Commitment Phobia: Why Do Actors Bail?

Commitment is an integral part of our lives. We hear it in our relationships: “Ugh. I wish he’d just commit already.” When an athlete is recruited by schools his decision is called a commitment. When we need to remember something important – in the old days, it was the phone number of our high school crush – we commit it to memory. When someone pulls off an incredible feat, on a playing field, in business, in life, and in art, we invariably praise that person’s commitment.

We say the same thing about acting- the holy grail, for most actors, is found in how deeply you commit to a role.

When the actor is not committed, it can often mean they are self-conscious about appearing to be “too much,” or they fear what they are going to look like if they step out on a limb. They fear embarrassment or being uncomfortable. But the irony in acting is that the lack of commitment makes us more uncomfortable than if the actor just went for it. It’s a safe thing to not give a full effort – if we fail, we can always say we didn’t really care; if we cared, we would have tried harder and gotten there for sure. It’s safe, and it’s also boring. See what I’m saying?

Why do we let discomfort keep us from committing? What do we think will happen if we commit? Will you crash and burn? Will you get to the mountaintop? There is fear in both outcomes.

We might fear what will happen if we commit to the wrong thing. When it comes to acting, and life, for that matter, the answer to that is: relax. The irony of fearing commitment is that if we didn’t give a f**k about what things looked like, we would blow doors wide open. We would be flying.

What does commitment look like to you? Loyalty? Self Acceptance? Intimacy? The actor may not realize “Oh, those all have something to do with committing in a funny, comedic scene.” But it’s all connected – drama, comedy; it doesn’t matter. When we commit, it’s like meeting this part of ourselves that we don’t think we’ve really ever met before. Of who you can become if you just commit. It’s scary to trust that.

Be honest. Don’t hide. Stand for something. Have things that you aspire to commit to that are personal without shame and judgment. It doesn’t matter what it is. We have to meet our own best self that is evoked out of overcoming these psychological obstacles we create.

And that simply requires commitment.


Actors in video: William Tyler Johnson and Tiffany Daniels

Yoga as a Metaphor for Acting (and Life)

Yoga is a metaphor for all aspects of living.

It means union with self. Or union with the Divine.

So through the practice of yoga you are actually coming to know yourself. That’s what all living practices of any art form are about. It’s the art of living explored through a practice that gets you to live your unfolding life more as art. Or one could say, any pursuit of anything that explores deeper than merely at the physical level will make you arrive at that insight. That your life is art.

This is yoga. And this is any creative process.

Sometimes we go to class and we’re like, “I got this downward facing dog shit down!”

And then we’re like, “Ummmm . . . no I don’t.”

Sometimes we snore through Shavasana.

Sometimes we contort our bodies and get to new levels of flexibility and strength in our poses.

Sometimes we contort our bodies and feel like we’re beginners all over again.

Sometimes your own sweat makes you slide out of the pose and you look ridiculous.

Sometimes you can’t hold the pose. At all. And handstands? Forget about it.

Sometimes other people’s poses distract you! “Look at their hot shit. Why are they so amazing and I suck?”

Sometimes you don’t even want to go. “I just want to sleep in!” “What’s the use?”

Sometimes you stretch too far and pull a muscle. Sometimes you’re bored.

Sometimes you’re angry. At yourself. At yoga. At your teacher. At life.

What gets you through? All that noise and obstacles and bullshit?

The breath. That’s it.

You breathe more deeply into where you are at any given moment. And that breath allows you to go deeper and to let go. That’s an art in itself. And that’s practice.

Acting is like that. It’s a process of showing up. Of being.

Anytime you think you’ve got it, you probably don’t. If it’s a constantly moving target then what is there to get, anyway?

We’re mistakenly taught that someday we’re going to wake up and have a perfect “formula” for acting. We will have finally arrived and “gotten it.”

That doesn’t exist. It’s like life. It’s constantly changing and moving you from phase to phase and moment to moment. It changes. You change. (Or perhaps you don’t and therein is the struggle and pain!)

There is nothing to get. You already are it.

And you let the practice keep refining you to get to those moments where you’re able to finally hold the pose. If even for a few seconds.

That’s victory. That’s worth attempting. And then it goes away and you start anew. And that’s what yoga teaches you. About life. Acting. And yourself.

