Courage: The Vitamin C of Acting
by Ruth Kulerman
Your attitude, your determination, your refusal to give up will get you further than just talent alone.
It has been too long since I wrote my "Farewell" acting article. But I missed hearing from you and missed sharing the pot-hole fillers I have discovered traveling this Road to the Emerald City-our dreams of acting. So here comes a mini mini. Just for you, my sometimes, my often, my every week, my once a year and my defunct-but-still-friends acting students and far distant readers. (Australia, comes to mind immediately, or Arkansas, or Avalon).
This is about courage. About daring. About possibilities.
I know most all of you have real life hurdles between you and your goal to act. BUT IT CAN BE DONE. Perhaps not starring opposite Denzel Washington or Tilde Swinton--but working. I remember for years and years and years -- until I started booking commercials -- almost all the acting jobs I did were free: student films (that went on to win national and international prizes), independent films with little known names but names nevertheless, showcases of everything from Shakespeare to plays that hadn't been published.
To repay Jeff, my constant fan and companion, for encouraging me to resign my line as an Asst. Professor of English literature, I did the one thing I could to earn money while I studied acting: I taught singing. I had 35 students by posting signs around Manhattan's Upper West Side. I am not even sure there was a Craigslist then. And then when we moved to Princeton for four years, there was a time when I was the hostess at a posh restaurant. I did everything to earn money to commute back to Manhattan to continue my private coaching class twice a week. And then after a solid year of twice a week acting classes I started auditioning in Princeton, getting community theatre roles, making no money but the reviews were starting to come in. Jeff and I packed the piano and four kitties and returned to New York so I could follow my delayed dream.
I went to hundreds of open calls, sent out hundreds of head shots and millions of postcards and the work started coming in. Always continuing my work with Robin, my British acting coach. Working at everything and anything to build a resume, to get my name known among casting people, to give me experience and to teach me to walk into an audition and take over.
Why this bio? What does this have to do with courage?
You all have responsibilities. But there are acting jobs to be had that will fit your schedule. They may not pay money but THEY HELP YOU GET KNOWN. They give you something to say when you send out your monthly postcards. You must get known to the casting offices via open calls and self-submissions You must learn your craft so you can compete successfully. You must learn to walk into an audition saying, "I am as good as the best and better than most" and then make sure that statement is backed up with your A-1 presentation. You must learn to walk in with presence and walk out proud. You must know what you are doing.
My professional world had reached the point of auditioning for studio films and even two Broadway productions. It took 15 years of endless miles of open call lines and endless hours of standing in them.
And then my world stopped.
I quit auditioning.
Coaching was wonderful and comfortable. And I cared for each one of my students.
Yes, I promise I am indeed getting to "Courage."
In August of 2006 my commercial agent INSISTED I audition for a job. I booked it. And decided to quit while ahead. So I quit. No more auditions. No commercials, no film, TV, stage, print. Nada.
What does this have to do with courage? WAIT.
The heart longed to perform but the feet and legs and back got worse daily and the pain increased. I turned down three auditions for films, one out of town. I COULDN'T LEAVE PEPPER, the diva cat I have written about so often. Good excuse.
There was always a reason and an excuse and the reasons and the excuses were legitimate ranging from pain, to fatigue, to not having Jeff to help my poor dyslexic brain learn lines!
In a moment of utter insanity I submitted myself for an audition for the first time in three years. A day player in a soap. Well, I am about as near to a soap actress as I am near to Mars.
They called me in. I almost refused.
But I didn't. I knew it would be awful but hopefully the awfulness would cure that niggling ache to perform.
Try putting pantyhose on to legs that will not bend.
Try finding shoes other than sneakers that will permit two steps without sharp pain.
Try memorizing four pages of script overnight. With a dyslexic brain. And no Jeff to coach and encourage and repeat and repeat and repeat "You can do it."
Try asking someone to go and pick up the script because my fax machine will send but won't receive.
Try doing anything when your body aches, and your mind aches, and your soul aches.
I literally cried in self-pity.
I know all the problems each of you have. I match them one by one. Including finding money to pay for acting classes. (Reread the paragraph where I with my four college degrees was a hostess in a Princeton restaurant.)
But I went to the soap audition and listened through the door to the others. And thought well that @#$%#$% British training had better prop me up because I sure as hell have nothing else going for me. All these wonderful looking women, half of whom I recognized from three years ago when I quit auditioning and none of whom remembered me. Sitting trying to hide my sneakers under the skirt. Trying to say it was OK to have red hair when everyone else was gray or white.
Was I frightened? Not of audition/performing. But of EVERYTHING ELSE. Could I walk to the chair without stumbling? Could I even get out of the chair?
Could I not collapse in a puddle of self-pity and burst out crying and none of this had to do with acting!!! Because I had the technique and it was part of my breathing and I knew what can be done on technique alone, even if the magic is missing!
Will I get the soap role? That depends on the look they want. The chances are slight. I didn't overnight turn from a frog to a princess.
The response of the head of soap casting? "You have done so very much work and are so talented." When I replied I had been trained in British technique her response was, "Well, that answers much."
DONE SO VERY MUCH WORK? Yes, indeed, year after year of non-paying jobs while building that resume. Thousands of hours standing in long open call lines in freezing weather. Thousands of headshots mailed (before people has computers and websites).
TALENTED? TRAINING! I knew what I wanted to do with the audition scene. The technique allowed me to do it. And COURAGE and PRIDE saw to it that the training took over.
Remember---when you think you cannot do something---that it took 25 minutes to put on a pair of @$#%@#$% pantyhose and probably ten years of no-to-low paying jobs (except for the commercials).
IT CAN BE DONE. With
KNOWING YOUR CRAFT.
Go for everything. Get your resume built. DO EVERYTHING THAT COMES YOUR WAY. EVERYTHING.
Jeff used to tell me to leave my negativity and doubts at the audition door with him, that he would care for them and give them back to me when I came back out from the audition. He wasn't there for the soap opera audition. But the years and years and years of conditioning, of hearing his voice say "Knock 'em dead and give 'em hell," the years and years and years of working on the technique, the years of work, work, work with no pay kicked in and whether I get the role is almost irrelevant. A lot of that depends on the Look.
The important thing was the COURAGE. I have an elixir, like Alice in Wonderland, that says "drink me" and it contains COURAGE.
The next time you get discouraged (the opposite of COURAGE) remember Ruth and the pantyhose. And laugh! And go out and do it. Your success is totally up to you.
Love acting so much that it hurtles you past any self-doubts, any negativity, any tape running in your head that says, "I can't." That determination, that courage, coupled with training and constant going to auditions will work! Your attitude, your determination, your refusal to give up, your DOING-these, will get you further than talent. But the foundation of it all is COURAGE.
Was that soap audition a success? You better believe it! Will I get the role? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What was that all about? It was about the courage to do something almost impossible to do. But doing it anyway.