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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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Friday
Feb132015

Process = Power 

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What if, what if … as kids, as adults, we got praise & recognition not for our intelligence or talent or achievements … but for our effort? What if there was a game that scored points not for wins but for progress? For developing ever more sophisticated strategies, building perseverance & improvement over time? What if the quality of our effort became our sole criteria for self-evaluation?

What if this year we stop beating ourselves up (or even praising ourselves!) for the results that come, or don't come, of our efforts? Instead, what if we focused on defining achievement as our willingness to embrace challenge, to grow, to improve? What if the words "success" & "failure" could take on a whole new meaning in our actor-lives?

Up against talent / career challenges, I see actors take two different approaches. For Group #1, the process of career management i.e. getting an agent / job / series / networking / marketing, etc. exists as a necessary evil. It's seen as something distasteful that needs be gotten out of the way, or avoided. This group chafes against the real & true difficulties of our world: industry politics & unfairness / the overwhelming amount of competition / having to "sell yourself" / the impossibility of justs getting in the door, being seen.

& then, there's all that other stuff: insecurity & angst about looks & "chops" & confidence. .. If we're really being honest we have to admit that even when the opportunity presents itself, sometimes we just don't have skills to nail it. Or, we have the skills to nail it -- we know we do! -- but we don't have the confidence. These difficulties are seen as painful, unwelcome obstacles.

Group #2 (& I've been a member of both) is not immune to actor-angst. But somewhere along the way, these artists cultivated another way to respond to difficulty. In this group, obstacles are not perceived as the enemy. Difficulty becomes a teacher, failure a font of wisdom, struggle a signal to ask for help. This group uses what goes wrong as a way to grow & refine their effort / perseverance / strategy. A challenge doesn't hold the prospect of revealing lack, it holds the opportunity to discover what we have yet to master.

A Ted Talk I listened to recently inspired some of my thoughts on this subject. Check it out: Carol Dweck on The Power of Believing You Can Improve. She talks about an experimental school program that replaced a failing grade with a "Not Yet" grade -- & the powerful psychic difference between an "F" & "Not Yet." There is nothing negative in "Not Yet." There is future promise in "Not Yet." There is faith in the power to improve.

Dweck reports radical changes that occurred in 2 poor-performing public grade schools in the study. Within one year of implementing the "Not Yet" grading process, these schools moved from the bottom to the top 2%. But it was not just "Not Yet" that caused this big shift. Teachers & parents learned how to encourage & praise their children & for what. "Praise wisely," Dweck says. "Don't praise kids for their intelligence or talent. Praise the process kids engage in. Praise their progress. Praise their willingness to try again & again & again."

I'm the daughter of a first-generation Italian immigrant. Brave people like my Italian grandparents who left all they knew behind to come to this country seem to carry a genetic predisposition to value nothing but ACHIEVEMENT & SUCCESS. Maybe that's what it took to get here. They learned to be willfully deaf, dumb & blind to everything else. The quest for this bulldozes everything in its path. For the children of immigrants, learning to evaluate on any other terms but hard-core "achievment" & "success" = what learning a new language, a new culture, a new world, must have been for their parents. 

Recently, I vented to my therapist about a "result" I didn't get, on a project I worked long & hard on. I sat in her Sherman Oaks office spewing forth anger & frustration about the situation & myself. After about a half hour, ad nauseam, of this, she stopped me. "Look at what you actually did," she said. "Look at what you made. Look at how hard you worked. Applaud yourself for your effort."

"So what," I shot back. "I should've done so much better!" She laughed. "Under the circumstances you describe? Who could do their best work under those circumstances?" I sputtered a bit.  "Well, then I should have had the balls to … [take another action.] I didn't & so it wasn't …" "Perfect?" she said. That was it! "YES! YES! YES!" I said, "& it could have been!"

"But," she asked me, "was it not good enough?"

... True. It had been "good enough." At least for the press & people whose opinions I respected. It just wasn't good enough for me, for my vision. & so to me that meant … somehow … it was a failure. The idea of applauding myself for my effort, my perseverance, my tenacity in the face of obstacles, my tirelessness indefatigability! -- (& I had all those things!) -- never occurred to me! It never occurred to me that that was the accomplishment. Period.

For me the problem is not believing that these values exist, but that they have real currency. Okay, good for them, those 1st graders. But really … improvement? Does that really count, in the long run?

This goes back to the nature / nurture clash surrounding acting & all the arts. You know, the "you've either got it or you don't. Either you're a natural or you're not. On the "nature" side: acting can't be taught.  Nothing you do to "improve" or "grow" changes that.

& on the "nurture" side: technique, craft, hard work, & optimism sprinkled with a liberal measure of innate talent holds the potential to change the world. (As usual, Shakespeare embraced all possibilities: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, & some have greatness thrust upon them.")

Bottom line: is great talent a gift of the gods? Or the result of a nascent gift + really, really, really hard work? Can I truly believe in "not yet?" Or is it all set in stone from the outset? 

I love Stephen King's book On Writing. He talks here about the difference between good, great & bad writers.