Bruce Lee and The Actor’s Conundrum

Perhaps it should be called “the people’s conundrum” because it’s basically human nature. You finally get what you’ve wanted for a long time and, like any new shiny plaything, once you’ve had it for a while, you get bored and want something else.

That’s the nature of desire, and that’s also the trap.

At one level, when our awareness of attaining these things lies just at the base, material level, we set ourselves up for some mighty disappointments. So you want more money or the big job – and the notoriety that comes with it. Or you want the boyfriend or the house, the wedding ring or the cover of the magazine. And then you want something bigger or brighter. We mistakenly go from thing to thing thinking the thing we’re searching for is in the thing.

It’s not that we shouldn’t go for – or have – these things. Part of why we’re here is to realize this very subtle shift of why we want the things we think we want. And that occurs by actually attaining them.

But those things are metaphors.

They actually represent the misplaced spiritual longing we desire to discover potentialities within ourselves. Whether it’s to be more creative, or get emotionally freer, or be happier right now, or push ourselves to new heights, or discover we’re so much more than we ever thought we were. The accomplishment of something shows you who you are.

So the acting job becomes a metaphor for your ever-expanding self-expression. The boyfriend is a metaphor for your ability to love.

So getting these things is great at the material level, but if it stays only at that level, the expectations of what we hope those things bring (but ultimately can’t) – invariably leads to disappoint.

“This is it?” We often ask ourselves once we’ve finally gotten what we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

But if you put your awareness on who you become while experiencing these life events – the experiences can then become life changing. The expectations become minimized and you simply have fun learning and discovering all the latent talents that are within you.

Bruce Lee said, “There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

That’s metaphor.

So our hearts naturally want us to ascend – but the part of us that’s gotten comfortable is scared to leap to the next level. Leveling up doesn’t necessarily only mean material leveling up – but rather, it’s who you become in the effort to level up.

If you don’t keep leaping, you’re going to find that even acting won’t provide you all the things you thought it would. It can’t. Neither can being a mom. Or a teacher. Or an astronaut. No one thing is ever going to be the answer. The answers are not in the thing. They’re in the pursuance of something that unveils you to yourself while being that thing.

So have zero expectations in anything or anyone. And just keep leaping. And eventually you’ll discover the metaphor of what it is you’re truly leaping for.

Stop Letting Your Adult “Self” Call All The Shots

Political science professor, Robert E. Kelly’s interview went viral this week. But probably not for the reasons he was hoping.

Sure he’s an intelligent expert who knows a lot about South Korean politics.

So, naturally, the BBC invited him on as a guest.

In this virtually-dominated world, where everything is photo-shopped – from our abs to our smiles to our moods to our vacations – and where so much of media advertising is about clever sound bites and catchy, provocative blurbs – how refreshing that life still happens. Not fabricated or polished or put together in a pretty package.

But unscripted.

Mistakes occur. You fall down. You cry. You start laughing when you shouldn’t. You have meltdowns. You get caught in the awkwardness that is life itself, unrehearsed and unplanned. The way life is and always will be, no matter how hard we try to orchestrate and spin things in a more controlled way.

And throw a toddler into the mix and everything goes to shit.

Let kids – or some connection to something besides your own self-importance – keep you tethered to all that’s good and true. Children show us that.

A light heart. A smile. A sense of humor. An understanding that what we do isn’t really important. How we do it, however – the intention and motivation and presence behind something – is.

Let kids show us how to play and let go of results. Let them show us how it’s about this moment right now. Not about our future plans or our talking points or how much we “know” or how cool we wish to look.

It’s about the incredible wildness of not knowing – of discovering – and falling into that wonderful chaos that the uncontrollability of life presents.

Once you “know”, there’s a sort of deadness to living. Unless you’re willing to throw away your “rightness” to learning and staying open, life can become gray and routine. How do you stay uncertain of your certainty? That’s a more brave and wild way to move through the world.

You can see Professor Kelly receive a Master Class in learning to live in joy and abandon (and letting go of control) by watching his video that went viral here.

With the disturbing news that seems to constantly fill our heads these days, I think it’s the best interview the BBC has done in a long, long time.

