Friday, December 19, 2008

You're Never Finished Growing

My father is a golf professional. He used to be a touring professional and has been the head golf pro for many prestigious country clubs. He now owns his own equipment business. When I was a boy, he was giving golf lessons to a beginner, who had decided at the age of 52 to take up golf. He had never played before, but he had moved into a Condo off the 14th green, and decided he wanted to do it. As a young lad, I often attended lessons my Dad gave to folks at the driving range. He is a terrific teacher and swing mechanic. On this occasion, his 52 year old student asked my Dad, "Why do you love Golf so much?" My Dad, replied, "Because it's a game you can play your whole life, and never stop learning." This statement has truly shaped my philosophy as an acting teacher.

When I first came to Hollywood, I took a class with Wendy Phillips. Her husband used to attend class, and he told us how a certain A-List actor still attended acting classes to this day to stay sharp. It showed that in Acting, like many arts, the process of self discovery is the paramount goal of the artist, and that journey never ends. That is why the journey is so beautiful.

However, out of all the actors in the world, many seem to lack an understanding of this important tenant. They think a few workshops in the bag, and they are good to go. Then the y wonder, why they never book any work. Did you know that Doctors have to attend education seminars every 4 years in order to maintain their license? Did you also know many other professions require that same level of continued education? If they have to do, why should we as actors stop doing it? However, so many folks refuse to go back into the Studio to work on their craft, and some never even start. It's this problem that truly saddens me. Because learning about your art, your craft, is so incredibly enriching. It's a community process that helps you become the artist you want to be. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why people choose to step aside or away from an opportunity staring them in the face.

Many young actors fall into two traps, that I see:

The First, "I've been told that I'm super talented, so I figure don't need training. I can see why some actors would need training, because they lack talent, but since I have it, I don't need training." Now, I'm not making this quote up. An actual actor (who was not talented by the way) told me this... out loud, in front of other people. It's this level of misguided understanding of what acting is, that really handicaps a lot of people out there. Talent may get you in the door, but training gets you the role. You know why? Because in a town like Los Angeles or New York, there are talented actors everywhere, and they have training, and talent and training will beat someone with just talent any day of the week.

The Second, "I've got a degree from the Muckety Muck Institute, I've completed my training. I don't need anymore." Oh, what a trap this one is. Academic degrees do little to provide practical application to students. This not the fault of the Academic circile. Academia is meant to provide a broad introduction to different styles and theories as it relates to acting. The Goal of a University is to broaden your perspective, not provide you with on the job training. Many actors, fail to realize this. They may know in their head the difference between Mesiner or Adler, because a class had them spend a few weeks discussing the techniques, but they probably have never really dug into the technique for themselves. But they 'know it'. So, in their minds, they have been trained. They have a degree they spent a lot of money on, so who could blame them for seeing their training as a process you can actually finish.

I want to share a little anecdote with you. I once had a potential student who had graduated from a very prestigious East Coast school, come to audit my class. I asked him where he received his training. He mentioned the school, I acknowledged the prestige of it. I asked him, what training he had received or who he had studied with since coming to L.A. He said no one, he didn't need it. He had a degree from Blah Blah Blah. "Okay, fair enough, can you tell me what brought you to my class?" His response, "I met with an agent and he told me I needed to be in a class. I just want to take one for a few months to get it on my resume." I tried not to roll my eyes, "Okay, well, jump in the exercises as you feel lead. Let me see what you've got." We started doing some exercises, and I noticed he wasn't stepping on stage with anyone. I turned to him, and I asked him to jump up. He shoke his head no. I decided not to press. At the break, I pulled him aside, and asked him why he wasn't getting out of his chair. His response, "Because I don't know how to do those exercises." He looked very shaken. "That's okay," I said, "You're here to learn, right?" He kind of shrugged his shoulders, "Yeah, I guess."

This happens a lot. I call it Univesity Ego. A degree creates a false sense of accomplishment in many professionals, and acting isn't excluded. A degree is beneficial but it is not the end of your study.

I'm not relaying this as something I've just observed, but experienced. I myself have a degree in theater. I came to Los Angeles, and was told I needed to study. I had no idea why, since I had a degree, but I did anyway. I studied under four teachers in three years, before finding my 'home' studio, where I studied for 2 and a half years. My teacher asked me to start teaching for him after that time, but I still to this day go an take one shot classes every month to keep my chops up. For me, the class work is the most rewarding. It's where I really get to stretch myself.

And it's in that last statement, "Stretch Myself", that I want to really emphasize on. An artist is only finished growing and learning, when they seal your casket shut. I read a memoir by Sir Alec Guiness about his life, and in his later years, he recounted that he got the same joy and nerves in his 70's before walking out on stage, that he found he had in his twenties. That passion for the art has to be cultivated through work and pushing yourself. It's why the painter or sculptor rents a Studio, to have a place to explore. It's why the musician picks up more than one instrument, or practices for hours each day. We can never be finished becoming better at what we do. There is no bottom to what lies inside of us, and our ability to pull it out for our audience.

I contend that the process of experimentation and growth for actors (or any artist) is the most rewarding part of the art itself. It's where our lives change, and to pass that up because of ego, shame, or ignorance is completely devastating to me. It makes me sad for people. It's like watching them tear up a million dollar lottery ticket, because they mis-read the numbers.

I work with a lot of actors who come to L.A. with no experience acting, it's just something they want to try. Maybe they had a mid-life crisis or a quarter life crisis, I don't know. However, they are fresh and eager. They know they need to learn how to act. The whole experience is a wonderful new journey. After a little bit of time training (sometimes a year, sometimes a few months) they start booking work. It never fails. I think it's because they do not carry all the baggage coming in that I mentioned above. They just want to learn. It's the perfect attitude to become the artist you want to be.

However, Ego, Shame and Ignorance are not the only enemies of growth. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for some artists is Procrastination. So, many people say, after the new year, I'm taking a class. Or they say, after I get my tax return. Or maybe after the summer, and then before they know it, they are a year older and no more the wiser. It is so key to act on your impulse as an artist. By it's definition an impulse is quick and sometimes lacking prejudice, but artists, have to live in that world. I once met an actor in a class, who had elected to give up his cell phone, cable, electricity (no joke) and gas for the car for a month, just so they could stay in class. That's dedication. This guy rode the bus, in Los Angeles, and read plays by candle light, so he could be in class four days out of the month. I once heard another famous Broadway actress say that in her early days of studying in New York with Sanford Meisner, she had to waitress to make ends meat, while waiting for the big break to come. She used to say to her co-workers, "I work 40 hours a week, so I can live for 3 hours on Wednesday nights." That's the mentality artists need to have at some point in their lives.

I know that many of you reading this are the creative type. You may be an actor, or writer, or painter... you have a creative spirit inside you. I challenge you to consider how you will cultivate that creativity in the new year. Some of you are probably thinking, I really need to jump start this project. You may think that you need to audition more. I would challenge you to consider taking a class. It's simple, it's effective and it gets the right momentum and energy flowing in the direction you want to go. However, before you embark on this, check your ego and your fear at the door. You will have a lot more fun that way.

Remember, you're never finished growing.

Mick Montgomery is a teacher at the Actors Workout Studio.


Corey Bogardus said...

Great article Mick...

Lindsay Price said...

Creativity and commitment go hand in hand. I think a lot of people forget the commitment part. That's the arts are work and there is no mapped out game plan which works for everyone.

Some of the best 'learning' I've done is as an adult because it's laser focused on my career and my growth as an artist.