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On Authenticity

On Authenticity

“The Thing you Hate the Most About Yourself is The Thing You are Most Likely To Get Cast As.”

I heard this from a casting director once.

That sounds horrible, right?  But, the more I work with students, the more I believe it’s absolutely true.

Here’s my story.

A few years ago, I took a workshop that helps you figure out what your authentic “type” is. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “type” is how actors start to develop a personal brand.  It helps you become aware of how casting directors and potential employers see you, and therefore target your look, your energy, your audition material, and the kinds of auditions you attend to the roles you best fit–and in an ideal world, this is how you get work.)

The Sam Christiansen Workshop works on developing a vocabulary to describe yourself that is more in depth than traditional actor types like “Ingenue” or “Best Friend”, or “Leading Lady”– which can also be limiting- and superficial. (At one point I asked a casting director the difference between “Best Friend” and “Leading Lady” and she said “10 pounds”). That being said, there is tremendous value in having a vocabulary of what you have to offer.

Sam and his partner Ken were surprisingly insightful and accurate in the descriptions they came up with for my classmates.  Unsurprisingly–when those descriptions hit home, people had powerful reactions.  They felt elated, validated, UNDERSTOOD when it was something about themselves they loved–and equally uncomfortable when the description illuminated something they didn’t like about themselves–and likely had worked REALLY hard to hide.

Both sides of the authenticity coin.

One of the descriptions Sam and Ken came up with for me was

“World’s Greatest Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.”

And…it bothered me.  Now, I have nothing against a good PB&J. They are delicious, but… basic. I didn’t want to be basic or boring–essentially, not special. Like everyone else, I have a way I want the world to see me… and a way I’m most afraid to have the world see me. (Thanks to Alex Gelman, my scene study professor in grad school for giving words to that conundrum). I’m terrified of not being special.

So, my brain sailed right past “World’s Best” and immediately thought,

But I don’t WANT to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A while later, I was out to eat with a friend when the chef sent out a dessert: Peanut butter, candied bacon and blueberries. Salty, smoky, savory, sweet, tart. It was the rockstar of desserts–an anthem, really. A deconstructed pb&j. And that was a really freaking great PB&J.

And it made me think: What exactly was wrong with being the WORLD’S BEST PB&J? What description would I have preferred? Average gnocchi?

I decided to do some more research. Here are just a few of the things I came across:

Peanut Butter & Jelly Parfait 2 IMG_1902fc
Not so basic…

“The PB&J deserves a place on our list for most perfect food”.  And amazing recipes like this one: Peanut Butter Mousse with Jam.  And this one: Grilled Waffle PBnJ

(In fact, April 2nd is National PB&J DAY.)

All of these share the same essence. But there is nothing boring or not special about them.

In voice coaching, we hear over and over that clients don’t like their voices, and they come to us trying to CHANGE their voice in some way–often to sound like someone else.  But ultimately, authentic voice and vocal power come from accepting who you are as a baseline- learning your own components.

The real power is finding a different way to work with them.

Here’s another, less metaphorical example: I have an actor friend, David, who spent his entire career trying to avoid the fact that (in his words) he is a “bald, fat man”. He is extremely talented, hard-working and well trained, but he wasn’t getting the roles he wanted–and putting pressure on himself to go the gym and become something different than he was in order to get the career he wanted. Finally, rather than asking, “what’s wrong with me?”, he decided to give up trying to be something else.

He start submitting for “bald, fat man” roles.

He submitted to roles with captions like “Casting for: Fat Cop, Fatter Cop and Fattest Cop” (to be fair, he was hoping for “Fat Cop” or Fatter Cop”).

He started working. A lot.

Bit parts, then commercials, and now a series regular on a The Knick. (And just recently got flown first class both ways to South America to star a commercial.)

Figuring out who you are is not easy… and it’s a process.  I think we make it harder than it has to be by digging for the gold- and when we find it in its raw form, and don’t like what we see, we throw it back.  In acting school, I learned many of my strengths as an actor came out of parts of my personality I had tried to hide for years and years.

Let’s be clear- there is a HUGE difference in accepting someone else’s limited version of who THEY think you are, and embracing things about yourself that are evident to everyone, but, might not be what you wish you were.

I believe that everyone, at some point, wants to be different than what they are- somehow imagining that there is someone else out there that would be able to live your life better than you. And when we really look at that sentence, hopefully there is at least a small part of ourselves that sees how ridiculous of an idea that really is.

And- I have to ask- why are we trying so hard to fix and change ourselves? Why not start enhancing our strengths, acknowledging the obvious of what we are, instead of fighting it?

I started thinking about all the other ways we fight just being ourselves: I have friends that won’t start buying new clothes until they’ve lost the weight they think they should lose. But really, is buying clothes that fit and make you feel good really going to STOP you from losing weight? Could it be more likely that if you feel good in your own skin you will do things to take better care of that skin? Or if you are just not destined to lose weight- wouldn’t it be nice to not feel like your clothes are a daily punishment?

Trust me: I get it. I really do. Human beings have great capacity for change- and infinite potential. However, I really believe that change and growth happen in a much more satisfying way when we start to accept the raw materials we HAVE  (even though they might not be what we WISH we had).

You can’t make the Worlds Greatest PB&J from average Gnocchi.

You know what else? :

  1. Hiding who you really are is exhausting. And it means you always have to look outside yourself to find out what to do and how to behave, and are therefore living by someone elses definition of who you should be.
  2. Holding your Breath (Literally). People often hold their breath when they want to hide what they are really thinking (or feeling) without even noticing it. Holding your breath takes away your vocal power.
  3. You risk NOT finding the thing that makes you special. The authentic you. Authentic presence is powerful presence.
  4. The thing you are trying to hide becomes the one thing that is almost guaranteed everyone will notice. Peoples attention goes to where you put your attention. If you feel okay with it, so will other people. Watch Emma Watson give her UN address- she’s a seasoned performer. Yes, her voice shakes, but she doesn’t dwell on it, and neither do we.

Focusing on our strengths does not mean we live in denial of places that we could improve–life is about growth and change. It does mean we reframe the conversation from being “fixed” into one of growth and developing your range of choices. When you stop fighting them, we sometimes discover things we labeled as “Weaknesses” actually become “strengths”. What’s challenging for you may be easy for others, but let’s not forget:

The reverse is inevitably true.

Rather than holding you back, knowing what you bring to the table can actually help you build the most effective team around you with complimentary skills- writers need editors.  Teams need both visionaries and detail oriented people, those who speak off the cuff, and those who can give well-researched, thoughtful answers. The soft spoken amongst us can often wield an unexpected power.  Truthfully, people become successful not just for what they have to offer, but the people they surround themselves with.

To bring the best of you to the table, you have to know what that is. As I say to my clients,

“The rest is simply problem solving”.

So I say, be the worlds greatest peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Or wait, don’t. That’s me.

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