Two Auditioning Facts

Two things to remember on your journey of being an actor.

1) Famous people crash and burn in auditions. All the time.

2) They don’t apologize for it when they do. And neither should you.

And as a bonus – for once and for all – stop taking this entire acting thing so damn seriously. It’s not serious. It’s a freaking play for goodness sakes.

If you think of acting as an extension of the creation-destruction principle – which it is – you get less invested in how something looks or is being perceived because it’s all simply a process.

We build things and create things in order to destroy them and re-imagine them. We start all over again from scratch and try different approaches to achieve something we’re never fully content with but also understand that taking something apart is just as important as putting it together.

So why do you put so much pressure on just one aspect of being? They’re both necessary.

You have to blow things up. You have to wreck stuff. Kill your darlings. Creating isn’t devoid of missteps and blow-outs. It’s process.

When kids make a Play-Doh village, they enjoy constructing an imaginary world. It’s fun. They design it, create it and play with it. They’re the architects of their wild imaginings taking on clay form.

Then they demolish it. Rip it apart. Combine all colors of clay into a mash-up that turns the Play-Doh grey. That’s also creative. And also fun. It’s also process.

They don’t necessarily like one more than the other. Both phases are enjoyable. Then kids start to get older and affix judgments and labels to things saying one condition is better than the other. They equate doing things in terms of “right” or “wrong”. Or begin to fear making a mistake, which then starts to limit their access to freedom and real creativity. They start to take fewer risks and get caught up in how something is perceived. The expectations attached to creating become overburdened.

Don’t get too caught up in any of it. Acting is great when you do a scene and it goes well or when you feel like you nailed an audition. But it’s also great when everything goes to shit and you’re left trying to figure out what isn’t working and what the challenges are.

If it were a straight line of perfection throughout your life and your artistic exploration it would be a dull, dead trajectory.

Create. Destroy. Design. Demolish. Try. Attempt. Fail. Play. And try again. Step and repeat.

That’s it. That’s life as an artist – and really a human being. Keep doing that and you’ll start doing what the “famous” people do: make mistakes and not really worry so much about having made them.

What is an Actor’s Real “Homework”?

I often get asked by actors, “What is my homework?”

Obviously, if you’re doing a film that takes place in 1917 and is based on a true story of what happened during the Communist Russian Revolution, and you’re playing a famous Bolshevik revolutionary – then duh! of course you’re going to do your homework.

But is that really homework? Isn’t that just common sense? Isn’t that curiosity? Isn’t that the desire to play? And learn and grow? Isn’t that simply you wanting to know as much as you can about something you need to know before you jump in and portray someone who really existed? Isn’t that getting the facts straight instead of living in a world of “alternative facts”?

That’s research. That’s commitment. That’s you showing that you care.

But “homework” that actors often believe they should be doing often has very little to do with what we think it does. Actors often make the mistake of doing homework to prepare themselves for that which can’t be prepared. Like love, tragedy, loss, heartache, joy, desire, surprise, rage, ecstasy and anguish. Like life, these are actual moments that are evoked out of us and we allow ourselves to experience in the moment in our work.

In other words, the homework you need to be doing has to do with living your life.

I was recently teaching at our studio in London and had an experience on the tube, of all places, that’s an example of the kind of homework an actor should be focusing on. That is, discovering in your own life where you hold yourself back. Where you have judgments or shame. Where you edit or shut down. Where you become self-conscious or scared. That’s homework. I mean, it’s not “homework” – it’s conscious awareness about how you don’t allow yourself to be fully human. And it has ramifications for you in your work.

I was cruised on the tube. Hard. Like circa 1990’s hard. Like pre-social-media-dating-apps hard. The way people used to give each other “the look” before we all became chicken-shit and hid behind our phones to make a non-connected “connection”.

Anyway, this guy looked at me . . . like whoa! “You lookin’ at me?” Like I was thinking, “Take a picture it might last longer!” But he was hot so I stared back. And then I started feeling all weird. Embarrassed and self-judgy. Awkward and shameful. Like there was something wrong having an electric moment with someone. Like sexual connection between two people was something to hide from and be critical of.

