What Vincent Van Gogh can teach us about a creative life

How many hours a week are you acting?

I’m not talking about auditioning or workshops (they don’t count). I’m talking about that rarefied and sacred space where you work on your art. The place where outcome doesn’t matter, where there’s no getting it right or wrong, and no one’s trying to be cool. A client of mine once called this “the sandbox of the creative soul.” How much time do you spend in that space, playing, getting dirty and making castles?

Vincent Van Gogh took his own life when he could no longer paint. He didn’t take it when he could no longer sell his paintings (he was never financially successful while he was living). Good ol’ Vinnie didn’t dutifully go knocking on doors trying to sell his paintings; he painted. He painted day after day, week after week, month after month. I believe that there is something profound to be learned from his creative rigor. He painted because that’s what it meant to make art.

Most of us started acting in grade school or high school. An awkward age for some; full of hormones, heartbreak and hidden desires to fit in. That first time you courageously stepped onto a stage; looked out past the lights; stood in front of some people knew, some people you didn’t… and felt something stir inside you, something you had never felt before. Some part of you relaxed and said, “Yes. Finally. I’m home.” Some deep theretofore quiet part of you woke up; it tickled you with that once-a-year magic that (still?) happens when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake. You were home. Your creativity and big, passionate heart was bursting to unfurl stories to the world. Just as it did for Vincent as he found landscapes to paint, personalities to capture, and colors to enliven.

The magic you make on stage or on set has nada to do with emailing an agent or putting together the perfect reel. These are the staples of business, the necessary tools of running an actor business, yes… but let’s say I could wave my magic wand (and I wish I had one!) that could grant you nine auditions a week for television, Broadway, or film (or all three!).

“Yes! Fabulous! Please do! Thanks, Fairy Godfather!”

Here’s what happens… I’ve seen actors live through just this seemingly magic, happenstance, haphazard trajectory and I’d say it’s a 50/50 chance of their art being able to live up to their opportunities. What?!?

We have glimpses of who we want to be, glimpses of who we can be, and tastes of what it is like to visit that land: a collaborative day on set, an audition at a fancy casting office, or a glowing review (you know the taste of your own amuse bouche of things to come).

The actors that have made this sudden abundance work were the actors that were constantly working on their art. They were acting in class; acting in content of their own creation; performing in a play, improvor standup even when television was their first passion. They were acting because that is what called to them. Keeping their soul in the sandbox for a majority of the time and letting their brains wear the business suit when needed.

Now all this may sound oxymoronic, ironic or paradoxical coming from a life and career coach who helps actors move ahead in the business. But time and time again, this is the conversation I’m having with my actors (and my most fulfilled, most prolific… and yes, most successful actors do this). Your craft is the most important thing in your actor business. Maybe you know this already, maybe you take it for granted, or maybe it’s the driving force behind every submission, email, and workshop. Either way, let this simple reminder reignite your why… get your butt in class or keep going. Paint your paintings regardless of the sales tag or wall to hang them upon. Every play date you make with your soul will reap far greater rewards for you fulfillment and success than hours trolling the breakdowns or trying to build your twitter followers. See you in the sandbox.

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