         "Writers form themselves in the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent & human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large & welcoming; these are the competent writers.
        The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them -- above almost all of us -- are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Shaws, the Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren't able to understand themselves, & many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones & with the breasts which fit the image of an age.
        …while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, & while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible with lots of hard work, dedication, & timely help, to make a very good writer out of a merely competent one."


I am endeavoring to think along these lines, too. Hard work. Persistence. Dedication. Progress. It's kind of easy to cheap with acting; sometimes we can "pass" even when we don't deserve to. We haven't really done the work, but we're pretty & likable & sound good reading aloud. & sometimes we let that give us a false sense of security. & we come to think we don't have to do much more than that. We forget what hard work really means. +, acting isn't as exacting as all the other arts. Sometimes acting is just about walking & talking like a human being, & hey, who can't do that?  

Unlike actors, musicians & ballet dancers & Olympic athletes & writers take for granted that effort, repetition & perseverance over long stretches of time -- mostly in the absence of the muse -- paves the path to virtuosity. Practice, practice, practice. Athletes train. Dancers dance. Writers write. These people have an inviolable daily routine. They go at it for hours a day, every day. Actors … unless we are highly in demand & working constantly … is our process really in the same league?

30 years ago, in scene study class with master teacher/director Nikos Psacharopoulos, I remember an actress bursting into tears after putting up a scene. Because, she said, she could never get it right. It didn't matter how hard she tried when she got to class it didn't go right. "Why do you assume it's going to go right?" Nikos asked incredulously. "We rehearse in order to deal with all the many things that can go wrong. You need to be in rehearsal 5,6,7 hours a day for 4 or 5 weeks to find out how it goes right. Until then, it always goes wrong. Until then, forget it!"

When you devalue everything but the perfect results (i.e. booking the job / being the best actor in the room / winning awards, etc.) -- when everything next to that doesn't count or isn't "enough" -- then the texture of your day-to-day life feels like "I haveta." Instead of "I wanna." "I haveta" is how someone who is not enough feels all the time. "I wanna" is how you feel when you relax about achievement & success. (Stephen King again.)
 
& really, what is it, anyway? Anyone who has been there knows it's never what it's cracked up to be. As Kevin Spacey said recently: "Success is like death. The more successful you become, the higher the houses in the hills get & the higher the fences get."

So, let's come at this from a different direction. Let's allow the words success & difficulty to take on new meaning. Let's ban perfect & celebrate good enough. As Dweck says: "Process the error, learn from it, correct it. You may not quite be ready for every challenge. Let that be okay. Let 'not yet' be okay."

I'm always talking in class about the primacy of process in the work. I guess what I'm talking about now is the primacy of process in everything else. In a way, this 'grow & improve' mindset needs to extend to everything we do. So that we claim it as part of who we are, as our way of being in the world. We begin to see that staying in process = power when it comes to the art & the business of acting -- & also when it comes to things like our health & relationships &, oh, everything! -- Cooking & reading & relaxing & exercise & money. To fully reap the power of process in the creative space, we must embrace it holistically. I've mentioned this here before, but it bears repeating. Again, Nikos Psacharopoulos, one of my favorite quotes of all time: All great art is about a way of living. 

So … what about you? Could it also serve you this year to be okay with "good enough?" & to let "good enough" be about how you did the work, rather than the results you racked up? You worked hard on the audition & showed up! A+! You went to acting class & struggled with aspects of technique that challenge you. A+! The manager you interviewed with didn't pick you up. Not Yet. You increased your skills & understanding by reading, writing, meditating. A+! You acted in / changed the scenery for / produced / directed the show, & it all came together because of the quality of your effort! A+! You worked hard & didn't get the part. Not Yet. You came up against a challenge & felt motivated & willing to tackle it. Triple A+.

Yes?

My 2 resololutions for 2015:

1. To remember: If I continue to grow my ability to make a quality effort, to deepen my dedication & perseverance; to work toward ever more nuanced strategies for my art & my career … if I aim for growth & improvement first, I will then be in full possession of success.

2. To resolve: I will not be perfect. Well, I can't be, anyway. & I don't have to be perfect. I am "good enough." & good enough is enough to rock the world.

& Oh, yes. Slow down. All of us. Breathe. Talk nice to ourselves. But most of all, slow down.

New Year's & Valentine's kisses & love, in solidarity!

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Reader Comments (7)

GREAT STUFF, Jeanie!!!! It's so true. We beat ourselves too much over the head. At the same time, sometimes we take the stuff we gotta do for granted. But we forget to be Grateful for what we have, which can make all the difference in how we feel. Great post!!

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJAVI MULERO

this philosophy makes complete sense to me. I'm struggling with my process as I prepare a work and also process of how I deal with submitting to circumstances . It's a constant need to redirect oneself back into the circumstances... Make it so important to you that you can't think about anything else such as the audience ect... That's where I've gotten to on process so far this year. I'm really grateful this has been the focus of this year. The struggle is also where our power comes from.. Must remember this for later- writing it clarified something. Thank you Jeanie!

