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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Of Walls and Blankness

Why would you do that? What did the page ever do to you?

So, I thought it might be time for a little weirdness. Weirdness is always good, right?

I talk a lot about connection. If you've been following along (and maybe even experimenting with it yourself), you might have discovered that we human beings shy away from connection.

Yes, we crave it. Seek it. Need it. We also avoid it like the plague.

Raw connection is uncomfortable. We feel exposed and vulnerable. Like anyone looking at us can see all of our deepest pain, fear and shame.

And we're correct in that feeling. They can.

This is my calm face. I'm cool like that.

That probably isn't where you thought I was going with this. But don't panic.

At least that's what I'm told...

The caveat to that statement would be that while they can see it all, they generally have no idea where it's coming from. They see all the ugliness, but the only thing it causes them to feel is that we can understand them. Because they're feeling all of those same things, too.

No human is immune. We all experience varying levels of hurt, terror and humiliation. And we don't want anyone to see them. But when we make those bugaboos visible, rather than chasing other people off, it draws them to us. Weird, but true.

To avoid connecting, we erect walls around ourselves. Those walls have texture and size--you can actually identify them in space if you want to. Do this experiment with another person. Move your hand closer and closer to their face until you see their expression change. Sometimes, you can even feel their energy shift. It's subtle, but it's there. Their own personal bubble.

Oh, now I get it. Thanks for that.

Most of us have LOTS of walls. Some are hard, some are soft, some are fuzzy. They can be foggy or slick or slippery. There are probably as many kinds of walls as there are kinds of people. They all have personalities (I told you this was going to be weird).

The hard, brittle walls are the easiest to spot, and also the easiest to deal with. Sort of. Once we realize that they're present, we just have to soften them. ViolĂ  and presto! We open up and connect.

The issue with the hard walls is that it can feel impossible to soften them. Like we're about to step off a cliff.

The soft or fuzzy or slick or foggy ones are even tougher. We have a tendency to miss them. They're much more passive aggressive (or sometimes just passive). They're tricky. Once we identify them, they want to slip away from us, or just fog up the whole process so that we forget about it all. Just go to sleep... drift away... erase it all...

One solution for those is to find a focal point. Something to hold onto. Direct the attention and imagine that the fog is dissipating. Again, it's a softening process, but it's one that asks us to show up and be present.

Lately, I've discovered another kind of wall. This has been the most challenging of all. It's a wall of blankness. Rather than fuzz out or fog up or slip away, this one just goes... blank. It's almost like a disappearing act from a really good magician.

When you think about it, magicians are just CREEPY.

But like any magician, it's not real. It's just sleight-of-hand. When I start to feel blank, that means that I'm really feeling a WHOLE LOT OF STUFF. Stuff that I don't want to deal with. So, rather than deal, I just go empty for a while.

It's misdirection at its finest.

Now, you may at this point think that I'm totally insane. I get it. Really, I do. If this stuff didn't work, I'd think it was crazy, too. Actually, I went through a lot period of time where I fought it tooth and nail.

Nothing weird happening here. Move along.

But if you've somehow made it this far and are still paying attention (and maybe even thinking that there might be something to all of this), here's the idea I want you to take away. When we feel that desire to disconnect, no matter what form it takes, the answer is to lean into the discomfort. Instead of trying to get rid of the bad feelings, we bring them to the surface and dig in. Allow ourselves to feel it completely.

If we do that, our discomfort will start to speak to us. For some, it's as clear as speech. For others, it's impressions and ideas, or even just feelings. But we'll start to figure out where the disconnect is coming from. And then we can let that go and reconnect.

We are designed to be connected to each other. And when we do, amazing things happen.

But that process requires something of us. It requires that we be willing to face our darkest selves and stay present through the discomfort of it all. That we acknowledge our disconnect and soften around it. That we stay kind and loving, both to ourselves and to those around us.

Lean in, soften and stay present. Simple.

Not easy.

But SO worth it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Of Gurus and Mentors

Do gurus all have long, nasty hair? If so, I'm screwed.

