There’s No Such Thing as a Self-Made Success

What if you won the lottery? The really big one.
Would you take a different approach to your career? You might take more risks knowing you had a safety net. What if, as a child, you went to a private school for gifted students? You might have more confidence. So the next time you compare yourself with someone who’s more “successful”, remember they got there because they had help – as far back as a well-supported childhood.
 
 

For most of my life I’ve worked in a “dysfunctionally independent” manner. I foolishly believed that if I asked for help, it meant that I was

Fifth Grade Me

incapable or lazy. I actually believed that successful people were those who only did everything on their own. If it’s meant to be, then it’s up to me! …..right? When I was a working in Chicago, I had it in my head that if I took a class from a casting director, then I was “cheating”. For me, the only way to be a respectable actor was to get an agent, audition, and prove myself worthy with a long resume. Yeah…

In preparation for my move to L.A., I took an on-camera class from a casting director’s assistant, but never expected him to help me. Turns out, that’s how life works. While I did well at my first TV audition, it was his good word to the CD that tipped the scales in my favor, and I got the job. (Some gal named Tina Fey was also up for that role. I wonder whatever happened to her?)
 

Once I landed in L.A., a friend turned me on to CD workshops, and by gum, they worked! Later, an acquaintance cast me in a staged reading of his screenplay which got me an audition/booking for a national commercial! So random. An old friend from Chicago got wind of my little successes and walked me into her agency where I landed an agent! Then the dry spells came, then success, then – you know the drill. I started to wonder if there was something missing, something that I still didn’t know? At my age, what else could there possibly be? Turns out, a lot.
 
So I invested in career coaching. I used a system that worked well for awhile, but doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for different/better results eventually lost its flavor. Without knowing were to go next, I released the need to figure it out. And as life would have it, a perfectly timed email arrived in my inbox that gave me my answer.
 
I immersed myself in a higher level of coaching. It taught me the difference between being a “list doer” and being an explorer. When we explore, we learn through real-life experience. We move from knowing about something to actually knowing something. My decisions came more quickly, my creative flow became easier, and my definition of success completely changed. But it’s not just the exploration that brought me rewards. It was the letting go of the idea that everything was solely up to me.
 
I no longer resist the undeniable give-and-take between me and my wisdom, all of mankind, and the Universe.

Balancing Money and Art

Well-meaning coaches everywhere are telling actors to treat their careers like a business. We’re told to be the “CEO of our own Company”. We’re expected to spend a minimum number of hours working hard at our business. But working towards a bottom line “at all costs” is a prescription for anxiety and depression.

Here’s what this prescription neglects to include: Acting careers don’t exist without both the business and the art, plain and simple. They are two inseparable sides of the same coin. While most actors intuitively know this, they still believe that the only way to get work is by sacrificing and grinding away at marketing, networking, and self-submitting 24/7. Look back – haven’t we all gotten some good gigs just from doing our art? Work begets work, as the saying goes.
 
When I was just out of Conservatory, I worked hard “doing the rounds”, checking in personally with every office on a regular basis. It paid off with auditions and jobs by the end of that first year. But I also experienced the fun work of doing theater (often for free) that got me auditions and jobs as well. (I still do it.)
The key to living in our art and thriving in our business is not balance, but harmony. When we try to force balance by scheduling times and assigning days for either art or business, we muck it all up. Balance is natural. The idea that we can control desired career outcomes based on time spent, is an illusion. The business (and life) impersonally shifts, but we insist on taking it personally. When finances are low, we experience anxiety, guilt, shame, and when our creative skills go unused, we become depressed. The pain lasts as long as we distrust the natural ebb and flow of life. The pain deepens when we think we’ll never get out of anxiety (no money or job) or depression (no artistic fulfillment).
 
Ebb and Flow.
An actor’s life is filled with so-called good years and bad years. This is a constant. While we know the thrill of getting that big check from an acting gig, we also know the pure bliss of doing creative, ensemble work with no pay at all. Yes, the possibility of that dream job — both financially and creatively fulfilling — always exists, but once we see the natural ebb and flow of things, we begin to trust and allow it.
 
Instead of trying so hard to live up to soul-killing standards of being a business first and an artist second, just notice the obvious thing to do. You know when your business needs marketing. You know when your art needs a Viewpoints class. We are just so bombarded with outside voices telling us how to be a “successful actor” that we’ve stopped listening to our own voice.
 
You are genius. You are wise. Listen to your own voice.
 

The Secret Value of Joy

Survivor’s Guilt.

