One of the messages actors get all the time is that acting is a terrible career choice. I remember a teacher in my undergraduate days telling my class that, “If there’s anything you can learn to love to do as much as you love acting, you should go do that instead.” We were told that most of us would end up desperate, miserable, broke and frustrated. It’s a terrible thing to hear, particularly when you’re barely 20.
I remember feeling really angry at that teacher for turning this thing I love to do into a liability. Back then, I wanted to tell her to go to hell. Now I just want to tell her that she was dead wrong. Pursuing acting has made me a happier, better person and has given me skills that have been invaluable both on and off stage.
Here are six ways acting has made my life better and can make your life better, too:
1. You become more empathetic
Acting at its best is an exploration of the human experience. It requires that we learn to use our imagination to put ourselves in the circumstances of characters in scripts. A necessary by-product of this is that we learn to be able to put ourselves into other people’s shoes in life. We strive to understand what drives people to do what they do, what their dreams are and how they experience the world. As Sanford Meisner said, you must “find in yourself those human things which are universal.”
2. You exercise your brain
The question most often asked by theater goers at post-show discussions is “How do you learn all those lines?” It’s a seemingly banal question, but the truth is, acting forces us to do something that we rarely have to do in the world otherwise: memorize. Research has shown that the simple act of memorization has positive effects on general information recall and benefits the hippocampal foundation, a key brain structure linked with both episodic and spatial memory. In short, your memory is like a muscle and you lose it if you don’t use it. Acting is a great workout for our brains!
3. You get better at staying present
Acting is an art form that actually requires us to pay attention to what is happening now. We have to train ourselves to stay in relationship to what we are getting from our scene partners, the environment and the moment itself. We train hard to stop going on autopilot in our work, and the result is we become more present in our lives, as well. Being present improves our social skills, lets us worry less about what’s next, teaches us to be playful. Great actors are excellent at opening themselves to the profound possibility of now.
4. You learn to value expressing your emotions
It’s no secret that acting is emotional. It is not emoting, but it does require us to express ourselves fully. We learn along the way that an emotional life is not something to be feared or suppressed, but rather something that puts us in touch with our deepest, truest selves. The human experience is emotional. Acting teaches us to celebrate that emotion.
5. You learn to embrace failure
When we act, we often play characters who fight with everything they have, only to fail in the end. When auditioning, we lose way more jobs than we get. The rehearsal process itself is a process of trial and error. At every turn, acting gives us the opportunity to fail. I say “opportunity” because failure can be such a gift when we let it be. We learn courage and resilience when we attempt and fail. We learn that life doesn’t just give us one shot. But most importantly, we learn the virtue of taking the shot anyway! Many people are so terrified of failure that they never actually try to do anything. Acting is about the attempt. It turns out that SO IS LIFE!
6. You unleash your creativity on a regular basis
This is kind of a no-brainer, but so important it bears repeating. Being creative on a regular basis, we become better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and connected human beings. Creativity teaches us to value freedom, openness and impulse. Our natural human state is creative and, in our work, we let go of those learned behaviors that inhibit us. There are so many forces in the world that work to harness our thinking and expression. Through acting we get in touch with the part of ourselves that is inherently playful and most human.
P.S. To my well-meaning teacher from all those years ago, I just want to say this: I am so glad I didn’t listen to you. Because I am deeply grateful every time I get to act and for every moment I am in the room with actors doing the true work. Because our art is profound and beautiful when we get out of our heads and let it be. Because even though it isn’t easy, it is worth every second. I refuse to apologize for following a path which has given me so much and made me so much better. My sincere hope for all actors and artists is that we can stop apologizing for doing what we really love. Instead of apologizing, I hope we can all find the courage to follow the path fully and with heart. The path will be the gift.
How has acting helped you in your life? Share your thoughts below in the comments.