“keep the channel open…no artist is pleased…”
I have been struggling to write this piece for some time now. There is so much to say that I feel like words are woefully inadequate…so much feeling connected with it that I can’t possibly do the sentiment justice…
And then I realized, THAT right there is exactly what I’m writing about.
People have asked me many times through the years why I am an actor. And at more difficult times, I’ve asked myself that question. A lot. The truth is, despite being in this business for almost 20 years now, it’s only been relatively recently that I have put my finger on exactly why…not just choosing acting as a job or a career, but as a passion and a cause ….and this famous quote by Martha Graham in a letter to Agnes de Mille (which I have prominently displayed in a frame on top of my piano) speaks to it exquisitely.
There is a vitality
a life force,
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine
how good it is
nor how valuable it is
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open…
No artist is pleased…
There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes “us” MORE alive than the others.
-Martha Graham (a letter to Agnes De Mille-)
The first time I read this, I was touched by it… but as the years go by it has gone from a touching quote, to sage advice, to a visceral truth and mantra that I carry on a daily basis. And one that speaks uniquely to not just the struggle of the artist, but the mission of the artist.
“If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”
As people who have the ability and have made the choice to allow feelings to pass through them and out on a stage or a screen or a canvas or a microphone or whatever setting we choose, it is our job not to judge what we feel or what we create, but to open our very souls, our hearts, to lay our own unique life experiences on the line and to use them for the greater good. To make them bigger and more intense, but also more palatable and safe. To make them at once universal and intensely personal. To allow that person who is watching to experience something they never could by themselves because we are their emotional mercenary, their avatar, their surrogate, by which they can transcend or suspend reality for a moment or minutes or an evening and live in a different world.
It is our job to be masters at putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and showing the world how they are human, no matter how inhuman or despicable they might be. To raise up the hero who is flawed, the average person who becomes great, and the great person who falls from grace. And it is our job to take the pain or the sadness or the joy or the exhaustion or whatever powerful force may be coming through us and make it into something that exalts the audience. It’s our job to say to them: “You are safe. The real world will be waiting for you when we finish. Take my hand here and now and together let’s explore this world, these people, this story. And when we are done, I will take you back to where you were, with something new inside you that will be uniquely yours, a gift from my heart and soul, that you can carry back into the world. I promise. ” It is the possession of the unique skill to step into the mind and heart of another person, fictional or real, and find their humanity that makes it a requirement for us to keep pushing forward with our art, through whatever obstacles we might face, especially those of us who have the blessing of being able to pursue it in our careers and our lives.
(For the record: We are ALL artists. Every human being has it within him or herself to create, and to use what unique experiences and views they have to open new worlds to people who wouldn’t have seen them. The only difference is in how we pursue and explore our own artistry. But that’s another story for another day…)
Yes, of course there are the practical challenges that career artists face, the real life struggles, and sometimes we can get so caught up in the minutiae that we forget the greater picture. We are here to use our creativity for others. Period. Without the audience, the viewer, the listener, our art is just a thing…with them, it is a voyage. We are here to take what we have, and without judgment, to give it to those who want it and need it. We are here to critique ourselves, not to criticize, so that we can do it ever better, ever deeper, with ever more intensity. We are here to help people to laugh through their tears, to cry when they feel stuck, to fly far, far away when their lives seem to keep them rooted to the ground.
And we are never, ever, to give up on that mission. At least I know I can’t. Because to me, this is why I act. It’s my job in life to use my sensitivity (and sometimes my oversensitivity) to help others feel and experience something they can’t by themselves in that moment. Whatever that something is. And whenever I feel myself struggling, emotionally, financially, personally, professionally, physically…when the rejection from the outside world of “the business” or the inside world of that judgy actress that says “I’m just not good enough” feels too much…I remind myself, over and over again:” Keep the channel open…no artist is pleased.”