On what it means to suck a lemon

gty_suck_lemon_ll_120713_wbWhen I used to teach acting at the Wanda Bass School Of Music at Oklahoma City University, I used to have my students do an exercise that was so insightful. I’d do it either in the first class session or the second at the latest. The students who really got it would have their acting craft altered in such a big-time way. (Try it right now yourself, if you like). My instructions went like this:

“Okay.  Close your eyes and allow yourself to just breathe. Concentrate on your breath for a while. Now, see a lemon right out in front of you. Keeping your eyes closed, reach out and take that lemon in your hand.  Feel it.  Feel the rind. Smell the lemon. Smell all of the smells.

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Now, lay it out on the table in front of you. Take a small, serrated knife in one hand and hold the lemon still with the other.  Cut the lemon in half.  Pick up one half and smell it now.  Squeeze one half of the lemon in one hand.  Feel the juice flow down your hand.  Now, put it to your mouth and bite it.  Suck on it.  Really taste it.”

You should have seen the faces on these students, scrunched up noses and all sorts of things.  I wish I could have gotten some of them on video.  If we would have had YouTube then, I could have bribed quite a few students.  Maybe a little pocket money?  Hah! Anyway, some would barely begin to bite down before the sensation was too bitter for them to take any longer.  Some eyes would water.  It was quite something to see all of the different reactions.  Why did they react this way?

Well, I’m certainly no scientist, but the way I understood it when it was explained to me after I first tried the exercise was that our brain just reacts.  It doesn’t know that we’re sucking on thin air.  Our brain believes what we tell it to believe!  Why was this important for acting class?

Well, what an actor has to do, if nothing else, is be believable in the role she is playing.  The reactions to the lemon juice, and everything that came out of the lemon exercise, were completely believable because they were true.  The experience was real. Even if the piece you’re performing isn’t “realistic”, you still have to be committed to the role and you must believe what you’re doing in that moment.  No one will believe what you do unless you believe it first.  No one will believe who you are unless you believe it first.

And so it is with our lives.  If you are committed to being a certain way– content, satisfied, happy, you name it– you must be committed to it.  You must believe you are that way.  See the satisfaction.  See the joy there out in front of you.  Close your eyes and bite into the happiness that is right before your eyes.    How you decide to be is the only thing, and I repeat, the only thing that you will ever have any control over in this life.  No matter what life deals out, you choose how to react.  You choose how to be.

Close your eyes and tell your brain what you see.  Tell your brain how you feel and your brain will buy it .

And so will you.

Now, go suck a lemon!

____________

Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

How “Inside Llewyn Davis” got way down inside me.

One of the functions of great art is to, as Hamlet puts it to the acting troupe about to play his scene for the King and Queen of Denmark, “hold a mirror up to nature.”

Any great work of art, whether it be a painting, a play, a piece of literature, or a film, gives us something new every time we encounter it.  We go back to great art, time and again, because of what we see when we look into that mirror.  What each of us sees can be so different because of where we find ourselves on our life’s journey.  But, that’s what makes great art great– we all see different things.

As a result, conversations should ensue; opinions should be shared.  The more we talk and wrestle with what our lives are about, the more we learn about ourselves and each other; the more we learn how to live together and love each other better.

Sometimes, a great piece of art can speak to us as a group, as a society.  Other times, a great piece of art can speak to us in such a profoundly personal way it’s as though it were our own personal mirror.  For me, watching  Inside Llewyn Davis was like sitting down at a vanity.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by the remarkable Coen brothers, follows Llewyn Davis, a fictional folk singer, for a week of his life in 1960.  Based in part on the memoir, The Mayor Of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk, the film explores several questions that can ring true for everyone, but most especially for those of us who make our living in the arts:

How do we sometimes sabotage ourselves?

How much does being in the right place at the right time play into our success?

What’s the difference between talent and genius?

Would we just “exist” if we gave up our passionate pursuits?

Do cats really know where they are on the subway?

Llewyn doesn’t make things easy for himself.  He’s abrasive, a bit too impulsive at times, and not especially prone to making good decisions. But it’s his music that redeems him.  At the end of the day, making music is what he does better than anything in the world; it’s what he was made to do.  I related to that.