It’s what happens when a person finds themself to be the only person who’s survived a tragic event. This past year, in spite of the pandemic, my auditions have surprisingly increased. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty about this, so I try keep it to myself. Are you keeping the good things in your life a secret?

As soon as I came back from my family vacation, I was hit hard with non-stop auditions. In July, I had fifteen of ’em in nineteen days, including two callbacks (see video above). Some say it’s not cool to mention this when so many actors are suffering dry spells, but attempting to control other people’s feelings is a losing game.


 
Two years ago – when I had 22 in-person auditions in 21 days – I had some wisdom to share. Now confined to at-home auditions, I have something new to share: Discouragement seeps into our psyche when we no longer see what it true. What I know to be true is that there are infinite possibilities. I’ve lived too long not to see that anything is possible. (Don’t confuse this with the folly of “This could be the one!”) I see possibilities, but am attached to no specific results. Even if I suspect that some of these potential jobs might have already been cast, or that my tape may never be shown to producers, the only thing I see is opportunity. Opportunity to have fun.
 
There is value in joy.
Yes, auditioning two to seven times a week can be exhausting, – especially when some of them are deeply emotional and/or several pages long – but acting is what I love, and so I also relish in the “art of the audition”. From first downloading the script, to recording it on my audition app, to planning my wardrobe, to setting up the camera, I love the process of creating character and story. In fact, we’re all here to create, no matter what our profession. And now that I’m working in an age range that spans over twenty years (40s to 60s!), I get to add yet another layer to the creation process. How fun is that?
 
When we allow ourselves to experience joy, we feel connected to every living thing. This connection has us feeling/seeing the world differently. During a worldwide pandemic, we can either grab on to what is wrong with the world, or what is right with the world. So instead of assuming the future is bleak, why not grab on to what is true: The future is full of possibilities.

Ever ask, “Am I the only one who sees this”?

I drove home from an acting gig this past year, like Carrie walked home from Prom – desperately needing to wash it all off of me. It took me awhile to figure out why. No, I didn’t set anything on fire, and I sincerely enjoyed the work. but the plainest I could tell was that even in the so called “grown-up world”, high school cliques still exist.

Artist’s rendering of Carrie walking home from prom.

 
In every YA book, there’s the kid who doesn’t fit in, but ultimately becomes the hero of the story. I’ve decided that I’m that kid. But then again, I make up stuff for a living.
 
Most of the industry was shut down last year, because many producers couldn’t afford to implement the new COVID safety protocols. The few that could afford it, implemented regular COVID testing, special food handling, hourly sanitizing, extra personnel, zoning, etc. It was tough, but when they got it right, it was impressive. They knew that any missteps could have serious consequences. So when this particular production refused to check any cast or crew member’s COVID test results, I was speechless. They insisted that “HIPAA law states they cannot see anyone’s test results”. In my head, I was like….yeah…no, that’s not how it works. I then asked playfully, “Well…would you like to know if I tested negative?” They looked me straight in the eye and all super-serious-like said: “We assume that responsible people would not show up on set if they tested positive!” Wowza, they just told me that their safety standards were based on…assumption!
 
Only three of us consistently wore face masks. It was about 50/50 for everyone else. The day they added fourteen (untested) extras on set, I had to walk out. No drama, I just laughed at the absurdity of it all, and waited outside until they were ready to roll. The COVID Compliance Officer (CCO) apologized profusely, but I could feel I was becoming a “problem” for them.
 
According to safety protocols, I was due for a re-test along with two other actors. In the clinic, I pointed out that we were about to be administered the wrong COVID test. (Why am I the only one who actually reads stuff before signing it?) One actor agreed with me, while the other remained silent. Our CCO spoke to the nurse to see if she could give us the proper test, and she said yes. The three of us went in for our “swab up the nose” only to find out minutes later, that production did the old bait & switch – they gave us the rapid, cheaper test after all. Oh, and they still didn’t want to know our results. I just laughed and laughed.
 
But I felt alone. Stupid and alone. No one else asked questions. No one else seemed to care. Some of you may be asking, Why didn’t you call the union? Why didn’t you just walk away? The best I can come up with is this: I got a strong sense that this was a defensive bunch who would double down on how right they were, I felt a bit trapped being on location, out of state, and quite frankly, I was stunned. I also know the importance of “playing well with others”, so I never pointed fingers, I never got super serious, and I never pushed the issue. I honestly didn’t know if they were arrogant a-holes or just plain stupid? I did know, however, that I was turning into that hall monitor no one likes.
 
