Sunday, December 14, 2014

Let’s Go With this “Season of Giving” Thing...


Outside of acting, I've been bartending for about a year now. Sure, I've  learned to make a killer margarita, but I don’t think that’s why all of my regulars continue to visit during my shifts. I genuinely like hanging out with them, listening to their stories and dreams and concerns, and throwing in my two cents over a pint. Our goodbyes have grown from smiles and waves to high fives and hugs. It’s just like my own personal “Cheers.” I love it.

Connecting with people, especially during this time of year, is so important. New York City looks glamorous and so damn sparkly, but all of those Gap ads with warm families in giant houses, greeting one another in perfectly “normal” sweaters can make our lives seem a bit lonely. That’s why we need so strongly to find our own versions of extended family. More than any other city, I think that New York is a place where your friends quickly become your family, and this was so apparent at last week’s reading of A Christmas Carol at O’Lunney’s with Theatre East. I looked around the room and saw glowing faces, both new and familiar, young and young-at-heart, all dressed up and participating in telling a beautiful story together. Some lending their talents, others lending their ears. All giving.

A while back, a young man began coming to the bar during my shifts. I learned he is a director, a rather up-and-coming one at that, and we began talking shop every time he came to grab a beer. He has taught me so much over these lager-filled hours, lessons I couldn't learn in acting school, and I’m not sure he knows what an impact he’s had on me, but his simple gifts of time and attention have benefited me so tremendously, I feel I should leave him a tip instead of the other way around. One issue we've discussed ad nauseum is our fear that theatre is becoming a “rich kid’s sport,” something that is so expensive, many young artists cannot afford theatre tickets, not to mention sustain a career in which it is tough to keep one’s head above water. This is why giving is so essential, and so very doable.

I don’t have much money to give, but I do have TIME. All of my mentors, those whom I respect and turn to for advice, have given me only their time, which is a most precious gift. I recently produced a play (None of the Above with Pegasus 51) for the first time, an experience which was incredible and overwhelming, and was made far more rewarding by the generosity of the playwright, Jenny Lyn Bader. She found me on Twitter and invited me to ask any questions I had about the play. On top of that, she came to see the show not once, but three times, bringing different guests all along. Because of her openness, we began a dialogue that fostered a lovely new relationship. I have so much respect for people like Jenny Lyn and my director friend, established artists who reach down to the next generation and offer their resources.

This, I believe, is the spirit of the holiday season, and of Theatre East. We are a company of artists at different points in our careers, and I’m proud to be part of a group so willing to give of their wellsprings of knowledge and experience. 

I suppose this is something we can all learn and apply in our respective communities. I dare you (and myself) to take a look at your position in your community and find someone seeking advice or a bit of inspiration or even just a high five. Be generous however you are able, whether that means sponsoring someone so that they may see a piece of theatre they wouldn't have been able to afford or simply sitting across a table from them and and listening. I can tell you as someone who is young and hopeful and unsure, a pair of ears is the greatest gift in the world.

I will dip into heavier business for just a moment and say that now is an essential point in history to give of your time, not only to individuals, but to greater causes. Be brave, be bold, gather your friends and march for justice. Let your voice be heard and support those whose voices have been silenced.

And perhaps it is my youth and hopeful outlook that make me believe this, but I think that if we step up, we can create a remarkable chain of giving and a glorious future for every beautiful, valuable person in this world.

Happy Holidays!
Channukah Sameach
Merry Christmas
Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri!
One love.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Best Pieces of Advice I’ve Been Given


I want to be clear from the beginning that I did not take the majority of these pearls to heart the first time they were uttered to me. Usually I had to bash into them (to an almost concussive level) before admitting that these wise words were the best course of action.

Starting with something my Dad began saying to me in the 6th grade: “Lean into what you’re good at, and find someone else to deal with the rest.” This felt idiotic in primary school; no one else could answer questions I didn’t know on tests. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve accepted that if it takes me 4 hours to edit a piece of writing and 15 minutes for my friend to do it I should ask them, and spend 15 minutes taking over one of their 4 hour headaches.

