I encounter actors every day who are clueless about how to be a success. And clueless about the qualities inherent in highly successful actors. Like fearlessness, humor and focus. Can you acquire these qualities? Absolutely! It just takes an awareness that they’re a necessary part of your acting life. I feel like I’ve been guided to write this “Soul of Success” series. Perhaps to help you cultivate these qualities in your own careers?
When things get tough. . . and my face screws up with tension . . . and I’m about ready to cry from fear or frustration . . . I’m so glad that life finally transforms into an absurbist play. Y’know, like Waiting for Godot, where a profound message is cloaked in a plethora of pratfalls?
When my life clicks into the absurdist play stage, my face unscrews and I’m actually able to chuckle at stuff that may be harrowing. In other words, I can see the humor in whatever’s happening. Sometimes (sigh) at long last.
Don’t we just love those sitcoms that “hold a mirror up to nature”? As a child in the ‘50’s, I grew up planted in front of a then tiny TV screen watching such classics as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. I didn’t know then that comedy is an ancient theatrical form that reconnects us to our primal selves. In Sanskrit drama, humor is one of the eight basic emotional responses that actors portray and comedy is associated, predictably, with mirth. Comedy allows us to laugh at our own flaws. And those of others. I love comedy so much that I wrote my master’s thesis on it.
But humor runs much deeper into the fiber of our being. The ancient Greeks believed that balancing our “humours” controlled our entire emotional and physical health.
However theatrically or globally you define it, it’s essential to see the “humour” in things. Especially if you’re going to survive in ShowBiz. It may be easier for us actors because we’re more aware of our own humanity. Humor has buoyed me up, not only as a vehicle for my acting but a barge for my life. A flower-and-balloon-bedecked barge. So here’s what I propose:
See the humor in everything. I was having dinner with my old friend, Arlene, the other night at the Oak Tree Inn. In addition to its wonderful Chinese food, this restaurant boasts a panoramic view through its floor-to-ceiling glass windows. While we were talking, someone passed by with a tiny dog on a ten-foot-long leash. We couldn’t stop laughing at the sight. Other patrons tittered infectiously from our laughter. A short time later, a larger dog appeared dragging both its humans. We laughed harder. And there were even more titters. Then the same tiny dog returned, now on the shortest leash imaginable. Arlene also noted that, as the mini-pooch passed by a wall, it seemed like its owner was walking an invisible animal. We cracked up. So did the entire restaurant.
I know it’s difficult to find the humor in things. Especially in these tension-filled times. But Joe Vitale, in his book, The Key, has one stress-buster solution I like, the Vital Message. I use it all the time, and I’ve taken it one step further by putting a humor spin on it. Joe says that, when you have an uncomfortable feeling, 1) welcome it; 2) sit with it; 3) describe it (what is its color, depth, where it sits in your body, etc.); 4) ask it what it’s trying to tell you. Once I get the message, which sometimes brings up a lot of emotion, I like to diffuse it by turning it into a raucous comedy. I sometimes even give it a name, like “The Unloved Fat Girl” or “The Unnoticed One”. I then act the play out in my head until I’m laughing. It works every time!
Explore your own sense of humor. We all take things too seriously. And obsess about them to boot. Obsessing enmires us in our old broken-record belief systems. I’m still learning about that at my late age. Instead, finding the humor in things diffuses the seriousness of a situation and allows other possibilities. You may even discover that happiness is one of them. And success in your career too.
For example, I just got a call from my mechanic, who told me that the rare part I needed for my air conditioner was now winging its way from the East Coast. I love classic Z-cars and currently own my third one. I could get upset about all the times I’ve recently had the car in the shop for this very problem. But instead, I said, “I should write a book called The Calamities of a Classic Car Owner. I think I’ll start it today.” He broke up. I thought it was funny too. Finding the humor in a frustrating situation will certainly make it less obsessive. And allow me to focus upon more important things.
Of course, we all find different things funny depending upon our upbringing, ethnicity, experiences and many other factors. Alastair Clarke explains that ” . . . humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it . . .” What surprises you?
Find your comic timing. My old friend, comedy writer Mel Sherer, once told me that I couldn’t say anything seriously. I’ve been funny as long as I can remember because humor allowed this fat kid to finally get noticed. But if you’re not innately humorous and comedy is not your forte as an actor, you can still understand your innate timing . . . and ultimately excel at comedy . . . by doing a few simple things.
First, I’d suggest that, if you don’t already do some type of movement, do so immediately. Most exercise entails ritual ways of moving that make some people head instantly for the couch. So find ways to create rewarding, confrontive connections with your physical self instead. I love Method work because its relaxation and other exercises do just that. I also found an even deeper way to face my physicality in Grotowski work. That’s why I use them both in my own classes. You might also try a fabulous body-mind approach to humor, Laughter Yoga. These types of movement not only reveal who you are physically but tap your somatic funny bone as well.
Second, develop an ear for comedy. I may have been born with it, but I honed my comic skills by listening to funny people. And watching how they created humor. Funny people move and talk in funny ways. Once you understand how they do it, you can imitate it, and then find your own particular brand of funny.
Another thing I’d suggest is to join an improv class. Nothing can make you funnier, or better, as an actor than theatre games. They’re also the heart of many types of training, including Meisner work. Improvisation can also connect you with your own particular type of humor. Because some people are funny physically, others say funny things, and still others do a little bit of both. What do you do funny that’s unique to you?
At the very least, laughing at yourself is a great tool to let go of those too-serious obsessive thoughts. When you just miss out on that big part. Or to calm your nerves at auditions. Arlene said the other night, “today’s tragedy is tomorrow’s joke.” Finding the humor in your humanity is part of the soul of a successful actor.
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How do you approach disappointment in your life? What do you most laugh at? What’s so funny about your acting career?