I also feel that the subject matter, though specific to acting, is utterly universal to anyone meeting difficulties in pursuing a dream of any kind. It could be about family stuff, relationships, work, or a major life event. In general, anything that is difficult, unconventional, or described as really “going for it” will always carry personal shame and self-doubt. It will also likely carry jealous, controversy, fear, and often total misunderstanding from the most well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning!) of people.
When we are in pain or distress we want the discomfort to ease right away so we look for familiar “fixes.” These might work temporarily, but ultimately discomfort is necessary in order to truly grow.
My student was in the middle of a true growing pain, and they made what I considered to be a slightly impulsive decision to go to back to school, perhaps without examining all the emotional “evidence.”
Here is a modified transcript from our conversation. When I tell you that teaching has brought richness into my life, I mean it. This conversation helped me hugely, maybe as much as it did my student. I hope it helps you too.
(And yes, you theatre nerds, in the tradition of Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, why yes I did decide to name my student “The Creature.”)
Honestly I thought I would never want to go back to any type of school ever. But I had the thought today and I figured why not apply and at least see if I get in? The most I have to lose is the cost of the application.
These past couple months have been very eye-opening and challenging for me and I realized that straight acting and TV and film is what I really want to pursue. I also feel a huge amount of pressure from my parents to book acting work right now, and that's just been really hard.
Would it be okay to talk about this a little bit more deeply? Especially if I'm going to write a recommendation. I really just want to understand what you're looking for. My word means a lot to me, and I want to put it to good use. You know how I feel about your talent, I just want to make certain you're applying for the right reasons. When a person just sees a request for a recommendation in their inbox without any prior knowledge, it can be a little arresting. It just makes me want to ask some follow up questions!
I totally understand... To be completely honest I think in underlying reason for me wanting to go back to school in particular is because I've been missing the opportunity to express myself every day.
Perhaps it's also subconsciously a way to prove to myself that I'm still worthy of this career?
I've been doubting myself lately which is hilarious because I really haven't been going on very many auditions. It's been very slow, Al, I just feel like something is really off and I don't quite know how to put my finger on it..
That's okay. What I'm hearing is a sense that this choice is coming from a place of fear and distress, not a place of peace. So I think if we talk more deeply, we might address the underlying situation before you take the next step forward.
I think you're right. I think my fear is coming from the sudden reality of this as a business and the ability to make it a living. Especially financially.
My sweet, you know this career has ups and downs. It gets slow. Sometimes very slow. You truly need to cultivate patience more than ever now.
The golden question is this: HOW CAN I TAKE CHARGE OF MY *OWN* ARTISTIC EXPRESSION? You are capable of expressing yourself every day, just not necessarily in a formal performance setting. There are studios, notepads, classes to take, plays to read out loud alone or with a group of pals, poems to write, dances to choreograph. Part of this adjustment period out of school is figuring out how you scratch that itch for yourself without being given "permission" to do so by others.
I know. I'm the worst at patience. I need to get more practical too... Okay... Now I'm starting to think that maybe grad school was more of an impulsive fear based/retreating decision... But there's also a part of me that really does want to get more core training. I feel like I went into this with really no plan I guess.
You did not have a plan, no. But sometimes that is good! It is always in our toughest moments that we really become ourselves.
All I had was a strong gut feeling. This is definitely a low, but I have learned a lot of things about myself and its been a test of my spiritually and faith and purpose.
That’s all good. You know, sometimes in life we fall in love with the Result of a dream: the feeling of being on stage in front of people. But we must also being in love with the process of getting there. The crappy auditions, the dark days of despair, and the stupid things we do for money. If we never try hard enough to really Fail, then we have to accept that we didn't like to climb, we just liked to imagine the summit. We want the victory, but not the fight. We must Cherish the Climb, so to better appreciate and deserve the view from the summit. In life, we are all defined by what we are willing to truly fight for.
...You just dropped the mic.
And I think you just fixed my problem
Tell me why we just fixed your problem. Teach it back to me.
- We fall in love with the result of a dream (such as the feeling of being loved by an audience.)
- Rather, we need to fall in love with the process of getting there, part of which is about accepting failure.
- Right now I feel like I have a strong sense of purpose that I'm meant to act, I just don't know how I'm going to get there, and the fear of not knowing how is terrifying. (That's something I've realized about myself—that I hate not knowing the answers. I have to constantly remind myself to live the questions)
- Getting a survival job does not mean I'm submitting to failure.
- And, no one “gives me permission" to express myself. All I have to do it give myself permission (I think that goes back to me always wanting to please authority figures and teachers), I have to learn to please myself.
A+. This is huge.
Thank you Al. I truly don't know what I would do without you. I feel like I've lost all touch and connection every everyone and everything. I'm grateful for my connection with you because I've never felt so on my own more than I do now. But it's all good for me.
Well I am always here.
You don’t need a new school. At least not right now, or for these reasons.
You need you.
After exploring this, do you see how going to grad school might just be postponing feeling these exact feelings, just in a few more years?
I do. I see it clearly now.
It would be like keeping my fears at bay and remaining "safe” by replicating a familiar environment. It was my subconscious way to maintain a known, and a structure, because right now I feel a lot of fear and uncertainty.
Exactly right. You no longer have authority figures and teachers to please, so you are scrambling to get that heroine-like stream of approval and validation from external sources. When all the while, the TRUE source of approval is available within you. Self love and self approval is a real thing. It is not arrogant, it is you accepting yourself for all your truths—good and bad!
