Milton would often quote (or more likely paraphrase) Gurdjieff in saying “The first job of the teacher is to wake up the student, and the first job of the student is to realize they are asleep.” I’ve been thinking about this during this summer. I’m sure most teachers experience to some degree the summer doldrums that occur between July 4 and Labor Day: attendance down, production down, energy down – that palpable sense of dispersion amongst the students. It takes a certain child-like imagination to persist as an artist, and I think that young part of us just wants the summer off to play.
And listen, I don’t begrudge some travel, and summer is a good time to do it – getting out of Los Angeles every so often is definitely a good thing to do. But there is travel as reward for hard work done, and then there is just being asleep for 10 weeks or more, like some weird summer hibernation.
This week I cancelled a class for the first time in my 10 years’ teaching at the BHP, because the level of scene production has been kind of sucking, and even when I threatened them last week with cancelling a class session, it didn’t change, so I was forced to be true to my word. I hated my Wednesday night off, hated it. (I hated it even more when I saw on Facebook someone trying to get students to watch “So You Think You Can Dance” in the gap where class was supposed to be.)
So. “…To die, To sleep….” Shakespeare perhaps most famously linked sleep with death, but I’m sure he was far from the first. And in contemporary parlance, “asleep at the wheel” signifies going through the motions robotically without any real thought or care, with quite a lethal and literal subtext. Sleeping while driving is about the most dangerous thing you can do.
Yet I feel as if too many actors are sleeping and driving in their creative and professional lives. This isn’t strictly about scene production in class. But scene production in class is an indicator of an actor’s energy level. There are very few people who exhibit terrific energy in class and zero energy outside. And very few who are lethargic in class and are just kicking ass outside. In general, lethargy is lethargy and hard work is hard work. One of our more successful actors, who spent many years on a recent very famous TV series, returned to class three times a week for the better part of a year and knocked out a couple dozen scenes during that time, before, you guessed it – booking another series and he’s off to Vancouver for a few months. He was a hard worker before he booked the original series, too. I could repeat the same pattern for just about every break-out student the BHP has ever had – they are hard workers.
So when I have to face slap what is normally a terrific group to wake them up, I’m wondering where else actors are asleep this summer, or in general. Here are some symptoms of an actor’s sleepiness:
Snobbery: To me, snobbery is a form of being asleep. For the entirety of my 21 years at the BHP, I’ve heard veteran students bemoan that newer students aren’t quite with the program, or are mysteriously less talented than in the past. (Romanticizing the past – that could be an essay on its own.) Get over yourself. This kind of judgment is a form of sleep – you get to check out, secure in your superior abilities, it somehow justifies lack of energy, because energy is for those who don’t yet know what they’re doing as well as you do… Hah!
Coasting: Sort of first cousin to snobbery. This is prevalent in actors who have been at it for a while, whether that means class or the broader career. A sense of “I’ve been doing this so long I don’t need to work hard anymore.” “I’ve got this.” “I know how to act – now it’s just the career to handle.” I’ve often talked in class how this attitude is unique to acting, because musicians, athletes, dancers, etc – they would laugh at the concept. Just because acting doesn’t place a specific physical / technical demand on you doesn’t mean you get a pass on consistent hard work on your craft. Blow it off at your peril. I’m writing this at 1:30am after about 3 hours at the piano, and next year will mark 40 damned years at the piano.
I didn’t even know X was happening: My first year in LA, my brother was also here at the USC Film Scoring school. Jerry Goldsmith was speaking to that class, which I was sitting in on, and one of the students whined that “It seems like the business is all about who you know, and how do you beat that?” Goldsmith rolled his eyes and said, “Go fucking know someone.” I loved that line. Applicable to many areas. You’ll often hear actors who totally missed some activity / audition opportunity / admin idea / seeing a good play, etc protest that “they didn’t even know X was happening.” That’s because you’re asleep. Imagine what else you don’t know is happening. So go fucking know something. Be aware. Wake. Up.
Someone else will or should do it: Lack of responsibility. You observe something not ideal, something that needs fixing, something that needs reporting, a person could use a hand, your set is a little fucked up, your class is a little lethargic, and you move on, thinking to yourself, “Well, it’s someone else’s job to handle that.” Zzzzzzzzz.
When I’m paid I’ll wake up: Bullshit. Those who think they can look like shit, dress like shit, act like shit, mope around, coast along unawares, or otherwise not be on their game, but yet think that when money is on the line, a real audition, a meeting, a gig – they will suddenly snap to and become professional, are kidding themselves. Look at that last sentence – snap to… I just typed it and it works. Snap to. Wake up. Be a professional. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll be a professional when you’re being paid. Frankly, the chances are that with that attitude, you simply won’t get to the point of being paid – or at least no where near as often as you would like. See earlier post: Opportunity Knocks But Doesn’t Leave A Note.
I didn’t communicate because I assumed ______. This entire thing with the cancelled class was a big fuck-up of non-communication. The executives of the class didn’t communicate with each other. The students didn’t communicate with each other. No one communicated with me, and I sat there assuming it was all handled. And yet, we’re in the communication business – all this acting we want to do is just highly aesthetic communication, like music or painting or any of it. And yet… Zero. We stare into iPhones, we text, we “Facebook” as a verb, and yet… Zero. It’s actually all zero. Because we’re kind of asleep during all that. Meanwhile, important shit is happening right in front of us, or there are important people who need to be communicated to in this business – and you’re…. asleep. Because the people you need to meet can’t be just Facebooked or texted or “messaged.” It’s gonna take more than that. When in doubt, communicate. How many times a year do you bump into an old acquaintance and say “we should get together”? Now, what is the actual number of get togethers with old acquaintances? And those are the easy ones. You’re trying to get in communication with people in this business who don’t know you exist yet. Don’t be asleep.
“The business is dead right now.” ….. So I can sleep. That’s the full sentence. You never hear “The business is dead right now” as a call to action. It’s not exactly material for the St. Crispin’s Day speech. It’s always a justification for sleep. Always. Never let the words leave your lips, or the lips of those around you. One of the characteristics you’ll notice if you study highly successful people is that they work pretty much around the clock for years on end regardless of what their particular business is doing. Google was born out of the tech bust after 2000 – all those out-of-work engineers… That’s what they came up with.
Seeking inspiration instead of seeking to inspire: I’m just not inspired right now. How many times have you heard or said that one? People think they want to be inspired (which immediately hands responsibility for that to other people), when actually it’s far more rewarding to inspire (which puts it in your hands). But the idea of “I’m just not inspired right now” is a common justification for…. sleep. Fuck being inspired. Get off your ass and inspire others – by definition it is a more powerful place to be.
That’s all for now. I guess the irony is that to achieve the dream you have to be awake. That’s why Milton called it Dreams Into Action. So how about we kick ass between now and Labor Day, between now and Christmas, how about we just kick ass as a consistent way of life?