Act Smart! Good Tools for a Great Career

by colleen wainwright | the communicatrix

This month: Relax into acting

It's great to have a little fire in your belly. But if you're reading this, my guess is that your problem, if you have one, lies in the other direction. Because too much ambition, ferocity, gung-ho-ness is death to good acting, bad for the health, and not particularly attractive in an audition situation either.

Look over this assortment of ways to give your art and your commerce some of the breathing room they need to truly flourish, and see if any speak to you.

Take a beat to take people in.

We've all seen it: that high-strung actor who's so intent on saying his next line, he's barely listening for his cue. Or maybe (ahem) you've actually been that person on stage, having a scene go by you in a blur, kicking yourself for letting the scene play you instead of the other way around.

For the speed-meisters, the simplest, easiest “hack” to help you regain control of yourself in the moment is literally to stop yourself ever so briefly before responding in a scene. Take a beat and take in your partner, or, if it's a monologue, the situation; let yourself check in with how you're feeling and how your partner is feeling before moving on.

You can do it in real time (no pun intended) during the scene itself, but I'd advise playing with this in rehearsal, both alone and, in scene study class, with your partner, to get comfortable with the technique.

It might seem ridiculously simplistic, but trust me: this is a technique that will give you an enormous amount of bang for your buck in the now as well as assisting you in shifting your paradigm.

The plan is your friend: befriend the plan!

There's something about the one-two punch of a brand new year and awards season (did you win your Oscar pool?) that can get an actor all hopped up about getting her career in full gear.

I know, because this was me as a newbie actor: I didn't start acting until I was 33 (which is like 87 in Hollywood years) so I was in a serious hurry, brother. Add to that my naturally high-strung, overachieving personality, and I was a workaholic meltdown waiting to happen.

It wasn't until a critical onset of serious illness shut me down entirely that I learned the first thing about pacing myself. Now, instead of trying to get everything done right now, I work to plan what I want for myself a week, a month, a year, five years out.

This means taking a little time, you know, that thing you're so loathe to give yourself, to get a higher-up view of your real goals and desires, then a little more time (I know, I know) to map them out and schedule them into your week, month, year, etc. It also means developing your “no” muscle: learning to turn down opportunities that don't fit in with the plan.

For the planning itself, I recommend a few tools:

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, by Stephen Covey. A classic in the self-help genre, this book reads a little hokey at times but has some great tools and techniques for getting your life (and yes, that includes your acting career) in order
  • Your Best Year Yet, by Ginny Ditzler. I'm like a broken record when it comes to recommending this values-based goal system, but only because it's incredibly powerful.
  • My own fabulous columns on the subject of goal-setting here and here. If you're a new reader, you might also want to read a companion piece I wrote about organizing and list-making, here.

Yes, goal setting and organizing can be a little nerdy. But it won't turn you into a nerd, I promise! (Well, unless you want to embrace the geek side.) What it will do is provide a framework for you to trust and relax into, so you don't have to run around like a chicken with your head cut off…so attractive!

Learn at least one, and hopefully several, physical relaxation techniques

You know that type-A actress who's literally so tense, she can't play the character, a languid temptress or even a Wall Street power player, properly? Uh, yeah. That was me, too.

There are tons of ways to introduce relaxation, and its cousin, flexibility, to your body and mind; I'd suggest you find a few, since Bikram yoga is really inconvenient in the context of a commercial audition (they're so picky about keeping that thermostat under 105ºF!) A few I've known and loved include:

  • The Basic Relaxation Technique (as taught in the Method)
  • Yoga (gentle, non-Bikram stretching, plus great breathing exercises)
  • Vocal warm-ups (they're not just for singers anymore)
  • Hypnosis tapes (to read about my huge foray into hypnosis last year, go here; to read specifically about hypnosis for relaxation, go here.
  • Meditation (itchy types like me might want to try a guided, group session or a tape rather than jumping on the “om” all by themselves)

If you have any great, slow-yourself-down techniques I've not listed, please let me know, and I'll include a follow-up with your items in an upcoming issue.

Until then, stay loose, and out of your own way!

Questions? Compliments? Suggestions? Complaints? Email me! colleen AT communicatrix DOT com

Colleen Wainwright is a designer-writer-performer who started calling herself "the communicatrix" when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them. Now she uses her powers for good and not evil by sharing her knowledge here and on her blog, communicatrix-dot-com, among other places.

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