01 Sep LIFE LESSONS FROM ACTING
“Life’s like a play, it’s not the length
but the excellence of acting that matters.”
-Seneca, Roman philosopher, mid 1st century AD
I just had one of the all time greatest experiences and adventures of my life – with the additional gift of re-learning some valuable life lessons in the process.
The experience was acting in a movie. For me, it was the role of a lifetime -challenging, and way outside of my comfort zone. I played a tap-dancing, guitar-strumming, mandolin-playing Texas preacher – The Reverend Moriarty – in the sequel to the 1973 cult classic “The Wicker Man,” appropriately entitled “The Wicker Tree”. The film was shot in Scotland and is written and directed by the brilliant Robin Hardy.
Since I am known as a corporate speaker and performance coach, most people don’t realize that I was trained as an actor and appeared in a number of stage, television and film roles. Although I love the satisfaction of making a difference in people’s lives through my speaking and coaching, acting is my secret passion. Whenever I’m offered a role in a film, I grab it as fast as a child would snatch a piece of candy. The beauty of all this experience is that I have learned many valuable lessons as an actor that enhances every aspect of living. So – back to “The Wicker Tree”.
Since I neither tap dance nor play or strum any musical instruments, it required my total focus, commitment, support, belief and great deal of imagination to pull this off. In addition, I was lucky enough – with the help of a friend – to have had the best dialect coach in Hollywood, Tim Monick.
The first “life lesson” I was reminded of is the beauty of working/playing in an environment that is totally supportive – the perfect example of team collaboration. The entire cast and crew were there to accomplish the vision of the director yet were allowed to craft their own vision within his larger vision. Everyone I met set aside their ego and did their best to help everyone else be as good as they could be. Personally, I had the total support of everyone with whom I came in contact and, because of the faith the director had in me, I had faith in myself.
The second lesson I re-learned was the importance of practice and preparation. From the beginning, I took phenomenal actor Anthony Hopkins’ advice and read my lines over 500 times before I started to develop a character and, trust me, that required a lot of patience! I also reached out to other friends, actress Jane Powell for instruction on tap-dancing and Alfred Vanderbilt for a guitar lesson. They were there for me in a flash. The bottom line is: when I appeared on the set for the first day of rehearsal, I was calm, centered, excited and – prepared. There is absolutely no short cut to excellence. This one lesson would be very valuable for everyone in their early years to learn.
The third lesson was one that came tumbling back from my many years of acting lessons, specifically a lesson I learned from one-of-a-kind acting teacher, Stella Adler. While I was fortunate enough to have taken a couple of classes with the great Lee Strasberg, I was never really comfortable with pure “method” acting and always seemed to have trouble “re-living” the exact memories which would help me create a specific character. It only took a few classes with the tough-talking, hard-driving, no holds-barred, Stella Adler to both give me the tools and permission to create a character.
Stella was adamant that an actor should create by the “imagination” rather than by “memory” and that “if you studied the text and truly believed in the imaginary circumstances, all the emotions in the script would surface organically.” It was a perfect match between how my creative imagination worked and how she believed an actor must create a character. You just had to make up a past that belongs to your character. As I was to discover in my studies of human behavior and the mind, this was how most people lived their lives.
As I worked on the Reverend Moriarty script, I recalled Stella Adler saying, “You can’t be boring. Life is boring. The weather is boring. Actors must not be boring.” Believe me, I chose to make this character anything but boring. The beauty of this lesson is that Stella truly believed that growth as an actor and as a human being is synonymous. This in itself is a very solid life lesson.
The final and perhaps biggest lesson I learned was two-fold, the importance of holding on to your dreams and doing everything you can, as often as you can, to maintain your relationships, because it is relationships that help you achieve your dreams.
Eighteen years ago Robin Hardy saw my one-man show, “Journey into the Imagination.” Within two months, he had cast me in one of his films and was in the process of writing another film in which I would star – a dream come true or – so I thought. However, due to unforeseeable financial issues, the projects came crashing down. Both Robin and I were devastated. We both moved on, but I never lost faith in his ability to bounce back and bring me with him, despite no evidence or promises for the future. So, throughout these past eighteen years I kept in touch with Robin, as I always do with friends.
If I were to pass on wisdom to someone young and inexperienced about the ways of the world, I would pass the wisdom I re-learned from acting in “The Wicker Tree”. Follow your dreams despite what people tell you is impossible and impractical, refuse to be put in a “box” that others, for their own comfort, will most certainly attempt to put you in, help others become the best they can be, maintain your relationships, keep your faith in the possible and always be prepared, because you just never know what opportunity the world will present to you.