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Tapping the Vein; ~or~ The Importance of Inspiration from the Source of Self (From the Vantage Point of One Selachimorpha Organism)

August 8, 2011

I’ll say it without any shame or hesitation: I dislike greatly the summer.  Having grown up and resided in the tri-state area for the majority of my life (NY/NJ/CT, not VA/KY/TN), humidity and a generally miserable existence descend upon me annually mid-May through the end of August. It’s the incessant heat that gets me down: I much prefer the autumn with its hustle and bustle, newly sharpened pencils, and the start of the wearing of layered clothing. (The great thing about fall and winter is you can always put more layers on; in the summer sun, there are only so many layers you can take off.) When overheated and consistently coated in a film of my own sweat, I become cantankerous.  I often reflect on a fact I learned during one of my many childhood visits to the National Aquarium in Baltimore: the water the sharks live in is maintained at a cool temperature to keep them from becoming aggressive.  I am a shark, but no one is monitoring my tank.

Not only do I become a curmudgeon during the summer months, I also collapse into lethargy.  Hot weather encourages slow movement in this land-shark.  Recently I became aware of just how dull and seemingly pointless my life had become while at home, attempting to stay cool by drinking ice-mixed-with-something-mixed-with-vodka.  As I sat projecting the upcoming days of increased torment, I felt a twang of guilt that I could not dismiss merely as the sting of bottom-shelf booze.

I had taken a much needed respite from even the thought of auditioning during June.  That month long gone, I mused over having done nothing that appeared substantial for my career in the time since.  It seemed like I was wasting an unemployed summer, when I could have been taking time (and time I had) to consider what I needed for the fall audition season.  That had been the plan all along.  I had been griping for sometime that I wasn’t working with material I liked, that nothing I had–no monologue, no song–felt true or familiar to who I was or what I felt I could do/wanted to do as a performer.  Older material seemed stale and impossible to make new or be “discovered in the moment.”  New material seemed trite, found slapdash, and largely uninteresting.  And as always: the young, female, comedic monologue that was actually legitimately funny and not just neurotic eluded me.  I hated my repertoire–which seemed gross, un-engaging, and somehow too easy–and I had begun to hate myself.

Most of this hate stemmed from a sense of disgust at my own complacency.  In my grander, more dramatic moments of brooding (something we over-heated land-sharks have a remarkable capacity for), I hearkened on James Tyrone’s lamentation in Act 4 of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  Over a card game and too much watered-down whiskey, he recounts to his son Edmund the decline his career took when he stopped challenging himself: “I lost the great talent I once had through years of easy repetition, never learning a new part, never really working hard.” (Incidentally, here’s Christopher Plummer killing that speech like a genius.) There is nothing more frightening or appalling to me than squandered potential.  And here I was doing it.  Not only had I resorted to presenting work I was bored with, but that boredom was slowly eating away at what self-confidence and skill I had as an actor.  I retreated into a hermitage in June, planning to rediscover my grounding and enthusiasm, and also new material.  But the heat had crippled my resolve and a mental vacation had taken hold of me: mind, body, and soul.  As I sat baking within the stagnant air of my incubator-like apartment (the saddest, most despondent little land-shark you ever did see), I realized I did not know what to do to get out of this cavern of a rut, or accomplish what I had initially intended to do: find new material, appropriate for what I was aiming for in my career now.  I simply had no motivation.  I had no inspiration.

To live a life without regret, it’s necessary to continually strive to better ourselves, to expand in our experience.  We must find our own personal limit or edge.  In order to progress as artists and human beings, we must keep moving forward. (Incidentally, sharks must keep moving forward to survive, too.) We need to do the things that make us proud.  In an industry full of hardships, where too often our fate is controlled by someone else’s personal preference, we must be confident in what we have to offer.  If we do the things that give us a sense of pride in ourselves and instigate our work, we become what we need to become most of all: our own source of inspiration.  If you can inspire yourself, you won’t need to seek other people’s approval for validation of your talent.  You will find an endless spring of joy and interest in exploring all you have to offer, right up to the edge.  You will be the whole person you already are.

I realized what was holding me back was not fear, disinterest, or even my personal scapegoat of the incalescent season.  What was stilling me was a sense of disappointment in myself similar to the one Eugene O’Neill saw or understood to permeate within his real-life father well enough to transpose it so clearly onto the page.  I was not assisting my growth through any kind of artistic or professional challenge.  I needed to do something that was going to stimulate my mind and work again as an actor, but most of all I needed to do something that was going to make me proud of myself.  I needed to inspire myself.

The problem at hand was that I needed new material.  I wasn’t applying myself as intensely as I wanted to or could.  So I set myself a challenge to read and hear 100 plays and musicals by the 15th of September.  I set the start date back to when I had really begun to ween down my professional activity, May 1st.  Part of this was to respect the time and effort I had been putting into this task, albeit small, and also to not totally overwhelm myself in the amount of time I had left to complete the challenge (I am one of those people who recognizes their personal edge only after they’ve pitched themselves over it).  With these restrictions in place, I began to tackle anthology after play text after musical book-and-score.  I am now past the half-way mark, and I am loving it.  I am reveling in exploring writers I’ve enjoyed in the past and ones I’ve never heard of before, as well as picking up finally those “great” plays and musicals I’ve been meaning to read or listen to for years.  I’ve hit on some wonderful new pieces for my repertoire, and I am excited by the breadth of work out there that interests me, and that I think I have the potential to be right for.  Most of all, I feel as if I have begun to reacquaint myself with myself, and that sense of undying, against-all-odds hope and determination that all of us must have every day if we choose to live this kind of life.  Those are the things that support us, and we need to feed them by honoring ourselves with these acts of self-inspiration.  And someday in the not-so-distant future we will find that in striving to be our best selves we are actually living as our best selves.  It’s a self-fulfilling statement. (Pun intended.)

So the water is cooling, but my excitement is up in the best way.  I am focused.  I am making it through the rest of the summer basking in the glory of my own interest in this art form–and the air conditioner of the New York Public Library.  I maneuver the aisles silently, stealthily, searching for prey that will satiate my remaining audition needs.  I am enjoying thoroughly the hunt for these materials, and I know when the autumn audition season comes: I’ll be ready for it.  I find the idea of being a shark in a controlled, calmer mental environment of my own making rather comforting.  I push ahead, I take what’s useful, I grow and go on.  I have been here since the dinosaurs, and intend to stay much longer.  While not quite as volatile as before, my spirit of survival and purpose is renewed.  I am sharpening my teeth.  Look out.

What about you?  What have you done independently to promote your own growth as an artist, or to pull yourself out of a rut?  What suggestions would you make to other artists who are in a similar situation?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 6:04 pm

    I totally love this idea. I will keep it in mind for my next actor rut!

    Usually, when I’m in the artistic dumps, I do things like have coffee with a mentor, see some really great theatre, or take a new class.

    Keep us posted on the waters ahead, Ms. Shark 😉

  2. The Reflective Artist permalink
    August 12, 2011 6:43 pm

    Will do, Redhead!


  1. “And if I only could/I’d make a deal with God/And I’d get Him to swap our places” « The Green Room

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