How Acting Gave Me My Soul Back

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As a kid growing up in central Tennessee, revealing that acting was the purpose of my life to my friends and loved ones was often a mixed bag. To be sure, the majority of responses I got were positive. But, every once in a while some practical do-gooder would chime in with the oft-repeated mantra of, “You know, like NO ONE makes it in that business, right?”

A cheese from an early age.
A cheese from an early age.

After having lived in the Greater New York City area for a couple years and trying my hand (somewhat half-heartedly, which we’ll get to later) at professional acting, I can say that in my experience, that statement is only true from a certain vantage point. I should add here that this post will likely be nuanced, acty schmacty nonsense to most people. But, in response to a recent interaction I had with an influential podcast host (we’ll also return to this later), I’ve decided to post these thoughts because two years ago, going into the professional acting game, I could have really used this information. So, here goes.

Here’s the bottom line truth: if you define the parameters of success as an actor by the same parameters that an accountant holds, then you will likely fail. If you define the parameters of success closer to those of say a Guru, Monk, High Priestess, or the like, success is not only totally achievable, it is at your fingertips. In fact, I would even argue that success in the parameters of the latter do indeed often lead to success in the parameters of the former. In other words, I believe in the REAL world, success begins with enlightenment.

Now, I should clarify here that my most prominent acting experiences in recent years have been drawn from the works of theorist Sanford Meisner and instructor Jill Richburg at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre (MCS) in Manhattan. Meisner and Richburg both emphasize the importance of a single moment and I think it wouldn’t be too far from the truth to claim that they both believe that the best an actor can ever do is to embody every performance moment truthfully and fully. This is important to the idea of what I’m going to call “Conduit Performance,” because Meisner’s theories are an attempt to remove the focus of a performer from themselves and place it on the other people engaged in any given moment with them.

This process in me created a kind of emotional and spiritual vacuum. One of the first questions I faced in my work at MCS was, “Why are you here?” It was the question Matthew himself asked me before I could join the studio, it was the question Jill asked me to write an answer to in a personal monologue, and it is the question that rings in my head all the freaking time. Why?  Let’s get super duper real for a second.

If you remove the idea of fame, money, public support, sex appeal, glamour, and all the other tropes this culture of ours has endowed upon actors as potential motivators to pursue the profession, what are you left with? I would argue that Meisner’s work necessarily weeds out actors who covet these values above all others because such people (I think) find a level of insurmountable difficulty in removing 100% of attention from themselves (which is a necessary component of Meisner’s theories). I’ve witnessed this difficulty present itself time and time again in class and in the acting world. To be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily a personality flaw, more like a challenge each actor must face within themselves.

Which is why I’m constantly confronting my acting purpose. I am not excluding myself from the attraction to all the glitter. I am saying, however, that overcoming that attraction is the only way I’ve been able to do any work that I’m remotely proud of.

And here is where we arrive into new ground. Because the answer to the question of purpose is at the core of an actor’s craft. And, removing toxic answers leaves the actor (at least in my experience) somewhat alienated from popular culture’s perceptions of what makes an actor tick.

But, there’s a deeper dilemma still with which I’ve come to contend. The nature of art. What the hell is that? And how can an actor who is training to be focused as much as possible NOT on themselves possibly rely on a definition of artistry which is largely self-centered? In other words, how can a performer ignore self-focus in their work if the purpose of their work is self-expression? It is, to me, a paradox. And it is also, a very, very, VERY individual quest to reconcile or even recognize that paradox.

For me, the answer was found not in the world of performance, but in the world of the spirit. And here is where we venture to take another sharp left turn. The things I’m about to confess to believing are hard for me to confess. I come from the bible belt. And, in response to that, I spent years, YEARS as an atheist and then one or two as an agnostic. I have read, watched, and listened to more hours of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris than I care to admit. And as much as I’d like to cover up these new beliefs with pseudo-intellectual, fancy words (damn you writing degree), I’m pretty sure that would discredit the entire point. So, in an effort to be bare, I’ll just lay them out and then explain why and how they’ve influenced my performance.

  1. I believe in the human soul. I believe it is in some ways eternal.
  2. I believe that we are surrounded by layers of reality which we have little scientific or conscious perception of.
  3. I believe that the vast majority of what is “popular” is an attempt to unlink humanity from deeper perceptions.
  4. I believe in a Creative Deity, which is to say that I believe creation itself is both holy and divine.
  5. I believe that consciousness is the highest and most complex form of energy in the known universe and, therefor, is also both holy and divine.

Whew. You have no idea how hard that was to admit publicly. Anyway, back to the point. The story of how I came to these beliefs in the past year or so is perhaps interesting and if anyone wants to hear it, I’d be glad to share. The punchline, however, is that these beliefs have changed me and I hold them to be true.

And this leads me to Conduit Performance. Why do I act? Is it even my choice? In the times I’ve tried to give it up, I’ve been swallowed into a maelstrom of devastation which consumed nearly every part of me. And in the times I’ve embraced it, I’ve been nestled up to the bosom of life and loved and held and fed. So, is it a good choice? Not really. But, it’s still a choice. I could stop. In some ways, life would be easier if I did. Money, I’m sure, would be easier to come by. I could step into a role that is more societally acknowledged. A provider. A worker. An American Man. But the cost is (at least for now) much too high.

