Monday, June 11, 2012

On growing a brave, thick skin.

I've come to the conclusion that my insecurities are boring. There is nothing more boring than continuously thinking of all the ways I will fail at this completely insane artistic career I have chosen to pursue. I will no longer give these insecurities, or bad movies, life because they stand in the way of what I want. Whether it be in personal relationships, your career, or at a sushi bar*, it is hard to know what you want... It is even harder to admit what you want once you know what it is, especially if you want whatever it is really bad. If we admit how much we want something, then we acknowledge how much we will lack if we fail to attain it. I want to be a professional actress. (It was even hard for me to write that simple sentence. I deleted it twice.)

Recently, after a long rehearsal and over a drink at the bar, a fellow actor offered me a critique about a role I had recently played. His critique was simple and I acknowledge the validity of his suggestion for a missing piece in my characterization. It was a great note, actually, which I wished my director had given me. However, my response to his criticism took me on the following journey of emotions in my mind. I was... taken aback, defensive, angry at myself for being defensive. Next, I overcompensated by being overly receptive, beat myself up, felt sorry for myself, and then finally got over it.

I've thought a lot about this interaction and the idea of criticism in general over the last few days. Why was my initial reaction to be threatened by this criticism? Because I have insecurities about my own abilities, talents and work. Because my pride and vanity were hurt. This criticism seeps in through the holes created by my insecurities and hits at my core. But criticism is essential for growth. I want to be the type of artist who can take critiques and use them to make my work strong. I will not learn or grow by compliments and accolades. When I think about it that way, critiques are more important than accolades, especially during an artist's formative years. Rather than using criticism to cripple us into self-pity, we must use it to fuel the depth of our work in the future.

That said, we as artists must be discerning with our criticism for others. I have a few simple suggestions to offer:
  1. The bar is probably not the best place to give criticism. Flirt with the bartender or whisper to your whiskey instead. People will be more receptive if the sun is out anyway.
  2. If you are going to offer criticism, it doesn't hurt to offer a compliment too. 
  3. When critiquing a role that an actor (or anything that anyone) is over and done with and has no chance to alter, may I suggest wording along these lines: "Next time you play a role like that, I'd love to see you delve deeper into your..." as opposed to "What I think you were missing was..." 
  4. Let's also acknowledge that we don't always need to share what we think.
  5. Lastly, we don't always have to care what others think. Choose whose opinion matters to you. It's similar to what I've said before, "Strangers will shout things at you, especially in a big city. You have the choice to ignore these things. You don't have to "Go F*** Yourself" if you don't want to."

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

In the rehearsal room, a director's criticism is the lifeblood of a production. As actors we cannot step back and look at our work like a visual artist can. A painter can step back from her canvas and say, "That doesn't look anything like a goat." But I cannot step outside myself and watch me perform a scene as Audrey, the saucy goatherd. Our director, Ted Swetz announced on the first day to remember that everything that happens in the rehearsal room is professional, not personal. Theater is our profession, yet our work is innately personal. Ted constantly says to us, "More self... you need more self." He pushes us to speak through our characters from honest places within ourselves. The "more self" an actor allows onstage, the more present he or she can be with her partner. Another actor in As You Like It, J, sings an English folksong in the production. During tech, he jokingly busted out the chorus with an R&B, soulful riff. Ted shouted from the back of the theater, "You can do it like that!" J responded, "You're opening a whole big can of worms" to which Ted replied, "I've been trying to open that can for two weeks. SELF!" The new flavor J. had added to his character held his own intrinsic truth, which is more interesting, more electric than a body onstage trying to be a 1562 minstrel. When someone in any profession brings so much of themselves to their work, it's hard not to take criticisms of that work as personal failings.

John Carroll Lynch once told my acting class that there are three stages to taking a note:
  1. F*** you.
  2. I suck.
  3. Wait, what was the note?

I hope that bringing my "self", giving and taking constructive criticism, not taking things personally, and abandoning insecurities becomes easier with age. One of my favorite actresses, Helena Bonham Carter recently said, "Everybody has an inferiority complex when they step into a room. But then, when you have children and you get older, it doesn't really matter. When I was young I had so many inferiority complexes... Then it gets tiring. And you do get bored of it."

In the mean time, I'm dressing up like a pirate wench and picking goat fur lint out of my belly button in front of hundreds of people in Iowa. Because I'm a professional actress.

The beautiful festival stage in Lower City Park, Iowa City, IA.

*If you are at Takanami in Iowa City, get the Dragon roll. Shrimp tempura, avacodo and eel. It will cure whatever ails you.

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