This is a recent email I received from an actor we will call John.
I'm a recent graduate of the (name withheld for anonymity) MFA program. And honestly, I feel I was cheated out of a great actor training experience. My teachers tried to kick me out of the program because I "wasn't demonstrating abilities to be a professional actor," but I fought my way back in the program. I didn't want to lose my chance to get an Equity card and showcase to NYC agents. But going into a few months after graduation, I have no viable, healthy nor any existing relationship with my peers from that program. It's like they all forgot about me and those three years in the MFA program have never happened. I guess my question is, how do I move past this? How can I maintain my confidence in being an actor and realizing that I'm good enough?
To protect this dear person’s anonymity, I will call him John. Well John, first and foremost, it’s so important to become the kind of person who does not need anyone else’s validation to help you feel worthy or good or talented or happy.
I used to be this way too, so I do understand. Only now, at age 44, am I starting to not care what anyone else thinks. All I can do is be myself, and if that means I have to live a simple life, or not always have the friends I thought I should have, then so be it.
I had maybe two great acting teachers in my whole life, and one of these two people told me once, “Kirsten… you are enough.” I came into class early and was feeling totally full of despair about my life, my acting, and my career. And I kept complaining and whining and crying and looking hurt, and trying to figure out what I could do to be better, how to look better, be happier, get thinner, more in shape, more talented, what, what, what was the magic formula? How could I become more, more, more…better, happier, more, more, more…something. Implying of course, that I was deficient. That I was fat, dumb, ugly, untalented, stupid, lazy, mean, dull, slow… I honestly don’t know now what I thought I was, or was not, but I was obviously down on myself that day.
And she just kept repeating this mantra over and over again, looking sincerely into my worried eyes:
“YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
Well, it stunned me. I totally got silent. I could hardly speak. I just sat there like, “what?” I was so confused. Then she said it again:
“YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
I actually think I’ve written a version of this post many times here, but I can not restate this ENOUGH! So sorry for the repeat, but here’s some more of the same advice I can not state more boldly!
I never had been told that what I was, and who I was, was ENOUGH. I'd been told I was pretty and smart and talented and loved over and over again by a very loving family, but I’d never been told that all of that was ENOUGH. I guess what I was hearing from them was that I needed to be MORE. More what?... But “enough?” What did that mean? ENOUGH? Wow!
“You mean,” I said to my teacher (her name is Pam Clark and she was our Feldenkrais teacher at USC, who was later laid off of course)… Anyway, I said, “So what you’re saying Pam, is that I don’t have to do anything else to be considered good? I don’t have to say anything a certain way to be smart? I don’t have to DO anything MORE? I can just BE?”
She said, “Yes Kirsten. YOU are enough. You.” I still can’t get over the profound nature of this one discussion. I repeat this all the time to my own students, and to you all reading this now. Think about this idea to yourself for a few minutes, and see if you’ve ever even considered, truly, that what you are, who you are, how you are, RIGHT NOW, at this place in time, you, inside your body, is exactly as it should be. Not right or wrong, not good or bad, but simply: ENOUGH. There’s no judgment there. It’s just a reality. Enough.
We actors are artists, and artists tend to be the pleasers, the healers, and the feelers of our cultures. We survive and thrive on being empathetic beings. We may not admit it, but that’s really what we love, empathy – feeling the pain of other people.
We become artists because we hurt so much and feel so deeply. We hurt and feel the feelings for ourselves, our parents, our siblings, our countries, our fellow man. As feelers who want to heal too, we find ourselves trying to express other people’s feelings for them, or express our own feelings about things that bother us, so as to serve as a model for others who can not, or will not feel. This way, we hope to “help” others. As actors, we can express all sorts of feelings and thoughts that society itself is uncomfortable about. This way, we can shed light on the darkness, and reveal the secrets and lies that keep people in bondage. It makes us feel good to free others, doesn’t it?
And yet, we may wake up one day and realize that we are full of rage. This is confusing because we are also, at the same time, full of compassion and empathy. Our rage is fueled when we see people hurt each other. This hurts us. Also, we feel rage when we ourselves feel hurt, or misunderstood. Our rage can eventually, if not released, discussed, or developed constructively, become a kind of pathetic, all consuming, freezing-up, martyrdom. People will begin to not want to be our friends, because we are so angry, and always, in our own minds, right. We walk around with our mouths set in a grim smirk, or passive aggressively tell everyone how lousy our lives are. This is no fun for anyone else, let alone ourselves.
Don’t you want joy? Don’t you want to be “enough?”
