I come from a long line of performers. In addition to winning adult Charleston contests at 12 years old, my grandmother often entertained her neighbors and grandchildren with silly characters she’d create, dances she’d whip up on the spot and skits designed to make us all laugh. My grandfather’s creative outlet was a Hammond organ. I used to sit at his feet, mesmerized, while he’d play. My father, meanwhile, fancied himself a doo wap singer. He’d burst into song whenever a phrase or word would suggest a lyric he’d remember. And my mother? She was a dancer – and I’m told a very good one at that. I myself spent years as a triple threat, an actress who could sing and dance, fully immersed in the process of trying to “make it” in show biz, so it was no surprise to me when my daughter was also bitten by the bug.
A few weeks ago, my very talented daughter was invited to audition in New York City, for “one of those national television voice competition shows.” (I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you which one or they’d have to kill me. Well, actually, they’d have to sue me; it said so in the contract.) And as I watched her bare her soul, present her best self to a room full of strangers and wait for acceptance or a rejection based not just on talent but on so many other factors, it occurred to me: there is SO much we can learn from performers.
Performers spend a lifetime perfecting their craft, developing a personal style, and exposing themselves to some very harsh critics. They hear the word “no” far more than they hear the word “yes,” and yet they still find the passion and strength to continue on the journey. This requires persistence, determination and believing in themselves in the face of constant rejection. Performers need to think on their feet when things go wrong during a performance. It’s no coincidence that they’re so poised, mind you; it’s a skill that is developed over years of quick responses to unexpected circumstances, from wardrobe malfunctions to falling sets, from other actors forgetting their lines to music failing to start on cue, from microphone failures to cell phones going off in the audience. An actor learns to be strong when when she’s told that she’s talented but “just not the look the director is going for.” A dancer learns resilience when someone less talented is cast in the role because he knows the producer, and a seasoned vocalist finds inner strength when a younger, less experienced singer is chosen because she’ll have a stronger “audience appeal.” And based on all of this disappointment, performers of all kinds learn to create, not for the sake of fame, success or even money, but for the sake of creation itself and the joy of expression. They perform, not as an act of self, but out of a desire to understand humanity and to give something back to it.
Hugh Jackman once said that he wished everyone could study acting because it would make us all better people. “The things you learn as an actor,” he said, “about listening, about being present, about who you are, about human nature – I think everybody should learn it because acting training is really about being awake. One of the greatest roadblocks to a relationship,” he added as an example, “is how increasingly we take things for granted… Sometimes you can sleep for years in a relationship. You’re not really awake, not really looking in each other’s eyes, not really seeing each other as though for the first time. You do eight shows a week. And if you’re not awake that thing is going to be stale by the 5th show and the rest of the year is going to be horrific and an awful experience for the audience. It has to appear as though it’s happening for the first time for the audience. Now why don’t we do that in life? We do all of this work to do that on stage, to make everything as though it’s happening for the first time, and yet in our personal lives we tend to just take [it all] for granted.” And then he added, thoughtfully, “Acting is just a whole opportunity to wake up.”
The life of a performer, whether a celebrity or local musician, can teach us volumes. After all, how many of us go through life tentatively? How many of us crumble when things don’t go as planned? How many of us forget to pay attention, to really see and experience life around us, because we’re so wrapped up in our day to day existence? How many of us allow others to define us?
I watched my daughter give the performance of a lifetime a few weeks ago, only to be told, “Thanks, but we won’t be moving you on to the next round.” And rather than fall apart, my daughter put their microphone back in its stand, smiled and thanked the casting agents, and walked out onto a New York sidewalk with her head held high. On the way home we laughed and planned the next steps she’d like to take, and later that day she even made more music. At just 16 years old, she’s already learned what many of us have taken years to figure out, and what some of us have yet to understand – that true success in one’s art (and life) isn’t dependent on the approval of anyone else, and can only be defined by the effort, dedication and passion we pour into it.