Obviously this is such a personal question. But I really want to know why you, (yes YOU, actor-reader!), why do you act? And more to the point, why are you still doing it? Still, as in, you had your chance to cut out, you’ve thought it over long and hard and you’re still at it. I really want to know.
Because I can guess well enough why you got into this in the first place. Some personal need that was met more effectively here than anywhere else. Something that often feels unique to us but isn’t: maybe we needed attention, or we discovered a narcotic that didn’t have to involve needles, maybe our need to be liked spiked a little higher than the other normals. Perhaps we needed to prove something, be better than, best at, belong, what have you. Or we needed a way to examine and/or expiate the dramas we grew up with. And better yet, maybe along the way we found a sense of belonging and community, maybe found some catharsis, a connection to something outside of ourselves, a safe place and medium to express and even surprise ourselves.
But that’s what got you into this. And I know from my own experience, it is in no way enough to sustain you. Once the often cruel demands of the business sink in, once the demands of what it takes to do deep, honest, truthful work sink in, the financial investment, the personal toll, the risks, the reality that to some degree or another the hustle never stops, it occurs to you that other lifestyles and art forms exist outside this maddening grind –these things that got you into it cannot and will not hold. Every actor comes upon the precipice (some of us more than one time), in which we have to reconcile what got us started, and either drop it and find the thing that’s worth staying for, or drop it and find something else. Either way, some sort of death and birth occur, and for those of you whose rebirth involved staying, what had you stay?
What keeps you going? Why do you do this?
It’s such a personal fucking question. But since I’ve asked, I have to answer it myself. So here goes.
When I observed the Monday day class last month, something about watching Lesley work reminded me of myself in earlier incarnations of my actor-hood. Cay talked to Lesley about how smart she is, that she makes smart and accurate choices about her character, that she obviously understands the material, but that the access to her work was still largely cerebral and I thought, “Hoo boy but I know what that fucking journey is all about.” And if they’re gonna deliver the goods, every heady actor has to find a way to engage the whole system–not just the computer, as Carol Reynolds* so affectionately refers to the expensive machinery above the neck. Cay in her wisdom and experience offered Lesley some gentle ways to begin to do this for herself.
Then I remembered. I act because this is the place I get to choose to deliberately let go of control. That sounds super lame, but I think it’s a little more than just, “ah, letting go.” It’s passive at a certain arrival point but the space of passivity, and how it is arrived at is an entirely deliberate act; a choice, and that feels worth mentioning. I actually think I’m pretty chill about most things in life (apart from the toddler regimen–Mama runs a tight ship. Also my eyebrow upkeep–very type A). But I guess the logistics of plain living, to-dos, surviving, budgeting, the day to day grind–it’s a lot of upkeep just to do the regular things in life. And when you get good at the juggle, there’s a kind of addictive high to productivity. But that’s a lot of left-brain-in-charge activity. When it’s time for me to act, I have to–no–I get to–stop, get very quiet with my chatty mind and body, and actively, deliberately choose to allow access to the murky waters, the dark Jungian jungle of the underbelly of what is or isn’t there, be available to the unpredictable ever alive present moment, to throw the spear into the proverbial darkness and send my own internal troops to retrieve it, to engage the atavistic, the inner child, the inner crone, the feelers, to let the right cortex take over for a while.
Acting calibrates me.
For a time asking this showed up as bad news in one way or another, but I’m confident now that this is a good and necessary question to that will be asked throughout ones life and career. I’m confident this answer will grow and change as I do.
So I showed you mine. What about you? Why do you do this? You can comment below!
* Carol is the Body Dynamics teacher at the studio and general all time exquisite human being–if you haven’t taken her class, what the hell are you waiting for, seriously.
It’s a great question.
For me, the question is more specifically, why, after leaving acting for fifteen years, with a successful career on Wall Street (WHAT!?… yes…), why did I come back to it? What in the hell is wrong with me?
A lifetime ago, when I graduated from NYU with a shiny new acting degree and training from the illustrious Circle in the Square theatre school, I had those those same emotional needs that you described. I needed to prove myself. I needed to feel exceptional. To demonstrate that I was one of the extraordinary few that had been held up by my teachers as shining examples. The brave. The bold. The vulnerable warriors of art. I would not be one of the poseurs or sweet-but-pitiable amateurs I saw around me. I was the real deal, the diamond in the rough, the diamond not-even-dug-out-of-the-mine yet. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for my ego-based motivation to get smashed by the real world. Sure, I experienced some of the deeper values of acting as an art, but in hindsight, they were only glimmers. And soon I was (gasp) twenty-four years old and had not rocked the world with my genius! I had failed! My self esteem crumbled and I was out, done, kaput. I threw in the towel on acting and theatre.
Fifteen years later, long after proving my ability to be a responsible citizen, climbing the corporate ladder, owning property, doing weirdly adult things like being on a co-op board, I decided to change life gears and go back to doing something creative. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, had a number of things in mind, but thought I’d, you know, give acting a little try, maybe take a class, audition for a few things. And wham. As soon as I tried, I rediscovered my old love, and now can’t imagine giving it up again.
But I quickly hit the old struggles. My work was forced and labored because my desire to “be good” outweighed the needs of the character I was playing. But this time around, that obstacle started pretty quickly to lessen. I was a very grown-ass man at this point, I had no interest in being a star pupil or seeking the approval of authority figures. And the desire to “be good” (or be SEEN as good) started to fade. Then, and only then, did I get to experience something transcendent.
It didn’t happen every time. It’s still the exception and not the rule. But now, when I am in “the zone,” when I’m prepared, focused and I click into the given circumstances of the scene, I feel all the other needs slip away. The desire to be the best, to be admired by an audience, to prove that I’m worthy of being hired, it all falls in behind to the thing that this person I’m playing is dealing with. Willy Loman’s desperate need to be seen as a hero by his sons. George’s insatiable desire to make Martha suffer in “Virginia Woolf.” Hamlet’s existential struggle for relief from an irreverisibly unjust world. These are far more important to me, to my fellow artists and to an audience, than whether the show or audition or class goes well. In those rare but glorious moments when I find myself in that zone, I can feel everyone in the world stop thinking about theatre, or how hard the seats are or how hot the theatre is or whether so-and-so is going to miss his cue again. Instead, everyone in that room is focused on this very human thing brought to us by this playwright, and I can feel us all lost in that thing together. We all know what it’s like to be this person. It’s very human, it’s very intimate, and it’s very, very important.
So that’s why I do it! It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a rare gift. But I know what it feels like, and I’m pretty sure I’ll spend the rest of my life working to cultivate opportunities to find that zone as deeply and often as possible.
P.S. Patsy Rodenburg has some similar ideas, but puts it far better than I:
Thanks for sharing, Jack! What an amazing journey. And yes, LOVE this TED talk from Patsy.