From Alithea Philips, who oozes kindness : “Respect your fellow artist’s process (they may be a genius).” Not everyone works in the same order. Nothing good comes from judging the people you’re working with, whereas fully committing to whatever choices my comrades make has led me in directions I had never thought of. Often that direction may not stick, but going there as a team helps everyone figure out more quickly that something else should be done, without shutting anyone down in the process.

Other people’s success is not your failure.” Full disclosure, this one was not directly delivered to me; it was an answer of Christian Borle’s in a Tony interview. Though this seems like the easiest piece of advice to follow, I have found it to be illogically difficult in practice. I know a lot of people who are more competitive than I am, and seeing others succeed stokes their fire, but I tend to shut down. Developing the habit of being happy for your friends feels so much better.

This one is the newest addition to my arsenal: “Fuck It, someone’s ‘gonna want this!”, from casting director Kimberly Graham, a much more active way of doing that “letting go” thing everyone’s always telling you to do. Accepting you can only do the best you can do. The war cry version of “you are enough”.

Find your people.”, from my mom. Once you find your people all the other stuff gets easier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Your Flickering Flame


Let’s discuss fire, shall we? A furious blaze begins with a simple spark. The spark ignites the fuel, and a small flame bursts into life. As the fledgling flame consumes more fuel, the fire grows, and the heat intensifies to an endless limit. Your passion parallels this dimly lit notion. At one point in your experiential existence, a spark clicked awake in your heart. With more desire, more experience, and more understanding; you fueled that spark and fostered it, allowing it to consume and flourish until it reached its bonfire-worthy beauty. Your flame of passion grew until one day, someone doubted your talent and subdued your fire a bit. You fought back, though, and vehemently pursued your purpose by playing that challenging role, creating that work of art, or speaking those indelible words before a crowd of breathless faces.  You recovered. You regained what you once had. The inferno was full ablaze now, but others came with reservations and icy cold breath. The cool air stung as your fire slowly crackled asunder and whittled away to an ember. It hurt. What you sought now was a match—something that could revitalize that flame and bring it back to its greatest grandeur. You were looking for something that made you feel inspired and alive. You were looking for something that could refresh and renew. You were looking, and you found it.

There will be many people, situations, and unexpected circumstances that will try to extinguish your flame of passion. Remember or, if you have none, find the matches in life that fuel your flame. Keep them always close to you and never let them stray too far away. They will become your protective cage that fits perfectly around your heart. Protect your heart from naysayers, and you will, in turn, protect your passion. See a show. Have a drink. Have two. Watch a child play. Take a new street home. Pick a flower. Smell that flower. Try a new recipe. Look up. Breathe. Smile. Take a walk. Look down. Get that kiss. Believe. Write a poem. Draw a picture. Call a friend. Call an enemy. Forgive. Forget. Remember. Become. Be.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

How I Learned to Deal with Worrying and Avoid the Bomb


I heard something fantastic the other day - “Treat worry like a heckler, not a mugger.” It’s an interesting distinction that frames all the things that stop us in our tracks, into a trajectory that allows us to move forward. It being the end of summer, and the spirit of Back-To-School is all around us (in forms of office supply sales), and being based in a city like New York; this mindset feels particularly pertinent.

It’s absolutely useless to pretend that your worries don’t exist. Ignoring your problems usually create far worse ones down the line, we know this, but it’s worth reminding ourselves every once in a while. Making ourselves the victims of our own brain and allowing fear to rob us of everything is obviously not very useful either. Better to acknowledge it, assess it for any merit, own up to what is true which allows room for dismissing whatever it is that we made up ourselves. No point worrying about a mere remote possibility if it stops you from doing something that is important.

Dealing with personal failure is a basic job requirement of, well, people in general, but people in the creative arts, especially. We can try to draw inspiration from famous stories of how failures made incredible things possible, from Edison to Steve Jobs and everyone in between. However it’s one thing to know, intellectually, that failing is a process and not an ending, it’s a hard to accept platitudes when we’re in the middle of it. Stopping to evaluate the voices in my head has always been the best I’ve come up with to coax myself out of the fetal position and get on with it. When that doesn’t work, there’s always ice cream, and Netflix, and another morning to try again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stage Combat Enhances Your Acting


I’ve spent the last five years learning and teaching Stage Combat alongside one of the top combat instructors in the country. I was very fortunate to get involved straight out of acting school and although I have never been crazy about teaching, only recently I realized how much this experience has enhanced my acting as well as my whole creative being. Where some people would take this skill for granted I have grown to believe that it is an essential part of the training for every actor especially for the one who intends to have a career on the stage.

