What ‘AHS: Freak Show’ Can Teach You About ‘Type’

Recently, I was flying back to L.A. from London and had the good fortune of talking to Mat Fraser, a star of “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” 

He’s sort of become the breakout sensation of this season’s show and it’s all the more wonderful because he suffers from the genetic condition called phocomelia, in which he was born with malformed arms.

He talked about the irony that for 20 years he knew he was going to break through in his career based on who he was—that being himself was the only way in.

And that’s the truth for each of us.

We’re all types. Humanity in general (and the business specifically) is going to reduce you and type you. That’s what it does. People feel so much more comfortable putting others into categories—labeling them, marginalizing them. So the business is going to say you’re too big, or you’re not big enough; you’re Asian, you’re not Asian enough; you’re too pretty, you’re too ethnic, you’re too green, you’re too old, etc., and on it goes.

Your job is to quickly figure out your type, not so that you can limit yourself or be defined by it, but so that you can find your way into a career that is going to do that to you regardless.

Accept yourself fully with who you are right now and then own it. That’s your way in. You don’t have to be someone else, but you have to be OK with being who you are. If you’re not, it’s very difficult to get work.

So here’s Frazer, who was born with a handicap and yet I doubt he ever saw himself as limited. His challenges are what have made him uniquely who he is. That paradigm shift has allowed him to transcend the “type” that the business is going to generate for each of us. You get in the door by owning your type and then transcending it to have a career.

Stop making what’s “different” about you a liability. It’s your asset. We’re all “freaks.” We’re all misfits, outcasts, abnormal, weird, different. We all are part of the same tribe while simultaneously feeling that we’re outside of it.

So if a self-prescribed freak can do it, so can you.

And when you do, you’ll realize your type is simply human.

*First published on Backstage

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The #1 Thing to Do When You’re Having a Panic Attack

I went through a very stressful phase in my early 20s when I suffered from panic attacks. At the time, I thought I was the only one who had this problem. Working with so many actors over the years, I’ve now come to discover that it’s a pretty common phenomenon for young adults navigating their worlds of new independence, figuring out who they are, and what it is they want to do with their lives.

So don’t panic! It’s normal.

But at a deeper level, panic attacks can actually show us who we are. And how much we aren’t allowing ourselves to simply be.

The prototype: Control freaks who aren’t gentle with themselves and who put their own needs and health on a back burner in order to achieve externally. In their minds, success or perfection equals love.

Sadly, that equation never adds up. The energy being given to perfection—having it all together, not making mistakes, not allowing yourself to be human—actually becomes repressed energy that ends up finding its way out.

It’s almost like our feeling self is saying, “You continue to choose to ignore me so I’m going to now let it all out so you’ll have to deal with what I’m feeling.”

Eek. Not fun in life, not manageable on stage, and not easy to deal with in the audition room.

It’s counterintuitive, but progressive approaches that deal with panic and stress disorders are about actually allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed with the feelings we most want to keep at bay. That’s what creates the panic in the first place.

You don’t want to feel things you can’t control, manage, or intellectualize your way through. The irony is that feelings can’t be intellectualized anyway. That’s the challenge about acting right there: We try to “analyze” something that instead wants to be experienced and felt.

So the perceived fear of actually feeling our feelings is what makes us guard against them, only increasing them to the point that they overwhelm us with panic.

Life lesson: We get through life not by thinking our way through it, but by feeling our way instead.

Like most things in life, the way to deal with them is two-fold. Acknowledge what you don’t want to feel. Breathe.

Like anything, it’s not about denying something. It’s about changing your relationship to it. Feeling isn’t meant to be controlled; it’s supposed to be felt, shared, experienced.

Cut yourself some slack. Acknowledge how well you’re actually doing. Don’t get caught up in the “should’s.” Change your self-dialogue to something more supportive and loving. Don’t beat yourself up when you get nervous or anxious or feel like you should be able to go into audition rooms and not get nervous.

As the founder of Gestalt Therapy Fritz Perls said, “Fear is excitement without breath.”