You may or may not be aware of it, but I use this blog to figure stuff out. Most of the time, when I'm talking about a topic, it's because on some level, I'm struggling with it.

So when I talk about how to deal with fear, I'm afraid. When I talk about connection, it's because I'm feeling disconnected. When I talk about community, I more than likely feel alone.

Just in case you think that somehow I've got it all figured out, I want you to know that I don't. I have some good ideas, and I've been fortunate enough to have amazing teachers and mentors who have helped me to see things in a different light. But more often than not, when I say something, I'm talking as much to myself as to anyone else.

Heh. It's funny because it's a DOG.

There is, I think, an important idea there. There are times, when we're learning from someone, we do one of two things.

The first of those two things is that we put our instructors up on a pedestal. The teacher becomes more than human, the repository of all wisdom, the sage who sits on high and through whom the dews of heaven distill upon the lesser beings who sit at his or her feet.

The problem with this way of thinking is that our mentors are human. They will fail us at some point. Perhaps by saying the wrong thing, or because of a misunderstanding, or even through some moment of human weakness in which their fear or their pain causes them to lash out and hurt us.

Does that mean that the rest of what they've taught us is invalid? Or is it, perhaps, that they are shining stars that were hidden for a moment from our view by some passing cloud?

A good teacher challenges us to be our best selves. They point us in the right direction and then set us loose. And it's our job to take the best of what they have and to forgive and let go of the rest.

Good idea. Maybe extinguish the fuse first, though.

A teacher's job is to put themselves out of business, at least when it comes to individual students. I want my students to progress to the point that they will no longer need me. Not that I don't want to continue to stay in contact. Quite the contrary. I just want that relationship to turn into one that's shared between colleagues who want the best for each other.

The second issue that comes up with teachers is sort of the mirror image of the first. We look at our teacher and think, "Well, if what they're teaching actually works, why aren't they more successful? Can I really trust them?"

Now, I'm not advocating blind devotion here, but if I'm any kind of example, a lot of what teachers teach is based off mistakes they've made. I do that all the time. All. The. Time.

Who can say where the fault should land?

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to audition for Angel (a Buffy spin-off, in case you're unfamiliar). I was reading for the part of a vampire, a nice chunky role, and I was stoked. I had a shaved head and a beard. I had kind of an "evil" look. Right up my alley, right? So, I prepared the bejeebers out of those sides. I was going to knock the casting director's socks off.

Here was the problem. If you're familiar with Joss Whedon's stuff, the villains (aka monsters or vampires in Buffy and Angel) are just normal people. Not your typical Hollywood "bad guys." So, when I went in and gave my first read, the casting director was like, "Okaaaaay.... um. Have you ever seen Angel?"

That was the first sign that, perhaps, the read had not gone all that well. I, of course, was a big fan of the show. And I told her so. Her next comment completed the popping of my bubble. "Well, see... in the series, the vampires don't really talk like vampires. They're just guys. Can you read it again?"

Fantastic note. Thanks for that.

She was great... so generous and accommodating. Here was a new actor she was testing out, and she was giving me an opportunity to fix what I had gotten wrong.

But I was so filled with shame that I had screwed up, so crushed that my preparation had been so misguided, and so over prepared, that I didn't really take in the direction. I think I stumbled my way through the next reading and rushed out as fast as I could.

Who would want to take lessons from that guy, right? Except, that's just the thing. I can now help others to not make the same mistakes... and there were many. I didn't take into consideration the feel of the series when I prepared. I wasn't flexible enough to listen in the moment, and I was so utterly freaked out that I wasn't really present in the room.

And I now know exactly how to help anyone else who might find themselves in the same circumstance. Which, in case you didn't realize it, is pretty much any actor who's new to the industry. Those mistakes I made are mistakes that so many of us make when we're staring out. But they're not necessary. Not if you're learning from someone who can help you navigate the tricky spaces.