So when I was finally wrapped – cut a day early – I felt like a social leper. I hadn’t discovered their nightly bar visits until four days in, because dummy me was going straight to her room every night to be safe. The one night I did join them for a quick beer, it was only the sound guy and me who wore masks. They memorialized a karaoke night a few nights later in an email. Hmmm…. everyone sharing mics and singing/shouting between swigs of alcohol – Thank you for not inviting me. Seriously, thank you.
 
My drive home was…freeing. I could breathe again. I wasn’t being judged for asking questions or wearing a mask. I was giddy to the fact that I wasn’t in their high school drama anymore, and the mean girls – I felt the most disparagement from the women – were just girls.
 
It is usually that kid who is comfortable in their own skin, that kid who marches to the beat of their own drum, who ends up being the hero. So when you happen to be the “only one” who sees something out of place, relax in knowing that the truth always come out.

Hermione Granger reads a book.

P.S.: The union was called and they took swift action.

How I Did It (My Life Strategy)

Ian and I were enjoying the oceanside pool at a five star hotel in Hawaii, when he sheepishly said to me, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Excuse me sir, you don’t belong here’.” (c.1997)

While in Hawaii, I pose like King Kamehameha.

That I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the country (and beyond) because of my various acting gigs, has not gone unnoticed. But how did I do it? When I was finished with conservatory, I took classes – just for fun – at The Second City, but a few years later, they hired me to tour. Just to keep sharp, I took classes at ImprovOlympic (RIP), which led me to performing with Boom Chicago in Amsterdam – because the producers knew me from the iO stage. While playing with new scripts at Chicago Dramatists’ Theatre, I met a producer/actor who was establishing a live industrial business. I ended up working with him for the next ten years, and made good money as an actor while traveling to many states including Hawaii, and later to Europe.
 
In March of 2020, I once again landed an out of town gig, but my flight was suddenly cancelled. I felt the rug burn my feet as it was pulled out from under me. The silence that replaced auditions over the next several months was deafening. There was nothing for me to do except… surrender. Every business – including show business – got busy figuring out how to work safely amidst a deadly virus. Slowly, auditions – in the form of self-tapes – began to ramp up. Productions were actually happening – virtually, or with masks, or with social distancing, etc. My three day gig that was canceled five months earlier was offered again in August. That three day trip transformed into a seven week job, escaping Los Angeles’ historic heat wave. Even in the middle of a world pandemic, I was traveling because of an acting gig. And that same departure week, I shot a national commercial.
 
So you want to know how I did it? Well…um…I guess by now, you can see that I had no real strategy. There are strategies galore out there; books of “how tos” flood the market, but when we follow someone else’s path, we do NOT get the same results. Authors cite statistics showing how their method is the best, but most methods’ effectiveness decrease the more times we use them. If I had a method to teach (and I don’t), here’s what I’d say: Show up. Explore, try stuff, experiment. In physics, it is said, For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But in life,
For every action, there is…a reaction.
 
Look at the good stuff in your life. Ninety percent of it was unplanned, but it happened because – on some level – you just showed up.

Overworked and Unpaid

Recently, I read the article, Dear Hollywood: We Don’t Want to “Go Back to Normal.” Normal Wasn’t Working. While it was written from the perspective of a professional crew person dealing with insane hours, on-set bullying, and impossible expectations, it made me look to see how actors were affected – specifically with commercial auditions. While the author’s complaints were legitimate (thousands have agreed with him), one could say “Well, at least he was getting paid”. Actors don’t get paid for auditions, but it absolutely is work.
 
I’m not here to suggest paid auditions. I knew the deal before embarking on this career, but back in the day, we had higher earning potential. I missed the “golden era” where an actor could buy a house from one commercial. Four years ago, I did two national network commercials – a car company and an insurance company, arguably big money clients – but my combined pay was lower than the national poverty level.
 
Since Quarantine, there are fewer auditions, but commercial casting directors are accepting more and more self-tapes. The ad agencies’ audition demands have moved from the casting offices, to the actor’s home. Not only are we freely giving these ad agencies our talent in the form of auditions (also giving them new script ideas in the process), but now we’ve become unpaid session runners, location scouts, editors, and DPs. And here’s the kicker: ad agencies have yet to sign on to safety protocols recommended by our union. So even after jumping through hoops with self-tapes and editing, we’re not even guaranteed a safe set.
 
