Yesterday I had a great talk with a great friend about this unique process of diving into the creative fire every day. (Also known as auditioning my ass off.) After relaying the play-by-play of a Friday evening audition, he commiserated with me about the fact that we artists have to develop the proverbial thick skin in order to survive this life of rejection.
We’ve all heard it before, right? And when my friend said this I nodded and agreed because it seems so obvious and so true, but something about it got thorny for me. It stuck in my side all day. Hm. Do I really want to be thick-skinned? I’m not sure I do – as an artist or as a human being.
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you, with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken or betrayed or left or hurt or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree, and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” – Louise Erdrich
What does a thick skin protect you from? Pain, yes. Heartbreak, yes. And yearning, and helplessness. And also unabashed joy. A thick skin keeps out tenderness, and vulnerability, which spiritual teacher Christie Marie Sheldon reminds us, is really just being totally who you really are. Who doesn’t want that?
“It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
“It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.
“I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
“I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.”
- Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation
Now, let’s bring this to the realm of the artist’s life and particularly, the actor’s life. Imagine for a moment, an actor with a thick skin. Really get that. Now: What can get in? What can get out?
Actors are conduits for life’s emotions. We are oracles of the depths of the heart. We experience deeply, and transmit that energy to the audience who then experiences more deeply for having taken us in. This may sound mystical, and it is, but it’s also just the plain ol’ truth about this beloved craft of mine. And I consider it my number one job to remain open-hearted and thin-skinned, so as much as possible can get in, get out, transmit and touch into the hearts of us all.
But living thin-skinned is like sitting on a live wire – how do we endure it without feeling like an exposed nerve all the time?
One answer, and I don’t claim to know THE answer, but one answer I’m finding is to build resiliency and strength in that thin skin through vigilant self-responsibility. For me that means learning to be present to my emotions – ALL of my emotions – day in and day out; to be ultimately responsible for them and empowered to move myself safely through them.
A friend shared some wisdom that a mentor of hers had given: mourn every lost role. This mentor has lived and worked in New York for a long time, and her ritual is this: after every role that she doesn’t land, she puts on her big dark sunglasses, walks the streets of Manhattan, and weeps for a while. I imagine that she doesn’t force this, or require herself to cry buckets of tears for every single role, but I love the vulnerability of this ritual. I imagine it keeps her connected to the passion and love that she brings to her craft. Mourning each role means that she allowed herself to connect to each role at a heart level. I think this is absolutely beautiful. And in adopting this practice myself, I’ve taken one step toward keeping my skin thin, resilient, and ready to be pierced by life. Knowing I can handle it, that I can hold my hand over my heart and just be with my tears, is so incredibly empowering. And it keeps my heart open and clear.