Putting it together

Oct 23, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Coaching Tips, Director's Notebook

Bit by bit

“Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.” — Knute Rockne

How many hours each week are you working on your dream?  I don’t ask how many hours you temp or wait tables; I am not asking how many hours you bitch about how hard the business is or opine that you really could use some new headshots.  I am asking how many hours you build your career and make your art.

If you aren’t auditioning as often as you can and going to readings, or reading plays on your own; if you aren’t taking a class or working with a coach when you can afford it, or getting some friends together to show one another work or read together when you can’t, then what are you doing?  If you aren’t setting aside time to write if you’re a writer, or time to look at art or study the light if you’re a designer, then what are you doing?  If you aren’t writing the letters, sending the thank you notes (always send the thank you notes) and running yourself just a little ragged, then you aren’t doing all you can do.

And don’t tell me that it’s hard.  In the words of the wise David Ball, “Too many people will always be after your theater job (if you ever get one) for you to survive being lazy.”

Coaching

“With the right kind of coaching and determination you can accomplish anything.” — Reese Witherspoon

In the October 3rd issue of the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande wrote about coaching, observing that athletes and opera singers have coaches; perhaps he, as a surgeon, could also benefit from having a coach.  “Even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does.  Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be. “

Except that there isn’t any policy or practice of having a surgical coach, so he had to invent it for himself.  His rates of post-surgical complications dropped steadily early in his career, as he gained in proficiency, but eventually they plateaued.  Concerned that he had only one worrying direction to go if he had stopped improving, he invited his former professor into his operating room.  He found this anxiety-inducing and embarrassing when problems arose, but as he listened to guidance and observations from his ‘coach,’ Dr. Gawande’s rates of post-surgical complication again began to decrease.

Opera singers know that they have to sing, even between gigs, to keep in voice.  Dr. Gawande mentions in his article that when she is preparing for a concert, Renée Fleming works with her coach several times a week.  Instrumental musicians practice every day, usually for hours.  Dancers go to class several mornings a week.  Even weekend warriors get to the gym 3-4 times each week to stay strong and fit.

Among performing artists, it is principally actors who don’t have a regimen to work every day.  Whether that be doing one’s vocal warm-up or actually acting.  A dear (and thoughtfully engaged) actress friend told me recently that it has never occurred to her to take a class because when she was a conservatory undergrad, her teachers told her and her classmates that by the time they graduated, they would ‘know everything and never need another class.’  The professional negligence implicit in the attitude of these particular conservatory instructors is outweighed only by their gob-smacking arrogance.  (My friend confided this to me, incidentally, while asking for coaching, having realized that she did not, in fact, know all there was to know about acting.)

If Rafael Nadal has a coach, and if Renée Fleming has a coach, you may benefit from the insights of an outside eye, too.  For the observations and the guidance, but also for the structure, the regular commitment to do the work.  Coach with someone like me if and when you can, but this isn’t about money; this is about discipline, readiness and fitness.  If you want a life in the theatre, put as much time into the theatre as you put into the survival job.

Get strategic about your career

What’s your plan?  How are you going to get there?  Where do you want to be in six months?  Where does that mean you need to be in a month?  What does the require you to accomplish this week?

You can build this into your schedule.  You can organize a play reading once a week or reserve a seat for whatever’s being read at New Dramatists.  You can take twenty minutes each morning to do a vocal warm-up; you can run through your monologues two evenings a week.  You can set aside two hours to write thank you postcards and to send out letters.  If you cannot afford it weekly, you could book time with an acting coach once a month, or participate in a group such as the Shakespeare Forum, which is ‘pay what you can, everyone chips in’ workshop.

Work, audition, rehearse, read, analyze, train, coach.  Whatever you do, put time into being as good as you can be, so that you are ready and truly able to take advantage of that lucky break, if you are lucky enough to get one.

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Shakespeare can transform a human heart.
– Curt Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i