So I became aware of all this stuff going on inside my head and how it made me feel and decided to just go with it. So I stared at him and decided I’d approach at the next stop. Which I did. Right when the train lurched and threw me off balance and practically in the lap of another commuter. Awkward. So much for keeping it “cool”.

I stared. He stared. The doors opened and I stepped out. And that was the end. I didn’t want to get his number. I wasn’t looking for any end-result. I just wanted to explore this as a “homework” exercise as to how vulnerable I might allow myself to be in a situation that I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

If you feel like you need homework in your “acting” start doing it in life. That’s where all the real homework occurs anyway. Being brave. Feeling feelings you normally don’t allow yourself to feel. Telling the truth. Communicating with someone what you need to say even if what you need to say might be difficult to express. Having an opinion. Moving out of your comfort zone. Trying something you normally wouldn’t do. Saying yes to the moment.

It’s a way of life. Acting isn’t “acting”. It has to be a philosophy of how to be. It’s the Art of Living that then shows up in your work. And you’ll begin to realize that the things that hold you up in your work are the very things that you’re working on in your life. All process. And so it all goes. A wonderful, bizarre journey of full-circle moments.

You might call epiphanies and awareness; evolution and expansion “homework”. I just call that being on the journey of you. And it’s more important than any acting homework you will ever be assigned.

How to Jump-Start Your Life in 2017? Take the Unknown Leap (Part 1)

If you want to get to where you want to go you have to stop protecting yourself from the unknown.

It’s scary, I know.

But that’s just the physics of life itself. It’s so constructed that it asks us to embrace that which we can’t understand fully unless we go into the place that reveals it to us.

It’s like one of those popular escape rooms. You have to go in if you want to get out.

Here’s 3 ways of thinking about the unknown that might assist you in not being so overwhelmed in taking the leap.

1. Ultimately, the deeper truth of all existence is unknowable. I just got back from a trip to Japan, and as I was walking around ancient temples built almost 1,000 years ago, it reminded me of how vast existence is. When we travel to other places and experience other cultures or even get glimpses of ancient civilizations in a modern context, it’s very difficult to apply my western belief systems on an entirely different set of people and circumstances. They don’t apply. Yes, humanity is universal, but the constructs I may use to define my life aren’t the same for someone else, and they might be shot to shit when I realize that life itself is bigger than the way I want to see my world. The lyrics to The xx’s song “On Hold” illustrate this:

My young heart chose to believe

We were destined

Young hearts

All need love

Call it a lesson

The stars and the charts

And the cards make sense

Only when we want them to.

We want to see our world in a way that’s controllable and known to us, so we interpret it the way that “makes sense.” To give that up is scary. But it’s also freeing(!) to move way beyond how you see your world on a day-to- day basis. Which ultimately might help you see it’s actually very limiting.

2. Everything you want is in the unknown. If you think about your life and everything you accomplished to get where you are, it required you to take the leap. You got on a bus, you made a phone call, you booked the trip, you emailed the agent, you said “yes” to something you didn’t have the answer to, you went on the ride. It’s just scary to trust that taking the leap has got your back. It does. A higher level of understanding or experience comes from it. But if you don’t take the leap you hold on to all the reasons why you don’t take the leap, which then becomes a self-fulfilling circle of entrapment. You can’t hold onto your limitations and let go at the same time.

3. All great art comes from the unknown. That’s the ethos of the studio. Live in the unknown in your work and something magical happens. Director Mike Nichols said, “Not naming something, not deciding what to do, being brave and going out empty is the only way. And it’s both terrifying and thrilling (and it applies to directing too).”

It applies to everything.

Live purposefully in the creative principle of the unknown. All expressions of art require us to let go of the ideas to leap into something much more mysterious and exciting and powerful. To do that is to truly live.

Let’s all really live in 2017.

Are You “Sick Enough” of Something to Do Something About It?

“I’m sick of it.”

We’ve all said it.

And many of us end up allowing that to become our mantra at some point in our lives when we feel stuck and powerless to change. It becomes the battle cry during rough periods in our career. Or while we’re in a rocky relationship. Or when we hold ourselves back in our creative self-expressions.

We’re sick of it. But are we truly sick of something enough to make an effort to change our circumstances? That’s the real breakthrough we’re waiting for. And that’s what being “sick of something” is trying to birth out of us.

