Sometimes a good quote is just the thing you need to change your thinking, to crystalize a new point of view or articulate something you yourself don’t have adequate words to express. A good quote can plant a seed of understanding that can blossom into meaning over time. Those who have studied acting at our studio know that in addition to actors and acting teachers, we love to share words from writers, philosophers, politicians, athletes and others. Here are five of our favorite famous quotes and some thoughts on how they apply to the work of actors.
- “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott
Even on the surface, Alcott’s words have an obvious relevance to actors. As an actor trains, storms are guaranteed. It can be a tumultuous, sometimes terrifying process. To learn how to act is to learn how to let go of the comfort of control and give over to the vulnerability of connecting with other human beings as you attempt to do deeply difficult things. We must learn to find love and joy in the most fearful of tempests. But there is another layer of Alcott’s words that, to me, speaks even more profoundly to an actor’s process and life: without the storm, there is no wind and the ship goes nowhere. The same is true of acting. Our instincts, our secret selves, the parts of us that are messy and unformed, sloppy and dangerous, are the very parts of us that give our work meaning. Learning to tap into these most vulnerable parts of ourselves is what gives our acting power.
- “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” – Lao Tzu
One of the most frustrating parts of being an actor is that there is a vast amount of the creative act that is simply out of your control. This is true in acting, painting, writing and any creative work. Moments of true inspiration and genius come on a schedule all their own. The paradox though is that, despite being out of your control, you must do work to create the conditions and space for such moments to occur. For acting, our clay is our process: personalization, script analysis, partner attention, emotional preparation etc. This is the stuff we can get our hands on and obsessively work into some shape. But all that work we do, in the end, must be forgotten about in the moment. Actors have to learn to let go and trust that the work they’ve done is, in performance, in fact, working back on them, engendering authentic, meaningful life.
- “How can you think and hit at the same time?” – Yogi BerraThere is nothing worse to watch on film or on stage than an actor intellectualizing their way through a performance. It is also ubiquitous. So many actors refuse to give up control and let their instincts take over. I am not saying that intellect or intelligence are bad traits for an actor to have, just that you have to be able to step out of those processes to take the swing. Intellectualizing almost always leads to self-consciousness, which destroys your work. Thinking is for your preparatory work. It’s for rehearsal. But by the time you set foot on stage or in front of the camera, you better be ready to get out of your head, put your attention on the ball and hit.
- “To be nobody but yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – e.e. cummings
One of the things that is most satisfying as a teacher of acting is watching students break through their socialization, their politeness, their manicured self and discover the courage to express themselves fully. It is an electrifying experience to witness. We are all given various boxes throughout our lives, parameters within which we are supposed to operate. We ask politely, we swallow our feelings, we brush off hurts all in the name of maintaining and protecting the social contract, the status quo. But plays and movies are not about people politely riding the bus. Plays and movies are about those few among us who have the courage step out of their boxes and try to change their lives. An actor cannot play those parts truthfully with integrity unless they, too, understand how to break out of their own constraints and limiting habits into the rich, complicated depths of their own humanity.
- “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
This is such a vital human lesson and therefore a lesson for actors and artists. Pain, grief, heartache will come into our lives. Some of it will come from the art, some of it will come from the career, some of it will just come from your life. It is as sure as breathing. So many of us try to fortify against pain and discomfort. When the career takes a downturn, we quit and find something less fulfilling but more stable. When we are offered a role that scares us, that we aren’t sure we can do, we turn it down for a more sure thing. When pain knocks on our door, we compartmentalize or numb out instead of just letting ourselves experience it. But this is a denial of the nature of life and certainly of a creative life. Brokenness is inevitable. We must not let imperfection stand in the way of our attempts to make beautiful things. We must ring the bells, cracked though they may be. Our brokenness is how we’re beautiful.