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKate stone

Really intrigued by this idea and see the stagnation that unwarranted praise creates in me and others. I have been in acting classes where the teacher gives constant positive reinforcement, "Oh you are so talented... that was so good... yes.. yes... yes" and although it feels good in the moment, it makes you sit back a bit. There is always more you can do, further you can go, new areas to explore. Seen the contrary in myself in plays as well. The productions that make me look back with pride, are not the ones where the director told us good job. They are the ones where the director said, "you can do more" and "keep working. keep trying new things". The fuel of new ideas and pushed boundaries feeds the actor, not praise of talent. I am going to keep this in mind as a new way to think about auditioning, not getting the job pushes me to work harder- that's something. I am growing so I am succeeding. And Yes, I am stealing your new years resolutions too.

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Barot

There are so many paradoxes for actors. Work begets work, union struggles, craft vs. business... the list is endless. One can begin to feel boxed in by a 3-sided square...er, triangle. We sit here thinking that the harder we work and white knuckle and buckle down, the faster we will see results. And we are nothing if not creatures of validation (we work for applause, after all.) And, of course, if we are working that hard and not seeing results than surely all of the anxiety is getting in the way of allowing ourselves to be present and accepting and impulsive, which is what allegedly makes a great actor, anyway, right? We take all of these little steps and beg someone to notice them and validate them and when they don't...we feel defeated.
But then there is the other side, of course. The side where things just land in our lap. Where we meet someone in the Trader Joes in studio city and strike up a conversation and wind up in their play reading six months later. So maybe all of those little horrible self-marketing-y un-fun actor-y steps we've taken and not gotten results from, have all magically come together in some really big way. Maybe we didn't get the instant satisfaction, or 'A+' as it were of booking the job, but we connected some other dot that will come into play in our future.
What I'm saying (in a very roundabout way,) is that I'm trying to stop looking for direct lines to draw from effort to success. I'm trying to make big efforts and celebrate tiny successes and think LESS about which ones led to which results and WHO THE HELL IS NOTICING. Of course I'm really really bad at it. And I have a lot of work to do and a lot of 2 buck chuck to get through. And the idea of flexing our muscles (in the same way an athlete or musician or writer would) is like at least 50% of the uphill battle. We should be taking acting classes...making the EFFORT to drive out of our way and focus for 3 hours after a long 8-hour day working a survival job. SO that we stay in shape and are ready for the opportunity that slaps us in the side of the face when we least expect it. Because it's easy to tell someone you haven't worked as an actor in 2015. It's harder to say, "not yet." :)

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Lester

This post really resonated me. In a culture where perfection is praised, it is often easy to lose sight of what really matters. It is hard to let go of the need to be perfect. I often struggle from the desire to keep up with those around me. But, there is no perfection in acting. The best performances can't be diligently planned. Acting is messy; it is the imperfection that makes for great performances. When I remember to let go and have fun, trusting I have done my work to the best of my abilities, the space is opened for the truly exciting moments to happen. When I work from a place of desperation and a need to be perfect, the work is unfulfilling and hardly any good. When I watch actors working from a place of joy, I am truly captivated. I too will be stealing your resolutions, and will tell myself that yes, I am "good enough."

March 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSam J. Thompson

Well my odds look pretty good so why not? :)
For me, I only have to remember one thing and everything else takes care of itself: I am telling a story. I've got to get that story across, and the process of doing that, of finding the story the writer is telling, of choosing actions, intentions, movements, sounds, emphases, that might communicate that story to an audience and performing those things the best I can, that process is the same whether it's for your four friends who showed up to the theatre on Tuesday night, for a camera in a casting office or on a set, for an agent in an office - anywhere! It's the same process. Even if there were a "perfect" way to do all this, as the performer it isn't up to me to make that determination because I am not telling the story to myself! I'm doing it for you, for the audience, for the camera - it's up to them to tell me if they have received the story. If they did: Success! If they did not: back to the process I go! What action, what intention, what emphasis, what movement might I alter in order for the audience to understand the story tomorrow night? For take two? Take three? Take four? Sure, sometimes there is no tomorrow night. Sometimes there is no take two. But that's somebody else's decision - that's got nothing to do with what my job is. The more I engage in the process - the more I learn about how my choices influence the transmission of STORY - the more effective I become at my job and the more free I become from concerns that are not my job. For me that is how process becomes power.

March 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPete Larney

And I want to add one thing. I wrote about process as a source of power in the work, but I also want to say something about the power of process in terms of, well, mental health. Every actor is fundamentally engaged in the same process: making choices in service of a story. No matter how "talented" or "genius" an actor may be, no matter how much money, awards or credits they have, that actor is engaged in the same process that I am engaged in. Knowing that, really knowing and understanding that, allows me to learn from and be inspired by the great ones, by the phenomenally successful ones, rather than worshiping and comparing myself to them. Actors are put on pedestals because, for the corporations that invest in them, it's good business. But it's not my business. The process is.

March 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPete Larney

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