This pattern is so real and so valid. It happens to almost everyone (well, at least every self-reflective person) in some form or another. People use food, relationships, over-working, drugs, sex, exhibitionism, even social media to find that feeling. The answers are not “out there.” Truuuust me.
I can definitely relate. I've used food and people in the past.
Okay. Wow. I’m feeling much better now. THANK YOU.
I’m always proud of you, but this was a really big moment.
I'm really glad we talked today. I have been hiding lately; I've been hesitant to ask for any help from anybody because I feel ashamed.
And listen: a few final things.
1. Go get a survival job without shame.
We’ve all had them in whatever form. Get one that allows you to enjoy your life and gives you time to do the stuff that makes you happy.
My best friend plays oboe at American Ballet Theatre, then she pops over and subs for us at Fiddler, and is pursuing her doctorate in music from Rutgers. She was the principal oboe of the Chilean National Orchestra for 8 years for gods-sake. You know what she also does? She works at a jewelry store Uptown. Why? Because she likes books and food and coffee and groceries and ya know, not growing a huge fear-based tumor about rent. She also likes the people, and it means she can enjoy her life. My best friend is NO loser. She's feisty, talented and also? Pragmatic. People who make time to enjoy their lives…ya know, enjoy their lives.
Shame has been your big demon for the first 22 years. Let’s kick shame in the teeth. You don’t need that jerkface anymore.
- [Tony-nominee] is working is getting his masters in Social Work at Columbia.
- [Broadway friend] makes websites and sells electronics.
- [Other Broadway friend] is pre-med online and does PR work on Instagram.
- And let's not forget that I teach. I taught YOU.
- Plus! Great story: one of our amazing Fiddler vacation swings STILL WORKS AT A RESTAURANT. One day he was even in the middle of a shift, no longer technically at Fiddler, and lo and behold, Fiddler called him in a total panic and begged him to play Mordcha the Innkeeper at 2pm. He covered his restaurant shift and made it to the theatre just in time. Broadway called. Rockstar moment.
All of the = bye bye shame!
Wow!! This is all very inspiring.
Okay second of the last “things:”
2. Don’t talk to anyone in your life who does not totally understand the lifestyle of being an artist.
At least for a little while, while you are getting your sea legs. Most adults are used to a somewhat steady income, and not a lot of job related passion or strife. But an artistic life is very unconventional: income is volatile, disappointments are many, auditions come and go, and they sometimes go badly, and all of this can make the (very sweet, but totally ignorant) worry-worts panic, and this sends the artist into any number of spirals. If this is your mean Aunt Edna, schmeh, fine. That's easier to overlook...
But it might also be your truly loving parents (or friends, or partner, or whomever). That is okay. There is a lot to talk about with them while you are figuring this part out. But going over every little bump in the road is just going to cause their fear monsters to attack them, and via them, you. Talk to supportive artsy or showbiz people who already know the ropes and will say helpful things.
It is not their fault that they do not fully get it— heck, I don’t know how to do their jobs! I also can’t go to space, or teach chemistry, or properly dye hair. I can’t drive a subway, or run a farm, or file paperwork without getting a mini ulcer. Hell, I can barely feed my cat on a schedule, and in 2010, I absolutely set fire to my towels attempting to dry them in the oven, then 24 hours later shorted the electricity in my building whilst installing a ceiling fan, then did a solo show at Feinstein's that evening. Ah the highs and lows of the Glamorous Life!
I’m comfortable with these truths. Strengths or weaknesses, I’m at ease with allllll the things I don’t know how to do. Ah, the sense of peace I feel about requiring the services of a hairdresser and electrician; of letting the astronauts do their space thing without my interference.
This is no different. It is hard because they are your parents, and you are their precious golden child, and right now you are all in that very difficult transition of you being an adult, and them learning how to appropriately parent an adult child. That is legitimately hard for them—not just on you. It is tricky and takes a lot of time to get right, and sometimes (a lot of times in fact) people don’t get it right. Families just end up screaming at one another about decade-old grudges on Thanksgiving, or worse, they stop talking altogether, then they pass the pathology on to their own poor unsuspecting children. Fun!
The point is: every emerging child, at any age or stage, needs space to figure life out.
Yes. My family is just so concerned about money, which is fair. I keep telling them that they are technically saving money compared to what he would be spending on my more tuition! But of course their main point is that I need to find a side job as soon as possible so I can at least start making money for myself. Of course I understand. I have just been hesitant to do that because...well, I'm realizing just this second that subconsciously, I guess I had a lot of shame around the idea of a side job. Like it was somehow indicative of my failure. But now after this talk I now realize that is not true. It is a part of my path to success!
Yes! Tell your parents you are on the job hunt and that you trust it’s all gonna be okay.
Then? Go on an actual job hunt. Start by looking in places you wouldn't mind hanging out anyway: like my BFF and the jewelry store. Don't be too picky, just start somewhere and get a little experience and some rent money, and take it from there, one day at a time.
Trust me on this: if you are indeed living under a bridge eating insects with trolls in 2018, I will call your parents myself, and then we can all discuss your life in finer detail..
This is going to be okay. You just have to start.
And now, the third and final “thing.”
3. The next time me you’re in a place like this, raise your hand and express yourself to those you love. Say “help please! I’m feeling fear and shame and discomfort!” Do this before you start making impulsive decisions to heal the immediate pain of the unknowns.
Applying to grad school was NOT going to solve this.
This conversation was.
Try to give yourself permission to not only ask for support/help, but to feel less shame about asking at all.
You just dropped the mic again.
That was the lesson of tonight.
I’m feeling determined and inspired and tomorrow is the start of a new me. THANK YOU AL.
I am cutting and saving this conversation for ever.