"That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’” — Mary Oliver
We all know actors who enthusiastically share their current projects or professional successes on social media or face-to-face without awkwardness. These actors are able to create visibility for their art and their careers with excitement and authenticity. I am not one of those actors. I swing between extremes when I attempt to self-promote on social media—sometimes sounding like I’m writing sales copy for the J. Peterman catalog and sometimes sounding so vague that no one is able to decipher that I’m even in a play or onscreen, let alone know where they can see my work.
It’s easy to find excuses not to express my thoughts and feelings about my acting, though the truth is that it feels comfortable to be invisible: there’s a smaller risk of judgment. Judgment can lead to rejection. Rejection can lead to failure. But for every spiral downward, there is also a spiral upward. Being uncomfortable can lead to vulnerability. Vulnerability can lead to understanding. Understanding can lead to connection.
I think about the actors I see sharing with ease, and I begin to wonder—apart from self-promotion and marketing, what is the value of sharing my art? How can I take the path that leads to connection?
It helps me to look outside the world of art for wisdom about the creative process. You might be surprised to hear that farming is one of the first places I look for inspiration. I think of the process of an actor as similar to that of a farmer (no insult intended to any farmers out there). I come from a long line of farmers, and I have the deepest respect for the profession. Both careers require working in rhythm with nature. Farmers collaborate with the land, sun, and sky. Actors collaborate with the body, mind, and soul.
And farmers know the importance of harvesting.
Farmers know that there is still crucial work to do after tilling the land, planting the seeds, watering the soil, and removing the weeds. An actor’s work looks like this: auditioning, waiting to hear if we’ve been offered the role, developing a character physically and emotionally, and rehearsing intensely. Our crop is the work when it is ready to be seen onstage or on camera. Once farmers grow a field full of abundant crops, they return to the field. They pull up what they created, eat it themselves, and distribute what is left over. All of their actions work either to feed the farmer’s family or to feed someone else’s family. Harvesting is such an integral part of the process that there are festivals dedicated to celebrating this time, and plays that honor these festivals. (I’m looking at you Dancing with Lughnasa, but let’s not get too meta—you understand my point.)
For me, harvesting as an actor means talking about my work, posting on social media, and making it easy for others to know about or see my acting. Harvesting means allowing my art to nurture myself and others. It means celebrating what has been created. Harvesting is the part of the acting process that generates the most fear for me. Maybe it does for you, too.
When I get to a milestone such as a stage performance or wrapping a day on set, I’m happy and relieved to have made it to this point of reaping the “abundant crop”. Part of me wants to stop here, because anxiety arrives the moment I think about sharing my work .
My fear says: Don’t expect anything to come of this. Don’t be too showy about what you created. Don’t look too confident, too needy, too self-centered, or too anything, really.
My fear asks: What if someone doesn’t like it? What if it’s not good enough? What if someone else can do it better?
By ignoring the harvesting step, I can try to ignore those voices. However, I have found that the journey to shift those voices has made my acting experience deeper, freer, and more empowering.
Asking powerful questions is the easiest way for me to shift my mindset into harvesting. Questions replace the voices of fear, judgment, and rejection with voices of vulnerability, generosity, and celebration. Questions stimulate curiosity and set me off on the search for how to create connection through sharing. Then the action step of sharing the work includes sharing the insight gained from these questions.
- Harvesting my work has become a process that includes the following steps:
- Asking powerful questions.
- Answering the questions mindfully. Sharing my work with the added intention of sharing the answers and new insight I have gained.
I have three main questions that I use as prompts before I share about my acting:
“What have I learned in this process?” When I ask myself this I recognize that when I talk about the work over drinks with a friend or share a snippet of the process on social media, my intention is to allow the work to support others’ processes. My lessons can potentially save someone else from repeating my mistakes. Being vulnerable about challenges can inspire others to keep going when they hit a rough patch. In this way, the project begins to take on new life and to have value outside the limits of entertainment. Love this.
“What do I have to give?” Shifting into that mindset removes the perceived separation between actor and audience and transforms my experience as an actor from performative to collaborative. This process better supports both parties involved. When I view everyone involved in a performance as co-creators, we become equals. What I create is equally valued in this partnership paradigm. Partnership helps to remove my neediness as an actor who wants the audience to ”like” whatever I’ve created. That’s a lot of pressure for an audience, and they can feel it. Whenever I put others in a position to affirm my work, I give away my power and create barriers that prohibit me from fully expressing my unique perspective.
“What can I celebrate?” Answering that question holds me accountable for finding my joy in my art. The key word here is “my,” because joy can look any way I choose. Joy can include the messiness and the challenges as well the successes. Celebrating the work creates a positive feedback loop and tells my inner artist that it is safe to create, to take risks, and to fail. I am able to acknowledge and accept anything that my inner artist wants to express. A kid bringing home a painting from school is encouraged when her artwork is proudly displayed on the refrigerator. The artist who is met with “I like the way you used blue here” rather than “I don’t understand what this blotch is supposed to represent” is more likely to paint again and paint joyfully. That’s how I view my inner artist. Put that work up on the fridge, blotches and all.
There are endless possible questions that help you to examine the process. Here are some others I ask myself before sharing my work:
What were my biggest challenges in this process?
What scared me the most about this process?
Who can benefit from what I learned in this process?
What am I most proud of about the process?
What brought me the most joy in this project?
What surprised me the most about this project?
What humor did I find in this process?
What am I most grateful for about this project?
Whose work and efforts can I acknowledge, and who was a co-creator in this process?
Who can I acknowledge for their support during this process?
Who or what inspired me during this process?
Why is this project meaningful to me?
What questions do find you helpful to use as prompts when you share? I have no doubt that perfect question lives inside you, needing to be answered, to start you on the harvesting step as an actor—and the most beautiful thing is that a harvested field is ready to be planted again.
Laura Emanuel is an actor living in Los Angeles. Read more of her writing and listen to her podcast @ lauraemanuel.com.