As an actor, I have spent my fair share of time laying on the floor and barking at the ceiling. Okay, I’m not barking, per se, I am sending my voice through the space from the top of my head. I have sat on the backs of classmates and been sat on by teachers, all for the sake of a vocal exercise. I have chased fellow classmates around the room, repeating what they say, and I have run up and down a flight of stairs until I felt the “sensation of doing a line of coke” to start a monologue. In my children’s theatre days, I’ve played princesses, fairies, puppies, teachers, moms, horses, trees, and once a shrubbery that slowly transformed into Lady Gaga.
Blanka Zizka and I in her workshop at the Wilma in 2014. Photo credit: The Wilma Theatre
On the other hand, I’ve waited in eight hour lines, spent overnight film shoots on the floor of an abandoned Brooklyn middle school, eaten dollar pizza while literally running between two jobs with four bags while dressed as a “hipster type”, and lied to several bosses about dental emergencies because I got a spot at an EPA.
As we all have, I’ve done some strange things, and no, I wouldn’t trade that for security any day. But two nights ago, when laying on the floor of my Alexander Technique class, my teacher used the phrase “Pelvic Ears.” I lost it. I lost it to myself, because I deeply respect my teacher and the group in my class, but for some reason, after many years of the strange things I’ve done, I lost it at “pelvic ears.” In the context of the exercise, she made complete sense. Yes, I did want to listen with my pelvic ears! But seriously, it’s truly remarkable that this is a career path. And I wish it on everyone that is missing out.
Group exercise before a performance in college
Last night on a particularly crowded train, I sat next to a friendly man who started up a conversation. The regular chatter began: Where do you work? Where are you from? Why are you on NJ Transit? All that stuff. He was in IT, and I am an actor. Here is what I notice about genuinely interested non-theatre people:
-They often call their own profession boring in comparison to hearing you are an actor. Dear sir, this is not true. If you are good at what you do and you are happy, then you go for it.
-They ask if you’re on Broadway. This is fair, I get it, why would I know the ins and outs of IT? I don’t! There’s no reason you would know there are shows outside of the commercial theatre world.
-But most importantly, they tend to bring up one theatre experience from their past, either from school or community theatre. Their stories are always specific, personal, and vivid. It’s as if you suddenly gave them the green light to say, “Yes! I was upset that I didn’t get cast in Oklahoma in 1994!” or, “I’ve always want to go back to it, but I’m not as brave as you are.”
Here is what I take away from these interactions: theatre has an incredibly lasting emotional impact, and the business scares non-career performers away. I think this is silly and needs to change. I know there are corporate coaches that bring theatre exercises to executives, but in my tempting experience, it is not seen often, and many of the execs I’ve met look like I just threatened to sell their first born when I suggest they take an acting class.
Skills learned on the road.
What is unclear to those outside the business, is that acting classes make you better at being a human. A human in public, a human alone, and a human who cares about their present. Also, a human who knows their emotions are justified.
If I grabbed a selection of executives from one of the many offices I’ve temped in, and threw them into the acting business for a year, this is what they may learn (ups and downs included):
-How to find their feet, and support their body for a healthy life, perhaps correcting the computer slouch from 40 years at a desk.
-How to lay on the floor and make continuous sound, at whatever volume you like, without ever being judged or told to be quiet.
-How to trust a classmate, or essentially, a stranger, to respect your feelings and perhaps catch an imaginary ball.
-To find their true voice. And experience an entire room of people listening with respect.
-How to be pretty fantastic at costume parties.
Mad Men New Years 2013
-How to think on their feet, and never be scared of the question “What are you doing?” ever again!
-How to ROCK at the “Questions” section of Kings.
-What it’s like to experience the difficulty of not making ridiculous faces during a photo shoot, and reveling in it when you do.
Photo credit: Headshot proof by Emily Lambert
-To see what your body and mind is truly capable of.
-To become closer with a group of people than you ever thought you could be (after three weeks!), and to share your life story over drinks instead of bad-mouthing your coworkers.
Celebrating Opening Night at Speranza Theatre.
-How to support yourself emotionally after leaving a difficult audition, especially after hearing the dreaded words, “You’re free to go.”
-How to stretch $50 until next Friday, and become friends with your mailman, who smiles when he has your check.
-To memorize all the free places in NYC to use the bathroom, and how to kill two hours between gigs without spending a dime.
-To forgive yourself and know that not getting hired is beyond your control.
-To get up time after time, burnout after burnout, and realize you still have your feet, your voice, and even your pelvic ears.
If you are an artist reading this, let us make it our responsibility to share this incredible world that has become a normal part of our lives. If you are not an actor, you’re always welcome. The door is always open, and I think you’d be amazed at what you’ve been missing.
What do you think people outside the business could learn from a theatre class? Are there other similar industries I should jump into as well? Let me know!