A huge part of succeeding as an actor in Los Angeles is knowing how to create your own community in a city seemingly built around the axiom “every man is an island.” And while that is a multifaceted discussion in and of itself, one of the most crucial parts of establishing this community and setting it up for long-term success, is knowing how to be a good peer.
This is true of most communities, and certainly of most businesses, but when it comes to acting–so often a solitary and explicitly competitive art–balancing proper peer behavior with ambition and personal goals can be a challenge. When assessing how I wanted to approach this topic, and how I really felt about it, I realized that proper behavior among Actors is less often defined by what that is, than denoting what it explicitly is not.
The truth of this was really driven home for me just recently, in the waiting room before a class. The instructor was a busy, working Casting Director whom many of us had not yet had the opportunity to meet, and there were about 25 students in the two-week class. In the first week, we’d tried our hand at comedy, talking through the practicalities of approaching comedic auditions and scenes, and working to ground our work for maximum impact. We’d worked as a whole, watching each other’s scenes to glean what worked and what didn’t, and working and re-working material, in some cases more than once. For this second week, we were working our dramatic muscles, and going in to work one at a time–a very different exercise, and for many of us, nerve-wrecking.
The waiting area for class was awash with weird energy; unlike in the previous week, each actor was working on material outside of their typical bailiwick, and each was acutely alone. Going in to work and be adjusted and evaluated by a CD and teacher we respected but without the safety of numbers, and without crutch an audience can bring–it’s easy, after all, to gain energy from an attentive crowd, or on the flip side, to allow an audience to keep you from making bold choices. We were in our heads and in our pages, running lines silently and waiting for our turn to head into the room. Added to the oddly heightened anxiety, the instructor was half an hour late–he’s called in, but no one had passed on the message to his hapless students, and we waited, wondering if our anxiety was going to be abruptly dispelled by cancellation. The phrase, “I mean, do we just leave at some point?” was heard quietly more than once.
When our instructor did at last conquer traffic and the class was ready to get underway, there were three or four actors who pled Job Inflexibility and jumped the queue–which in a class slotted for a 7:30pm start with 25 students is mildly irritating but hardly unprecedented–and went in first. There were grumbles but hey: it happens. And after some quiet, sideline joking about how we might as well get comfortable, folks settled in to wait.
And with our wait time came a void, ready to be filled, as it turned out, by bad peer behavior. As it happened, each actor spent about 10-15 minutes in the room–not an inconsiderable amount of time, and definitely a long night, but not unreasonable. Within minutes of the third actors turn in the room (one of the aforementioned early birds), two simultaneously discourteous strains of action began to unfold, each independent and seemingly completely unaware of the other.
First, an actor, somewhere near the middle of the performance order we were going by, started to remark–loudly, and frequently–that it was awfully convenient for those three or four actresses who just had to leave early that we were willing to accommodate their “necessary” jump in the line (legit, he used air quotes). When that earned little response, he proceeded to theorize, again loudly, that they were obviously lying because they were “selfish and entitled.”
While this display of self-righteousness was happening stage left, two young women opposite me, also mid-scene order, began prattling louder than was really appropriate about how they found the necessity of class to be such a wasted exercise, given their experience and mastery of their material. They had “always” received “positive” feedback (“like, 100%”), and were just tired of having to put in these token appearances at classes filled with people less experienced, you know? Plus, the nights were so long, and they didn’t always find they had anything to really learn, if you knew what they meant (I mean, amirite?).
These two soliloquies continued apace, removed from one another and yet occupying the same space–never overlapping because the speakers were simply too self-involved to realize that they were being unknowingly satirized by someone else in the same room. As I absorbed all of this, I was struck by how terrible these three people were at being a good member of their own actors community–not because of what they were saying necessarily (though I generally called bullshit on the girls’ self-aggrandizement to my right), but because of the emotional deafness each displayed in aggressively airing their thoughts in this time and place in the specific manner they were doing.
I use the phrase “emotional deafness” deliberately. Neither of these aggressive interjections took place in a vacuum; as they occurred, the actors around me reacted, either shifting in visible discomfort, or verbally noting that they were being made uncomfortable. In one instance, after we had all been waiting about half an hour, one actress asked the man, firmly but kindly, to cease complaining. As she put it, “look, I understand you’re frustrated, but there’s nothing any of us can do about it now. Let’s just prepare, okay?” This was met with a temporary cessation, and then more of the same. In response to a pointed “Excuse me, I’m trying to prepare my scene; would you mind?”, the women responded with that old 90s standby, “Whatever” before continuing. In every instance, the verbal and physical cues of the actors around them were ignored, in favor of their own desire to express frustration or in the case of the young women, apathy.
They each assumed their opinion was shared and/or mattered more than the collective well-being of the people around them. In their vastly different, respective ways, each sought to elevate and rarefy themselves. The man sought to exercise his own frustration and achieve catharsis by enlisting us as cohorts, and the women sought to remove themselves from their frustration by belittling the collective exercise in which we were all participating. Neither set of speakers cared about the consequences that their words or actions had on the others around them, although extensively they might have argued that their speech was for our benefit, or alternatively not meant for our consumption at all. What each of them forgot is that in that instance, as in so many others, we were operating as a community of actors. Participating in a shared experience with a shared set of frustrations and parameters. And in their efforts to “make themselves feel better” and demanding attention and focus, they were actually doing harm to their collective.
Now, it’s worth noting that this sort of behavior really only impacts you if you let it. I will admit that all of this got to me in the moment, and sparked my need to write about pure behavior, certainly, but it didn’t affect my performance in the room. Because I didn’t let it. Part of why peer behavior matters so much in communities such as ours is that our heightened emotional sensitivity often gives more power to disruptive incidents than they deserve. But the power to deny those incidents their hold is entirely, as always, in our hands.
My experiences in this waiting room aren’t the do-all and end-all of good peer behavior and they don’t encompass the ways one can be a bad peer–they’re not even the worst I’ve ever encountered–but they stood out to me because they were rooted in something selfish, but innocuously so. We so often focus on ourselves in this business and we can easily lose track of the people around us , their needs and perceptions and goals. Consciously work against losing that awareness; it will make you a better community member, and a better actor. And it will make you appreciate all the more those actors who work to achieve the same. It’s a big waiting room, guys. Let’s all share it in solidarity.