So change the paradigm. It’s OK to be excited. It’s OK to not have all the answers to your life’s questions. It’s OK to just coast for a bit and see what unfolds. It’s OK to feel like you need to take a breather. It’s OK to fail, fall apart, release.

It’s called being human. Let’s all just try to be a little more that every day.

*First published on Backstage

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5 Ways to Change the Way You Think About Acting

The spirit of us is indestructible.

Science says that life is not only about possibility, but it’s actually born out of possibility. The fact that the universe conspired to come together with the exact carbon-hydrogen-oxygen ratio to sustain life some 3.5 billion years ago in the form of prokaryotic sludge that through millennia transformed into life—and we’re sitting here right now talking about it—is possibility.

So why, oh why, do we let the business get us down?

You’re bigger than the business. The business doesn’t define you. It doesn’t dictate your happiness. It doesn’t set your self-esteem or self-worth value.

Or maybe it does, and you need to change that.

Here are five other paradigm shifts to consider:

1. Everyone gets frustrated by the business. Everyone hears their share of no’s. Agents don’t get calls returned; casting directors get denied seeing an actor they want to see; producers can’t get the money for their projects or the money falls apart; and famous actors (you thought they had no problems!) are stereotyped based on their breakthrough roles.

2. Remember the 10-year rule. Give or take. Our trusted social researcher, Malcolm Gladwell, says that it takes around 10,000 hours to become a master at something. That means you can’t chuck it all and move back to Ohio just because you haven’t booked an acting job in the first three months of moving to L.A. or NYC. It’s going to take a few years, so relax, enjoy the journey, learn, and grow.

3. Stop waiting for permission. This is hard. We need people to support us. We want to be working with people who inspire us and believe in us, but you can’t wait for someone to give you permission…because they won’t. They can’t. It has to come from self. You have to decide. Just decide. Whatever it is—“I’m losing this weight.” “I’m getting new headshots.” “I’m getting an agent no matter what.” “I’m finishing that script.” “I’m booking a commercial.” You give yourself the green light. Then others will follow your lead.

4. Stop hesitating. We do this a lot. We wait until we have more credits to re-approach that agent who met us at a party. We don’t feel we’ve done anything major in a year and a half, so to reach out to someone would be embarrassing, we think. So we don’t. You qualify yourself. “Let me get a job first or change managers or book a film before I reconnect.” The problem with that is we keep coming up with different reasons to hesitate—sometimes for years. So your career moves laterally rather than vertically. Everyone knows the business is very competitive. You have nothing to be ashamed of, ever, no matter where you are in your career. Up, down, on pause, not booking, getting older, haven’t had a hit, agent-less, brand new, or otherwise—be proud of the work you’ve done just to get to wherever you are. That means something.

5. Go vertical. Instead of moving laterally (which is really just a stall), take the vertical leap. Easy to do. Make the call. Reach out to someone you’ve been meaning to but keep coming up with excuses not to. Ask for help. Check in. Take them to lunch. Talk about your vision and what you need help with to get there. Be human. Express your needs. Don’t shame yourself for being who you are. That sludge didn’t 3.5 billion years ago. If it had, it wouldn’t have gone vertical to become…well…you.

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How Actors Can Thrive During Mercury’s Retrograde

I originally wrote this piece when Mercury was in retrograde last year, but guess what? It’s in retrograde again! And the lessons seem just as timely as they did last fall.

Now some of you may think it’s all astrological hogwash, and that’s fine, but as a metaphor for challenges in creating and communication, I think it helps us understand how we get in our own way.

From a visual standpoint, Earth rotates around the sun much faster than Mars and Jupiter, and so even as all the planets are going the same direction around the sun, the outer planets seem to move backwards. Hence the name “retrograde,” and thus, a lot of people use the solar system as a scapegoat for all the things going wrong in their lives during these periods.

But the original Vedic meaning of “Mercury,” however, was called Buddha, which epitomizes the meaning of presence and the awakening of our discriminatory intellect. Our modern-day association with that word is miscommunication, but the Vedic sciences called Mercury a time for getting mindful—using our intellect, communicating clearly.

