Thoughts about actors “quitting” acting

EVER THOUGHT ABOUT QUITTING?

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You can read James Devereaux’s blog entry here and Marjo-Riikka Makela’s response to it below:

James Devereaux wrote: “I ran into an old actor friend of mine recently, who, when I asked him how it was going, replied; “I’m not doing it anymore”, and that he had turned the temporary contract of his day job into a permanent one. Following this admission, he blew out on his lips, scrunched-up his face, and shrugged as if to say; “I’ve made my decision, it’s gone now”. Whenever I hear someone has quit, I still get slightly shocked, although by now I shouldn’t. I suppose it’s because I know he will now move out of my social orbit and into something more normal, this is especially true since his new job has got nothing whatsoever to do with art. I also know that the questions of his life will change radically, and the obsession with which those of us who remain chase our goals, will probably begin to seem incomprehensible to him. Crucially, by leaving the stage as it were, my friend has severed the bond which exists between actors, and which exists despite the ultra-competitive nature of the life. What is this bond? It is the bond of shared experience, those experiences which are unique to acting but common to all actors, and while those experiences will at least reside in memory, we all know that the ex-actor is no longer part of the hunt.

All the actors I’ve known who had purely cynical motives, have failed. All of them. It’s easy to enter the arena, not so easy to stay there. The industrial model of art is false. It cannot be approached as a salaried 9 to 5 job, because it is not that – the actor is not allowed to settle into a cosy routine, for the actor is constantly being asked new questions. In order to find the resilience to constantly face upto those new questions, the actor must pursue goals which are higher than simply making money; he must have longe range aesthetic, technical and philisophical goals, goals which energize him, lift him, help him get back up off the canvas one more time. The mundane goal of paying bills will not nourish him through lean times, through confusing and frightening times, and will not help him overcome the grinding resistence to his work (which all actors face) – in short, he may decide that the tumult of an actor’s life is not worth the hassle, that there are easier ways of paying his rent, and because he doesn’t have those higher goals, he is unable to resist the soothing lure of security, and so turns his back on his art.

The goals that we set ourselves need to invigorate us to the extent that we can overcome the obstacles which prevent us from achieving them.”

~ James Devereaux
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Marjo-Riikka Makela responded: (Click here to read it on the Great Acting Blog website)

“Thank you for your article James!

I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. And all of it inspired me to add a couple of thoughts:

This profession is not for every one and it is certainly not for those looking for “cosy routines”.

Routine, in my opinion, should NOT be an option or any kind of goal for an actor, or any artist really. If an artist doesn’t choose discipline for brave, at times innocent, “new born” eyes towards life itself, she/he becomes a cynic. I don’t mean that an artist should not ever exercise critical eye towards a circumstance or life condition, but in order to create new, one must be willing to let go of established and look for new within and outside of ourselves.
“Cosy routines” hardly have brought much interesting or important art to the world!

I especially want to underline your sentence: “All the actors I’ve known who had purely cynical motives, have failed. All of them.”

Yes! And of course they have:

Acting means creating new life and one cannot create life, nor be inspired by anything life affirming, with cynical motives. Yes, sure, one can create out of emotional states of anger and desperation (but those emotions still have within themselves a strong wish of changing the circumstance and a braveness of feeling them, experiencing the emotion) where as cynicism means turning a way from life itself, letting go of hope, saying no to the experience itself, which (and this all actors should know) makes uninteresting stories… or end of a story altogether… lack of an objective….in this case an end to an acting “career”.

Cynical attitude and inspiration (inspiration being the blessed state that an actor must find braveness and a pleasure to live in on daily basis) cannot live in the same house. By “house” I mean your instrument, your whole being.

Being an actor means to be a “professional human being”. It means finding daily inspiration about life, without excuses. This is a very life-affirming profession! Being successful, happy “professional human being” who has the ability, courage and stamina to explore and express all colors of the human condition. To be an actor, one must love the art of acting and understand and keep in mind that this is a profession of calling.

Acting is also a profession of joy. Even when the character is suffering, a part of the actor’s creative being will be enjoying the ride, the creation!

Learning to empower oneself as a creator in any job situation, and being inspired to love all aspects of the actor’s creative process is crucial for the actor’s personal feeling of success and happiness.

