Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Key to Success

I hate failure. It hurts. It happens more often than I would like.

In the early days of my acting career each audition was not just a referendum on the quality of my talent, but an evaluation of my soul. I dreaded auditions almost as much as I was thrilled by them. What I really feared was a job interview. Landing the gig that would pay my bills while I waited to become a star was more terrifying. I felt like I had no marketable skills -- and in truth I had almost none.

Less than a year out of college I found myself with a nice sparkling prospective career -- and no income. In those days, the job source was the Chicago Reader and if you needed a job, you also needed to figure out where the reader was being delivered first and snap one up as soon as possible. It came out on Thursday, and Friday was locked in pounding the pavement. Then late on Friday the Sunday Tribune came out and Saturday was mapped out planning the Monday assault. I interviewed for anything and everything for about six gruelling weeks. At the same time I had to find a new apartment and had very, very limited funds with which to achieve that feat.

Somewhere around week four, I became numb to the fear of interviewing. I recognized that it was still there, but it didn't slow me down. In week five I started getting a lot of calls for follow-up interviews, and in week six I was offered three part-time jobs. I took two of them, and in turn each one of those turned into full-time jobs, one of which sustained me and my acting career for almost ten years.

When I went into the serious job market and began climbing the corporate ladder, I again took the approach that I would interview for everything. Then I landed a job interviewing job applicants. I started out being terrified of the interview, and I ended up being the interviewer -- and a damn good one, if I do say so myself.

Not all of those interviews were successful. As an applicant, I've probably interviewed for nearly a hundred jobs. I've probably done as many interviews as I've done auditions. And not all of those were successful either. I have absolute horror stories about auditions. Auditions that crippled me in some way. But I carried on. I only stopped auditioning when the entire theatrical experience bored me. And I kept auditioning long after I should have stopped because I wanted to make sure I was stopping for the right reason, and that I wasn't just giving up.

In that evaluation process, I decided that failure is a relative term and that I did not accept failure. There are set backs. There are disappointments. But there is only failure if I allow there to be failure. Even now, as a photographer, with all the best intentions and preparations, I experience set backs that could be termed failures -- if I let them.

I know this sounds all Rah! Rah! But the truth is it ain't over til it's over. I've watched artists with mediocre talents at best rise to unimaginable heights simply because they refused to define a set back or disappointment as failure. They refused to set a drop-dead date that will define the success of their achievements. That doesn't mean they didn't have goals. It means that if the results fell short of expectations within the time frame prescribed the goal was re-evaluated, progress was analyzed, and a new goal calibrated.

Calibration is the key to success. Stamina is the key to success. Flexibility is the key to success.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I've been working pretty hard on my portfolio -- expanding my range and trying new things. And from time to time I submit my work to an online community for comment and critique. The comments, almost without exception are brutal. BRUTAL.

At first the comments were crushing. I worked so hard and saw so much progress in the work that I submitted. I would have to walk away from my computer, watch a movie, clean the bathroom, and make a stab at curing cancer before I could go back and review the comments. Things like, "you have no business behind the camera" and "did you use a cell phone?" would seep through my eyeballs and ricochet around in my brain for hours. Then I would try to break the comments down into usable bites. I'd literally copy and paste the comments and go sentence by sentence, deleting everything that seemed to be written out some sort of deep personal trauma and keeping that which actually was a valid technical critique.

Then I would look at the commenter's work and compare it to mine; not in a qualitative way necessarily, but in more in an attempt to understand they're perspective. Once I did that, sometimes I agreed with their assessment and sometimes I did not. But I always felt like I learned something.

Then I would pick up a Vanity Fair, or a Vogue and apply the same critiques to those shots. It was horrifying and disappointing. Many, many of the photos in those publications and almost all others would not meet the specifications laid out in that online community. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of the work of some of the world's top fashion photographers, in some of the world's top fashion magazines, is crap!

And at the end of my analytic cycle, what I would come away with was deep depression and disappointment. There would be variations on a theme, but I would be trapped in a recurring loop of a "You suck!"

Until I remembered my career as an actor...

Without naming names, I have seen many actors who were weak on stage, who were personally difficult, who were sloppy and lazy at their craft, go on to very distinguished careers. I mean, award-winning careers. I mean multi-million dollar pay days. And I personally know actors who are brilliant, who can be depended upon to give gut-wrenching, nuanced performances that make the audience weep, laugh, and reflect upon the meaning of life -- and all while trying to drown out the rattle of the Red Line. Some of these actors' annual salaries don't even reach the minimum poverty line. If you're in the theatre, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

I have spent years trying to figure out why that is. Dismissing it simply as luck is too easy. After a decade of analysis, I'm convinced there is no such thing as luck. What the people who are achieving notoriety and riches have that my less financially secure artist friends do not is tenacity, confidence, and stamina. They're still crappy actors -- and one or two of them actually know it -- but they didn't let lack of quality stand in their way. They took every opportunity and turned it to their advantage. Some of them took criticism and grew from it. Some of them -- and I'm sorry to say, the most successful of them -- didn't give a rat's ass about what most of the world thought of them or their work.

From this realization I draw an immense amount of comfort and inspiration. Now I can look at my own work with a critical eye and appreciate what's good in it. Is my work flawless? Absolutely not. But those flaws are not going to stop me. And they won't always be there. The real work is to learn from those flaws.

It's all about stamina and staying the course. The destination is an afterthought.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Resurrection Blues -- Eclipse Theatre

Directed by Artistic Director Nathaniel Swift
March 25 - May 9, 2010
The Greenhouse Theatre
2257 N. Lincoln Ave. -- Chicago