I had to laugh when, after hours of agonizing over this week’s topic, I realized this weekend celebrates my twentieth anniversary of moving to Los Angeles.
My sister and I drove cross country over Valentine’s Day weekend, 1998. We made incredible time, but managed to stop for important stuff. The most important was visiting the Oklahoma bombing site that had happened just a few years prior. There was this tree.
Survivor Tree 1998.
This tree was the only thing left standing at ground zero. It defied logic, yet made so much sense. When I arrived in L.A., I only had theatre credits and two co-star roles – I had neither connections nor representation. I did, however, acclimate very quickly. The weather, the driving – I never owned a car before – and the possibilities! Unlike Chicago, I could meet dozens of casting directors face to face and no one had a preconceived idea of who I was or who I should be. That first year I booked three network TV shows and a national commercial with no agent. It defied logic.
As the years went on, I embraced my newfound freedom by joining a theatre company, teaching improvisation, directing for the stage, performing stand-up – and partying. While I had some successes, I focused more on my “failures”. I began to take on the insecurities of my fellow actors. I saw my early success as a fluke that would never happen again. I worried that my hometown friends and family expected more than I could produce. So between crappy day jobs and theatre rehearsals, I commiserated with others over beer. I had at least four theatrical agents over a dozen years with huge gaps in between, while my acting credits grew increasingly stale. I was also living in a tiny studio that had thin walls and no light.
At the top of It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence asks God, “Is he (George Bailey) in trouble?” God replies, “Worse – he’s discouraged.” That was me, and I felt deserving of nothing. My sister noticed this, and reminded me of my talent for defying logic. So without knowing how I’d pay for it, or what I’d study, I returned to school. Again, I walked through the process with easy, yet laser-like focus. I loved it, and discovered I didn’t have to pay a dime for my Graphic Design degree. My sense of accomplishment returned, my energy came back, and the universe hugged me. I started to book again. Upon graduation, I decided to create my own business, because I was done working crappy day jobs. When I hired a coach to help me, my business began to grow. This time, unfortunately, I took on the insecurities of my then partner and chose not to grow too much. I developed a serious skin condition, and I stopped booking. I spent the next three years putting his needs above mine.As soon as I made the decision to end this long term relationship, the universe welcomed me back with open arms. Where you been, girl? I was happy, hopeful, and younger. My energy was bright and attracted good things. I booked two national commercials and four network TV spots within that first year. I created a living space full of sunlight and peace. Soon I obtained amazing representation in both L.A. and Chicago. I was free from the fear that had been disguised as “good common sense”.
I have always loved living on the edge, not knowing how things will turn out. I love it, because deep in my soul I know everything will always turn out fine. And now I am determined to love my way of living more than others fear it.
“When someone fears losing your affection, he or she will strive to keep it. Perhaps you have strived to keep someone’s affection, too. Fear of loss is not love.” – Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul
So you’ve got all of your tools in place. You’ve explored your Brand (I like to use the term, “Essence”), you’ve got your perfect headshots, your reel is up to date, you’re in class, your resume is growing. Congratulations! But there’s something no quite right. There’s this intangible part of the business that seems to open doors for everyone else, but you haven’t quite got it yet. What is that?
An actor friend of mine spoke about his early career mistakes, and it took him awhile to understand the biggest one. He had the looks, confidence and talent, but every time he left his seat in the waiting area to walk into the audition room, he said he left his soul in that seat. He didn’t know why, but he chose to leave the most authentic part of himself outside the door. Perhaps, he thought, no one wanted to see that? He thought professionalism was the ability to compartmentalize. In his mind, “Leave your sh&t outside the door” also meant “Leave your self outside the door”. He paid the price for hiding his best parts.
When I was in my twenties I knew that it was the time for making mistakes. I loved turning thirty, because I knew I was done making mistakes. Boy, was I in for a big surprise! As my mistakes continued, I mistook that for not being good enough. Thus began my downward spiral of contorting myself into a more “palatable” me. I played small and stayed safe. While my peers’ careers got sidetracked by starting families or dealing with serious life issues, my career got sidetracked by my lack of self worth.
Life immediately changes when we relax into who we are. When we relax into our own skins we no longer need to prove anything. The adolescent cry, “You don’t know me!” morphs into the quiet knowing that it’s perfectly OK if most people don’t get me. The most attractive people we know are those who know there is nothing to prove. And when we can enter the room with our whole self – free of the need to book the job and free of outside approval – doors will open.