I related to his desire to make ends meet and the lengths he goes to in order to further his career.  More than that, I related to what Llewyn becomes while in the midst of performing, transcending the moment with his full concentration firmly locked on participating in something beyond himself.  Because of that, I rooted for him.  I wanted him to keep plugging away and continue to hang in there, even though I wanted to shake him by the lapels of his seasonally inappropriate jacket and say, Dude!  You could be a little nicer, man!  Especially to the people who love you and want the best for you! You dig?

But, I also related to his frustration of feeling like he’s stuck in a vortex of bad timing and thinking that those around him might never truly get what he’s trying to communicate through his work.  By employing a very effective story-telling device, the Coens show us, the audience, a week in Davis’s life in a way that makes us question whether or not he’ll ever make it out of that vortex and whether or not he could do anything about it even if he wanted to.

As an artist, the concern that others will understand you as a person is almost never as important as the desire for your work to be understood.  At the same time, it can be a very difficult blow to the confidence when the former does not occur.  Llewyn spends some time with a married couple on the Upper West Side of New York City, both of whom are college professors.   A few different times they introduce him to friends of theirs as their “folk singer friend.”  I’ve been introduced as “our actor friend” by friends of mine a time or two, myself.  There’s nothing ill intended, I know, but I related to Llewyn’s uncomfortable feelings in those scenes.

“This is what I do for a living!” he tells the hosts and their guests when they press him to play for them around the table after dinner.  He wants it to be understood that what he does is important in some way.  He wants his work to matter.  I got that.

As the film, and thus, the single week of Davis’s life comes to an end, the audience is left to speculate on how things will proceed for Llewyn.  Will his fortunes ever turn around?

When the credits began to roll, I thought about all of the ways in which the character of Llewyn Davis and I are similar.  But, as I sat in the car after the film was over, I contemplated all of the ways in which I wanted us to be different, and how much I hoped we were different.

I felt such I strong desire to sit him down and have a talk with him; to convince him that things could change if only he would look outside of himself and care more about others; to try to convince him that his gifts were given to him so that he could, in some small way, contribute to making the world a better place; to try to convince him that he already had everything he ever wanted and all he needed to do was learn how to give it away.

Then I realized, once again, how great art can be.  I had been looking in a mirror the whole time.

***

Follow Scott on Twitter– @scotylang

These boots hurt my feet

bootsI recently bought a new pair of boots, and it made me think of a movie.  Okay, I’ll explain.

In 1990, a movie called, “Avalon” came out.  It’s the story of a Polish-Jewish family that comes to America at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.  Early on in the film, one of the brothers in the family gets a job breaking in new shoes for his employer.

So, the man’s boss gets a new pair of boots or dress shoes or whatever, and the brother’s job is to walk around in those shoes until they are broken in and comfortable.  The boss doesn’t have to go through any of the pain or discomfort.  No blisters or corns for the boss, just the comfortable feel of the broken in leather.

That’s what I need, I thought to myself.  I need a guy to break in these new boots for me!

But then I thought about it again.

I know what a really nicely broken in pair of boots can feel like, the way they conform to your feet as if they were made specifically for your two dogs.  The thing about that is, no one else has your feet.  So, if someone else is breaking in your shoes, they break them in to their own feet, not yours.

I have a few things in my life that I’d liken to a nice pair of broken in boots, and with every one of those relationships or acquired skills I hold dear, I can say, without hesitation, that there was a significant “breaking in” period that I had to go through myself; nobody else could put in the time for me.  That’s what makes those special things so special–I put in the time.

People often speculate about what success means in this business of being an actor.  Is it how much money you make, or is it how often you work, or is it what size roles you get, or is it some other kind of measuring stick?

For me, I just want to work as an actor and pay my bills doing it.  It’s not an easy road, and God knows my feet have got more than a few blisters from breaking in this career.  It will be worth it, though.  I’ve just got to put in the time.  I’ve got to do the mileage.  Nobody else can do it for me.

But, Jesus, my feet hurt right now!

 

 

I dreamed a dream of times gone crazy

The_Scream_by_nalissisThere’s a bit of anxiety inherent in what I do for a living.

