We had a lively conversation on What Women Want Talk Radio this week week with celebrity guests Melissa Carter and Bill Oberst Jr. Melissa, a famed Atlanta radio personality, discussed the glass ceiling of the radio world. Bill, dubbed indie horror’s sexiest man, discussed his vibrant acting career, including his upcoming stage offering, Ray Bradbury’s Pillar of Fire.
Seriously, the Ghost Busters jingle was echoing through my head all through our latest What Women Want Radio Show broadcast. We’ve all had blocks. We’ve all been stuck. We’ve all had that same issue come back over and over again and smack us in the face (or rear).
Once upon a time, in a summer stock theater troupe in a galaxy far far away, I was assigned to play one of those obscure Shakespearean characters. This was one of those comedic relief characters in the heavy drama right before the king gets killed. If you are an actor, you know these characters exist in the Bard’s work and they are hard to nail. Mine was the Duchess of York in Richard II. In many productions of the play, this scene and this character are cut.
Weeks of rehearsal and the director’s input were more about purging the bad choices than discovering the good. It was trial-and-error and both trial-by-fire AND error at the same time, almost all the weeks of working the scene on stage. I couldn’t wrap my mind around this quirky character in this equally off-the-wall scene. People wanted to get to the poetic and tragic death of the king, right? I was frustrated.
It wasn’t until I owned the character’s block as my block that I did finally break through.
The group I was working with paid special attention to the meter of the verse and had a process of using the verse as the momentum of the emotion. My meter was irregular. Great. Irregular scene, quirky character with irregular meter. Awesome. So reading the scene for the umpteenth time, I decided to make her obstacles my obstacles and my thoughts about those obstacles hers.
What was her obstacle?
Getting in the door-literally. In the scene, the character was locked out of a room.
I decided to improvise using a make-shift battering ram. Using the sound effect value of the battering ram helped me focus my intentions, beat (literally) the pesky meters and own it. I made a big, bold choice and it worked for me.
So, not of all of us are going to have to delve into weird characters in the Bard’s world, but we may get handed a sort of surreal set of circumstances.
Own the block—cautiously. Don’t make harsh judgments about yourself. There’s a language difference between “I am blocked,” and “I am experiencing a block”. Verbs move you through. Adjectives might weigh you down.
Identify the most basic part of the obstacle. What’s your basic objective or intention? Start there and get specific. If it’s a conceptual block, try externalizing (mind-mapping, modeling). Perhaps it needs to get out of the head and into the body or on paper.
What is not working? Keep discarding the things that are not yielding the results you want. Keep at it. Keep moving. Don’t let the block weigh you down spiritually or emotionally.
Make a big, bold choice when it makes sense. If it doesn’t work, discard.
“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” HENRY VI, PART III
It’s true that actors suffer for their art. We go to countless auditions, get told no more often than yes, among many other grievances. Actors are bettors. They gamble on themselves constantly, each day, in the name of their art and their talent.
As someone who’s experienced this twice, there may come a time in your acting life where you may be on stage or on set and someone you love dies. The thespian’s motto is “The show must go on.” Yes, it does, but sometimes it may not be in your long-term best interest for it to go on with you. Sometimes, though, the time on stage or on set may be healing.
The first time this happened to me, I was 17 years old and performing in a community production of Othello Though it wasn’t a professional production, I treated acting as my profession. My grandfather died a week before opening night. My mother spoke to director on my behalf and his response to her was, “Is she still going to be in the show? She’s really talented.” It was about the show for that director, not necessarily what could be done to keep me in a safer space. When I came back to rehearsal, it was weird. Fellow cast members didn’t know what to say to me or how to act. I didn’t hold that against them. It’s hard to know what to say when someone close to you has someone die. I was very close to my grandfather and though legally almost an adult, I had a hard time coping with all the feelings.
The second time this happened to me was six months ago. My godfather, whom I held in high regard, died unexpectedly. We had been talking on the phone a lot in the six months prior. He was going through stuff. He was in mourning himself and then took a sudden turn for the worse. I was in the middle of filming a short film when I heard the news of his death. I let my director know what was going on via email and he was very kind and compassionate. He let the cast and crew know that I had a death. Everyone was very kind. He worked around my schedule so that I could leave the state to go to the funeral. He was a true professional.
Both times, at least to me, there was no discernible impact to my performance. I got on stage and set and executed the director’s vision to the best of my ability. However, I can tell you that the earlier experience with the death of my grandfather has followed me in some not-so-healthy ways. When I saw another production of Othello five years after my grandfather’s death, I was in tears most of the play. I had this deep association of Othello with my grandfather’s death. I saw Othello two years later and I was just angry the whole time. I had to go because of the drama academy I was enrolled in required me to go. I am hoping time will help me shed my baggage with Othello.
Here’s some advice to you if you are acting and lose a loved one:
Don’t feel pressured to do or be more than you can handle. Ask for an understudy if you need one.
Evaluate where you are in the processes. Are you in first rehearsal? Final dress rehearsal? Are you filming for one day? Thirty?
How much responsibility do you have to your family? If you are in charge of making funeral preparations for the loved one, take a long look at what you can handle or sustain. Funerals are very messy to plan, even under the best of circumstances. You may be able to take a week or two off your production or have the producers change a shooting schedule, but there’s not really a do-over on a funeral. If you have responsibility to your family, focus on your family first. Above all, the funeral is to help you find closure and if you have any doubts, choose to focus on the funeral.
Reach out to your director and/or producer. If it’s to hard to talk about it, send an email about what has happened and what you may need. If you have a manager, ask them to help you work out the issues with production. Focus on your healing.
Do not push for emotion. You are likely maxed out. You are an instrument. Don’t break your instrument. If you’re not feeling it, don’t force it.
It may not be a good idea to bring a recent death into your scene work. I’ve seen this really mess folks up. It’s going to be time before you go through those stages of grief and bringing something in that’s too fresh and too raw may harm your psyche more than it helps your scene. It’s not brave to dredge up something that you are unprepared to handle. It is brave to assert your healthy boundaries.
Care for your body and care for your spirit. Acting is already hard, with a great deal of little disappointments. Having a death cloud you doing what you love is a real downer. Take extra care of yourself. Enlist a friend to check in with you from time to time. An actor friend who you trust is a great choice.
As actors, we constantly search for emotion. We study emotion. There will be times when our life on stage and screen may be impacted by a death or other tragedy. Above all else, “…to thine own self be true,” and care for yourself in your time of loss. As an actor, you are your instrument, you are your truth and you owe it to yourself to care for yourself as best you can in your time of loss.