Editor’s note: We’ve broken ProBlogger’s ban on offensive language for this post, as we feel it’s necessary in this particular piece. If harsh language offends you, you may want to skip this one.
In the Summer of 2005 I graduated from The New York Conservatory of Dramatic Arts with a certificate in Film Acting.
Normally mentioning my training would be of no consequence, and to this point it’s been a loosely guarded secret; fearing you might confuse my degree with some glorified week long camp at your local community theater that said I was “certified” to act on camera, hurrr hurr.
No. My school was serious. I was one of 16,000 who auditioned, one of 154 accepted, and one of 60 who graduated.
The training was taxing. Twice a week we would access the kind of bared-soul vulnerability you feel after a long fight with your spouse—or the first time you undress in front of a crush.
The whole first year was about getting past the layers we use to defend ourselves. When someone says “F*ck you” for example, that has an impact, but you’ve trained yourself to not care. In reality, some part of you is bewildered. The school’s unofficial motto was “If we catch you acting, you suck.”
Every day was another exercise to achieve that emotional nakedness, but the most effective was also the most simple—Repetitions.
The Repetition exercise looks like this: you and a partner stand across from each other, gaze held, and wait until someone voices an observation. It’s not about who speaks first, or how clever the observation is, it just needs to be organic.
“You’re wearing a blue shirt.”
“I’m wearing a blue shirt.”
“You’re wearing a blue shirt.”
Our instructor, John Tyrell, was a first generation Meisner student. He sat at a small table at the corner of the stage watching the repetition move like a tennis match. He wore a black shirt with blue jeans. Outside of class, John was sweetest man you’d ever meet. But in class, he was always just this side of worn. Maybe it was the cigarettes, maybe it was the burden of passing the teachings of one of the greatest acting instructors of our time, who knows?
He watched to make sure neither actor would sabotage The Moment. If we did, he would say “Bullshit!” throw his glasses onto the table, run a hand through his salt and pepper hair, then say, “Okay, look…
“Open. Vulnerable. Penetrable…
“There is never nothing going on. There is only this moment. This moment. This moment.” he’d say hitting his heart and tugging at an invisible thread.
“And it changes, one second to the next. It is not your responsibility to manipulate it, make love to it, or hold on to it, only to recognize it and let it work through you, then move on to the next.
“Get out of your head! Again.”
Rookie actors live in their heads; they practice their looks and memorize scripts by reading aloud, training to say this line this way. They build the scene in their head, without regard for other actors or the director.
The outcome is inevitably the same; everyone plays their interpretation of the scene, missing moments, and delivering cardboard performances. It’s inauthentic, contrived, and a nightmare to watch.
What we learned through Repetition was to be open to the pure joy, uncontrolled laughter, and gut wrenching tears, or whatever else The Moment demanded. It was hyper-realism, volatile, and at times, terrifying.
But when it was done you’d take a breath, reset, and come back in two days.
For a year, unless you quit or were cut from the program.
Of course, as a blogger, and more specifically a blogger who talks about marketing, it can not be stated enough how relevant the “If we catch you acting, you suck.” mantra is.
See, like acting, blogging and marketing are meant to take the audience away and get them caught up in The Moment.
Bloggers like Jon Morrow and Derek Halpern understand this so well that it doesn’t matter if the article is 100 or 3,000 words, you’ll miss appointments to see how it ends.
Sure, a percentage can be attributed to talent, but if you asked either of them how they do it, I’m betting it would come down to repetition.
“If we catch you blogging, you suck.”
“If we catch you marketing, you suck.”
Sometimes I wish John Tyrell were a blogging coach.
If Meisner repetitions were meant to get us out of our heads; movement exercises were to get us out of our bodies.
Movement was primarily a weekly yoga practice, but the homework was to journal how random people carried themselves. In the next class, we would incorporate their physicality into our own bodies.
The major revelation was that taking on someone else’s physical characteristics meant your body would adopt the associated energy.
For example, rub your thumb repeatedly in circles around the outside of your knuckle on your index finger. Feel that? Do you feel anxious? Is your leg starting to bounce? It’s always a little bit different for everyone, but the principal remains: certain tics are triggered by emotion, but it’s possible to trigger an emotion by activating the tic.
Of course, we all have our tics (the example is mine) so for the exercise to be effective, it’s best to abandon your own physical tensions and become a blank slate.
To do this, we’d stand in alignment, in a neutral stance that allows the skeleton to support itself, free of its defenses from the world. For example, shifting weight to one leg, or pushing your pelvis, neck, or shoulders forward, or curling into your own back. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds.
As an actor, it’s your job to become other people. How can you be believable as someone else if you don’t learn to first abandon yourself?
“Listen and respond. Listen and respond,” John would say, hitting his chest.
At the surface, this might seem like something one could incorporate into their routine after reading it in a book, or blog post. (Wouldn’t this make for a nice tips and tricks article?) But this couldn’t be any further from the truth. There was a reason we did these repetitions twice a week, every week for ten months. There was a reason more than half of the students were cut.
Repetition until it is etched into your bones is exhausting. Maintaining total mind body vulnerability while being told, “That’s bullshit!” wears you down.
Accessing The Moment at will doesn’t take weeks, or months, but years of constant dedication to the craft. You certainly don’t get there by reading a blog post or two.
I’m not just talking about acting. Whatever you consider your art, you have your own version of the Repetition exercise. If you’re lucky, eventually The Moment comes with less resistance, but it’s just a sign to dig deeper. Your willingness to do so is what really determines whether this is something you want to do.
Of the 60 that graduated, I can think of two—maybe three—who have pursued their career as actors. One did Burger King commercial and has been on Bravo. Another was in that Wendy’s Frosty Posse commercial. But that’s it.
The rest have gone on, like myself, to start families or businesses. One classmate is finding celebrity in the world of hairdressing (I’m happy to say he cut my hair more than once). Yet, everyone seems perfectly content with their path, even if we all said at one point, “I couldn’t imagine doing anything but acting! Acting is my life.” [Barf.]
My point is: saying you’re dedicated and being dedicated are two different things. It takes repetition and vulnerability like we’ve talked about, but it also means doing it full force, even if it risks finding out you don’t love it quite as much as you thought.
My classmates who work now don’t do it by sitting in coffee shops waiting to “get discovered,” but by sending out endless headshots and resumes, going on calls and facing constant rejection.
Once you’ve found The Moment, you must do the equivalent. This means sending endless emails asking for guest posts, and sharing your most intimate work with people you don’t know understanding full well they’re probably going to shoot you down.
The world is made people hoping to make it big without damaging their precious egos. They’re afraid of letting go of the “what it would be like” mindset and refuse to surrender themselves.
If you want to make magic, you can’t be one of them. You must expose your vulnerability and do so repeatedly. The Moment is magic, and the only way to harness its power is to let go entirely.
It won’t be easy, but don’t you owe yourself to yourself to try?