Embracing NO as a Tool for Discovering Self

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As much as acting is a craft defined by bringing forth a person in a different set of circumstances than your own life, as one becomes more experienced in the art-form, an interesting paradox emerges where it becomes vital to know self, so that honest reactions take place in real time. Especially while working on camera every thought is captured in the eyes; small shifts of emotion and presence in the moment are absolutely apparent to the lens. The more one acts, the less about “acting” it becomes, and the goal, if there is one, is to stay present and honest in the experience as it unfolds, even if that experience is scripted. And for those who had to please as a way to get through their childhoods (RAISE YOUR HANDS STRAIGHT A STUDENTS AND PARENTIFIED CHILDREN!) the process of getting to know yourself, as an adult, can be incredibly challenging. Indeed many actors have a very fledgling sense of self: one that is fragile, and too easily influenced by others.

Lately I’ve been aware of this struggle as never before in my artistic development. I fell in love with acting because of the opportunity to slip into the fantasy of another existence, and now I am asking myself over and over again to identify what triggers me, what is happening with my emotions, and how to create boundaries around what is okay and what is not okay for me in my work, interactions, and relationships. Because without all that knowledge of self, as an actor, our instrument becomes generic and vague, we are endlessly playing how one is “supposed” to feel in any given circumstance, rather than honestly living in the space of what IS true for ourselves in that specific moment. Not to get heady, but actors need to know more than anyone what makes us joyful, lusty, sad, scared and angry. And we have to practice being direct with our truth. How else will we learn to exist in front of an audience with authenticity?

My handicap has been too much open-ness, understanding, and affability. Wanting to please, no matter what, for what far too often feels like huge stakes. I’ve often been delayed in knowing when it’s a F*CK NO situation, and I have a tendency to go with the flow of things, agreeing to too much, and not standing up for myself enough in a variety of situations. I think many, many women share this problem. We are trained to be accommodating, often never asked our opinion, and in many ways our sense of self can lag behind our ability to help others and be accommodating. But being accommodating can kill great acting, great directing, great writing. Because being accommodating means giving up point of view. It is vague and waffling. It is full of fear and doubt. If we are too accommodating it means we aren’t checking in with our intuition, with our sense of what is okay or not okay for ourselves.

So as much as art is about saying YES to opportunities, collaboration, and being a team player, we must be vigilant in saying NO, in art and in life, often and without apology. Paradoxically we are more defined by what we say NO to, than what we get on board with. It is the boundaries of things which define them. Just as a box is a box because of its walls, a human, is a human because of what they let in and keep out. And isn’t it interesting that those who have no filter whatsoever, are often viewed as lost or soul-less? So I challenge you all to practice no. To challenge how others perceive you. To not take others’ observations as fact, but to discover how it is that YOU perceive and see things internally and externally in relationship to self. I challenge you to practice saying, “No, that’s not for me,” in your daily life and in your communications with others. Stand up for yourself through NO. It is a powerful, liberating, and honest practice. And with this practice, we learn about ourselves in new and often surprising ways. We are able to practice clearer behavior, and come into our acting work with a more specific point of view.  No is liberating and empowering. In no we acknowledge ourselves as something, as someone, which empowers us to play another someone with more authority and honesty.

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Madeline Merritt

About Madeline Merritt

Actress, Freelance Writer - Madeline grew up on stage and has loved telling stories her whole life. From the Bay Area, California, Madeline received her degree in Theatre and Political Science from Northwestern University and moved to Los Angeles in 2008. She recently spent a year in Paris, France but missed the city of Angels and the entertainment industry here. She cares deeply about social issues, including women’s rights, indigenous rights, poverty and the environment. She feels the role of storyteller through entertainment is very important in opening dialogue and creating change in the world. You can see her in The Guest House (available on Netflix, Itunes, Amazon and Time Warner on Demand) and the soon to be released American Idiots, coming to a Redbox near you in June 2013. She is thrilled to continue her journey of collaborating with women in film and television through Ms. In the Biz.