the role of a journalist on a new tv show. It hooks into something I've always wanted to do/say about…" In other words: what is the creative win for you?

I love these wilderness / road-less-taken metaphors. Here’s Alan Alda: “Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort zone and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.”

POST IMAGE: anyone know what this image is? Have had it in a file for a while & can't identify source. Help appreciated!.

QUESTION: What would it mean to you to do your work without feeling any sense of competition? If there actually was no competition, what would you do differently?

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Reader Comments (4)

"You’re undisturbed by the competition because you're steeped in the principle that no one else can be you." I think that this is the key to booking a job, yes? All of the jobs that I've actually been paid for have been for things that are closest to me. And even apart from paid work-every note from every teacher/coach/director to me is always, "show me more you." We can have a whole other debate as to whether or not that's actually "acting" but sometimes it's really just "talking" and revealing your authentic self is a great deal more challenging than "acting" is for most people. I feel way more competitive auditioning for a stage role than I do on camera because there is always the temptation on stage to be more than you are...but when there's a 1080p HD camera on your face- just being yourself has to be good enough, right?

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Francis O'Brien

Sometimes I think acting really means being able to do a brilliant imitation of yourself in all your different manifestations -- the you who is a grown-up, a 5 year old, a fuck-up, a perfectionist, a sexual being, a nerd, etc. I think all of us have all of that, but we don't always know how to do a really, really good take-off of ourself!

But most of all, and it's something I'm going to write about, after a long, long time of trying to find it, I no longer think there is any one "KEY" to it all. Depending on the audition, the moment in time, the place you are with with your work, their is a whole set of "keys". Call it 50 Shades of Acting! There are all different things you need to have available depending on the circumstances in order to get turned on, as it were, by the work.

And though we struggle most with the audition, actually being uniquely who you are matters more once you're working on the role. Because the audition is your sketch of the part, the role is your work that you put out to the world. I am astonished, often, by actors who I think have such great potential not manifesting 1/2 of it in the finished piece of work. So not only how to you get the job, but how do you REALIZE the role. Thanks so much, John for your through-provoking words!

October 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterJeanie Hackett

The opening quote from David Brooks about creative traits, or the traits of creative people (not necessarily the same thing) are thought-provoking.

Where others turn the big What If? into fences they only want to climb once, or twice, creatives persist beyond the muggles' pale, to embrace the big What If in a positive way, until it becomes What If and Then, Yes!

Jeannie's case for identifying and embracing one's own creative voice and spirit, and letting that be the guiding light rather than the compelling backseat driver, competitiveness, speaks, I am sure, speaks to storytellers in any language, not only actors, but sculptors of words, music, and other.kinds of creative output.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKylie Lawrence

Kylie, Love the "what if" way of thinking about it. I guess I feel, looking back at my own artistic path when I was younger, competitiveness was often my driving motivation. My own creative voice & spirit was not, as you put so well, my "guiding light." My friend Olympia Dukakis once said to me -- your reasons for doing the work change as you get older -- and it was such a relief to find out this was true. And yes -- I think this concept does go beyond acting & even beyond artistic endeavors. Brooks column, after all, was about politicians!

November 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterJeanie Hackett

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