The Soft Animal of Your Body

Ten years ago, recently out of theatre school, I went to an open call at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, also known as BTF.  I arrived extra early to “warm up and shake off some nerves”, a regular habit for me in those early days. BTF was mounting a production of Moon Children by Michael Weller.  I was sure I would be perfect for this production, I had played the lead (Bob Rettie) in my school’s production of the same play 3 years earlier. Filled with the confidence of youth and my previous experience with the play I was convinced I could secure a role in this production if I had a good audition.  

I was nervous.  All the classic symptoms – sweaty palms, slightly trembling hands, shallow breathing … little beads of sweat piling up on my forehead.  I wanted so badly to have a good audition.

Sitting in the waiting area, knees bouncing up and down, headshot and resume shaking in my hands, an older actor looked over and smiled warmly at me. Thats nice I thought to myself.  Then the monitor called the next name and he went into the audition room.  

Did he know he was next?  He seemed very relaxed for someone who was about to have an audition.  

After his audition, while he was collecting his things, I asked him “How did it go?.”  I was hoping it had been a good audition, he seemed like a nice guy.  Little did I know that I would never forget what he was about to say to me.  He looked me in the eyes, calm, smiling, and said “sometimes you have to let your soft animal out and let it love what it loves” … and then he wished me luck and walked away.

I stood there confused – almost alarmed at this response.

What the hell does that mean?  Soft animal? Did he understand my question? … Am I supposed to know what this soft animal reference means? … is this a professional actor thing that I am too inexperienced to understand? Was this soft animal a good thing or a bad thing? I am so confused.  

Was it what he said or the way he said it that struck such a chord with me?  I remembered those words and thought of them often over the years.  Rarely an audition passed that I didn’t think about … “let your soft animal out and let it love what it loves”

In the following years the auditioning process became a painful one for me.  Fear, confusion, shame, doubt and resentment were the hallmarks of my experience.  Often I would have a great audition for a role for which I was well suited and not get a callback.  Other times I would have a terrible audition and book the job. I felt like a crazy person. I didn’t even know what was good and what was bad work anymore.  How could I prepare for the next call or show up and perform with any confidence if I didn’t even know the difference between a good audition and a bad one? I auditioned less.  I doubted myself more. Then I got called in for a show that I was perfect for. I worked rigorously on the material and had a great audition. I was sure I had booked the job. All the signs were there.  Then, while out to dinner with some friends in the East Village, I recieved a call from an unknown number … This was a call about the show.  I got it!  I ran outside to take the call.  I was right, it was about the show but they were calling to say that they had gone with someone else. Any and all confidence I had in myself, my talents, my instincts … it was gone … or at least hiding deep under a mountain of shame and confusion.  I stopped auditioning altogether.

Years passed – I pursued other interests.  Teaching theater to children, travelling, gardening, painting, weightlifting and cycling.  All the energy I had once focused on a career in the theatre was now being dumped into these activities.  After a while the shame and confusion of the audition process was replaced with the shame of having quit, of not being tough enough to stick it out or smart enough to figure it out.  A sort of soul callus developed, I threw myself further and further into other endeavors, pretending I had never been an actor at all.

Then one day, almost 10 years after I had met that smiling man in the audition holding room, it came back to me.  Sitting on a new york city subway car in late May reading a book of Mary Oliver poems, given to me for my birthday by a friend, it found me –  “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” …

I literally jumped out of my seat on the subway car and yelled “HOLY SHIT!”

This was it!  10 years of wondering and now I knew where it came from!  

The down side of this discovery was that it reminded me of my life as an actor.  All at once a slew of suppressed feelings and memories … hopes and dreams rushed in on me.  I was overwhelmed. I sat stunned, staring blankly at the page, watching the movie of my past life play out in my minds eye …. Eventually I came back to the train and so did my curiosity about this passage.  Maybe now I could figure out why that man had quoted this text to me.

Okay let’s read it from the beginning and see what we can find …

“WILD GEESE”

“You do not have to be good.”

I stopped.

Again.

“You do not have to be good.”

It all started coming together so quickly.  All I had ever wanted was to be “good”. I wanted so badly to be a good actor and do good work and have a good career and a good paycheck and I was always praying and working towards having a good audition.  I had been operating in a system of good and bad. Everything that happened or didn’t was either good or bad.

This was no way to live and it was certainly no way to pursue a career in the theatre. LOVE was the thing.  Love was what had started me on this journey so long ago and love was surely the only force strong enough to guide me through a career as uncertain and challenging as an actors.

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

   Love what it loves.”

Shortly after this discovery on the train I joined The Caymichael Patten Studio and began to train as an actor again.  In my two years at her studio I’ve rediscovered my love for the craft. I’m trying, day by day and class by class, to let go of the “good and bad” system that victimized my youth.  Instead I am trying to make an investment in my “soft animal” which I now see as a metaphor for my “most authentic self’ or what I think Cay might refer to as “The jumping off place”.  Reentry to the auditioning world has not been as challenging as I thought. A shift in attitude and perspective seems to have made all the difference. The only question I ask myself now is “Do you love what you’re doing?” and if the answer is “yes”, then I know it’s good.

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