I also call for and enjoy working with those actors who want to expand their ability for empathy, widen their emotional and physical range, and find organic ways to achieve character transformation, these being some of the key elements to great acting. Even tough we don’t do brain surgery, we can make a difference of some sort in the world and do what I call “soul surgery”. It is my great hope that we can increase empathy in the world by telling the stories and sharing the visceral experience of the characters we play.

I don’t believe that some one with a true nature of an actor, will never “successfully” quit. One might take break on auditioning or take a vacation after a long run of a stage play, but if someone is an actor, a true creator of this kind, he/she will always look to create in one way or another, otherwise one would find oneself to be miserable!

Of course, I am very happy for those who discovered that acting just wasn’t their greatest passion, and therefore a necessity for them. It is probably a good idea to do something else, if you have an option! One should only choose this profession, acting, if this is what brings you the greatest happiness and makes sense for your life. Otherwise dear people, by all means do something else! Life is full of possibilities! So many more important professions are awaiting, many things to get done in this world! I truly mean this and am not writing this with any sarcasm.
I think what actors often mean when they say that they want to “quit” is that they want to quit desperately running after “the dream”.  This in my opinion can be a good thing. I know many actors who, after “quitting”, started booking much more acting work, because they now had let go of that nasty, desperate energy and neediness of being accepted by every one in the business and “booking that job” and had now grounded themselves to their own special artistic individuality and started nourishing and enjoying their creativeness in a more creative way. In other words instead of trying to impress someone they started enjoying expressing themselves! They got to a place where they felt more whole as a human being and had accepted that whether they booked acting work or not, they had value as a human being. They did, in most cases, return to enjoying and having acting careers. They might also have found other kind of creative work to support them financially so they could enjoy the acting when they did it.

In acting, the real dream is always already here, with every role we are working on. One of the biggest paybacks for actors is that we get to live in the imaginary circumstances on daily basis. We get to experience the many lives and life experiences we never otherwise would, and we get to embrace and nourish empathy and story telling. If acting is seen this way, why would any one want to quit? Unless it is your bliss to be doing something more important in the world, and then please do! If we all were actors, the world would not get much done!
I’d like to end with this:
Acting is not a profession of competing with other actors, but rather a vocation of sharing with fellow human beings.
Stay inspired!

Warmly,
Marjo-Riikka Makela
Actor, Director, Artistic Director
Chekhov Studio International”

Click here to read Marjo-Riikka’s article related in Backstage

Back Stage Actor’s Craft Article

THE CRAFT

Michael Chekhov’s Technique Facilitates the Search for Inspired Acting

By Marjo-Riikka MakelaWe cannot display this galleryNOVEMBER 1, 2011

In our fast-moving film, television, and theater industry, we actors are continually asked for “quick results.” We must be emotionally available, learn our lines rapidly, and fill our characters with the objectives and desires of a multilayered human being—all without much preparation time. Now more than ever, the deciding factor in a successful audition or performance is the actor’s ability to call upon focused inspiration at a moment’s notice. After all, inspiration leads to real, organic, surprising, fresh performances. How is such focused inspiration readily achieved? It was Michael Chekhov’s lifelong endeavor to answer this question.Chekhov was a world-renowned early-20th-century Russian actor, nephew to the famed playwright Anton. He was a true chameleon, mesmerizing audiences by making consistently bold choices and disappearing into fully fleshed-out, unique characters. Chekhov was openly praised by Konstantin Stanislavsky as his most brilliant student and was highly respected by Group Theatre luminaries such as Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman. He developed his ideas on acting in such influential books as “To the Actor” and became the acting coach of many Hollywood stars of his day. The technique he eventually developed has been praised by Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Depp, and Clint Eastwood, to name a few.Although most acting techniques search for gateways to the actor’s inspiration, no other technique seems to have “inspired acting” at its center. Chekhov proved that inspiration is not something vague that we need to wait for; rather, we can coax and invite it in. Thanks to his well-documented psychophysical exercises, this inspiration is available to us today.

Thinking With Your Body
For me, probably the biggest difference between Chekhov’s technique and other techniques lies in the almost immediate effect it has on the actor’s imagination and physicality. There is very little talking or intellectualizing; the focus is on the actual doing and experiencing “on your feet” right away. Through different psychophysical exercises, actors quickly start developing a sensation of inspiration and learn to trust their own artistic individuality. All the while, they are also discovering ways to bypass mental acting blocks and preconditioned ideas of themselves, other people, or acting in general.