Oh, how time plus humans seems to mess things up.

I was walking down the street the other day in the chaos of Mercury’s retrograde…You know what that’s like: You accidentally send an email to your co-worker calling your boss a douche and somehow it goes to your boss instead. Your car breaks down for the third time this month. Your computer somehow deletes all of your saved emails. You find a text on your boyfriend’s phone…to his ex-girlfriend! With an emoji attached!

The obvious response: chaos, turmoil, upset, missed communication, iPhone being thrown down toilet. Or maybe these moments can help us to awaken instead.

So as I was saying, I was walking down the street, and as I passed this frazzled mom looking deeply into her teenage son’s eyes, I heard her scream to him, “Present. Moment!”

Snap! I thought it was genius in so many ways, if not mostly because it reminds us (and her freaked out son) that that’s all there is—the moment. What we choose to do with it is up to us. We can be here or we can be somewhere else in our heads, which isn’t here at all.

But also it was an unbelievable reminder from the universe to myself to get present—to stop being distracted by my thoughts. (What are the odds that I happened to be right there at that moment to hear what I most needed to hear?)

As soon as you realize you’re out of the moment you get present. That’s grace. You check out, and yet, your own tendency to check out can remind you to come back and be in the moment, to breathe, to stop fast-forwarding.

Get present. Be mindful. Play. Get out of your head. Give up worrying. It’s either going to work out or not. But worrying isn’t going to improve your situation. (Another way of saying it is, “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.”)

So maybe next time Mercury is in retrograde—and all other times of the year—we can use it to our advantage to just be a little more here.

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The #1 Thing to Know About the Creative Process

You’re never going to have it all figured out. There is no magic formula. You’re trying to define something that, in its essence, is indefinable.

You figure it out while you’re doing it.

You don’t figure it out and then do it. If you approach creativity that way, you’ll never do it. (The thing you really want to do.)

So, actually, those were five things to know about the creative process.

But they all come back to the same premise: You figure things out while being in the mess, fear, beauty, and weirdness of it all.

Do you figure out love first and then decide to go out on a date? Do you try to figure out compassion before you give a homeless man money on the street?

Constantly trying to figure things out from your head would immobilize you from taking any kind of action and experiencing the thrill of what true creativity is.

Life is in process. So is one’s creative exploration.

But actors get so impatient about…well…everything. Impatience is the enemy of process; robbing us of our joy.

When did we lose the fun in process? In figuring things out? I was talking to a female actor yesterday who’s newly in love. She seems petrified. Well, that’s good. Love is a scary thing. So is creating, putting yourself out there, being willing to risk—all of that can be unnerving at times.

But you can’t just get stuck in the inevitable unknowable-ness of it all. Love is unknown. Love is scary. But it’s also fun to jump in, to live in the excitement, to discover another person.

Acting is scary. But it’s also fun to explore parts of ourselves we never knew existed, to be willing to experience things we’ve never before experienced. But that comes from being in process.

We often declare something “stupid,” or “over,” or “not going anywhere” long before it’s really played itself out. We’re so impatient for results—instantaneous answers for things—that we think we can outsmart life.

We can’t. As clever as we think we are with our “smart” phones getting everything we want in 30 seconds or less, life still finds a way to make us work through our s**t without getting to the end until we work our way through.

Process.

And thank Gawd for that. With no process and only immediate gratification, we would become completely juvenile, ill-behaved, narcissistic brats, and the art of creativity would be lost. There would be none.

Creativity exists in the act of getting lost and finding one’s way through the process.

So go out into the world without your Google Maps one day and see what happens if you just get a little lost but still find your way home.

Go out into the world without having everything controlled and planned and perfect. (And try that with your acting!)

Go out into the world and be open to the mysteries that want to reveal themselves to us but we keep missing them because we think we have it all figured out.

We don’t. And thank Gawd for that.

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How to Get to The Golden Globes: 6 Ways to Create More Powerfully!

If you’re going to reach your full potential as an actor, it’s important nothing gets in your way.