We're going to screw up, students and teachers alike. But when we do what we can to stay connected to each other, those mistakes don't have to define us. They simply become lessons that point us to the even greater heights that are to come.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

... And Less Than Kind

Calm? No one said anything about having to keep calm...

One of the first things I talk to my acting classes about is the idea that we, as actors, need to be kind. That goes for any discipline, really. Writing, directing, painting, sculpting. Heck, it goes for accounting and the hard sciences, too. This shouldn't be a revolutionary idea, and yet I find that it is, at least in its everyday practice.

Please allow me to elaborate. One of the experiences I had as a developing actor was that the majority of my teachers fell into two major categories. There were the nice teachers, and then there were brutally honest ones.

See? Nice and mean. And both of them kinda creepy.

The nice teachers were encouraging and touchy-feely. They created a lovely feel in their classrooms, one that would allow for experimentation and exploration without fear of harsh criticism. And all of that was great.

The problem was, they were nice. And nice isn't particularly honest. The warm and fuzzy feeling under their tutelage came at the expense of direct and clear critique--something that's necessary to improve our craft. When we perform poorly and the only response is, "Fantastic! Wonderful!", it's easy to lose faith in the process. And the instructor.

Then there are the brutally honest teachers. From their instruction, we get crystal clear details on how we can improve. But their honesty comes with a harshness that shuts down the avenues of discovery.

We don't want to open up to someone who is likely to look at what we've uncovered and say, "Well, that's just not good enough." Ouch. That's my soul you're talking about, you jerk!"

You complete me, Jason Alexander.

For those teachers who recognize the dilemma, they typically waver back and forth between the two extremes, always looking for that perfect middle ground. I haven't seen one once who's actually found it. I certainly didn't for a very long while. I usually (but not always) erred on the side of nice, but I didn't find that it worked all that well. Particularly with the so-called problem student.

The solution I've found is to get off that line entirely. There aren't just two choices with gradations in between. We live in three dimensional space, last time I checked. Meaning that there are an infinite number of possibilities for us other than just those two poles of niceness and brutality.

The one I'd like to explore with you is that of kindness.

Now you may now be saying to yourself, "But wait. Kind and nice are the same thing." But those two words are miles apart in my mind. Because kind is loving and gentle. Kind is honest. Kind is often uncomfortable, but never harsh. Kind is direct. Kind is... well, kind.

There's a genuine quality to kindness that doesn't exist in nice. And there's a softness in kind that doesn't exist in brutal honesty. Kind is a separate third space that gives us the best of both worlds, and opens up new possibilities to our view.

Here's an example. My wife asks me if a certain outfit makes her look fat.

Yes, Admiral Ackbar.  It certainly is.

The nice answer is, "No, honey, you look fantastic." The brutally honest answer is, "Yeah, it makes you look fat." Neither one of those answers really fulfills the question.

Because when she's asking me that question, she's really asking two. The first is the obvious one. Is this outfit okay for me to wear in public? The second is a bit more hidden. Do you love me?

The nice answer takes care of the second part, but doesn't address the fact that the outfit is not, in fact, flattering on her. The brutally honest one takes care of that, but doesn't let her know how much I care.

The kind answer looks more like this: Here's a different outfit that I think makes you look hot. Loving and honest as well. The third space.

No, it doesn't make you look fat. 
I think you may be asking the wrong question.

That's the way I see it. When I'm making a choice, and it seems like my choices have been narrowed down to only two and both seems bad... it might be time to make a change. Time to soften and find that third, kind, loving space.

And this isn't just for teaching. This applies to the way we talk to each other as artists. It has to do with the way we talk to ourselves. It refers to the way we handle industry contacts like casting directors, agents, managers, directors and producers. When we treat them as real people, with kindness, we find that the brutal, faceless "industry" doesn't really exist.

The whole idea of kindness expands well beyond just interaction with individuals. The way we treat animals. The way we view politics. The way we handle the planet and its resources.

It's a beautiful world out there when we choose to treat it that way.

That is one wicked awesome glassy, dude. Wanna play for it?