BreathTaking: The Soul-Skill Balancing Act of a NYC Actor
Curated By Bethany Kay
So you’ve got the location (NYC!), the talent, the connections, the agent, the toolbox of technique, and a viable life as a performer seems to be within your grasp. So why do you still feel down about this Life Upon the Wicked Stage (or screen) as often as you do?
Life in NYC is in and of itself a special sort of …interesting, but a performer’s life in NYC is a whole other kind of special. And this isn’t a complaint. As a performer here I’ve worked upwards of SEVEN freelance jobs at any given time and as a result have met some of the most passionate and unique people I could ever hope to breathe with. But that Tetris-like lifestyle of scheduling and frequent financial mayhem does take its emotional toll.
As performers, we tend to equate our career viability with all the technique and networking goodness we’ve worked so hard to develop. But I’ve found that it’s just as important to install a proverbial “reset” button on our work-and-performing mindset, and press it from time to time. Actors, I promise you: your career is not all about the audition and the performance…it’s just as vital—if not more—to have ways to take care of your inner Soul as it is to cultivate that outer Skill.
In this ongoing series of entries I’ve asked some of my most trusted colleagues—all performers, instructors, casting directors, recruiters, and folks I trust implicitly with MY emotional well-being—to each write about his/her own journey as an artist in NYC. I asked them all to respond to a rather simple prompt: What have you learned about navigating the emotional life of an artist in NYC that you'd most like to share with the community at large?
Here are their stories/ musings. With my thanks…
Part One: When You’re Tired of Playing “Pick Me!”
The Actor’s Need for Self-Care and Self-Compassion
by Molly Goforth
On a recent visit to Los Angeles from my home in NYC, I was working with a friend, a woman who is, by many people’s estimate (but not, of course, her own) a successful actor—she makes enough from acting professionally in film and commercials that she hasn’t had to hold a survival job for over five years. I was helping her prepare a side for an audition the next day. She was doing well and finding some life in a pretty lame script for an independent film, but she just couldn’t get excited about the audition. “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she said suddenly, dropping the script into her lap in the middle of a line, “It seems so pointless.”
I started casting about for reasons for her to care about the audition: the director had shown a previous film at Sundance, there was a good scene for her reel, she needed the weeks of work to qualify for her SAG insurance this year. She agreed with me, but listlessly. “I know all that, I know you’re right, “ she said, “it’s just that I’m so tired of playing ‘Pick Me!’”
If you were to ask any decently trained actor what it means to act, he could tell you according to his own lights. Depending on his background, he might say something about living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. She might say something about the creative imagination and the energy of the body; she might talk about being open, or vulnerable, or paying attention, or listening, or relaxing, or releasing her voice. He might mention the reality of doing or suiting the word to the action. They might reference any one of dozens of famous teachers, actors, and philosophers who have shaped the art form and how we think about it. Most actors could speak at length about the social and cultural context for theatre, or film, or television, and many could speak with encyclopedic authority about a particular method, writer, or genre.
If you were to ask an actor why he acts, she might mention the joy of make-believe or cathartic release or honest connection; he would almost certainly talk about the sheer thrill of performing. She may also have reasons that go unmentioned, such as the gratification of praise and approval and the simple need for attention. This sounds like a pleasurable way to earn a living until you consider that actually acting—whether in class, rehearsal, or performance—probably accounts for less (often far less) than ten percent of an actor’s time once he or she gets out of school.
If you were to ask an actor (excluding a handful of movie stars at the peak of their careers) at any age how it actually feels to be an actor on a daily basis, the answer would come much closer to the feeling my friend in L.A. described while working on her side. Most actors spend the bulk of their lives trapped in a sort of nightmarish arcade playing a tedious, nerve-wracking video game called "Pick Me!" I envision Pick Me! as something not unlike Frogger, with myriad levels and boards including Pick Me for the Audition! Pick Me for the Callback! Pick Me to Go to Producers! Pick Me for the Reading! Pick Me for Your Commercial! Pick Me for Your New Play! Pick Me for Your Showcase! Pick Me for Your Agency! andPick Me for Your Master Class!
When they run out of tokens to play Pick Me!, actors are forced to bide their time playing one of three other games: the horrible Please God, Give Me a Chance to Get Picked Again, the dreaded Why Didn’t They Pick Me?!or the torturous Why Do They Always Pick Them and Not Me?! The only way to escape these games is to somehow procure a token to play Pick Me!again. (Occasionally, an actor will beat Level One and get to move on to a new board called Pick Me Again! A few lucky actors will proceed all the way to Keep On Picking Me Forever!, although most of these lucky few will be forced to spend at least a few years playing Why Did You Suddenly Stop Picking Me?!)
The point of this blog post is not to bitch about the industry: we choose to be in this industry, and any of us can quit at any time. But after fifteen years of working with actors in New York City and L.A, I can say this definitively: this is a hard life. It is hard on the heart, and it is hard on the spirit, and there is not enough emotional support out there for actors. Before starting this post, I Googled several variations of “support for actors,” and almost every site I found had to do with some aspect of helping actors get cast, which usually has to do with asking actors to pay money to display their guts to a stranger, who will then tell them that they displayed them wrong and (if they're lucky) how they should display them differently if they want to get picked.
This kind of advice may sometimes be helpful, but what about telling actors what they’re doing right? What about validating the spirit within each of them that is already whole and complete? What about giving actors some credit for making themselves vulnerable, over and over again, for people who often don’t give a damn and sometimes are openly hostile? What about honoring the almost delusional amount of courage and persistence required to pursue this profession?
Because of the inherent strains of their profession, because of the widespread lack of access among artists to basic health care, let alone mental health resources, because of the toll competing for every job takes on your psyche, it tremendously important for actors to cultivate an active practice of self-compassion and self-care. Whether you need to cultivate resilience, change your mindset, learn how to question your thoughts and beliefs, or begin a meditation program, it’s vital to learn to appreciate yourself not just for what you do well, but simply for who you are—a person who cares about being honest, a person who is brave enough to feel in front of others, a person who helps other people feel the beauty of human connection, a person who is a catalyst for empathy and passion…and a person who is supposed to swallow his rage during a 8:00 a.m. Sunday brunch shift, but bring it up all back up on 10 a.m. Monday morning to audition for a role that will end up going to the child of a movie star. Who else but the American actor has to put up with this?
Molly Goforth is a spiritual wellness practitioner for actors and other artists. For more information visit anactorrepairs.com
Bethany Kay is an Actor/ Singer/Clown and Career and Auditioning Coach from NJ who has performed onstage since the age of 5. Along with coaching clients to success On Broadway and Off, and in episodics and film, she herself has appeared on BOARDWALK EMPIRE, DIFFICULT PEOPLE, and GOTHAM, and has upcoming roles on Netflix and in an unannounced Lionsgate film. She earned her M.F.A. from the New School for Drama and can be reached for coaching and career advice at BethanyKayActor.com