One of the things that really stood out for me as I was observing actors during combat class was how much this skill informs one’s acting. Although some people took it more seriously than others, there was a clear point being made over and over again that the actor who was able to do the combat at ease was also a good actor overall. In general the attributes that gave people advantage were previous movement skills such as dance or martial arts but that was not always the case since I saw students with no such training do just as well as those who had if not better. Therefore the main factors which I think connect the combat with one’s acting are listening skills, being grounded in your character and self control over every action you play.

The reason I point those factors out is because I found that teaching actors, who knew how to listen, were also grounded and had full control over their physical actions made it very easy to create an effective dramatic or comical scene. This is also why I believe that combat and acting are very connected and one informs the other. When actors are really listening, their fight choreography looks flawless and effortless and so does their acting and there is no fear of safety because they are living the scene moment by moment while being in full control of their bodies as they remain grounded in the characters that they are playing.

So I really hope that this gives a better idea of what stage combat is about and how it relates to acting in more ways than one. What a great way to keep the actor’s instrument in shape and at the same time have so much fun while being creative and inspired by every new move you perform. It keeps me curious, on my toes and asking for more. It is the reason why I believe that acting at its best should be described as Fearless!!!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

An Artist On Hold


I spent the past week fully immersed in the world of tap dance. I was offered a job as an assistant registrar for the New York City Tap Festival several months ago and agreed to take the position out of a unique combination of love and financial necessity. I entered the week expecting to enjoy myself. I also expected not to have time to go through my usual actor motions: submitting for auditions, waiting on line for open calls, etc. This would be a week where I would work in the presence of art to finance my life, but I would place myself as an artist on hold—or so I thought.

The week itself was a roller coaster ride. Some days I found myself buried in administrative problems; on others, I was without much work at all, albeit responsible for making sure things were running smoothly. While I am an avid tap dancer myself, my duties as assistant registrar left me unable to take any classes, leaving most of my days at the dance festival devoid of any dancing! I was, however, able to see each evening’s show, and I was especially struck by one performance.

As a part of Thursday’s show, Tap & Song, tapper Kazu Kumagai offered a piece to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’. I was floored. I had anticipated to be wowed by his technical precision, but I found his piece amazing and inspiring for a totally unexpected reason. Armed with little more than his feet, two musicians and Dylan’s powerful lyrics, Kumagai told a story. He walked onstage and began to speak with his feet, and He seemed to have an incredibly clear idea of what he was saying and I, from the back of the balcony, was able to hear him.

I was reminded how very simple storytelling can be. In an age where there is so much pressure to provide spectacle (and production costs seem to be forever on the rise), it is refreshing to see art that strives just to communicate an idea. It seemed as though Kumagai knew the truth of what he was saying and then said it, and with only that, it reached out and touched me as a member of the audience.

In the middle of a work-week where I expected to find little that would inspire me as an actor, I saw an element of storytelling illuminated that will change the choices I make in my own artistic career. The experience also reminded me that all art, not just theatre, can influence our lives and our work as actors.

Most importantly, I was reminded that, even amidst the freelancing/temping/money-finding aspects of this career, growth as an actor will never cease. An artist on hold is impossible.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Team


Before I begin this exploration of team, I want to acknowledge Maya Angelou. I write this on her day of passing and her poem "Still I Rise" resonates through my mind. I am truly grateful for what she gave this world.

I have come to understand the profound importance 'my team' has both personally and professionally in my life. I am primarily an actor and producer and the team of people that I surround myself with is what keeps me afloat, raises my excellence and brings me joy. Sometimes I notice acquaintances of mine have friends, family or partners that are dis-empowered, fearful and negative and I wonder how they handle it. It is hard enough being an artist without having to deal with people bringing you down. I couldn't do it without 'my team'; those who help me Rise.