And yet -- We are right. They are wrong. They have done us a wrong. How could they? We are trying so hard, and we are so honest, and we are so good, and they are so bad, and we have such good intentions, don’t we? We would NEVER hurt anyone, we only want to HELP everyone, so why are we rejected AGAIN and AGAIN? Why are we rejected when we want so much to be loved? It must be our fault. We must find the “reason” behind our failures in life, in love, in acting, in friendships, in family matters. If we can just find what the “solution” – if we can just be “ MORE – X, Y, Z” then we will finally be happy, achieve fame and fortune, get to the finish line!
It’s so much in the actor’s basic make-up to be this kind of care-taking, we-know-best, want-to-be-the-helper, want-to-change-the-world person, a person who may eventually become the know-it-all annoying pushy person, and ultimately, the tedious, long-suffering, guilt-tripping martyr. Heck, think about it. We’ve even chosen careers where we can set ourselves up to fail, and be angry and hurt and misunderstood, over and over and over again, as we get rejected, over and over and over again.
We get rejected by agents, and directors, and acting classes, and established programs, and in a million auditions, and we get rejected when other actors don’t want to work with us, and when we tell our families we want to do this crazy thing with our lives. It’s like we WANT to be rejected. I always wonder… why? I’m saying this with a laugh, because of course, none of us REALLY wants rejection. So again, why do we get into this profession where that’s a reality from day one? (By the way, I’m not really sure of the answer here. I never ever have professed to be that smart about anything. So seek this out yourselves but keep reading as I try to work this out in my own confused brain here! Ha ha!)
It took me many years of therapy, going to Al-Anon meetings (these are free, weekly group meetings for people who’ve been affected by, or raised around or by, or dating and living with, Alcoholics or other controlling addicted types). After years of thinking about my own behavior, my own anger and guilt and fear and controlling ways, I am finally, just now maybe, one day at a time, beginning to understand my own anger and lack of control, as well as my struggle to always control everything. Just to let you all know, my doctor father was an alcoholic, and I only realized this when I was in my last year of graduate school, when I was about 25, and guess what, just starting my acting career! Fun!
Back to the email from John. How does this relate to you? Well, first of all, I want to say, I am so sorry for you and for what you’ve experienced. I also felt rejected by my past classmates. After graduation, I hardly ever talked to any of them, or they me, and I’d find out they were having parties without me. I also learned they’d even put up a big play in LA that they all starred in, that I’d never even been invited to be a part of. Whatever. I’m totally over all that now, but at the time, let me tell you, I was really hurt. So I really and truly DO know how you feel!
I used to feel really bad about all of this, until a few years later, when I got into a private acting class, and my new teacher told me I was one of the most gifted students she’d ever worked with, and she asked me to be her assistant. This teacher, Catlin Adams, eventually later became Brad Pitt’s private acting coach for some time. I swear to this day that Catlin is the best teacher I’ve ever worked with, and I send people to her all the time (she teaches in LA). She even got me a part in a French TV series. She’s the best!
I felt some justice in detaching from my old MFA classmates later, when I saw some of them acting (badly) in some plays around town. And anyway, I’d found a new “tribe” of friends, and these people were more supportive, less toxic, and actually, better actors. Much of that came out of being members of a very healthy acting class, where people were nurtured, rather than being destroyed and torn apart, all resulting from having a GREAT teacher -- one who did not try to control anyone by the way! Also, these actors were actually working in the LA industry, not just theater actors, or part of a university setting. It was just plain healthy and real.
John, first of all, I want to instill in you some courage, and some self-respect.
WAY TO GO! You actually do have a Masters Degree! And that’s great! Think what a great teacher you’ll be now too, after all you’ve been through. You’ve learned so much and you’ve gotten stronger!
Do you realize that there are only a tiny percentage of all college level graduates that ever even GET Masters, and many start and then don’t even finish? -- and you even FOUGHT to finish your Masters, and WON! Way to go! No matter how much your MFA program may have brought you down, tried to diminish your strength, skills, talents, and self-respect, you fought the “powers of academia” and WON! You GOT your degree.
Time will heal your wounds. It did mine. Also, remember to be gentle with yourself, and give yourself a huge hug and praise, and look at yourself in the mirror every morning and say, “Wow, John, you rock! You actually got a Masters in Fine Arts in Acting from a VERY difficult program, and you are SMART and WONDERFUL!” I know you may feel like Stuart Smalley, but who cares. “I am good enough, I’m smart enough, and God Darn it, I’m worth it!”
Second of all, I want to encourage you to feel some rage. It’s okay to be !!!## FURIOUS! Get mad and know it’s okay to be mad. Anger helps us get our power back. We people pleasers have a hard time being angry, so letting ourselves be pissed off can really free you up to get on with your life. By the way, writing this, I realize that I’m angry for you. How dare a professional program say that to someone? That’s just plain rude. Are they the purveyors of taste? For all they know, you could be the next big thing. What jerks!