1. Don’t make what’s in the way…the way. If you want to get to the Golden Globes or any other awards show, you don’t get there by talking about how you’re not there! That’s what’s challenging about being human. We spend an inordinate amount of energy complaining about what’s not working. Stop doing that. Instead, talk about what’s exciting in your life and the breakthroughs you’re creating and what you’re doing to get there. Keep speaking the vision of what is possible for you rather than the lack.

2. Recover gracefully. You have nothing to ever be embarrassed about or ashamed of. Just do your best and let it all go. Whether that’s auditioning or creating or asking someone out on a date and getting rejected or being dumped by your agent. Just keep moving forward.

3. Smile. New brain research is proving that even if you don’t feel like it, the act of smiling repetitively helps to change our mood and strengthens the brains neural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life. Smiling stimulates brain circuits that enhance social interaction, empathy, and mood. In other words, more people will respond favorably to you if you stop being such a curmudgeon. (And more people will want to work with you too!)

4. Be bored. NPR recently did a story on how the brain has a default set point that it needs to reach so that it’s not always being stimulated and processing information. This means be bored. That’s hard because when we’re not doing something we reach for things (phones!) to distract us. But this isn’t the kind of passive activity the brain needs. (That’s because it’s not passive; it’s active.) Having moments of doing nothing taps us into our subconscious, which is where imagination and access to creativity dwell. Go there.

5. Faith. You have to exercise it. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, has shown in his brain studies that the No. 1 way to make real neurological changes toward living a more positive life is to have faith. It doesn’t matter what it’s in, just start exercising a practice toward something: yourself, God, nature, humanity, life itself, acting, the power of film, storytelling, love, science. Exercise it everyday and watch how your life will open.

6. I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. Try one of those mantras—or any of them simultaneously—when you’re challenged in life. When things go wrong, when you don’t book that lead in that TV show, when your lover leaves you, when you want to move back to Ohio, or when you wonder, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” Any one of these phrases silently spoken to yourself covers every situation you will ever encounter in life. Try it and see how you’ll move from anxiety to acceptance.

*First published on Backstage*

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3 Questions to Prepare You for Pilot Season

Gearing up for pilot season, actors always have hundreds of questions. Here are a few with some simple, straightforward answers—answers that always bring us back to self and what it is that we have to contribute as artists, storytellers, and people.

The most important thing to remember is that it all comes down to trust. You have to trust that there is something unique about you (or sexy or weird or dangerous), and the casting director will see that. Whatever these intrinsic qualities are (which we all possess), you have to trust that people see it without you feeling you have to “show” them.

It’s called your essence.

It’s also about perception. Let people project onto you what they want. That’s part of the mystery of what it is to not only be an actor, but to simply be alive. We make up stories in our heads about who we think we know people to be, only to discover that humanity in general—and individuals in our own lives specifically—continues to surprise us.

1. How can I make choices and still allow myself to be spontaneous? Spontaneity is the fullest expression of the strongest choice. And that comes only by being available fully to the moment. You also don’t trust that your choices—based in the moment of how you choose to react—are interesting, so then you either second-guess your choices (which leaves you neutralizing yourself) or you overwork them because you don’t believe that your way of interpreting material is enough.

2. What happens when a casting director asks me to recreate something? Then recreate it. It doesn’t mean that your inner life won’t be slightly altered. It will. You’re still having a different moment-to-moment experience even if it’s ever so subtle. You distrust that fully listening to what you’re hearing won’t slightly change you each time. It does. That’s like saying hello the same way to everyone you meet everyday. Well, at one level you may say hello a lot, but with each circumstance and each interaction it’s slightly altered. So trust that you can hit your marks the way you are directed to hit them, but in the experience of the moment, you will be affected differently.

3. Why don’t I feel free when I audition? I do my “homework” but then can’t let it go. Because you’re too consumed with “Is it right?” “Is it correct?” “Is it too much?” “Is this what they’re looking for?” “What will they say?”

Who cares?

Do it your way and something will come out of it. Great casting directors see when there is a spark of genuine life force within a person. If you don’t allow yourself to do it your way, they can’t see anything. They want you to be genius, but you have to give yourself permission. Not them (or anyone else for that matter). When you start to do that, unapologetically, you’ll not only start having a lot more fun in auditioning, but you’ll also start booking a whole lot more.