Of course our hearts are willing. But there’s this weird trap door in our psyche that gets triggered anytime we move in the direction of changing our circumstances. And that trap-door doesn’t want us to use the escape hatch.

I get it. Birth is messy. It’s bloody and painful and requires holding on while letting go. It’s full of doubts and fears and an utter disbelief that we can bring something so potentially large into the world through an opening that seems so small!

So we often just stay in the “sick” zone rather than shatter our limited beliefs that want to hold us there. We become so accustomed to what’s “normal” and known for us – the safety and comfort of our own marginalized lives – that we’re willing to stay in them even though we end up getting more sick. Sometimes that’s literally. Sometimes figuratively. And we all have a high tolerance for tolerating our own shit. One person’s hitting bottom is maybe merely another person’s comfort zone.

So we end up resenting. A lot. Ourselves mostly. And our lives. Oh and sometimes that’s projected outwards. On a partner or a condition or the business. A teacher or lover or friend. We get to blame our circumstance and the people in them, rather than taking the plunge into making our lives different.

Actress Thandie Newton talks about our ability to change things we’re “sick of” when we feel we can’t. “If you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, then express that, write about it, take whatever you can and make something beautiful.” (Watch the entire interview HERE.)

That’s what a creative life is calling you to do. Stop waiting for permission to finally use your life as the substance of something worth sharing and expressing. It’s truly the origin of (your) art anyway.

If we knew we were bigger than the tiny interpretations of our own life events and were as knowledgeable as the universe itself, wouldn’t we have absolutely zero time to be “sick” of anything? The universe is always trying to guide us and show us how to become that which we feel is just beyond our reach. But we get to practice free will (at our own peril!) and often ignore the messages that try to show us how to improve our lives. Or let go of the things that hold us back. But we clutch as tightly as we can, because the alternative (in just opening our hands and letting go) seems to be oblivion.

It’s literally traversing from a part of our brains that are ordered and structured and linear to taking a non-linear leap.

Saying, “I’m sick” of something anyway is just a plea from some part of us that knows it can be freed from the constraints that imprison us. But we’re scared to put it into any other term of specificity – which would require us to take action – so we stay general with it so as not to take action.

“What are you sick of?” is maybe a better way to phrase it. Ask yourself that and watch what happens. A wave of feelings – perhaps anger or rage or sadness or real honesty comes issuing forth revealing what it is that you are really upset about and what you need to do to rid yourself of that which is keeping you sick stuck.

Wouldn’t it be more exciting, if, in a year from now you start a sentence by saying, “I was sick of _____, but I did something about it!”?


Actors in Video: Rachel Morgan (left) and Rachel Middleton (right)

How to Expand When You’d Rather Shrink

We all want to expand. It’s our nature to do so. But in order to do that, we have to move beyond our comfort zones which are put into place so that we don’t. Because expansion = change. And change, as we all know, is scary. So we shrink back into our safety net of that which is known and familiar rather than leaning out of the borders that confine us.

When we get bad news or life confronts us with challenges, our first response is often a shrinking mode. But we have the power to re-frame events so that we don’t beat ourselves up and actually begin to see things from a different point-of- view.

When someone rejects us in the business for example, we often get defensive. Our first reaction is to push against. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.” “They’re stupid.” “This business is impossible. I can’t take it.” Those are shrinkage thoughts. But all that actually happened was someone expressed an opinion, contrary to what we were hoping to hear.

If you like green peas, and someone said they find peas disgusting, you wouldn’t shrink. You’d probably laugh at the idea, “How can someone hate peas? Peas are like green little planets of goodness!” So why do we over-react when we get news about something we have an expectation invested in the outcome? When our expectations get dashed (which is yet another reason you should have zero!), we want to just think more expansively. “I see their point of view.” “That makes sense.” “No reason for me to shut down or get negative.” “I appreciate they took the time to look at my reel.” “I’m not really a fit with them, but it was great they met with me.” Or whatever it is.

Those are more accurate ways to not personalize what isn’t personal and you’re not creating resistance or a self-sabotage loop or defense against something. You just allow.

