1000 Unseen Helping Hands: Having a Backbone in this Business

Stephen Foster

Mystic writer Joseph Campbell talks about 1000 unseen helping hands. I've seen this so often in the creative life. You know, when all the doors open up and you have incredible luck?!  This happened so much for me this past year on the road at film festivals promoting our award-winning comedy short “That’s Opportunity Knocking.” But this “winning” only happened after I witnessed 1000 seen UNhelping hands!  

This essay might seem negative, but I have learned the hard way!  I hope you will relate. This is not only a tale of woe, vexation and bitterness, but of ultimate creative power!  Stick with me, warriors.

So often, it is the people who are supposed to help us who can do the most damage.  The agents, the managers, the casting directors, the directors and producers of theater and film.  I believe it's because as actors we are always "job hunting" and usually have little self-esteem (and backbone), that we fall prey to those who want to "use" us.  But I've learned the great art of saying "show me more!" before I commit or a flat out "NO!" if someone wants to enroll me in a crackpot project.  Actors must be protective of their time and money.

“Time is money and the money is MINE!” Madonna used to quip.

People claim they want success, fame, money, BUT when you tell them "You're gonna have to work...work your ass off!" that's when the tears, drama, & tantrums begin to surface.  I do believe in art a collaboration, but there has got to be as much give as take. As an actor, I find so many want to take, take, take but when you finally say “I need something back” you the shame ball slammed in your face.

Actors are forced to say nothing when we are mistreated by our agent, director or teachers.  We take it personally, and we begin to hide. In the face of the #metoo movement, we have so many finally coming forth and blowing the whistle on these nutballs!  But I’d like actors to go further and speak out against any shame or mistreatment they receive in casting rooms, on the sets, with co-actors. Not to swallow it because “it’s the business.”  Call them out Be heard. Actors deserve fair treatment no matter what their sex, race, or background.

So often, actors slave away in toxic creative environments because of the misguided notion that they won’t get another opportunity.  Well, that’s not accurate. You might not get that opportunity, but there will be others. I often am quoted saying to actors, “Never Give Up!” but I also believe in walking away when we find ourselves in a puzzle of creative manipulation, greed and humiliation.  

As an actor, I spent years and years in the trenches spending time, gas, and money rushing around like a bat out of hell to horrible auditions. I would show up, do great work and book here and there, but nothing seemed to outshine the horror stories of humiliation in casting rooms or on the sets. That all changed for me when my agent dropped me after she committed me to an audition after I had booked out.   She PUNISHED me for her incompetence. So, after I cut off her head and tossed it in the La Brea Tar Pits, I started to submit myself to project I really wanted to do! I stopped playing “victim” actor! , I booked a minor part in a comedy “Hidden Hills” which opened doors to the film festival market! That led to more indie films, and to me ultimately becoming a proxy filmmaker/producer in our comedy “That’s Opportunity Knocking” which won me 3 best actor awards.  I’m not saying this to puff myself up, but to say the power does lie within you. Take a project of yours, get behind it and start pushing it. Tell casting director, show filmmakers, send it to directors until you get traction!

I find most actors are afraid to be aggressive, assertive, ego-driven. They want someone to discover them or magically roll out the red-carpet.  Sorry, they won’t! You must become your own PR/Marketing firm. If you’re cast in a film, theatre project. Webseries, get the lead out, start pumping yourself up. Tell people!

So, this circles back to the 1000 Unseen helping hands.  You want those doors to open. You want those opportunities, but you don’t want to leave your career, your talent open to predators!  Be very protective and be secretive of who you tell your plans to (yes, others will be jealous!), read the fine print. Find out what is expected of you AND what is expected of them.  And hold them to it! If someone is flaky, shaky, unwilling, late, call them out, ask questions and don’t give until they’ve satisfied your demands.

I now think of actors as major heroes slaying dragons or dinosaurs (They are both ugly and mean!)  I still fight this creative battle daily!

This year alone, I have pulled 3 creative projects away from the claws of horrible "UNhelping" hands.

I pulled back the rights to our musical The Green Room from the publisher who was overcharging theaters to do our little show while pushing their own musicals.  Not good! I’m happy to report, we’ve NOW had 4 productions.

I severed ties with a toxic creative monster who was using my time and my talent to extort funds for a film I was starring in.

I dropped an entire production in NYC after I found out the director/co-producer had conflicting projects and one of the main actors was an outright asshole.

I’m not saying these things to scare you off of the creative battlefield, but to say: BEWARE! Be careful. These creative dragons are everywhere. They will stupefy your ambition. They will try to make you feel awful.  When you do feel those awful feelings, it might not be YOU. You might be suffering some creative sabotage. Find your backbone, find your strength! Remember you are running the business of YOU. Fight the good fight, but don’t let them play dirty pool with you.  Fight for your kingdom and earn your success.

Stephen Foster is an award-winning actor who wrote “Awakening the Actor Within”  http://a.co/aTOUQYW