*First published on Backstage*

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10 Ways to Live More Dangerously

I think being an artist is inherently risky. It’s dangerous. To create is to face what scares us—step into the unknown and be brave enough to tell stories that no one may be interested in hearing.

Since the new year is upon us, what better way to take inventory of what we can generate more of in 2015, but also what we can let go of that isn’t serving us and holds us back from true freedom of self-expression.

What if this year became an offering—a benediction—to live more dangerously?

When I’m talking about living dangerously I’m not asking us to live foolishly. It’s about leaning into those scary places just outside our comfort zone. And they’re not huge, dramatic acts. You don’t have to move cross-country or get a divorce or fire your agents to live dangerously.

It’s about doing small things mindfully, going for things totally, being willing to embarrass yourself publicly, laying things on the line fully in your work, in your life, in asking someone out on a date, in no longer avoiding that thing you’re trying to avoid—in getting honest.

Those simple acts become radical when engaged in on a daily basis.

To help you stay on task, here’s 10 ways to live more dangerously in your life that you can accomplish every day.

10. Stop comparing yourself to others. Everyone is on their own journey. And to compare yourself to someone else is not only futile, it creates the opposite result of what you want to have happen in your life. So no more compare-and-despair in 2015.

9. Stop gossiping. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” Bam! 

8. You’re not running out of anything. So start giving more of it away. Your time. Your Light. Your love. Your presence. Your energy. You’re a renewable resource so you can always refuel.

7. Speak the truth. Even when it scares you. It’s easier sometimes in the short term to be “truthy-ish,” but in the long run it keeps you from moving past the things that ultimately scare you and are holding you back.

6. Find a practice. I don’t care what it is, find something just for yourself and cultivate it. It could be prayer. It could be meditation. It could be a walk every day. It could be going to the gym. Commit to something for yourself and start doing it daily.

5. Feel your feelings. All of them. And stop shaming yourself for feeling things that you think “better” people don’t feel or express.

4. Make a commitment to find ways to stop listening to the endless, mindless chatter that goes on between your ears. Make a choice that you are not your mind. You are not the thoughts you tell yourself. You’re part of consciousness that transcends mind. You are greater than what your mind chooses to fixate on every day.

3. Put that cell phone down. Start going on errands without it. Turn it off at bedtime. Have an hour where you put it out of sight. Stop reaching for it every moment of the day.

2. List three things that you are mindlessly engaging in and giving way too much time and energy to that are really affecting the quality of your life. Dump them. You have to be honest here. It could be spending time online doing nothing. It could be time spent worrying. Basically, if you substituted these three things with three other things that are actually life-affirming, you might discover that you’ll be a lot more creative, happy, and fulfilled.

1. Love. Let your whole life—your creating, auditioning, working, storytelling, performing, and living—come from and be a philosophy of love.

*First published on Backstage*

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Living in the Light, Not in the Shadow

I was recently teaching at David Lynch’s Master’s of Filmmaking Program in Fairfield, Iowa when someone asked me if I had ever heard of Shadow Work. I hadn’t, but apparently, that’s what I was doing with the graduating class of directing students in getting them to understand how to work with actors.

The groundbreaking therapist, Carl Jung, coined the phrase when he described it as energy patterns (or parts of ourselves), that as children we often disown as we develop. Becoming unconscious of certain parts of ourselves serve as coping mechanisms to move through life.

As adults, these are the parts of ourselves we try to deny and hide. And it’s an interesting conundrum because these are the essential parts we need as actors (and people) to transform. But they’re also so scary to us, so we often don’t expose them.

But if we understood the pure physics of what makes a shadow, maybe it wouldn’t seem so frightening. Simply, when a light source is obstructed by an object placed in front of it, the object throws off a shadow.

But this doesn’t mean there isn’t light. Light is all around the object. As soon as you move the object, the area is once again bathed in light and the shadow disappears.

