Around this time last year I was just outside of Los Angeles being drive to the San Diego airport by my older brother. As career and lifestyle go we couldn’t be more opposite. I’m an artist, he works a blue-collar job. I jam on craft beer and running, he has a love affair with Corona and his 500 horsepower speedboat that spends the summers on Lake Havasu. I’ve lived in 20 different apartments over the last ten years, he’s owned his house for twenty-five. You get the picture.
I love my brother but I find it difficult to connect with him sometimes. On this trip though, three hours to kill in a car, the subject came around to his favorite sport: Golf. He was trying to put into words what a great round of golf feels like.
“You’re lining up the shot and all you can worry about is your breath and that ball. You don’t think about the last shot, good or bad. You aren’t thinking about the shot ahead of you. You’ll put yourself right in your head by doing that. You are taking this shot, and the club and the little ball at the end of it are all that exist.”
Holy fucking shit.
My brother was talking about moment to moment. We were sitting in a car connecting over an abstract concept that could be applied to a.) acting and b.) a game that originated in 1457 Scottland, where James II banned the game as an unwelcome distraction to learning archery.
I am still amazed by how often I encounter things in the world that, on their surface, appear to have little or no application to acting, but are revealed to be the opposite on closer examination. Running is another example. Four years ago I picked up running a few times a week with a neighbor. By no one’s definition would I have been a “runner.” I was a person who ran. Sometimes I would go and sometimes I wouldn’t, sometimes I would fall off the wagon for weeks or months. Slowly though my mindset changed. I can’t put my finger on exactly when, but somewhere in the miles, the early mornings, the injuries and recoveries and new shoes, I became a runner with six half marathons, two full marathons, and an ultra marathon (but who’s counting?) under my belt (or soles).
Acting class can feel the same as my morning run. There are some days when I just don’t want to go. Beware the asshole who tells you running is easy. It’s hard, and some runs are harder than others. Those are the mornings when my mantra becomes “one more step, one more step.” My legs hurt and I’m short of breath and the idiot driving the white Mazda almost clipped me on that corner. But when the run is over and I’m stretching or dragging my sweaty person into my local coffee shop where the house brew is pleasantly mediocre, I never feel like it was a waste of time.
A mentor once asked me why I wanted to be an actor. I responded with something I once heard another actor say, that I do it because there is something wrong with the world and I don’t know how to fix it. Pretty words, but I’m not convinced at the time I knew what they meant. Recently the director of a show I worked on said in his closing night speech to the cast that Theatre is at once the most selfish and selfless thing a person can do with their life. The rewards in this industry are great, the number who reap those rewards few.
Something is definitely wrong with the world and I definitely don’t know how to fix it. What I do know though is that anyone who has ever taken the stage in the pursuit of truth is privy to a secret. Playwrights have been writing about the same things for thousands of years: love, family, betrayal, heartbreak, hatred, death. Sophocles to Shakespeare, Brecht to Baker, the names and the places change but the question is always the same. What is it to be human? The secret that actors know when they step on stage, conscience or not, is that emotion is universal. We approach a character through ourselves which means my jealousy is different from Max’s, Max’s from Christina’s, Christina’s from Sean’s. Yet the word jealousy sets off something in each of us which is why an actor can inhabit the body of hundreds of characters. I can’t help but think that if everyone understood this concept then it would go a long way toward solving some of the problems the world is facing now.
I can never go back to the person I was before I was a runner. It is a part of me now and I can’t be concerned with how long that will be true. What I can be concerned with is lacing my shoes up in the morning and stepping out the door on the days when I want to, and even more importantly on the days when I don’t. My focus is each step, that little white ball resting gently on the grass, the scene partner sitting across from me.
As a final thought, there is a buddhist saying taught to me by a dear friend that I often fall back on. The saying is another one of those things that is just as applicable to acting as it is to life for me. It reads:
“Lost in a self-centered dream, only suffering.
Believing in self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream.
Life without the self, the path to liberation.
Being just this moment, compassion’s way.”