Using a holistic approach, the Chekhov technique emphasizes synergy between the body, imagination, emotions, and intellect. It also treats the actor as an artist, supporting the most valuable, vulnerable area in the actor: his or her creative individuality. In the Chekhov technique, this creative area, from which all artistic impulses rise, is located in the center of the chest. It is also the area where we feel the uplifting and expansive sensations of love and empathy, which both have a large role in Chekhov’s teachings. By simply acknowledging this artistic center and opening it, inspiration begins inside us.

Some of the biggest realizations about the art of inspiration can occur during the most uninspired moments. One example of this happened to me on a film shoot some years back. We were far behind schedule, running out of daylight, with a skeleton crew and a director who had very little understanding of or respect for an actor’s process. During a pivotal moment in the film, without warning, the director decided to change the tone of the scene. He told me, “Now, instead of being enraged, cry a single tear out of one eye only—preferably your left, because it’s closer to the camera. Action!”

The new direction came so quickly that there was no time for preparation. The camera was rolling, and I stood stupefied, knowing that the light was disappearing and we might only have this one take to “get it right.” I was filled with rage and confusion. What an unreasonable request! The only way I knew that I could give an inspired performance, find unwavering focus, and create such specificity of form as “one tear from the left eye” organically in the moment was to call upon what I had learnt in my Michael Chekhov technique training.

I focused upon the sensation of falling downward in the center of my chest, allowing the energetic movement of confusion and rage to transform into despair that flooded through me like a tsunami. As soon as I accepted the sensation in my body, it strengthened. I imagined that the flood could be released only through my left eye. I was filled with images and sensations that grew throughout the scene. The tear came from the left eye, but I didn’t even notice it, as inspiration had already taken over! Lesson learned: Everything is possible if I know how and where to focus to invite inspiration.

‘Just Be Yourself!’
What draws me to the Chekhov technique is not only its ability to empower and inspire actors, but also the help it offers in the creation of nuanced, multileveled characters. Nowhere is this technique more vital and more helpful than in the confusing marketplace of today, where an actor is continually asked to “just be yourself.” But isn’t it the transformation, the “becoming someone else,” where all the fun and the art of acting is?

According to Chekhov, “the actor must divorce his own personality and mannerism from those of the character, and give himself over completely to the will, feelings, habits, and appearance of the character.” Chekhov advises the actor to let go of his or her own ego so that the character’s ego can take over. He says that if the character is trapped inside the actor, it will always be imprisoned within the actor’s mannerisms—and character ends up being limited by the actor’s personality. He talks about characters having “a will of their own.” So, according to Chekhov, we should never attempt to be “just ourselves” when acting, but rather we should, via our imagination, “cross the threshold” into an artistic realm—transforming first into an actor who is capable of anything, and then transforming into character.

As a Michael Chekhov actor, you would never enter an audition as “yourself.” You would cross the threshold into your artistic realm, where you are free of your inner critic and any cynicism, doubt, or ego-based fears. This part of the technique serves well as a starting point for all creative work (as well as a tool for actors who get anxious in auditions or experience stage fright). From here, all the choices that you make can become those of your character. The energetic charge in your actions, the “how” with which you do things (the quality of your movements), becomes the presence that articulates your inner emotional life and your current circumstances. You are no longer just you—you have become an artist and a creator of character.

A Little Wisdom
Although the techniques that Chekhov left us are precise and well-proven, he was never didactic. For him, many acting techniques offered great value: “Why be narrow-minded, why cut ourselves off from any of these rich heritages when…we have the freedom to make the most of the best in all techniques? There are no prohibitions against it. All it takes is a little wisdom, imagination, and courageous experimentation.” These words are so typical of the humble yet brilliant teacher who showed so many of us the path to inspiration.

Marjo-Riikka Makela is a director, master teacher, acting coach, and professional actor. She is the artistic director and acting and audition coach at the Chekhov Studio International in Los Angeles. She is a company member of The Actors’ Gang and has extensive stage credits in Europe. Her favorite roles in the U.S. include Medea under the direction of David Bridel, Yelena in “Uncle Vanya” at the Classic Stage Company in NYC, and her work with Sarah Kane and Andrei Malaev-Babel at the Stanislavsky Theatre Studio in Washington, D.C. She will be conducting the intensive “The Michael Chekhov Technique: An Alternative to the Method” at Back Stage’s trade show Actorfest LA on Sat., Nov. 5.

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