This is analogous to our own shadows of self. At one level, we need them. They’re what make us different and unique and human. They’re the parts of ourselves we fear, but when we reveal them and share them through our work, not only are they cast into the light (where they no longer can exist), but they make us infinitely more interesting people and actors.

But we often have so many judgments around these parts of ourselves it’s hard for us to recognize our own light. We simply believe the shadows only.

But shadows aren’t real. Or, you could say, they’re relatively real.

We are light. We radiate it. Emanate it. Are it. But if I believe the shadow parts of myself, I’m temporarily obstructing myself from my own light. I live in my own shadow.

It doesn’t help that we live in a society that is constantly reminding us that we’re unlovable as we are. Lose that weight, get this haircut, wear these jeans, go to that gym, and then we’ll be perfect. Then people will like us. Then we’ll be worthy of a job.

But perfection isn’t in the outer. It’s in the essence of who we are that channels the light. But if we’re born with the assumption that we are insignificant or imperfect or flawed, we’re constantly missing the mark.

So basically our shadows reveal to us not only who we can be in totality, but who we actually are once we transcend them.

It’s the holiday season and Hanukkah is often referred to as the Festival of Lights. Maybe this season (regardless of how you celebrate), it’s important to remember that we too are extensions of it.

The light.

So maybe start sharing it. Your light. Not just at this time of year, but all year-round. Now that would be a real Festival of Lights.

*First published on Backstage

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How Dating A Sociopath Can Help Your Acting

“Acting is a lot like dating,” I’ve been known to say.

I mean, it’s true.

When it’s good, it’s really, really good. And when it’s bad…well, if we’re willing to get the lesson, it can also be good. But even if in the short term, it feels really bad.

New studies (from San Diego State University) show that young people today are significantly more narcissistic than in the 1980s and 1990s. Ouch. The increase can be attributed to a number of factors including the Internet, our celebrity-obsessed culture, and changes in parenting styles.

So chances are you’ve dated someone (Eeeek!)—or will sometime soon—who doesn’t really care about you as much as you think they do.

This can open us to a whole new level of feeling, because along the dating journey with these kinds of people, we’re often made to believe that we’ve done something wrong, that we’re “crazy”, and that we’re imagining things or being too sensitive. This is what dating someone who says one thing but really means another can do to us.

People who have been rejected in unceremonious ways often tell me they don’t want to open their hearts again.

I get it. But as actors, we must. To choose to move through life zombify-ing ourselves, becoming risk-averse, and anesthetizing and numbing ourselves so we don’t have to feel again, doesn’t serve us—as artists or people.

The fact that we numb something doesn’t mean that we still don’t feel it. It’s there. That’s why we’re trying to numb it! And as a storyteller you can only tell story through the feelings you share. So if you want to heal, you have to feel.

The good thing about dating a narcissist (besides being brave enough to leave) is that, chances are, you’re going to move through a shit-storm of feeling. Anger, resentment, sadness, pain, rejection, rage, vulnerability. If you get the lesson quickly, and move on, you can access and use all of that stuff in your work. Not through sense memory or substitution. Simply you survived challenges in life that have transformed you and you’ll always carry within you the emotional imprint that all experiences have left you with.

So it’s a win-win because you have everything you will ever need inside you. And sometimes, the lesson can’t come without first being burned by it all. So all experiences are helpful in the long run, no matter how good or bad they seem at the time.

The key is to not repeat the lesson over and over. Like anything in our lives or career or art, it’s important to remember our worth—what we truly deserve; that letting go of something that doesn’t serve us is essential if we want to make room for something else to move into its place that does.

So thank those tricky people you’ve dated for the lessons they’ve afforded. They’ve made you a much better feeling actor than you could ever have imagined. But for gosh-sakes! Remember, there’s no need to go through it all again.

I was talking to an actor the other day who’s been having challenges with her representation for a while. I encouraged her to talk to them about the problem. You can’t fix anything if you pretend it’s not broken. Communication is the key. Everyone’s doing the best they can in this business at any given time, so it’s not about blame, but it is about getting more honest about what is—and isn’t—working in our lives.

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