So what is Conduit Performance? For me, it is MY ultimate goal in acting training. It is a complete unawareness of self and a complete focus on subconscious impulse and response. The “response” part comes from Meisner’s focus on other people in any given moment. The “impulse” part comes from one of two places.

The first is probably what most people are willing to let themselves believe. And that is that life leads us all down a series of winding pathways which have no real rhyme or reason (unless we create it). And this twisting narrative leaves us with emotional residue which we contend with and which defines us in every breathing moment.

The second, and the one I’ve come to believe, is that complete openness can only be achieved without self-consciousness. And that, when opened, the performer (or anyone else for that matter) can act on realities that are actually REAL. Now, there’s a whole bevy of research which indicates that the human mind is capable of creating realities just by imagining them. And, in some ways, I would say that the point of all that research is kind of what talking about. But, not really. Because, as a performer, you can’t really walk around with all that subatomic, particle physics, complex, black hole stuff running consciously around in your brain while you’re trying to do your job. It’s a pretty big distraction.

What I’m talking about instead comes more from a Hermetic tradition. If you’ve never read any Hermetic stuff, I highly recommend it. But, the punchline, is that it’s very ancient. It’s at the core of literally EVERY major religion in the world and some of it deals with the nature of reality. And one of the major points in, say the The Kybalion is that consciousness is divine. And that imagination is therefor the executable function of consciousness. To make an analogy of that it would be akin to saying something like, “If consciousness is Poseidon, than imagination is the Trident.”

Now, if this way of thinking appeals to you, I’d say jump in and start reading. For me, the point I’ve arrived to in response to these ideas and my work in Meisner over the past few years is this: The realities we create on stage are, in fact, real. We don’t just treat them like they’re real – they are. Each moment births its own universe of infinite complexity and possibility and light and love and hatred and pity and wonder and every single microscopic human experience is possible and therefor contained within every single moment on that stage. And our job as performers is to be a conduit to those voices.

My personal belief is that those voices are real. That they are floating through the ether and, on a good day, we can respect them by giving them voice in each moment. And that is Conduit Performance. And that is the goal and purpose of my acting. And that has nothing to do with toxicity.

I do wish doing all of this was as easy as saying it. It isn’t. For the past year, I’ve been saddled with something I’ve found tremendously difficult to overcome. I’ve been wearing adult braces. Now, as someone who has been engaged in a field that requires visibility, this has been hard for me to cope with. I feel my level on confidence has been tremendously assaulted by the wires on my teeth. I’ve also struggled with my own physical self-image for most of my life. And, in a world where every audition is a virtual sea of aesthetic beauty, those issues have only been amplified. This too has become quite difficult to cope with.

But, recently, coming to these beliefs has sort of solved these problems. It wasn’t easy to get here. I’ve had to fail a lot. I amped up for graduate school auditions for five months or so only to be destroyed by my own self-consciousness and nervousness and fear in the moments where it really mattered that I not be. I’ve gone for long stretches of time without working outside of class. I’ve train wrecked auditions and blown callbacks. I have failed and failed again.

But, arriving here has done something else to me. For some reason (maybe I’ll discover why and write about it later), realizing that I’m not really the one on stage when I’m performing has given me freedom from physical consciousness. And that freedom, paradoxically, has given me strength to actually fix my body issues. I’m in the gym many times a week. I’m training for a 10k. My diet is very good. All of the sudden, I am free from those monsters.

My theory is that embracing the spiritual presence around us means that the presence in turn embraces us. And that I am in the midst of a kind of love which washes away self. But, again, as I’m in the middle of it, I can’t see it all clearly just yet.

Recently, I went on my first audition with this sense of freedom. Perhaps not coincidentally, the company that I was auditioning for included a Pagan identifier and branding in their logo. The audition which, also perhaps not coincidentally took place at the first NYC theatre I performed at in the Lower East Side, was wonderful. I got called back and that was wonderful. I may have gotten the part or not, it’s too soon to say and, honestly, I don’t care that much if I did. Because I gave voice to something. And that is more important. But, also because it was at that EXACT same theatre (which I  hadn’t returned to since closing night of the first play), I felt like it was also a sort of rebirth. A chance to wind back the clock and approach this world new and fresh and with an understanding about it that is deeper and more real.

As a last thought on this, I also discovered recently that sharing my experience outside of actually performing is important. This came in two forms. The first was by way of a director for whom I had performed in a short film last year and was now looking for a new project. After some coffee and story-telling, she encouraged me to pen something that had happened to me as a child. I did, and a few drafts later she expressed interest in actually making the movie I’d written. It’s now in pre-production and raising money and is totally a real movie.

The second came more recently. I reached out to someone who hosts a podcast that I’ve very much enjoyed recently called Spiritual Insights Radio. The host’s name is Charlotte Spicer and she requested on one recent episode feedback from the audience. I was thrilled to provide it, not thinking anything would come of it, other than perhaps it would put a smile on her face. I was blown away when Charlotte not only responded to my feedback with incredible warmth and honesty, but also chose to read selections of my initial message on the air.

The point I believe is trying to be made upon me is that it’s time to cease quiet study and time to begin application and discussion. This post is largely meant for me as an attempt to outwardly begin that conversation. BUT, if you have gleaned anything of value from it, please do not hesitate to reach out to me and let me know. We are, each of us, a boon to the other. And I hope that sharing some of how acting gave me my soul back has given you a little piece of yours.