Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Be An Artist Instead

As actors, we have an amazing charge.

In Hamlet's words, we are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time", and it is our job to "hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."  That is "the purpose of playing".

And yet, actor after actor that I meet seems to discount the beauty of what we do in search of a career.  People seem to think that once they "make it", they will be able to do whatever they want.  And that's just not an informed opinion.

In reality:
1.)  Actors do something.
2.)  Then they capitalize on the thing they do well.
3.)  People notice.
4.)  That actor is expected to repeat that success over and over until it gets old.

Even if you have a rising stardom, it doesn't necessarily mean you can do whatever you want.  We allow people like Dustin Hoffman to play Willy Loman because his career is based around his artistry.  So, it is still a safe choice to let him extend beyond the roles he might normally play.  If you expect to be the same way, then you cannot wait until you get a career going to show your artistry.  Bradley Cooper, for instance, is a wonderful actor - and you might never know it, because this industry holds him within very tight limits.  He can't just up and do what he wants - even with his celebrity.

So, how does one go about building an artistic life right now?

For starters (and I have to give myself this advice on a daily basis), you have to inspire yourself.  We have to engage ourselves in something that feeds our own creativity.  When I was much younger, I lived next to the back of a grocery store, and there were these loading docks that were always empty at night.  There happened to be a lot of light around them, and I was a chain smoker, so I found myself sitting on them in the deserted parking lot through much of the night.  (I was also nocturnal in those days...maybe still am.)  I would spend hours acting out plays by myself, going through this script or that script, and playing as I did when I was a child.  Sometimes, I'd go to Balboa Park (I'm from San Diego) and work on scenes with friends - just for fun.

Since moving to New York, I've kept that spirit fresh by reading plays with people on a more-or-less weekly basis for the last five years.  By doing that enough, I accidentally started a theater company, which now is the thing that feeds me and several others.  It is my sincere belief that a group of people together can make a big difference - for themselves and others.  And really, all we're doing is giving ourselves the ability to do work that inspires us.  Margaret Mead's big quote, though overstated, has always really touched me:  "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has."

Dustin Hoffman said, in his Oscar speech for Kramer vs Kramer, that "When you're an out of work actor, all you can do is practice accents".  It's just not true.  This is a lonely business, but that doesn't mean we need to do it alone. In fact, we need a network of people to rely on.  Why not connect yourself to a group of people and build together?  It'll be much more enjoyable than conversations at the Equity building, during an endless string of open calls.  I know.  I've been there.  It's not to say that auditioning isn't important, but it can't be your only source of art.  You have to have an art to bring to that meeting.

Really, it seems to me that much of the issue with artistry in this industry comes from a lack of personal interest into why we are actors in the first place.  Some actors seem to remove art from their equation.   Many want to be puppeteered by directors.  They want to be told what to do to get the good reviews, to get the standing ovations, the good accolades, to get the career - to get the personal affirmation they're looking for.  And really - and I learn this more and more every day - you need your own personal affirmation in order to be able to sustain yourself in a business as difficult as this one.

Why?  The reality is that as you grow in career, there will always be someone close to you that gets jealous and tries to tear you down.  As you get to the point, where you almost don't need a day job anymore, you have developed enough friends that sustain themselves with things they love to do that you begin to short circuit.  And if you don't have something to anchor to (a craft, an art, a belief in yourself), then you're dead in the water.

So, don't rely on the idea that people are going to see your talent and offer you things.  It might happen.  But if you take it upon yourself to build a creative and artistic life, rather than waiting in line for the big job to come, you will have the satisfaction you seek.  And that sense of personal satisfaction can only lead to good things.

My teacher, David Gideon, is constantly telling us what his teacher, Lee Strasberg, once relayed to him:

"I wish you would stop worrying about being an actor and be an artist instead."

What are your thoughts on the topic?


