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To Hell with a Backup Plan

Monday, 4. April 2016 1:06

The last post discussed finding one’s real passion. It naturally follows that once found, that passion should, and in some cases must, be pursued.  But there is a fear that to do so might lead to a difficult life or even to unemployment. So students beginning their study of theatre, particularly acting (and I assume all arts), often begin looking for a backup plan immediately. Not only are parents concerned for the future security of their children, but the students themselves have come to recognize that to be successful in the arts business is difficult. Sadly, that difficulty seems to be a deterrent.

This leads me to three thoughts. The first is that if a person is seeking employment security in 21st century America, that person is living in a fantasy world. Ask any petroleum engineer in Houston; that was an unbelievably secure occupation until the bottom fell out of petroleum prices and hundreds were laid off. Teaching, particularly K-12, used to be one of the most secure jobs in the country; no longer. No one who gets an MBA has a backup plan, but sometimes he/she doesn’t get employed. The arts are no different.

My second thought is a question: why would a person waste his/her time and money studying a profession if he/she thought leaving that profession for another would be a good choice in the future? It would be far more economical in terms of finances, energy, and time to abandon that path immediately and put one’s energies into a more rewarding endeavor.

My third thought is a piece of advice: forget the arts; go do the backup plan. My rationale is that if a person, at the very beginning of his/her journey into the arts is considering a less-difficult path, then that person probably does not have the requisite determination (passion) to succeed in the arts. There will be far less frustration and heartache following the easier route. If, on the other hand, a person is truly passionate about his/her art, the ultimate frustration will be not following that passion.

Instead of working on a backup plan, a student would better use his/her time doing two things: (1) doubling-down on the time spent working on the chosen art. If a person is of the opinion that his/her chosen art is going to be a difficult one in which to make a living, it only stands to reason that the more knowledgeable and skilled will have a better chance of succeeding.  There are no guarantees of course, but more knowledge and skill always improve the odds.

(2) The time that would have been spent working on the backup plan would be better used figuring out how to manage pursuing one’s passion. And this is really the heart of the matter: what is important to a person about his/her art? Is it the doing of it or the making a living at it? If the former, then the way may be different from those seeking to make a living at art. Courtney Lomelo, a working actor in Houston has said, “I have another career during the day that is far from the Arts. . . my day job IS my side job. I like it and it affords me comfort and not to have to worry or take acting jobs that don’t resonate with me just because I need to eat. I can focus more on my craft than ever. I can do it unabashedly without being torn between survival and craft.” That may not work for everyone, but might for some.

There are all sorts of ways for pursuing one’s passion. Spend a little time figuring out which one works for you and go toward that goal with all you have. Make the plan for your passion your main plan and your only plan. To hell with a backup plan.

[This is my second post on the topic of backup plans. The first is here.]

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Focus, Energy, Concentration, and Presence

Monday, 6. April 2015 0:24

The difference between Broadway actors and student actors is often not talent—at least not completely. It is the energy, focus, presence, and ability to exist in the moment for the length of the show and the length of the run. These are things that are difficult to teach and difficult to learn, at least to judge by what we see in the classroom—and on stage. However, I recently saw an outstanding example of these qualities in an actor, and that caused me to rethink.

What happened was that I accepted an invitation to a final dress rehearsal of a children’s musical. The cast was made up of acting instructors, mostly members on Actor’s Equity, one child lead, and an ensemble made up of selected students. Never having seen a children’s show by this particular organization, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know who was involved, since there were no programs at this rehearsal. I was pleasantly surprised. Production values were excellent; I had seen some of the adult performers work before and was not disappointed in this production. The ensemble consisted of 15-20 kids of varying ages; all had wireless microphones, indicating to me that they were not just background, but were expected to really sing and be heard. And they acquitted themselves well. The identical precision that one sees in a seasoned ensemble was missing, of course, but what replaced it was a youthful energy and individual interpretation of direction and choreography that revealed a great deal about each actor’s mindset and level of development (a blog for another time, perhaps).

What really struck me was a single member of the ensemble. This was a young woman of about 14 (her age was later confirmed). When the ensemble was singing and dancing, she most often occupied a position immediately left of whichever principal was featured in the number. She did not need the propitious positioning to be noticed. It is difficult to remember any performer who exhibited more focus, energy, concentration, and presence than this teenager. I later learned that several other audience members had a similar response.

In every number, she was fully engaged, focused, and performing with an energy that is seldom equaled. And she did it number after number. So rare is this type of performance that I found myself waiting for her next stage appearance and concentrating on her more than the principals. If there was music playing, she was channeling it with her whole body whether she was singing or not. When there was no music, she slipped convincingly into whatever character she was playing at the time.

Some would say that the director should have asked her to tone it down. I have to disagree. Given that she was working with professionals, the director should have asked those professionals to step up their game. This was not a case of “the kid was cute;” this was a case of the kid was superlative.

Why take the time to write about an ensemble member I do not know in a children’s show that has already closed? Because what she did was exactly what we who teach want actors to do: exist in the moment, completely focused on the role, hitting the stage with outstanding presence, and performing with unflagging, almost preternatural energy.

A more important question is why this teenager exhibited these characteristics and other same-aged members of the ensemble with the same teachers did not. My guess is that she not only listened to her teachers, but somehow had the internal mental and emotional mechanisms to put it all together.

That is the part that nobody I know knows exactly how to teach. We all say essentially the same things about concentration, focus, energy, presence, mindfulness and the necessity of these qualities. We provide exercises and methodologies. But only one in 50 (if that many) will put it all together. Those are the ones who get the work. Those are the ones who, when they are on stage, we must watch.

These are difficult qualities to instill in students. One wonders if we just haven’t yet figured out how to teach our students how put it all together, or if it is inborn and we just help develop it. My suspicion is that it is a combination of several factors: the instructor’s ability to clearly explain these difficult concepts coupled with the students’ ability to absorb information and the individual student’s mental, emotional, spiritual makeup, plus all those other factors, unique to each student, that determine the level of the student’s commitment and his/her willingness to implement new ideas.

Whether I have an acting class or not, this subject occupies my thoughts frequently. If you have any related thoughts you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate hearing them.

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