This week I neeeeeded this interview with the amazing Judith Light by Linda Holms. If you have sixteen minutes and change, listen to this lovely conversation full of inspiring gems. Some of my favorite moments:
After more than 40 years in the business she says “I’m finding myself in a very new place, my manager of 36 years has passed away, and I’m in a real process of finding a new way, my new path. And I’m so grateful to be on TransParent because I have a family there that i feel very held and nurtured by…..But it’s a new world for me.”
From Broadway to Soap Opera: “I was making these pronouncements. I had these pictures in my head about what I should be doing and where I should be going and how lofty this life that I was embarking on should be. And I said I would only do theater and feature film, and that’s a really ridiculous thing to make a pronouncement on because at the point in time when I got the soap I was looking at leaving the business. Because it wasn’t working out according to those pictures.
“I didn’t know if the work that I was doing made any kind of a difference. And I kept thinking, ‘how can I find a way to make a difference in the world?’…So the content of my career didn’t matter as much to me as what the context was going to be.”
“I realized this business wasn’t about me, it was about the team, it was about everyone. And it was about the service of storytelling.”
“My disdain for, the way I looked down on certain parts of our business was my problem…When I was there as the understudy I watched how hard they worked and what great actors they were.”
“Ride the horse in the direction it’s going instead of fighting…I want to look at the things that are presented to me and I want to be grateful and respectful and I want to reach more people.”
“I learned how to hear comedy. Comedy is music. It’s math. It’s numbers, it’s what you hear.”
A playwright I work with recently asked me what I do when I’m not doing theater-related work. I actually blushed and said “more theater-related stuff.” Why did I blush? I thought that made me sound uninteresting in the moment. The truth is that I geek out to music, theater, tv, film, history, anthropology as a hobbyist pretty much full time. I can’t turn it off.
But can I tell you something more? I believe a love of “the breakdown” gives you a healthy perspective and a decided edge. Now, I did grow up in a family of voracious readers and history buffs, and that makes doing research on my various current and future and hoped-for projects fun and easy for me–I realize that’s not the case for everyone. But if you are paying attention you will extract your own defining acting/singing/composing/directing/consulting philosophies from going to class (ABCY- always be in class, y’all!), listening to interviews, watching live performances, following media critics you admire, and consuming media: podcasts, interviews, performances, and documentaries. On the other side of learning “how” is such a world of “wherefore”, of style and technique and type and history, an artist’s Canaan…I feel nearly euphoric thinking of all the layers that go into a fully fleshed piece of theater art. And the learning never ends. Isn’t that marvelous!
So, as promised, here are Four Ways to Become a Better Actor For Free in Your Spare Time (by Being a Geek).
Any aspiring writer, director, composer, actor, singer would glean insight and inspiration from objectively breaking down successful AND unsuccessful performances. Here are some of my current favorite sources for free “edu-tainment”:
1.) OBSESSED! with Seth Rudetsky.
If you are a musical theater person and you are not watching Seth’s stuff, I don’t know what to say. You are missing out on a major font of MT intelligentsia.
2.) Breaking Down the Riffs with Natalie Weiss.
Sounding like a diva is oh so mathematical and I love every second of this kind of work!
3.) Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast, hosted by Linda Holmes.
Easiest way to describe this easy-to-listen-to podcast: “four of your smart theater/film/tv/music/book/comic book friends get together to talk about what works and what doesn’t work in current media, as well as to geek out about their ‘favorite thing this week’.” I never miss an episode-you can get it on your favorite podcast platform or on the WNYC app.
Bonus: I’m also THE BIGGEST FAN of one of the show’s frequent guests, author and critic Glen Weldon, who can be stalked followed @ghweldon.
4.) Game of Thrones Analysis, by New Rockstars.
Their Season 6, Episode 10 breakdown in particular is a must-see for composer/directors (note: there are spoilers in their breakdowns). I completely lost my mind when I heard the music score in S6 E10, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it except these guys!
What do you geek-out to in your spare time that makes you a better artist?
Are you working on intensely emotional or difficult material right now? Then you know that the warm up and cool down periods are crucial parts of that work. I’m not talking about the physical warm up-though that should also be a part of your artistic day, I mean the moments you take to focus, to get in the “zone”, the “flow”, the “artistic state”.
Similarly, I find it helpful to cool down from particularly hot pieces by taking a moment to come back to my own reality through gratitude and mindfulness; we really have to shed the anxiety, fear, and/or trauma we have hosted in our bodies for the sake of storytelling if we want healthy relationships offstage.
