Thursday, March 1, 2012

What is a Creative Mindset?

The way I see it, we have enough critics in the world. There is always someone waiting to pee all over our parade. The last thing we, as artists, need to do is to join in on our own critiques.  I swear, it's the most infuriating thing to direct someone, who uses your direction as a platform for self-debasement.  It's got to be the single most destructive thing in a rehearsal room.  The atmosphere needs to remain safe in order for it to be creative.  It can't stand self-judgment any more than outward negativity.  

Five years ago, I was just beginning my work with David Gideon (former Director of The Lee Strasberg Institute).  During the first part of class, where we work on building our actors' instruments, he asked me how my work had gone that day.  I went into a long description of my shortcomings with regard to the exercise, the difficulties I'd had keeping my work in place, beating myself up for this and was brutal.  David responded by saying, quite possibly, my favorite thing he's ever said to me:
"If I were to treat you the way that you treat yourself, they'd call me The Monster of 61st Street, and people would come around for miles to watch me dismember actors one by one."
Many of us seem to think that in order to do good work, we need to be hard on ourselves.  That couldn't be farther from the truth.  Hard work does not need to involve negativity.  I don't need a lashing in order to push myself.  In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron refers to "gentle goals", which is a nice way of saying: try to reach your goals, but give yourself the freedom to fail.  Especially in rehearsal.  That's what rehearsal is forI'd go even beyond that to say that we should want to fail in rehearsal.  That way, we can address a problem before it's in front of an audience.  And as Lee Strasberg used to say, "Problems are for solving."

So, what gets in the way of that: our own yearnings for greatness.  There's a little voice in the back of our heads that wants to hear "That was BRILLIANT!  Don't change a thing!" from our directors.  Our hearts sink a little bit when, instead, we get: "Alright.  Everyone gather around for notes."  We seem to have such a need to be good.  Much of this comes from our interactions from authority as children.  We want to do things the right way.  Much of it comes from a lack of appreciation as kids.  In some, it might even come from nervousness around the public speaking aspects of acting.  When it comes down to it, it really doesn't matter where it stems from within us.  We can all answer the problem in the same way: by learning to build a creative outlook.  That means shifting our focus to the creation, rather than the result.

How silly would it be if a painter were to constantly concern himself with how great his painting is, while he's painting it?  That is, more or less, what most actors do to themselves onstage.  Instead, we need to bring our own creativity into focus.  The painter may not need to ask himself what he is trying to paint, because he doesn't need to do it in front of people.  For him, art does not require an immediate audience.  He has the luxury of doing art when he is inspired.  However, we can't call up 1,000 friends to come watch us when the creative bug bites at 3am.  We need to be creative on cue and in public.  It requires a special mindset.  We need to connect to the stories we are trying to tell, and trust that the work we've done will be there for us - in performance as well as in rehearsal.  As an actor, it's not my job to know how well my work is coming off.  That's my director's job.

It is unfortunate that many of us are not blessed by good directors, and so we have to learn to direct ourselves.  And yet, we still need to trust their eye to let us know if what we are attempting is coming across.  As my teacher constantly tells me, "There are two problems in all of acting.  1.) Is the actor actually doing what the actor is setting out to do?  2.) Is that appropriate for the scene."  Even if a director may not know how to address problems with actors, we can trust that they will let us know if we are supporting or destroying the story.  We can ask them to explain their reasoning, and then accept whatever direction they suggest as the outsider's view.  They can, sometimes, be wrong (as was the case with Al Pacino in The Godfather), but those examples are few and far between.  Generally speaking, the director is in your corner.  So, let that take the pressure off of you, so that your concentration is available for you to do your work, to tell your story freely and openly, without timidity. 
"Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by failing to attempt." - Lucio in Measure for Measure
It's an overused quote, which also happens to be under-applied.

Enough of me.  What are your thoughts on the topic?


  1. Acting is a jekyll and hyde pursuit; we must be open creatively to get the truest results, but then we are judged for the results. Our society idolizes celebrities and puts forth fame as the ultimate goal of an actor ("can't wait till we see your name in lights!"), yet our best work comes by removing the ego. It's enough to drive someone crazy! My journey has become a process of letting go of my fears, of expectations, of results, and trusting that if I work to the best of my ability in each moment, everything will turn out the way it should (easier said than done). When I get into that judgment zone I try to get out of my head by putting focus on my fellow actors, and at home, recall those feelings of performing as a kid, when I didn't give a shit what anyone thought :)

    1. I really appreciate your response, Ariel. It brings up so many good points, especially when we think back to the reason we wanted to be actors in the first place - it was likely that feeling that we had when we played pretend as kids. It's a challenge to seek fulfillment from within ourselves, but I think it's ultimately a rewarding challenge. Thanks for posting your thoughts!

  2. That's some really great points. If I've learned one thing so far, that is how confidence and believing one is good enough makes so much difference in one's work. It's something I now work on, alongside of honing my craft and sharpening my business skills - building that confidence up and I sure did had to start from scratch with that. I can be really hard on myself sometimes, but I'm learning.

    1. That's wonderful, Lenka! I'm curious - how do you go about building your confidence? What works for you?


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