If it makes you feel any better, I have a friend who was kicked out of NYU’s Tisch film school after one year, from their Masters Program, and he was the only one, years later, who ever even made a feature film, out of a graduating class of about 50! Yes, he has actually now made about 5 feature films! So hang in there and believe in yourself. Academia means nothing in the REAL world of film and TV. By the way, I heard a story about Spike Lee. He visited NY Film School (Tisch) one year and said, “I only have one word of advice for all of you. Quit! Right now! Get out of here and start making films!”
Do you know, it’s sadly pretty common that some bad things happen to vulnerable actors and artists when they go through formal training programs? Student artists, if not careful, may get verbally and emotionally abused, even physically abused. I had a student be pushed out of a class, then pushed to the ground, by an acting teacher at a program I taught at in LA! The student who had me for a different class, complained to me and I complained to the administration, and they did nothing to that other teacher! They just laughed at me. I later lost that job after standing up for myself after being verbally abused by the owner of the program, a man who was a total crazy mean jerk, a guy who loved to yell and scream at people and then fire them in a fit of fury for no reason. I now know that God was trying to protect me.
In my USC program, I watched as one teacher psychoanalyzed a girl in front of a class of 50 students, for about an hour, until she was weeping, and asked her all sorts of totally inappropriate, deep, private questions, even sexual questions, things about her father and mother. I sat there trying not to scream. I felt this whole thing was like watching someone be accosted in front of my eyes. It felt controlling, almost incestuous, and it made me so angry that I went to the dean of USC and complained. I don’t even care to say now that this teacher was eventually fired. And good riddance! He was caustic to say the least. He of course was one of those teachers who really loved it if his students worshipped him like a powerful guru/Svengali. This is a warning sign. Teachers are not saints, they should not be your best friend, and they are not magical gurus. They are just people. Teachers who have groupies are not healthy people. They are controllers and they are dangerous!
It’s such a subtle thing with actors, because we are taught to follow direction from directors, and so we THINK we’re not being abused, but in many ways, it is abuse. We are at the mercy of these teachers, and fellow students, and directors, and if one very powerful or charismatic teacher gets a bunch of his/her students behind him, and decides he/she doesn’t like one of the students, the whole school can try to oust that student, or at least, shame them, or cause them harm. This happened in one of my years at USC, where a whole group of students decided they hated one actress, and they tried to literally destroy her. They made fun of her openly in class, and I think I was the only one who sided with her. When my classmates made fun of me for befriending this poor girl, I realized I didn’t really like them. They were gossips and they were cruel.
Actors and artists lead with their souls and their hearts, as well as their actual bodies. We get cast for how we look and move, and our looks, and actual bodies, are treated as a commodity, and thus our talents get mixed up inside all of this body image issue as well. As a result, it is very hard to separate our feelings about ourselves and our bodies, that is, our self esteem, from our feelings about our talents and careers, that is, our business.
The entire experience of acting, and training to act, becomes, again I use the word, incestuous. It starts to feel “creepy” or “controlling.” When those who have power over us (directors, teachers) tell us no, or that we don’t do things “right” or that we are not “good enough, or thin enough, or right, or professional actor material” – it literally sends us back to our deepest insecurities of childhood and the fears we felt when we were young. It’s also just plain mean! Their rejection of us, and our deepest feeling selves, the artist’s soul, feels like a parental rejection, and we become like babies, utterly trusting in their opinion of us, good or bad.
If on top of that, as children, we were the caretakers, the rescuers, the truth-tellers, the feelers, the healers, of a dysfunctional family; if we were the kid always trying to help our parents stop drinking, or trying to “help” our mothers when they cried; if we, when young, became a triangulated person within a family system (for example: I communicated needs for my father, and felt and expressed feelings for my mother) -- then our reactions are even more skewed when we are miss-treated or feeling hurt.
Often unable to say “NO!” or “STOP!” or “You have no right to treat me that way!” we become angry doormats, allowing others to hurt us, and then being angry that it happened. We often take on so much pain that we become unable to even be creative, because now our thoughts about our careers are also merged with our thoughts about our selves -- such as, “Why aren’t they my friends? Why am I alone? I thought I was so nice, but I guess, once again, that I am not good enough. I thought I was talented, after all, you cast me in this lead, you accepted me into this exclusive program, but now -- What am I doing wrong? How can I fix myself? I am to blame.”
I know this is the longest post in a blog’s history, and I know that I may seem like I’m rambling here, but I really want to get clear to all you actors and actresses reading this. It’s time to:
TAKE BACK YOUR POWER!