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Every day news networks lead with shocking headlines solely to increase their ratings. To quote playwright, Adam Langer, “You never hear anyone say, ‘that’s too awful to be true.’ No matter how awful it is, you can believe it, why not no matter how good?” (Vivian in Film Flam)
Some may say that seeing the awful is facing reality. That in order to be safe, we must dutifully arm ourselves with worst case scenarios so as not to fall victim. We must watch the news, binge on real murder stories, click on depressing reports about our health care system and the environment – this keeps us ahead of the game! Beware hopeful stories, for they must be treated with suspicion. We must be careful not to have too much hope or else others will call us naive.
Our reality is based on what we believe. I like to play Black Jack, but I never win, because I have a hang-up about gambling. On the other hand, I believe so strongly in my body’s immune system that I’ve never had the flu even though I’ve never had a flu shot. Our beliefs are strengthened by what we choose to focus on. Good news – we can consciously shift our focus as soon as we are triggered by negative comments or disturbing stories. There is always good to be witnessed, and science shows it makes us healthier. Every horrible headline can be countered with something good. This is one of my favorites from last week: https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/montana-governor-signs-executive-order-keep-net-neutrality-state/
Focus on the Good
You’re probably already seeing the connection between this and your career. I’ve encountered some crappy people and situations throughout the years, but the moment I no longer allowed them to predict my future, obstacles disappeared. Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
“The key to happiness is not to make yourself into a different person; it is to let yourself be even more of who you really are.” – Dr. Robert Holden
I work all day with actors who are stuck when it comes to their marketing. They are sincerely puzzled as to why they never get around to it. Some reasons they give are: “I don’t want to brag”, or “I don’t think it will do any good”. But I know it’s something more.
The biggest reason why we’re not doing our marketing is because we are stuck in the futile effort of trying to second guess what “they” want. To remedy this, we attend branding workshops where they hand out lists of adjectives for fellow attendees to label us. We listen so intently to what others are saying that we start to believe them. Yes, you’re right – I AM the Latina single mother who has a secret! We push to come up with something cast-able, so we settle on a brand that is not quite us. Our materials smack of subservience, pleading to be called in. As a young actor in Chicago, I was told that I would get more work if I wrapped myself in my Latin heritage. Speak the language, look the part. This confused me. I wondered how I was supposed to do that? I grew up in a Lithuanian neighborhood, my family never spoke Spanish, and I have no hips!
What we really want to say is, “This is me – take it or leave it!”
We admire people who unapologetically march to their own drummer. They are truly the most successful. So how do we find our drummer? Pay attention to the details. When we see the connection between the roles we most want to play and the ones we’re usually called in for, we begin to hear that drum. When we identify that “thing” we bring to every role, the drum gets louder. When we observe how uniquely we navigate life, we bear witness to our authenticity.
If you haven’t noticed by now, this is not just about marketing. It’s about life. If we’re bending over backwards to be more palatable to someone, or if we’re hiding parts of ourselves to fit into a group, we’re not living fully. Be authentic. Be happy.
There’s this great scene in the film, Soapdish (1991), where Sally Field’s character – an aging temperamental soap star – is depressed. Her assistant asks if she needs to go to the mall. Through tears, she nods “yes!” Jump cut to her bedazzled self descending down the mall escalator where slowly but surely more and more people recognize her and soon she’s surrounded by adoring fans who want her autograph. Depression cured. Alas, we are not soap stars, nor do we have malls where validation awaits to greet us. Any validation we do get is fickle and unreliable. Others’ opinions of us are based on how they’re feeling that day, after all. (And we cast our opinions in the same manner.)
At least once a week, I see a post from someone who is getting kicked in the teeth by life. Friends try to cheer them up with virtual hugs and well-meaning, but overused sayings. The truth is, if we don’t pick ourselves up, we’re gonna slide right back into the muck. Coming up with a pep talk in the middle of a personal slump, however, is nearly impossible. Or is it? Here’s how we can prep our pep talk in an honest, look-at-the-facts sort of way before we need it: Make some cookies. I’m not talking empty calorie cookies, but “cookies” that shift our perspective in just one bite. This idea comes from ultra-marathon runner, David Goggins.
Get a jar – or a vase, or a box, (or ziplock bag you can keep in the car) – and fill it with notes spelling out all of your personal achievements. Their size doesn’t matter, just as long as they matter to you. Here are some of mine:
You returned to college at forty, did the work, and graduated as class valedictorian.
You traveled the U.S. staying in four star hotels, because you showed up as an actor.
