How Are Actors Like Cranberry Sauce?

I had twenty-four people at my home this past Thanksgiving. As hard as everyone tried to communicate with each other to make sure no one doubled up on any side dishes or deserts, inevitably we ended up with three cranberry sauces. As the turkey was being served, and the side dishes were being passed, everyone began requesting the cranberry sauce. The funny thing was most asked for all three in order to conduct a taste test to see whose they liked best.

This is when I had an epiphany. Suddenly, to me, those three dishes of cranberry sauce became three actors, and everyone requesting to see what they were like, became casting directors. These three bowls of cranberry sauce were now on an audition.

There are a plethora of companies, and individual coaches trying to get actors to become more business minded about their craft. One of the main skills they most speak of is how actors can best market themselves. The most crucial element when it comes to marketing for an actor is to understand and own their individual “essence.” Actors cannot market themselves successfully if they don’t. I began to recall this, and it was the impetus for my now sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table imagining bowls of cranberry sauce morphing into actors.

What is essence? One of the things I thought of as the cranberry sauces were being passed around was though the main ingredient of each would undeniably be cranberries, they all would differ in the other, more subtle ingredients each maker decided to use in their interpretation of the dish.

So, is essence the individual ingredients that make up the impression we give off to others? Is it that vibe we feel from someone when they first walk in a room? Is it our “it” factor? Is it, on a deeper level, our spiritual nature? Yes, yes, yes, and yes! It is all those things, and more. Our essence is our very core. As actors, it is what attracts the outside world to what we do, as well as makes them desire to see what we’ll do next. Actors do not have the luxury to be nonchalant about their essence. We need to dig in and understand what it’s made of, and how it affects the world around us.

But there is a catch… YOU CANNOT MANUFACTURE ESSENCE. The dictionary defines essence as – “the basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing.” A more philosophical definition is – “Essence is our fundamental nature. Essence is the spirit, the heart, the soul of a person, the being of a person and the core.” We are incapable of manipulating our essence to be something it is not. We can, on the other hand, manipulate ourselves into believing our ego is our essence. If this is the case, then we as actors (or anyone for that matter) are dead in the water. “Self” is wrapped up in ego. Our essence relies solely on the concept of “no-self.” Some of you may have put the brakes on after reading that last sentence thinking, “Uh-oh, here comes the new age mumbo-jumbo.” The truth is the pursuit of “no-self” is not new, and has been around practically since the beginning of time. Eastern belief systems may call this the Buddha nature; Westerners may see this as God revealing Himself to Moses as “I AM.” To put it simply, the ego tries to sell us on an idea of who we are, whereas our essence IS who we are. There is a confidence that resides at the very center of our essence that is unshakeable, yet our egos desire so much external stimuli… verbal, physical, and every other type… in order to feel worth. Those moments of worth are only short lived because the ego is self-cannibalistic, it will feed upon itself every chance it gets; and at the same time seeks to be fed by outside forces over and over again. Our essence is not dependent on outer circumstances for anything. Nothing can be added or taken away from it. It just is.

Once an actor can understand this, and fully rest in it, everything they do will resonate positively with whomever they come in contact with. This is most true in the audition room. Why? If you allow your ego to lead the way into the room, it will instinctively seek out external gratification. It will create this forced need of desperately wanting to be accepted. Those in the room, whether consciously or unconsciously, will immediately sense that vibe, compelling them to close off to it (please note that I said “it,” not “you.”) However, if you walk into the room grounded in who you are, carried by your very essence, those in the room have no other choice but to want to plug into that and enjoy the ride. It is so important to remember that who you are is not defined by the audition you’re on. Your essence knows this to be true… your ego tells you otherwise. Understand that this is not a formula for booking a role. Every other aspect of the audition is out of your control. If you’ve been doing this long enough, you know that one thing can lead to another. So if you enter an audition room confident in what you bring to it, more often than not, whether or not you get cast, you will not be forgotten.