Personally, I take about 10-15 minutes (or more) on either side of my working period, put on my over-ear headphones and listen to one of the pieces below to get into and out of my “flow”. Here are three of my go-tos (and a BONUS):
1.) Inside the Actors Studio Suite, by Angelo Badalamenti
Everyone who enjoys watching James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio” knows the first few seconds of this suite, but the full ten minutes of music is an easy, peaceful, and relaxing pallet cleanser. You may even feel extra actor-y for listening.
2.) Out of Africa Suite, by John Barry
This is the first piece of music I ever obsessed over. I have strong aural memories of hearing this during family road trips and observing my father studying or writing with this soundtrack playing on my pink portable cassette player next to him on the floor. When I grew old enough to appreciate good acting I became doubly obsessed with Meryl Streep’s performance, so when I listen to the Out of Africa Suite today I am immediately inspired to do important work and remember the safe feelings of my creative temperament.
3.) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, C Minor
This is the Advanced Category. If you have “all the feelings” you will not find a more empathetic composer than Sergey Rachmaninov. The profound suspense in this piece, played masterfully here by Lang Lang is an immersive warm-up and cathartic cool-down. My mother would sometimes play this piece on our home piano on Sunday mornings. I would lay in bed listening, terrified and hypnotised. It was brilliant.
Bonus: I rather frequently use guided meditation to calm my mind before or after my theater work, hyper-emotional or not. I have subscribed to the Meditation Oasis Podcast for many years, and I cannot recommend this podcast enough.
I recently returned from a quick weekend trip to Costa Rica! My dear friend and I decided at the beginning to make an effort to let go of the stress and grief in our lives, and to really truly relax. Easier said than done. Of course, we tend to remain students of Art wherever we go, and after all, if our end is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” no better place than Costa Rica! Here are some acting reminders for myself from this weekend. I hope they help you too!
1. Be where you are.
It’s the first lesson of improv: “Yes, and…” It’s the first lesson in scene study: “know your given circumstances…” It’s a major mantra in the happiness movement: “Be where you are.”
On the left is the brilliant jade-colored pupa, who has hurried up to wait in her chrysalis and is currently undergoing transformation. Growth and differentiation…all these interesting choices occur within the chrysalis. It’s an obviously internal and private process. Pupation may last weeks, months or even years…she can even fall into dormancy until the right season.
The gorgeous malachite butterfly in the center, having emerged from her chrysalis, is sitting on the empty shell in order to expand and harden her wings. Every few seconds she will pump her wings, and any moment she is going to take off.
Notice the empty exuviae, or remains of the chrysalis-exoskeleton. It’s a reminder of what she had to go through, to grow through, and I hope we look to these souvenirs with gratitude. Of course, it’s not really an interesting choice to play a chrysalis. It’s an empty exercise to play “the end”, so it’s helpful/stronger to imagine your or your character’s development at an earlier stage.
Accepting your given circumstance always expands, not limits your options. You become interesting when you completely “buy in” to the immediate circumstance of this exact instance of your character’s life. You become exciting to be on stage with. Offstage you’re a joy to be around, and you are a valuable colleague. If while analyzing your career tract you are aware, mindful, and present to your current reality, you will be less susceptible to jealousy and depression. Mindfulness adds a sense of wonderment and even wanderlust to your journey.
Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment. -Deepak Chopra
Incidentally, don’t feel like you need to lay out and defend every “choice” you have made as an actor or a person. Oversharing is an easy trap to fall into for actors and musicians, so if this is a habit for you, consider this: when you really own your choices and tether them to a profoundly deep part of yourself you become a miraculous story and so much more than a flat stereotype.
2. Peace is dynamic. Passion is loud.
“Rainforest Waterfall” is a setting on my white noise machine, which I turn on to relax, meditate, or otherwise “zone out”. In still-shot photography it looks so peaceful here, even serene, but in reality it is exhilarating, almost overwhelming to stand close to a waterfall. The roar is so loud that you have to rely on hand gestures to communicate to your companions. The violence of the falling water vibrates in your blood, and fills you with a rush of adrenaline.
My happiest, most peaceful internal moments have usually been when I am incredibly busy, scrambling from one thing I love to another. My heart is noisy and I feel like I am bursting with life, vibrating with passion. It’s easy to play a happy, serene, or peaceful character as if she were a wooden bowl in a still life, but then what you get is “static”…you get “white noise”. It’s good to remember: give your even your quietest characters loud passions.