I have surrounded myself with wise, motivated, brave and hilarious people who are my role models and confidants. When I have a day that brings me to tears because I haven't had enough sleep and I feel under-acknowledged, I have multiple people I can reach out to that will listen to me, love me, support me and give me brilliant advice to help me Rise. On a day when I can't see where I will get my next acting role, and I start to doubt my talent and worth, I have people there to remind me who I am, what I'm up to and help me Rise. On a day when I work with artists who have a different style, taste and level of experience to me, and I want to pull my hair out because I feel so unsatisfied by the work being created, 'my team' help me Rise. These same people are my role models when it comes to how they deal with their own challenges. They watch inspiring videos, read motivational articles and books, meditate with Deepak Chopra and participate in personal development courses like Tony Robbins, Landmark Education and The Virtues Project. They share their inspiration with me and those around them. They get knocked down, they take risks, they fail, but they get back up and continue to Rise.

On a more professional note, I started 7 Centaur Productions and Little y Theatre Company with friends/fellow artists and these companies have managed to produce over 15 film projects, 8 plays, won multiple awards and been awarded grants equaling to many thousands of dollars. My partners through past and current projects - Stevie Cruz-Martin, Georgia King, Alexis Davis, Heloise Wilson, Conrad Le Bron and Josh Makinda - became my right leg. I can’t take a step forward without their hard work, mental and emotional support and incredible integrity. I will share a particularly difficult time when 'My Team" became everything. After spending a year collaborating with Georgia King and Alexis Davis devising a play called "Scent Tales", finding a brilliant director to join the team and being accepted to perform the production at The Blue Room Theatre which included a small grant, free theatre space, equipment and marketing support we faced a tragedy. Alexis passed away in a car accident. Alexis had become a dear friend, co-producer, co-writer and co-actor in my life and all of a sudden she was no longer with us. What to do? Do we cancel the show? You can imagine how many people I called on to help me through this time. We decided to do the show in Alexis' name, and promised each other that every production we do from that moment forward would honor her further.

"Scent Tales" went on to have a sell out season, won Best Production at The Blue Room Theatre Awards amongst other award nominations and wins and was awarded a huge grant to tour the show around Western Australia. If I had a partner who was pressuring me to earn more money - for example; or if my parents were insisting I choose another career path; or if my friends were all in regular day jobs and didn't understand what it was to be an artist, it would have been incredibly difficult to get through that period because I needed all the support I could get. I know that you can't choose your family or (sometimes) who you work with, and I believe that it is important to love and respect the people around you regardless of circumstance or opinion; but you can choose your friends and partners. And it is that choice that could be the very key you needed to Rise to your next level of success.

"My team" rejuvenate me and profoundly shape who I am. I do my best to be there for them as much as they are for me, and to be an inspiration in how I deal with challenges, just as they are for me. And with that kind of give and take commitment, I can only imagine we will create a powerful cyclical tornado, going up, up and UP!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Challenge


I would like to challenge each of you to do something. As we increase our exposure to technology, we are losing something incredibly valuable. So much of our contents is shaved down to bite sized morsels that we are losing our ability to sustain quiet, focused attention for significant periods of time. Theatre folk have been sensing this for a while now, as audiences have grown bored of sitting still for 2 hours of storytelling. But I think the problem is much, much worse. We are losing the benefit of public gathering altogether. Think about it. Today, I'm going to see Capt America, but movies are now all about bigger and louder ways to shock you...just to hold your attention. Music is more chaotic. Simple melodies are a thing of the past. And the news, wow! You've got 15 different sources of info on the screen, 3 ticker tapes...and it's not like you are watching it anyway. You've got the sound up, while you multi-task in another room.

I sat in church today and was sorely grieved because the pastor kept asking folks to hold still during the sermon. Why are people wandering around during service? Who knows! I doubt even they know! All sorts of beeps and chimes and tones echoed throughout the hall, and the people around me could not stop wiggling and squirming, fidgeting and playing with things. It's very very very sad. We are turning into a populace with the attention span of a toddler.