Entering a waiting area on an audition can be a daunting, and surreal experience. Many a time I‘ve walked into the outer office where I see a room full of guys who can be my clones. But that’s OK, because when that happens again, I’ll see a room full of cranberry sauces. Each one will have it’s own flavorful essence… and the actor that understands that best will have the greater advantage in the long run.

Late to the Game

I grew up in Brooklyn with my mother, father, and older brother. My two sisters were out of the house by the time I was born. One, the oldest, entered the convent right out of high school and became a Franciscan nun within the Roman Catholic church, the other, the second oldest, was already married. There is quite an age span between me and my siblings. My sisters are twenty-two, and twenty years older than me, and my brother was eight years older. My mother was forty-six, and my father fifty-two when they had me (this is back in 1960.) Has any of this painted a clear picture yet? Some may say I wasn’t planned, I say I was, but I just showed up late to the game.

The theme of being late to the game followed me throughout my life, in pretty much every area of my life. It seemed this was somehow written in the stars from my conception. My brother’s friend was into astrology and asked if she could do a reading for me. I wasn’t much into astrology, but I agreed. The day came and she pulled out this big sheet with a circle in the middle which had scribbling everywhere. She went on about houses, rising this, and rising that, and said that whatever it was I chose to do in life, it wouldn’t be fully realized until I was much older. That to be born under my sign (which is Capricorn,) meant I had to deal with being a late bloomer. I laughed to myself because I was certain that success was right around the corner… that was thirty-five years ago.

When I was in second grade, I was cast in my school play. The play lasted a whole five minutes, but I remember when the lights came up on stage, feeling a shift in my spirit that widened my little world, which I still feel to this day. It’s one thing to unexpectedly feel the spark of a dream as a second grader, but as one grows older, the world around you seems to assume that the spark should begin to dissipate, not become brighter.

OK… but wait a second… is all this talk about it being too late to do something our heart seeks after, a social construct? Have we as a society agreed that there is an “age limit” to achieving our individual aspirations? Or perhaps has the idea (or as I see it the misinterpretation) of the American Dream created a kind of apathy towards living true to ones self? Or is there some evolutionary balance being created where there are those who are destined to be an inspiration, and those who are to simply stand on the sidelines watching those who inspire? Or maybe those in our past steered us into believing that dreams don’t come true for people like us. Perhaps they said this out of love in a desire to protect us from disappointment, or were handing over the weighty boulder of their own broken dreams for us to now carry for them.

All I know is that I once felt as if I were sleepwalking through this world, and now, being fully committed to pursuing the life of an actor, I’ve never felt so awake and alive. There is a caveat… as that may be all the reward I get in my pursuit. I’ve made peace with this eternal uncertainty of my chosen path. I now take to heart the words of the poet William Cowper, “Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life. Security is an insipid thing.” You see, my being late to the game did not come as a result of my being conceived long after my siblings, or how the stars were aligned on the day I was born, but it came as a result of my desire to hide from the world, and seek after some kind of security blanket. I feared uncertainty, and chose to have no expectations. The scales did not fall from my eyes until I had my two sons. I knew that one day when they came to me with that bright spark of a dream in their heart, I would have only two choices… Empower them by giving them a template, a kind of life map, to navigate their dreams and ambitions. The only way this could happen is by me staying true to mine, and let them witness throughout their young lives, the hardships, as well as the victories… Or hand them over the weighty boulder of my own broken dreams for them to carry. Neither is without a price… yet one creates returns, and the other leaves you forever broken and bound by fear.

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. They shift and change at different stages of our lives. To this day, I have never met a person without a dream in their heart. I’ve seen great cover-ups, but the dream always leaks out in one way or another.

I’ve come to believe that there really is no such thing as being “late to the game,” or that it is ever “too late” to pursue ones dreams. It doesn’t make a difference what that dream may be. If we choose to not put forth effort, we are setting ourselves up to fail and are perpetuating a lifetime of failed thinking, leaving the whole of who we are unrealized. We can never comprehend the fullness of life that way. St. Irenaeus claimed that the glory of God is man fully alive. I happen to agree.

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