Acting and Performers in 2016
I remember when I moved to Los Angeles from Montana to pursue an acting career in the fall of 1999 like it was yesterday. I was eighteen years old and experiencing a considerable amount of culture shock. By that next spring after some good luck and a moderate amount of hustle, I had landed myself a commercial agent in Hollywood.
On the day that I signed my two year contract with my new agency, I was told that I needed two very important tools to get my commercial career off to a go start. The first was a good head shot and the second was “a cell phone”.
At that time near the turn of the century mobile phones and devices were not yet ubiquitous. Those who were alive and old enough to remember know that it was yet another significant crossroads for modern life. In 1999 not everyone had a cell phone yet and even personal computers were still making their way into the mainstream.
For many still, If you wanted to be reached, it was “leave a message on the home line or call me at work,” or perhaps even “send me a page,” if you were a cutting-edge techie. Actor headshots and resumes were also distributed around L.A in incredible numbers by maiI and messenger service.
After that first meeting with my new agent, I was excited and a little nervous as I purchased my first mobile phone from a local provider and left with it in my pocket. It had the contact numbers of 4 people in it, including my agent’s phone number.
It’s somewhat hard for me to keep perspective on just how much has changed in the last 14 years. The rapid development of personal technology and its integration into our lives has been undoubtedly quick for almost all people living in the western world. The requirement for actors and performers to be “plugged in” at almost all times has also become part of the status quo for anyone trying to make a living or just to break into Hollywood.
I’m certainly not the first person to say that this change has come with a long list of pros and cons. On the positive side, we are now able to be more hands-on as artist than ever before. We can submit ourselves for roles on casting websites, have our materials online and in front of a talent representative or casting director in seconds.
We can network and maintain relationships like never before. Perhaps modern technology’s greatest benefit to the performing artists of today is that it is now easier than ever to create our own high quality work at a fraction of what it used to cost. In effect, it’s a potentially great liberator.
I do believe first and foremost that technology is to be embraced. However, I do feel that in order for it to be truly beneficial to our world, it needs to be used properly and integrated into our lives in a healthy way. In order for this to happen, we must first take a clear look at how the human body’s ability to use personal technology has not not evolved at the same rate as the technology itself. This simple but elusive fact is most certainly affecting us in adverse ways.
The truth of the matter about the development of technology and of the fast pace at which it can alter the way we live, has of course been happening since the discovery of fire and the domestication of livestock. People since the beginning of modern man have had to learn to adapt to an enormity of incredible new things. But certainly in the last one hundred years the changes have been greater than in human history.
F.M Alexander, the great mind behind the Alexander Technique. spoke about this on the heels (or still in the shadow of the steps) of the industrial revolution.
“The past few years have completely altered the foundation of our previous ways of life and it has become a matter of prime necessity to re-examine the pedigree of all such ideas, concepts and beliefs with which our overt activities are associated.”
-F.M Alexander 1946
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, it is part of my job to observe the use, functioning and behavior of people. Since the Alexander Technique is so widely taught to performers, I get a first- hand look at how this constant interface with our devices is affecting not only the ability of performers to do their jobs but also their health and the quality of their lives.
The science is just beginning to roll in on how this first generation of nearly constant users of personal technology is being affected on psychological, emotional and physiological levels. Radiation concerns, not to mention the risks from distraction are certainly alarming but that is not the purpose of this article, and a separate discussion. I want to discuss the the particular effect on performers in these technological times.
Many of the primary functions and necessary faculties of performers (and of all artists for that matter) are in some ways under serious attack by unconscious use of our personal devices. I know that is a bold statement, but it is exactly what I mean.
For most people, when we use our cell phones, computers and other mobile devices, the first thing that we lose is an awareness of ourselves kinesthetically (that being the sense of ourselves in our bodies). The stimulus of information, work and digital communication is so engrossing that we “check-out” in a way.
As I mentioned previously, this is largely the result of the fact that our technology is developing at a much faster pace than our species’ ability to use it effectively. We hunch our shoulders, crane our necks, hold our breaths, sit in awkward positions, tune out our surroundings and become largely isolated. Over time, these actions take a major toll on our bodies, brains and emotional lives.
We begin to develop not only bad habits and imbalances that become chronic, but many other lasting troubles as well. To name a few; hypertension, high blood pressure, spinal issues, mood swings, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, anxiety, and a vast majority of other ailments and imbalances. None of the aforementioned effects from “misusing ourselves while using technology” are good for the human race, but they are particularly negative for a performer.
Using an actor as an example is good place to start. An actor’s primary function is to be able to connect with themselves on a deep level and in turn, share in an equally deep connection with other actors. In effect, an actor’s job is to cultivate a high capacity for human intimacy in the present moment.
Imagining, listening, reacting, feeling, thinking, moving, remembering, and focusing are as much tools for an actor as a hammer, saw, tape measure, and drill are to a carpenter. As in any trade or craft, the use of these implements needs to be refined and tuned over a long period of time to be effective. Hopefully, after some considerable work using these many tools, something artful can be created.
For an actor the instrument of art lies within the body and its ability to be open to experiencing and communicating life. Here is where the challenge with our technological times come in.
Many of the unwanted habits that become ingrained from too much screen time go exactly against our ability to connect with ourselves and others in a meaningful way. In allowing the pull of technology to control us, without stopping to think first about how we are using ourselves, means not only that are we allowing our senses and capacity for sensitive human interaction to be dulled, but we are also allowing ourselves to be controlled by the technology (likely without knowing it).
Currently so much of verbal communication is being replaced by a new style of curt and efficient cyber communication. Text messaging, tweeting, posting and even some email, while potentially useful and very enjoyable (not to mention addictive), all ask us to connect briefly and often in a very transient matter. We are now able to communicate with vastly more people on a given day and this is a wonderful and powerful tool but this type of communication is not a substitute for actual human interaction.
For me, these challenges pose more questions than answers. If we choose daily to forgo what is our innate way to be and relate with others, what happens to the human element of our lives? If the artist’s job is to fully represent the human element, what happens to a generation of performers who spend hours per day avoiding feelings of fear, loneliness and need for connection by being distracted by our technology? What happens to the artistic instrument of our bodies and a fuller and richer experience of our humanity (our inner nature) if we let ourselves be dulled and detuned? These are the challenges today that artists face (if they are choosing to face them).
Can we put down our devices and get real with ourselves and other people around us? Can we still look each other in the eye, connect, imagine, feel, think, share and express? Can we still together go deeper into the mystery of being human?
Personally, I believe the answer to this last question is “yes” and feel very hopeful that we can do this. But we must continue the discourse on the subject. A time has come also to implement measures into the education and training of the performing artists of today and tomorrow about the importance of good use and awareness around the interface with our electronic devices.
There are a lot of great places to look for support in addressing these issues. One option that I invite people to investigate is to work with an Alexander Technique teacher. A certified teacher can offer support and insight into recognizing the habits that have already begun to take root in your life. Changing habits about how you use yourself while you’re using your tools is great for anyone. It can also help foster awareness about when to put it down and reach for something else.
Also, I think one of the other great remedies for our technological dilemma is to foster good habits in children. They really are the ones who are capable of the most change and they truly need it most.
I feel hugely privileged to be on staff at a wonderful children’s acting conservatory in Los Angeles. Gary Spatz and the teaching staff at The Playground are not only helping kids learn how to act but I have observed that they are helping kids to be citizens of the world and to connect with themselves and each other in meaningful ways.
I’ve always felt that the best teachers lead by example and modeling behavior. So in reaching towards that direction, I am going to close this computer and step outside.