So here is my challenge. Counter your exposure to this blaring stimuli overexposure by choosing to adopt moments of quiet reflection into your day. Meditate. Just sit in quiet solitude. Check out an old edition of some classic novel from your local library and force yourself to read it. Magazines, newspapers, blogs, and even new books won't do. They are too full of visual stimuli. Old editions are best because the typeface will be different. Even if you sit alone in a room and listen (without visual) to classical music from historical composers. And prayer. Prayer is most effective because it causes you to wait on god and engage faith, focusing your attention on things that you cannot see or hear.

I hope to do this more in life myself. Because what I saw today was scary. If we embrace a stimuli driven world, without regard to discipline, self-control, maturity, reflection, or solace, we will turn into another Roman Empire...burning people upside down, feeding them to lions, boiling them alive in oil all for the entertainment of cheering spectators. We may already be only a step away.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Issues of Quantity and Quality


New York City actors, especially the young and unestablished in the industry, are incredibly busy people. If we're not prepping, cramming, submitting, sending, spending, responding, and following-up; if we're not listening, attending, promoting, respecting, risking, trusting or diving into; if we're not being seen, seeing, catching up on and marathoning; if we're not sweating and stretching and toning, hoo-ing, and ha-ing - then the fear of not doing becomes overwhelming. And our culture of online sharing doesn't exactly help. A few minutes of scrolling through social media feeds and those other actors you went to school with suddenly become giants of the industry, well on their way to the kind of success you gave up on because you decided to take a moment for yourself.

The demands of such a challenging career inside of a highly competitive marketplace can easily be viewed as ample justification for such a stream of constant activity. But is it really effective for the struggling actor who lacks union membership and formal representation? The pressure to constantly do and be involved in, and say "Yes" to can be incredibly high for those actors seeking some form of commercial success but who are operating without regular access to premium auditions. I'm constantly looking to fill my calendar with as much actor activity as I can, but recently I've grown weary of this approach, one that seems to favor quantity over quality. I'm not denying that quantitative "plant a thousand seeds" approach is useful.. That's what I've been doing. Just like every other actor I know.

This need to perform a constant barrage of actions with the intention of making meaningful contributions to our craft and careers can lead to qualitative oversight. And quality matters. Especially when it comes to the work itself. I'm not talking about whether the writing was good, or the directing was bad, or the production level was high. I simply mean that it stokes the fires of passion for the craft. It nurtures the artist self. It "replenishes the well" as Julia Cameron puts it in her book The Artist's Way. It's a great thing to receive, especially when you're feeling less like an artist and more like a commodity.

So how does one help improve the chances of a quality experience? Simply put, we can't. It's not possible (nor is it advisable) for us to judge what the value of some action or experience will be before deciding to perform it or getting involved. If we did that we would never take a risk, never experience the wonder of witnessing a surprising turn of events. All we can really do is go into things with open hearts and positive attitudes, and with better management of our time lead happier, healthier artistic lives.

Support Theatre East

Sunday, March 9, 2014

In Defense of "No"


There is a reason why all toddlers go through a period when “no” is their favorite word. It is a simple, yet powerful, word that allows us to exercise control over our own experiences for the first time. “No, I don’t want to go to bed.” “No, I don’t want to eat my vegetables.” “No, I will not share my toy.” Ironically, as we get older, and arguably have more sense as to what experiences are in our best interest, we forget the affection we once felt for “no.” We become afraid of the word. We feel guilty for using it. We agree to dates we don’t want to go on. We accept responsibilities we aren't interested in having.

As an actor, I think it is especially easy to forget the joy of “no." We face so much rejection on a day-to-day basis that we become desperate for an opportunity to hear and say, “Yes!” This can result in us saying yes to projects that we are not really interested in, or worse, to “opportunities” that take us further away from our goal of being an actor.

Yes, sometimes it is necessary to accept an offer for a non-acting related day -job because you need to pay your rent. And yes, sometimes there is value in accepting a role you are less than thrilled about in order to work with a director or company you admire. Life is full of complicated, hard decisions. But we should never forget that saying no can be just as exciting as saying yes.