  1. The artistic side does at times seem to be in conflict with the business. But I loved your antidote to this phenomenon as the support of the group and to make sure to inspire ourselves. I loved your bradley cooper example as well. I can remember meeting a casting director and within the first 5 minutes she said:" I would always give you a blue collar role and a cop role to read for instance but I would never have you read for a shakespeare role." she was a theater and film casting direector.
    When that was said to me I thought Mount Vesuvio was going to erupt in my stomach. There is nothing wrong with raw criticism but I was being sized up in those brief moments as to how I would be perceived in the market place. Nevermind that she didnt even know me or my work and there definitely would be "no streching ones character" in her book. I was being pigeon holed just by my look . I think we have all been there.But the other artistic dilemna is the value that some actors even put on the theater itself. I was on a film shoot two weeks ago and I told 3 people I was just in a play recently and their reactions ranged from : oh thats nice ,to really? (like why waste your time ), to a patronizing chuckle.As mr Gideon said I would rather embrace the aristic life.

    1. That casting director's comment is a perfect example of how little she understands Shakespeare. People seem to forget that Shakespeare did not hold himself to writing about the upper class - and even so, there's no reason you couldn't play one of those characters either.

      And we're all pigeon-holed by our looks. But that can work for us just as well as it seems to work against us.

    2. Of course you are absolutely right the groundlings ! The sad thing is she is a highly educated woman who is theater trained but she has obviously moved away from her artistic center.Thank you we are all pigeon-holed and we just have to make the best of it. I know there must be other great stories out there pertaining to being pigeon-holed.

  2. About two or three years ago one of my acting teachers told me, "You have to decide if you want to be an Artist or an Entertainer". It shaped the way I've approached my work since. As you suggest in this piece, It can only lead to artistic freedom and personal satisfaction.

    1. What a wonderful way to put that! Thanks for sharing, Aaron.

  3. I do agree with you mostly, if not totally. The worry I have with this is acceptance. I feel a lot of actors feel that they do, in fact, have to choose to be an Artist or Actor. There should not be a difference. An Actor should equally strive to create and explore his or her artistic ideas all the while working towards whatever goals they have as an Actor.

    If I have a great night in the theater, and my work has all come together, great! That said, I am not going to accept what I have done. Because, as an Artist, I want to keep working towards discovering all the new things I've yet to discover about the character and the play.

    This parallels to my career as a working Actor. Just because I book a few jobs here and there, or even if I am booking left and right, I will not accept this and be content. I want to continue my work and build my career and discover new roles and challenges as an Actor.

    So for me personally, I'm going for both.

    1. You agree with me totally. And it's certainly not enough to simply train or do artistic work. It is necessary to couple that with an effort to put ourselves out there - otherwise, there is no balance. I can be as artistic as I want to be, but if I don't share that art, then I have a hobby at best. That's what we call an "amateur". We cannot act simply for the love of it. There needs to be an effort at communication.

  4. There is brilliance here.
    In the corporate world I had scads of people as friends. I have new friends in acting, but the older ones kind of look at me now with this backing away thing. Fine. I'm good. It's fuel.
    I would sing to Broadway albums (yes, ALBUMS)in my room. I make up scenes in my head and practice. And after I don't know how many years, I can actually speak of this because of this community. And once that success comes I would hope to repeat it. But in my own manner.
    As far as the artist thing is, we are artists. I'm an actor & a writer. You can be artists at a couple of things.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Nick. I'm so glad you found value in this post! I completely agree that artistry does not have to be limited to one area.

      I'm going to check out your blog now - thanks again for stopping by!

  5. Brandon, you're cxomments are always so insightful. I learn a lot from you. I became an artist because I realized that there is nothing more fulfilling. When I create, I feel closer to my CREATor. And whats the use of doing it if youre alone? Growing up disabled left me feeling alone and isolated. i Could not ride bikes or play sports. Art has no disabilty. And I love the equal playing field it should create for all of us

    1. I'm really touched by your comments, Nick. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us and our readers!


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