Who needs actors? More and more we’re seeing auditions requiring real families, friends or couples who are quarantined together with “no experience necessary”. I used to feel a camaraderie with actors who booked, because I knew they pounded the pavement on the regular, but now we’re seeing non-actors booking spots – not by luck, but merely because they live with a professional actor.
 
“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to our eyes. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become.” Brooke Foss Westcott
 
Sure, the current conditions give ad agencies a good excuse. But just like the article mentioned above, the industry is growing comfortable asking us to do more (like re-shoot auditions, record different angles, submit within 24 hours, etc.) Capitalizing on our fears, the industry expects us to ask, “How high?” whenever they tell us to jump. Home schooling will begin soon, but the demanding audition requests will continue, because they assume we have more time and that we we’re desperate and grateful for any crumb of an opportunity to work.
 
Whenever I look back to why I became an actor, I’m reminded of my truth: I’m an artist who mirrors human behavior within the human condition. It has nothing to do with television commercials. I look forward to navigating what is next with grace, and with my dignity in tact.
 
“In every crisis, doubt or confusion, take the higher path – the path of compassion, courage, understanding and love.” Amit Ray 

 

 

Feeling Sad Today? Maybe not.

I woke up feeling sad the other day,

but didn’t know why.

I just knew that it felt bad.

 

     I thought, “If I can figure out why I’m sad, then I can fix it”. I began a data search in my brain, picking out this and that, mulling over missed opportunities, lost loves, bad behavior, etc. Nothing clicked with what I was actually feeling. Instead, bringing up these memories just made me feel worse. I then woke up to a new thought: The sadness I’m feeling is all based on my thinking, and so I quickly switched gears. “OK, good. All I need to do is change my thinking. Think about something else…” I lay in bed, not wanting to get up until I solved this, so I mentally searched for an activity that would get me out of this “stinkin’ thinkin'”, something that would change my thought pattern. The only ideas I came up with were shallow distractions. Then I woke up again.
OMG – This is about judgment! For years, I had decided that feeling sad was bad for me! My whole life I saw sadness as something to be endured, avoided or fixed. “Hey, what if I didn’t judge it anymore?”, I thought. “What if I didn’t see it as something wrong?” In that moment – literally in that instant – my sadness disappeared, and I smiled.

My experience wasn’t about correcting the sadness, but rather about how I judged it. I laughed as I saw the simplicity in it all. Could it really be that easy? Yes, because I felt it.

(Originally Published January 6, 2020)

‘Tis the Season …of Pilots

Last year December 26th, I hosted a FaceBook Live event titled, What’s the Big Deal About Pilot Season?. Today I noticed that my talk not only still hits the mark, but I am now living proof of it. In the video, I said that Pilot Season had become artificially hyped up, and so I challenged viewers to take on the rest of the year just as seriously. I pointed out that being proactive can be as simple as just showing up.

Back in March, I was on a treadmill of episodic callbacks but no bookings. (I know, I know, a good problem to have.) As I was allowing self-doubt, anger, and fear to rule my mental health, I got another audition. This one fueled my anger. After all of the great auditions I had, I couldn’t believe I was being asked to go in for a “one-liner”. I couldn’t believe that after auditioning for educated, professional roles, I was being asked to go in for a Latina housekeeper.

Piss off, I’m not going!

Today’s topic: “What’s the Big Deal About Pilot Season?” Ask yer questions!

Posted by Doreen Calderon on Tuesday, December 26, 2017

As soon as I had expressed that thought, I knew it wasn’t practical, but I also knew I needed to change my attitude.  I reached out to a friend, and asked her to remind me why I should show up for this one. Very simply, she pointed out that I needed to meet the casting director, and that I needed a job. Practical and impersonal. That’s all I needed to hear.

I was so busy, that I didn’t notice that this was a pilot audition. When I booked it, I forgot that this was my first pilot! Long story short, my story beat the odds. The series got picked up, and I’ve been called back three times (so far). It’s exciting for me to be a part – regardless how small – of a successful new show.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t go through pilot season wanting to book one. I just focused on booking a job. There’s a saying, “Shoot for the stars, and you’ll land on the moon.” In my case, I shot for the moon and landed on a star.

And the only thing I did was show up.

Booking a pilot doesn’t have to be your goal, but you must have a goal. Your choice will determine your actions. No choice, no action. Where you end up can be a very pleasant surprise!

Defy Logic or Die

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.

Survivor Tree, 2011.

R U Leaving Your Soul in the Seat?

“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.

BRING YOUR OPINIONS/QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS TOPIC TO MY TUESDAY FACEBOOK LIVE, 12PM PST