One way to do this is to fight. Learn to protect yourself. Take an assertiveness class. Learn NOT to be nice. Learn to say no. Learn to say, “That, or this, doesn’t feel right! STOP TREATING ME THIS WAY!” It’s time to learn how to quit, leave the room, hang up the phone, walk out, shut the door, and RUN, when you’re being mistreated!
Learn to trust your feelings. One thing I learned about feelings is that they are right. They are always right. Never doubt them! If something feels gross, or mean, or inappropriate, or wrong, or manipulative, or creepy, or frustrating….then guess what? IT IS! Your feelings are your guide to the truth. If a teacher, director, agent, boyfriend, parent, girlfriend, friend, brother, sister, or acting program is making you feel, “wrong, bad, out of control, sad, used, ignored, put down, shamed, controlled, exploited, abused, confused” then it IS those very things. YOU HAVE NOT IMAGINED THESE THINGS! This person or institution is being exactly what you feel! They are being abusive, shaming, controlling, exploitative! If this is coming from an acting program, then you should quit immediately!
As far as an abusive situation in an MFA acting program?
John, back to you. I know I sound tough – but I think you understand where I’m coming from when I say the following: Who cares if that means that you don’t get to be in the showcase?! Who cares if that means you don’t get your SAG card or your Equity card?! Any program or person that uses blackmail doesn’t have your welfare in mind. Remember – YOU are THEIR client, not the other way around. YOU pay THEIR bills! If they use the “golden ticket” or “major promises” as a kind of carrot, putting it out in front of you, blackmailing you to stay, by offering you results, or things you really want -- as their way to “keep you” – then RUN LIKE HELL!
Any program like this is BAD!!! And from the sound of your email, I think you really understood this about your program, and it sounds like maybe they knew that you knew they were abusive, and they didn’t like the fact that you were exposing the vampire to the light, as they say! But you DID fight! Way to go! I’m super proud of you! Cherish your acting career and talent like it’s a shiny new car. Don’t let anyone sit on your hood, or drink an open milk shake in your beautiful new car. Don’t let your drunk friend drive it. Don’t hand off your keys to just anyone! It’s YOURS! YOU bought it! Only YOU can drive it!
When I got out of my MFA program at USC, I did a showcase. I actually did two showcases, one my first year, and one the second year. The truth is, I didn’t get one audition out of any of the showcases. They held this over MY head for two years, and both years, the showcase was stupid! I realized later there are agent showcases organized professionally all over town. I didn’t even need to go to USC to be in one.
My biggest advice I can give you John is to separate how you think about different parts of your life and try to see that they are not all the same thing. They are totally different things you need to think about in different ways. For example, these three things: your acting career, your actual talent, and your friendships with your past classmates.
Draw some BOUNDARIES around different aspects of your life and keep these things contained in separate spaces in your mind. This helps me. For example, draw on a piece of paper the following words and put circles around them as if they are separate things: Health-Body, Acting Career, Acting Study, Love Relationship, Family, Day-Job, Finances. Then list the things you need to worry about under each.
These things should all be separate, and they should be pursued in separate ways. The more merged they are with each other, the more dysfunctional your life will become.
In your professional acting career, the truth is (and teachers never tell you this) – once you’re out of your MFA program, nothing else really matters. All that matters now, as a working actor, is your headshot, how you look, your talent level, your auditions, having an agent, getting work, paying your bills, and then of course, who you know in the industry. The other stuff (like love, friendships) should be separate.
So again, my best advice to you is to be yourself, and if your past class-mates are rejecting you, so be it. Get on with your life. Find new friends. Feel your feelings. Be angry if you have to be. But learn to focus on yourself first and foremost, and stop thinking about everyone else.
Take new acting classes. Stay fresh. The gossips and the groupies and the hangers on of acting programs will not be the ones who ultimately make it. It’s the individuals who live their own lives -- treat their acting careers like small businesses, have a real life outside of acting, have friends and family members who have deep meaningful lives (outside of acting) – that are the professionals! It also helps for all actors to stay busy doing many other things besides acting. Get involved in sports, politics, volunteer, help others, write poetry, learn to paint.
I also advise you to read: The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, and Boundaries, by Anne Katherine. These two books saved my life. And also, if any of you have been raised in a home where alcohol was a big part of life, you might consider going to your first Al-Anon meeting. Al-Anon also saved my life. Also, check out my Reading List on this site.
Keep on acting, and keep on writing and believing in yourself and your talents! I’m really proud of each and every person who has the nerve to pursue their dreams, and the courage to stay true to their passions! You inspire me every day of my life.