I prepare for a significant amount of time to be able to put on costumes, get up in front of people (the more the better!) and pretend to be someone else (or multiple people, sometimes) for about an average of two hours at a stretch, depending on the job.

It’s the preparation time that gives me the anxiety, especially if it’s a one-person piece like my adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” which, coincidentally, I’m opening at The Media Theatre in Media, PA on Sunday evening.

When I get this close to an opening of a show, things get a little hairy, and I’m really no good to anyone.  I don’t sleep well, so I disturb my wife; I sometimes completely forget about appointments even though I have them in my calendar, so I upset my friends, my kids, and people I do business with; and I sort of wander around, lost in thought like Norstadt in “The Man Without A Face.”

I also have weird dreams like the one I had this morning…

It’s this coming Sunday, and it’s less than a half an hour before curtain on the opening performance of “A Christmas Carol.”  I’ve decided that I need to go out and get something I forgot that I desperately need for the show.  The thing is, I’m not sure what I’ve forgotten, I’m not sure where I’m going, and I’m riding around town peddling my guts out on a tiny tricycle I don’t recognize.  It’s not even my color.  I should have a red tricycle and this thing’s blue!

So I’m peddling around when I get a call from the stage manager.

“Scott?”

“Hi!  Yes. What’s up?”

“Well, it’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“Time for the show to start.  You need to go on.  There are people here and they’re getting restless.”

“Oh, jeeze, right!  Yes!  Uh, okay, I’ll be right there!”

“Where are you?”

“I’m not exactly sure.  But I’m on a tricycle, so I’ll be just a few minutes. I’m on my way!”

And then I woke up.

***

Just a moment, one peculiar passing moment…

Oh, if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you had one.
–Baker’s Wife, “Into The Woods”

Moments are amazing!

So often, we don’t realize we’re in a moment until after the moment has passed.  Then we’re no longer in a moment but a memory.

Lately, I’ve been trying to keep my heart’s antenna primed for receiving the waves of a moment.  I want to live in moments and fully immerse myself in them.

I want to create moments, for myself and for others!

Moments remind you of why you’re alive–to actually experience the brilliance of life!

Of course I understand that, like it says in the song, “If life were made of moments… you’d never know you had one.” So, I’m not saying that every second of the day is a moment.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying!  Every second of every day is a moment!

I don’t want to waste a single one of those seconds.  Will I?  Of course I will, but that’s what makes the special moments so amazingly special.

Check out the clip of this amazingly special moment and have one for yourself!  Enjoy!!

We eat ham and jam and spam a lot!

spamaloticonRight now, through November 3rd, I’m having the time of my life playing King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Media Theatre in Media, PA.

Here’s a little, sort of “backstage” look inside the show.  Check it out!

I love what I get to do!

lovewhatyoudoCliché…

“If you do something you truly love, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

I complain about clichés, sometimes; mostly because I think we use them to generalize things that can’t really be generalized.  (I’m the guiltiest of all!)

Maybe I could try to be a little more specific…

“If you do something that puts to use your own, special and unique talents in a way that connects with other humans on the planet and contributes something positive to the world, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

Yeah, mine’s a bit more long-winded.  (I can get like that– making things more complicated than they have to be.)  But, I think it makes a difference here.  Doing something you love is awesome, who doesn’t like to do things they love, but what difference does it make?

Seeking out a living where your true talents are on display and people’s lives have the potential to be changed for the better because they encountered you is what we really need to be teaching our children.

No child left behind?  Ok, great. So, why are we leaving so many behind?

Math and Science are extremely important, but how much are we leaving out when that becomes all that matters?  What kind of adults are we making out of our children?  Do they have a purpose?  Are they doing what they were born to do?

It’s not an easy thing to find that career “sweet spot” where you’re full on doing what you love all the time, and I know plenty of people who say, “We can’t always get what we want out of our lives.”

To them I say, “What is it, actually, that you want?”

I know what I want to do for a living: to connect with people in truly meaningful, and potentially life-altering ways when using my God-given talents to the best of my ability.

That’s what I want.  It doesn’t always show up the same way, nor is it an easy pursuit, but on the occasion when all cylinders are firing and the magic is happening, it feels just right.

It feels like this…