3. Focus is patient.
Among the truly amazing animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Refuge is the jaguar, and I watched these two adolescent female jaguars being fed. Instead of dumping the meat in front of them, the keeper would place the food in difficult-to-reach spots in the enclosure, high, low, and make them wait a minute or so for the next bite. We got to watch the predator in training and it was fascinating. Between bites, or when her sister was enjoying her capture this jaguar would crouch and wait. Her eyes would never “go dead” and she maintained a relaxed aliveness even when the scene was not about her.
You see where I’m going with this. You have to keep your relationship with your onstage others (and your offstage desires) taut, alive. Conflict is where the drama lives, and the second you stop caring you stop being honest; your character’s integrity becomes dim and your audience stops caring as well. Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.
4. Mystery is exciting.
In the southern part of the Poas Volcano is Laguna Botos, a beautiful crater lake surrounded by impressive tropical cloud forest. It last erupted 7,500 years ago and is now considered dormant. For the most part it behaves like a sparkling blue lake but sometimes the water gets heated for several degrees by volcanic heat and turns grey.
In the north is an active crater with Laguna Caliente, one of the most acidic natural lakes in the world. The bottom of the lake contains a layer of liquid sulphur. The size of the lake is variable – sometimes 165 feet deep, but sometimes it disappears entirely. The temperature of the brine is 70°C but can rise up to over 200°F.
The diversity of colors of the lake is fascinating. It might be emerald green but some three hours later grey-whitish. Sometimes rafts of brilliant, yellow sulphur are seen floating in the lake. As if this is not spectacular enough, Laguna Caliente often experiences impressive geysers. This is caused by the magma reaching the water – extreme heat instantly transforms the water and acid into explosive steam and the lake blows up in a giant fountain.
When I was a kid, I loved the Red Skelton and Esther Williams movie, Bathing Beauty (1944). There is a scene where Red Skelton has to be part of a ballet class where there are all these girls in Swan Lake costumes, and he is also wearing a Swan Lake costume. The ballet teacher is telling him how to be a dignified woman, how to walk as a ballerina. She says to him, “You have to say to yourself, ‘I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.’” It’s hilarious and touching and made a huge impression on me. Candidly, I think of this scene before almost every audition or social situation where I am feeling very nervous or insecure…I actually write on sticky notes and put on my mirror or say to myself:“I have a secret, I am beautiful, I am beloved.” This is simple, silly, and powerful. So try it sometime.
Secrets that are alive under your skin give you color, it’s not just in your costumes and mannerisms. If your own mysteries or made-up secrets tint your reactions and motivations, you will bring a fresh unpredictability to your characters that is quite engaging and works as well for comic characters as dramatic leads. And if you have ever witnessed a secondary character or ensemble member completely steal the show, this is exactly what that actor has done. So build up an arsenal of secret inner thoughts, specific and private circumstances, so that the discoveries you make onstage are bursts of unexpected color and power.
I hope you enjoyed some of my lessons from Costa Rica! Have you ever found acting lessons in your travels? Share!
Three Pieces of Career Advice from the Morning Run
I love words, love word-play, and I love hip-hop/rap. I will write about this more fully at some point, but this is typically the only music I listen to while working out or pre-gaming for an audition or performance or The Day Job. Here are some great quotes for career inspiration (aka, motivation to hustle until I can Quit The Day Job) just from this morning. Submitting without comment. Enjoy.
I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.
– Jay-Z, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”
Why can’t you stay up practicing that?! If practice makes perfect, why do you just specialize in fun things, and not in the things that require effort, commitment, and sacrifice?!
-James David Manning, from “In the A” outro.
Do you B) hit the street hard with a flair
Or do you A) go to school for heating and air?
Dare make an honest living or make a crooked killing
Or do a bit of both until you’re holding on a million?
Brilliant. You got one foot in, one foot out
You put your left foot back in and then you shake it all about
You do the hokey pokey til you turn your life around
That’s what it’s all about.
-Andre 3000, “Royal Flush”
Just a note here. (I said I wouldn’t comment, but you know I frequently change my mind.) Andre 3000 a.k.a Dre or 3 Stacks is one of the premier lyricists in the game. His storytelling prowess in particular is unique and unmatched…and dear actor/singer friends, I am OBSESSED with his natural squillo and legato flow which makes his voice fascinating, versatile, expressive, and beautiful to record. I am inspired by his technique alone.
What does a singer practice when she can’t practice singing at that moment? How about Yoga? There are many different style of Yoga out there, and I prefer the Hatha style: emphasis on the breath and meditation, and a focus on creating balance between strength and flexibility through maintaining asanas (postures).