“No” is not a negative word. It is a positive word that indicates that we know what we want, and that we have the confidence and dedication to accept nothing less. Every time you say no, you are giving the universe a signal that you want something other than what you have been given. Saying no, is a way of asking for what you really want. So forget the fear and the guilt, embrace your inner toddler, and remember the affection you once felt for “no.”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You've Got Your Degree! Now What?


There is a panic that sets in, shallow as it may start out, the moment that one graduates from College. Sure, the celebrations are festive, the meals are delicious, and the words of encouragement overflow without end in sight, but there is something beneath all of that, at least in my experience, that can only be labeled as Panic. Not the acute form, the one that robs you of logic in a flash, but the chronic kind, that stews beneath all that you do, say, or think. It is ever present, and it can rob your life if you let it.

When I first graduated from NYU Tisch with a degree in theater this past May, that’s exactly what happened. I allowed this panic to rob me of my life and to convince me that I wasn’t a theater artist, that I wasn’t deserving of my degree, and that I would work in retail for the rest of my life. This may all sound hyperbolic, but it was real, and it was how I felt.

My path to battling this Panic, to loving my craft and my calling to it, has been fraught with insecurity and fear. In the 9 months (already?!) since I graduated, I have been presented head on with a challenge that is seemingly innocuous yet terrifying in its inevitability: life outside the boundaries of formal education.

If we’re going to throw out a disclaimer, let it be that most of the time I’m not so great at this. I forget things (including, for a while, the deadline of this post), sleep through my alarm, and miss doctor’s appointments. For a time, it was InsecureRyan’s prime chance to pounce on SecureRyan’s, well, security. I would be unnecessarily harsh on myself and no good would come from that. But wisdom, or at the very least, patience, comes only with time. I may not be very wise or patient as of now, and I may forget this whole “brushing your teeth” thing every once in a while, but I’m trying. I go to auditions, I write when I can, and I cook up a storm. Life is hard postgraduation, there is no denying that. But it’s not insurmountable, and it’s not fate throwing you an evil side eye. It’s life, and it’s rewarding when you least expect it.

So I won’t give up. I won’t back down. And I’ll love myself through it all.

Let the real education begin.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Actress Goes to Court


When I had to go to jury duty, I was not feeling so happy. I walked into the courthouse and was escorted to a holding room. Two hundred chairs filled with people who visibly did NOT want to be there. The Wi-fi sucked. The vending machine was broken. They only had Coke, no Pepsi. Basically the worst thing EVER.

After five hours and a total binge fest on Checkers fries and a burger, I was summoned to go to one of the fifth floor court rooms. I was listening to the judge, but my back kind of hurt, the guy next to me smelled, and a closer view of the attractive attorney's ring finger told me he was married. With that piece of information retrieved, I was ready to leave.

Then, this really weird thing happened. The judge asked the defendant to stand up and greet us. He turned and, directly staring at me, smiled and waved.

Now, I have told this incident to a lot of people. When I tell them that that moment made me want to drop whatever else was going on in my life and serve as a juror on that case, the general response is that I was nuts.

So why did I do it?

First off,  I saw someone scared, embarrassed, and a bit shy. Do those feelings sound familiar? YEAH, they seem familiar to me too! I have them allllll time. They made me extremely aware of his humanity and our interconnectedness. I felt compassion for him and I wanted to help.

Secondly, pride and a sense of duty welled up inside of me. Hundreds of years ago, a group of people believed so deeply in the power of the individual that they made participation in government not only a right for every citizen but also a responsibility. Serving as juror is one of the most ultimate ways of embodying the American Dream.

I eventually was picked (yay!) and I served as Juror Number 5. We found him guilty of the charge. One juror cried. Another needed a beer. Others, including myself, didn't say a word and just left. I say I left because I was busy. To be honest, the whole thing left me with a lot to think about in a very private way.

Before I left though, I returned to the waiting room. My initial apathy had blinded me from noticing  that a huge sculpture hung from the ceiling. It depicted a man on a diving board that was being held down by a semi circle of twelve chairs. I felt bad for the man but I also realized that he was safe as long as those chairs were filled. From that moment on, I promised, that whenever I'm called, I would be there to fill one of those chairs for the sake of a fellow American, and I ask that you consider doing the same. You'll feel better about yourself, pinky swear.