Your rode your bike from St. Paul, MN to Chicago, because you decided to.
So when you’re feeling like you can’t possibly get through a painful time, or recover from a gut wrenching blow, reach into that cookie jar and tell yourself the truth.
When confidence is crushed by comparisons, social media has raised the bar on “keeping up with the Joneses”. What’s an actor to do?
The other day, I saw a celebrity’s IG post get over 500, 000 likes. Not 500K followers – 500K likes.
Actors fret over numbers – how many followers/likes do I have? – because they think it’s the be all end all. They think it’s important to casting. So now there’s a rat race to increase these numbers. I’m gonna say something controversial here…I think it’s bullsh&t. I think that for 80% of us, these numbers are unnecessary. I know that some CDs say social media is important, but I know others say it isn’t. I know some actors have been asked for their account handles at auditions, but I know I never have. What’s really going on here? Let’s break it down.
The way I see it, social media is important only when you’re on either end of the spectrum. On the low end: independent projects may choose to rely on “high followers” to help promote/fund their films – essentially using these actors as producers, without the producer credit. On the high end of the spectrum, a big budget TV series may – when narrowing down a series lead – choose the actor whose on-line visibility relates closest to their show.
My page expresses me as an actor
If you notice, I just outlined two different types of social media categories: numbers and presence. The numbers thing is just that – numbers. Companies who specialize in increasing numbers “like” my posts all the time, hoping that I will buy their service. I’ve been liked by strangers with over 20K followers, but I see nothing of substance when I click on their IG page. So not only do I know they paid for it, I also know they’re using me to employ a tactic designed to further increase their numbers.
What must be observed here is the difference between numbers and numbers with meaningful content.
Celebrities and people with great content build their following organically. Here’s how we, too, can create meaningful content – find our POV. Humans are attracted to distinct, interesting points of view. This speaks to a person’s essence. A few weeks ago, I showed how self-improvement/self-growth is nothing more than the emergence of who you really are. So don’t just post a picture of your food, tell us how you see it. Share with us who you really are. Otherwise it’s just a another lunch pic.
I use my actor’s “pitch” in my bio
So when a producer asks for your social media handles, they’re researching you. They want to see a real person, they want to see who you are. (They also want to see that you’re not an idiot.) I am on FB and IG every single day. Several times. I continue to stumble, but my desire is specific: to maintain authenticity while expressing my POV.
As I write this, I am between my fifth and sixth day of doing the Master Cleanse. For those
Ingredients for the Master Cleanse
unfamiliar, it is a fasting ritual that cleans the colon and other major organs over the course of several days. Each morning begins with a saltwater flush (good times!) and every evening ends with a cup of herbal laxative tea. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is eaten the entire time. A homemade organic lemonade with maple syrup and cayenne pepper gives the body all the nutrients it needs. Sound crazy?
Call me crazy. I don’t write this to demonstrate how “disciplined” I am, nor to convince anybody to follow suit. I’m simply using this as an example of how others may see discipline. Throughout my life, friends have commented on how disciplined I am, but I’ve seen myself as quite the opposite. Until I discovered what discipline really means.
The root of the word is disciple. And what is a disciple? Someone who simply follows what he loves. Well now, that makes sense! Every “admirable” act of discipline I’ve ever executed – riding my bike over 500 miles in the AidsRide2, sticking with acting for over 30 years, doing the Master Cleanse – has always been about following what I love. Well, maybe the Master Cleanse in and of itself isn’t what I love (can I have some papas y cerveza, please?), but rather it is a means to what I love. I love renewing my digestive system, feeling energetic, light, and sharp. I love the vision of myself never having to be on medication. As author Michael Neill, puts it “Discipline is remembering what you want”.
And that’s it. What is it that you want? Really, really want?
Remember it, and discipline becomes a labor of love.
Ah, that iconic quote from “As Good As it Gets”. Every woman’s heart melted when Melvin Udall said it. How beautiful it is to see a good woman transform a jerk. Or did she?
Everywhere you look, there’s some class, workshop, book, webinar, out there designed to improve us. Udall didn’t need his waitress to transform him, right? I mean, we already do things we think will improve us: work out, meditate, read inspirational books, choose the soft drink over the cocktail, etc. Whatever it is, we do it so we can be “better”. Or do we?