The practice of bringing awareness to your body is important to your vocal practice as well. The purpose of the following five minute session is to bring your awareness to the structure of your instrument and to ground your technique in the strength of your breath and the calmness of your mind. I must credit the master teacher Jean Ronald LaFond for inspiring these applications of body/energy awareness.
Before beginning, set an intention for the next five minutes.
1.) Kindle the fire. Sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor with your chin slightly down and neck straight. Lightly close your eyes and create space between your teeth. Place your hands just below your belly button. Inhale and exhale with very long breaths, imagining that each inhale feeds a little fire in your belly, where your hands are resting. Remind yourself of your intention. Continue for 5 breaths, and continue to breathe into your hands for the duration of the practice.
2.)Skylight. As you inhale, imagine that the top of your scalp has a retractable roof and slowly open the roof to the sky above you, like a convertible car’s roof retracting. Imagine the exhale sweeping out or “brightening” the inner lining of your skull. Continue for 5 long breaths.
3.) Inhale a smile. As you inhale, gently and subtly lift the cheeks with the zygomatic muscles – those that wrap around the sides of the mouth and lift the corners of the mouth during smiling.Exhale and imagine a “brightening” on the front of your face. Continue for 5 long breaths.
4.) Release the jaw. As you inhale through your nose, release your jaw ever so slightly forward and down until you have reached the top of your inhalation and the most open jaw position possible without any tension or force. As you exhale let the jaw naturally close to start. Continue for 5 breaths.
5.) Shush and lean. Inhale deeply, feeding the little fire in your belly. Exhale on the sound shhhh and continue until you have used every molecule of air. Lean into the shhh…never let the shhh sound be flabby or unenergized, it should not sound like you are conserving air. Go as long as you possibly can on the shhh sound, working toward 20, 30 seconds or more. Continue for 5 breaths.
6.) Breathe easy. Release all control of the breath, the mind, and the body and be grateful for your instrument. Flex your fingers and toes and reach your arms above your head. Breathe easy.
You’re done! This is also a nice way to incorporate body awareness before a practice session, audition, performance, or in the midst of a long rehearsal day. Enjoy!
I was raised to be insecure by default. I was taught that all men are evil, that I am only as precious as a man thinks I am, that I will be loved as long as I am dutiful and beautiful, and that I have nothing important to say or do outside “the home” or “the church”. Years of work on myself later, I still carry around with me a part that is quiet and reserved, ever-doubting, ever-searching for validation.
My insecurity blanket is the thing -the only thing- that can keep me from success in my relationships and my career. This insidious insecurity can and will destroy all the good things in my life. You could say that fear is my enemy. (Well yes, that is a Frozen reference.)
But confidence is a choice I can make.
A popular diet book advises taking daily cold baths as a way to rev up your metabolism. The instructions say that when you sit down in the chilly bath water sit down quickly, like a child playing musical chairs. I’ve tried this whole cold baths thing, and whether it works on your metabolism, it certainly works on your resolve. The first several moments in the tub feel like true torture, then suddenly your body kicks into this completely exhilarating feeling. You’re supposed to sit or lay in the cold water for about eight minutes, and in spite of the energy rush I am experiencing, I am often tempted to abandon my mission and scramble out of the water. But when I finish all eight minutes and bounce out of the bath I have a real sense of happiness and accomplishment, eager to take on my infant, toddler, and seemingly endless career to-do list.
I may not be confident by nature now, but I can certainly plunge head-long into confident thoughts and actions. Confident thoughts and actions can be very uncomfortable to me, like the miserable shock of bathing in cold water, and all I want to do is escape to the comfort of being just an object, a pawn. Being confident simply feels to me like stubbornly refusing to give in to my fears. The more you train yourself to choose confidence over fear, the more successful and credible you will be in your relationships, both on and off the stage.
It’s very easy to look for confidence outside ourselves: in a relationship status, in a teacher’s praise, or in social media approval. When we chase validation, we’re simply looking for confidence in all the wrong places. The outside search is based on false presumptions about the people around us, and those presumptions will ultimately build up a wall between us and our partners, teachers and audiences. Confidence is about deeply connecting to your true self, your story, your mission.
Here’s what I like to do when my insecurity blanket starts smothering me:
1.) Close my eyes and center my mind on breathing into my lower dantien, that energy center below the navel (about three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel), which is also called “the golden stove”. Discover a sense of grounding and balance.
