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Taking the Stage

By Susan Merson

The truth of the matter is that actors and writers have to be their own best friend. After the delight of discovering that one is indeed an artist, the real work of survival sets in.

There is financial survival. Waiting tables, waiting in general, cleaning apartments, being a carpenter, babysitter, assistant -- finding the most flexible and dignified day job that can be stomached.

There is artistic survival. Like, "why did I choose this life and what truly sustains me?" In Los Angeles, one might get more than a few smirks if one actually talks about the artistic aspects of being an actor. Fuhgeddaboutit! We've been humiliated before. We can take another eye roll if it means we can get closer to what we feel we need to do to stay vital. And now is the time.

I am not speaking about going to class, I am speaking about stepping up to your own responsibility to yourself to become a generative artist with a point of view and a performance to peddle.

There comes a time when the actor must broaden his self-definition and take on the job of finding out what matters to him. What do you passionately care about? What is important enough to move you to risk? To taking a stand? The telephone will pick up the messages and the gym will be there after an hour of writing. Get to work. Figure it out.

Being a professional actor is not totally about better headshots. Some of being an actor is about that -- but remember the stuff that got you started. Go ahead. Take a real risk and in the face of the financial pressure and need to figure out the "biz"-- use your heart, your brain and your unique way of interacting with the planet. Being an artist these days is vital. You're a dying breed and the rest of the planet is dying with you.

One-person shows, these days, are all the rage. They are also fodder for parody and often seen as self-aggrandizing enterprises. But wait. We are not speaking of acting exercises or self-revelatory autobiography as quality solo performance. True, many first time actor/playwrights tell their own stories and sometimes fall into the trap of playing subtext rather than text. But, the actor who finds his true voice as an artist with something to say can affect change. Corny? Old fashioned? Maybe, but there is a need for the authentic voice these days. And there's always need for change.

We are in an age of globalization, with homogenized shopping malls and global/planetary chains that feed and clothe us. There are no more lire or francs. Hell, with roaming you can make a phone call from St. Louis and have your pal pick up in Seville as if everyone was in the same place, at the same time, having the same experience.

Guess what? We are not all the same. We have differences. We need to be each to our own, with our own experience. We need to cultivate difference. Difference is spark. Difference is life. The artist is the guy with the real chance to think about that -- among other things -- and give voice to individual response to the world. And the theatre - the plain old black box hearkening back to that bonfire in the forest - is the place to do it. It doesn't take a lot of money to develop a piece and a point of view. And somewhere, there will be someone who will listen. Make sure there is. Find the story that someone needs to hear. Your choice of story will be based on what needs to be heard. If it is "hot enough" for you to commit to it, then it is "hot enough" to find someone to listen. It might not be on Broadway or Fox TV but somewhere -- schools, churches, political rallies, blue states if you're reddish, red states if you're bluish. And lots of synagogues if you're Jewish - there is a place to speak.

No one will make any real money in the theatre. We know that. That's why we came to LA, to make a buck. But we can make an impact by telling stories that move our audiences and us in the old fashioned way, affecting one person at a time, one group at a time with our sincerity, our own truth and our humility. What else are we here for? Something more important? Good. Go do it. Fully and with a committed heart. But if you are an actor then take action. To act is to do, remember. An artist? Then make art. The process itself enriches the world. Who cares if it sells? Just like photosynthesis gives us oxygen -- the artist working his talent gives us hope, another option, a sensitized view of a desensitized society. Perhaps, the process of doing the work just gives us a better member of society who sees things in a complex and emotionally available way. How about that for a global outcome worth striving for?

There has never been a more important time for the actor and artist to eschew the commercial marketplace -- at least some of the time -- and reconnect with why they became artists and storytellers in the first place. Maybe the first place had to do with a delight in attention or that gorgeous cape and crown in the bottom of the prop box, but we all know that didn't last long. No, we sustain this life because we believe we have something to contribute. And my job is to help those who feel they have a voice, to speak clearly, with humor and truth and get about the job of keeping us human.

I really believe this stuff and I want you to believe it, too.

That's the passionate pitch. The real work of creating a piece that will communicate and play with its performer and audience is in my workshop, or your own. Read my book, it's how I came to this place and these beliefs, so let's all get the work done.

Meet the Author: Susan Merson