From a spiritual perspective – if it’s all divinity (or universal intelligence or life force or flow or whatever you wish to call it) – that means the stuff we don’t like is also divine. You can’t have it both ways. It can’t be that only the good stuff is divine. Or that divinity only exists in America and not other places or dwells within only certain people or religious faiths or lifestyle choices. It has to all be perfect or nothing is perfect. Because you can’t have perfection without imperfection. So when you’re challenged by stuff that wants to shrink you – and you see it as less than holy or okay – then look for an expanded interpretation.

If it’s all divine – when we get resentful or lash out or call someone an idiot, we’re actually doing that to ourselves. If it’s all perfect and we get upset that someone is expressing their point of view, what we’re really upset about has less to do with them and instead what it brings up in us that casts us back into our own shadow.

Don’t do that. Why beat yourself up if you’re a pea and not a carrot? A violin who wishes to be an oboe is like not honoring the instrument that you are made of. Play yourself. And expand accordingly.

Social Media and What Mike Birbiglia and Gaby Hoffmann Say About Acting

Do you ever feel as if every other actor in the world has this magic DNA to be a “star” and that you’re somewhere in this reject pile of boring blandness? Incapable inconsistency? Loser laziness?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to discover that besides talent (which I believe everyone has equal amounts of), success and a career in the arts is more about a combination of less understandable variables. Being in the right place at the right time, landing the right role that matches your essence, having the right people see your work, getting support from key people, catching a break and realizing none of it is actually personal.

Oh, and – working hard, not giving up, studying and growing, persevering when you want to quit, enjoying the process, not taking any of it too seriously – also help.

But I also think nowadays, there are more opportunities for all people of all kinds to break through and create their own work, find ways to be seen, get noticed in innumerable ways and find their own successful niche in a business that’s becoming increasingly fragmented and Wild-West-like.

If you don’t believe me, listen to what two amazing artists say about finding their way through the work and building a career that works for them.

Mike Birbiglia, the stand-up comedian and writer/director recently said in the New York Times:

“Eight years ago, I made a network sitcom pilot based on my life. It was a dream come true. A sitcom about my life? What could be better than that for a standup comedian? Well, it didn’t get picked up. I was devastated. But here’s the kicker: Failing to get that sitcom was the single greatest stroke of luck that’s happened in my entire career. The show wasn’t truly my comedic voice. It was watered down by network and studio notes to the point of being like dozens of other bland sitcoms.

After that, I no longer wanted to create projects for the Hollywood gatekeepers. The networks. The studios. Since then, I’ve created a handful of pieces for This American Life, self-produced three Off Broadway one-person shows, toured hundreds of cities around the world, and written, directed and starred in two feature films. All outside the system. Based on that work, I’ve been offered small movie roles by people who work inside the system. Which is to say: Leaving the system behind and creating something of your own may actually be thing that gets you into the system, hopefully on your own terms. The point is, forget the gatekeepers. As far as I’m concerned, what you create in a 30-seat, hole-in- the-wall improv theater in Phoenix can be far more meaningful than a mediocre sitcom being half-watched by seven million people. America doesn’t need more stuff. We need more great stuff. You could make that.”

And when one of the stars of Transparent, Gaby Hoffman was asked in an interview what she realizes now about acting that she never realized before, this is her insight.

“I still don’t quite know exactly. I know what I love in the experience that I’m having now. . . . I get to go to work every day with really extraordinary people, and our job, and very few people can say this, my job – I am paid to dive deeper into my own humanity, and do that with other people in collaboration. You know when you’re working with people who are really in it to get to the funny real tragic painful truth, then it’s almost like a spiritual experience. I don’t really know what I do, it’s almost like I go into a blackout when I’m acting. I just know that it feels really good, you know, when you connect and you find It. So I am still trying to figure out how to answer that question for myself, but I am every day curious about it. And I’m listening to myself and to all of these other people, and the writers, and everybody that I’m collaborating with and responding, and I don’t know where that’s going to lead me, and every day I discover more about who I am and what about acting turns me on. But also just who I am and how I feel about the world, and there’s nothing more exciting and energizing to me. So ask me again in a few years because I’m just starting to really think about it.”

In other words, you too can do great things, even if you often think you can’t. On your own terms, making it meaningful for you. Not because it has to look a certain way. Those days are gone. You make it look the way that works for you.

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