2.) Envision myself working through my situation completely strong and confident in whatever I do.
3.) Feel what it would feel like to be super strong and purposeful every day.
4.) Generate the confident feeling by remembering a time when I felt that way. If I can’t remember feeling confident to that degree, then I think of a character in an opera or the movies (or a certain R&B artist) that embodies that quality. Then I imagine playing that role, feeling how confidence feels at the same time.
5.) Envision myself hunting down my insecure thoughts and fears like they are disgusting parasites, bravely wrapping them up in soap bubbles, and watching them float away.
Confidence is a choice I can make. I can make that choice as many times a day as it takes to live my dream, to serve my purpose, to tell my story.
Many of the vocal issues I’ve dealt with are the result of a lack of flow in the instrument (body) and lack of congruence between body and mind. Shout out to Karen Hoyos for the inspiration here.
If I felt fear, it showed up in an incredibly tense vocal tract and an unfocused mind.
Here’s how I’ve dealt with it: I practiced opening up my heart as widely as possible, and then I sang what came out…without judgment the entire time.
If I felt mad, I sang out the anger. If I felt afraid, I sang that. If I felt sexy and beautiful I sang that, and if I was feeling silly…well, you get the picture. Tears and laughter are an inevitable part of this process too, so go with it.
I started giving my heart her voice back.
Now, seriously, don’t do this with your arias or art music, don’t even try this “therapy” with rep you may sing one day. Do this with scales and arpeggios and material that is out of your fach.
Every day you have to practice opening up your heart, I don’t think anyone can honestly say that they don’t. If you are a singer with flow and congruence issues (raise your hand if you’re not-I want to take you to dinner) you can benefit from a few minutes a day in an open heart meditation.
When I prepare to sing these days, I am reminding myself: “Open heart, open throat, open mind”.
Instead of cereal boxes, I enjoy reading non-fiction with my morning coffee. That’s only because carbs make me fat and books don’t. And well, because I’m a self-employed entrepreneur of the starving-artist sort, I am particularly fascinated by business innovations/management literature these days. This morning it was this book on the table: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. Just mentioning the title would be a great conversation starter among a group of emerging artists, and I have enjoyed applying the perspective of a CEO to myself this morning as I glance over at the pile of new audition rep recently suggested to me by my voice teacher.
In flipping through the chapter summaries, I notice this question:
“Are you a hedgehog or a fox?”
Isaiah Berlin, social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas, wrote his now-famous essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” based on the ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Ok, I like this already. My teacher’s and my goal is to learn to dominate an extremely simple technique, and this could be a great way to reinforce that idea.
The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty–the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.
The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog in defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back into the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.
Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple—indeed almost simplistic—hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.
In Good to Great, Collins defines a Hedgehog Concept as a “simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding” about the intersection of the following three circles. I have directly applied these circles to the understanding necessary for a young vocal artist to succeed:
What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at). This standard goes far beyond fach. Just because you posses the competence and acoustics of a certain fact doesn’t necessarily mean you can be the best in the world at it, or that all the skills of that fach will come easily to you. Conversely, what you can be the best at might not even be some technical aspect that opera professionals would immediately listen for in your repertoire.
What you are marketable as. Today’s working world-class singers have somehow attained piercing insight into how to most effectively generate sustained interest in their package and profitability of their choices of roles. In particular, they have discovered the single denominator that has the greatest impact on their hire-ability.
What you are deeply passionate about. The great singers focused on those roles and arias that ignited their passion. The idea here is not to stimulate passion, but to discover what makes you passionate. As a personal soap-box-side-note, tell me how you can discover what makes you passionate without exposing yourself to the great singers of past generations and being adventurous and brave in your vocal work.
Some things to think about:
The Hedgehog Concept is not a goal, strategy, or intention; it is passive; it is an understanding.
If you cannot be the best in the world at some aspect of your package, you should take a closer look at what is happening in the practice room, or if you really even want to compete in this career path.
The “best in the world” understanding is a much more severe standard than technical competence. Conversely, perhaps there are aspects at which you could become the best in the world, but at which you have no current competence. How is your diction? your dynamic sensitivity? your acting? your endurance? your trill? your ability to collaborate in another language?
To get insight on your marketability, listen for feedback on the one aspect of your total package that has the single greatest impact.
Great singers have a skill set based on understanding. Good singers have a package based on competency and/or bravado.
Getting the circles of the Hedgehog Concept is an iterative process. Use your “team” (your teacher, coaches, studio mates, and significant others).