Look, the truth is, nothing can improve us. I’m serious. What these things actually do is bring forth, little by little, our coolest self. We develop good habits and “walk through fire”, because we have a burning (pun intended) desire to be authentic. If instead we take on an end goal of becoming “better”, then these habits become obligations or feats of discipline. Have you ever “fallen off the wagon” by behaving badly, and felt awful because you knew you could do better? That feeling is evidence of living inauthentically.
So what did change Melvin’s life? Melvin. He witnessed someone living so authentically he couldn’t stand not living that way too. He witnessed it and (internally) screamed, “I want that!”
Now…who is your coolest self? That answer is different for everyone. Our only job is to consistently do things that scare, excite, and connect us – not so we can become “better” people, but to reveal who we truly are. We call it self-improvement, but it’s real name is Self Emergence, and its a lifelong process.
There’s this buzz that happens every January in the industry. Pilot Season. This time of year, I see a sh%t ton of ads telling (selling) actors to “be prepared for pilot season” with
New Representation! etc. etc. etc.
Something’s not right here, I think. By the time January comes around it’s too late to have this stuff ready for pilot season. I mean, doesn’t the word “prepare” automatically imply prior to?
Many actors hold a misconception that pilot season is only for those who have top representation or who are series regular material. (Whatever that means.) There’s this idea that booking a pilot is better than any other acting job. People move cross country every winter, spending a year’s savings on a three month gamble.
It’s time to demystify pilot season. Companies use the tantalizing prospect of booking a pilot as bait to sell their product. Look, either you need new headshots, classes, an agent or not. Ask yourself, What do I need to support my career right now?
Almost two years ago, Dorothy, a SAG eligible actor, decided it was time to join the union. She decided it was her time to do TV and film, and joining SAG-AFTRA was what she needed.The moment she made that decision – and I mean within a month – she got her first TV audition. Her musical comedy experience was an easy transfer to sitcoms. Offices began to call her in repeatedly, and six months later she booked a pilot.
About a year ago this time of year,Joy walked her headshot into a casting office, because she knew she was perfect for a new show. Today she’s filming that show as the series lead! The series, however, never had a pilot. The network simply greenlit the entire season – a perfect example of how pilots are not the be all end all.
Booking a pilot as a co-star or guest star can be just like any other acting gig. Yes, it’s fun to be on the ground floor of something new – something that could be the nation’s next big hit – but at the end of the day, it’s just solid work. So if your goal is to book solid work, then forget about the term, “pilot season”, collect what you need, and do what you need to do – now. If you can’t figure out what that is, then ask yourself, What do I really want? Your answer will guide yo
When I first moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, I had no plan, no agent, nor any connections. Within the year, I booked three major network co-stars and a national commercial. I tend to “jump off the edge” so to speak, exhilarated to see what happens next. Hence my love for improv.
There’s a difference between investing in preparation/education and going all in. For instance, back in 2003, I delivered a Carmen Miranda impersonation
for my theatre company’s fundraiser, and it brought down the house. I had the movements, the music, the voice and the outfit – none of which I had the month prior. A veteran company member stared at me backstage and softly said, “I bet you put 110% into everything you do.”
Make no mistake – this had nothing to do with working hard. It may look like I work hard, but at it’s core, it’s always been about me going all in. There’s nothing more fulfilling that going fully in. Even at junior high dances, my sisters and I were the only kids who actually dressed up – making it a real event – and danced every dance.
My career coach has a saying: “Part-time actors produce part-time results.” In 2015, I was years into a dry spell that left me financially dependent on my boyfriend, and sadly, the relationship was no longer working. Not knowing where I was going to live or how I was going to support myself, I ended the relationship. I hired a coach. I fully committed to my career, and showed up to the world in a way I hadn’t before. In eighteen months, I added five more network credits, two national commercials, and signed with a better agent.
If we circle around in our heads, trying to figure out the “how to’s” of this and that, we create obstacles that weren’t even there before. Nowadays, everyone is trying to sell us the “Top 10 Secrets of How To – (fill in the blank)”. We know people who collect these “secrets”, who have a personal library filled with “how to” instruction manuals, but it doesn’t bring them any closer to their goal. The truth? Solutions appear when we go all in.
When I returned to college (for the second time), I didn’t know how to pay for it, how to fit in with classmates 20 years my junior, nor how to use my new degree. I threw myself completely into academia, loving every minute of it. During my second year, I (coincidentally?) booked several commercials which paid for my fees, new computers, and design software.
The Greek Theatre
Who could have predicted that I would give the graduation speech as class valedictorian, and that my graphic design degree would lead me to start my own business? I went all in, and the world laid itself at my feet.