The River and The Valiant

Below is a quote that has traveled with me from closet doors, to bedroom mirrors, to bulletin boards for almost 20 years.  It has guided my Work and my Life.

Ronnie Lott

“There is a river that everyone has to cross at some point in their life.  And that river is the one with Fear running through it.” – Ronnie Lott (HOF Football Player)

This river of fear is at the Heart of The Human Condition.  The paralytic or reactive responses to fear are, in my opinion, the two most destructive forces in our lives.  Every significant moment in a life, positive or negative, can be traced to the decision that is made when we stand on the bank of that river of Fear.  Some of us are paralyzed by this feeling and do nothing, others strike out as a Cobra, angrily, reactively, in justified irrationality.  But there is a third group…a group often thought of as Fearless.  But the idea that someone could be fearless is simply preposterous.  Fear is never absent.  Something else is present.  Something that acts as a bridge by which we may cross that river.  A certain bravery, courage and determination – Valiance.

Definition of VALIANT

1: possessing or acting with bravery or boldness :courageous

: marked by, exhibiting, or carried out with courage or determination

“The coward dies a thousand deaths. The Valiant die but once”. – Shakespeare

It is the coward who struggles violently, who wails at the sky and shakes a fist, who’s heart is full of regret for taking no action…or who’s actions only result in destruction and pain. The Valiant faces a challenge with a deep breathe, a focused mind and a full heart. The Valiant, has no regret, takes action that results in creation, redemption and love…A life lived Valiantly, is a life lived peacefully.

The challenge I set before us today, as Artists, is to inspire more people to live life Valiantly.  By effectively telling the stories of people who make the choice to face their Fear and cross the River; we can inspire more people to pursue the dream they’ve cast aside, or to leave the painful abusive relationship of 20 years or to accept religious, political or social differences that are no doubt, the root of our greatest collective pain.  We can change the world.

Harold Clurman - 1979

Arthur Miller once said of Harold Clurman, – “Harold Clurman believed that through great plays, we could stop fighting”.  He was right.  Through great plays we can inspire change in the hearts of our audience and impact society at large.  But to do it, to inspire people to let go of their prejudice, to instill someone with the strength and faith they need to move on to the life they deserve, we must cross that river ourselves.  We must let go of our own ego’s, find inspiration in the pain from our past, let go of our preconceived notions with regard to what we “can do”, what we are “comfortable with” and even what our audience is “ready for” or “can relate to”.  We must free ourselves from the limitations of these self imposed prisons.  We must build a bridge, a bridge with a frame fashioned from Courage, riveted together by Boldness and paved with slats of Bravery held firmly in place by bolts of Determination.  From there our aim is clear.

Cross the River… and create Valiant works of Art.

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Advice to Those New to This Life

A while back a good friend and talented musician was speaking to a group of young, developing Artists. He asked some of us to write to him and offer any advice we might have for them as they make those important choices we all must make. Choosing a University, a discipline and whether or not to pursue a career in the arts at all. His response to my reply was part of the inspiration for this blog. So it seemed an excellent choice for one of the initial posts.

My advice to those of you who have already decided to pursue a career in the Arts, is as follows –

  • Attend a program that is run by currently working professionals in their field. They will be able to equip you with the tools necessary to succeed in the business as well as providing you with the training you need to develop as an Artist.
  • Make Frankie Fear your best friend. Any challenge you face in your development can be traced to a fear of something….and your success traced to your ability to overcome that fear. Usually, though not always, it is related to your ego in some way. David Mamet said that 90% of being a good actor, is being comfortable, being uncomfortable. Embrace it.
  • Be prepared to have a day job that is not related to your chosen field of study. Most of the work available to you out of undergrad is going to be part time, evening, no/low paying work. That doesn’t mean you have to work at Starbucks or wait tables.
  • You can get a really great, really fulfilling day job. Working in advertising/marketing, photography, graphic art or in an administrative position for a Theater Company, Symphony, Art Gallery or Museum. Perhaps in their Development or Audience Services Dept. This can not only keep you in your field full time, but be an excellent networking opportunity as well. I worked as a Scenic Carpenter for many years during the day while acting at night and on weekends and made a nice living doing it.  Major in your Art, but get a minor in something to help you pay the bills.
  • Most people burn out or give up within 1-3 years of graduation. When I am working exclusively in the theater, I work anywhere from 30 – 70 hours in a week. When I have a day job while working in the theater on the side, I work 40 – 80 hours a week. I often operate on 4 to 6 hours of sleep a night for weeks at a time. My body hurts, my brain is goo and sometimes I don’t get to see or talk to my very best friends for weeks or even months at a time. …And there is nothing else in the world I would rather do.

I love everything about the theater. I love the neon burns you get under your eyes from a week of tech and a 6 week run of 4-6 shows a week. I love the smell of the makeup under the hot lights of the dressing room mirrors. I love the way the pages of a script feel in my hand. I love the feel of the fabrics of the costume against my skin, denim and flannel and crushed velvet. I love putting on a pair of shoes I would never buy for myself or wear anywhere or ever again except on that stage as that person. I love the smell of the drapes in the theater. The old musty tabs and borders and the chemicals they are treated with to make them flame retardant. I love the words we use that are completely anachronistic to the theater of the day, but they are our tradition and so we have held to them. Words like pin rail, box boom, phrases like, “trod the boards” when most stages are made of materials barely resembling wood, let alone actually being wood. Sometimes after a rehearsal I will sit in the theater for hours, literally, 2 or even 3 hours. Watching the show unfold before me on the stage like a movie in my minds eye. There is nothing about the theater and the process of creating our work within it that I do not love…cherish, with all my heart.

We have been given a great power as artists. A power to impact humanity and be effectively affective to a group of people who come and give us the gift of their undivided attention for 2-3 hours. That is why I love them most of all, the audience members. For the gift they give me. The gift of opportunity. Not the opportunity to perform for them. Not the opportunity to hear them laugh at me or applaud for me. But the opportunity to have a positive and lasting impact on the rest of their lives. That is why I do what I do and it is the driving force that gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me going until the wee hours of every night. I will not fail to take full advantage of the opportunity they have given us and the power God has granted us as artists.

The great Bobby Jones wrote of the theatre, “Get the personal you out of your work. Who cares about you? Get the wonder into it. Get your dreams into it. Where are your dreams?”

Another useful question, the one that guided every aspect of my life for many years, and can help focus those dreams…What do you want?  Not what do you want to be…what do you want? When you know the answer to that, grab onto it with both hands, and fight like hell for it.