How Focus Helped Me Find Freedom

I remember deciding what I wanted to do, at sixteen or maybe seventeen, in the throes of High School Drama. As a teenager, and later a BFA student, life as an actor was about stamina. How many hours in a row could you work without food, water, sleep? How much could you still “turn it on” even after weeks of deprivation?

Our instructors, worn gray after years of this kind of work, asked us to “always say yes” — and we took them to heart. But part of me knew it wasn’t exactly the right way to look at things. In a scene, YES, always say yes… but was this mindset really appropriate and representative of the industry I would be stepping into? In the real world, you have to carefully look at every script before signing up to participate in it… right?

With practice, I got really good at working 16 hour days, and 6-7 day work weeks, and at preparing my coffee and oatmeal the night before. It was thrilling, and easy, in a way. I thrived within the confines of a busy and intense schedule. I knew exactly how I was spending about 16 out of my 24 hours in the day, but only because someone was telling me exactly how to spend that time. In retrospect, I should have been practicing how to self-start. People like to say that being an actor is like running your own business, your own brand and it’s true. Nobody tells the CEO how to spend her day — she has to figure it out for herself.

When I graduated, I spent my first year-and-a-half or so working like crazy. I said yes to every casting call, every audition, every meeting, (almost) every job offer. It didn’t matter if it rehearsed 3 days-a-week an hour away from my house for three months and paid $400! I was doing it. And doing it, and doing it, and doing it. Independent film, after apartment play, after unpaid web series.

Then, the consequences. Depression, exhaustion, depletion. Apathy. I was busy all the time, acting in projects I felt just so-so about… but I was acting, right? I couldn’t quite recall why I’d wanted to do all this work in the first place. Nora then reached out on behalf of Happy Work Spectacular Life, like the little lighthouse in the distance that she is. Right on time.

During my Discovery session with Jodi, I was reminded of a lesson my dad always tried to instill in me: “Don’t say yes to things that uselessly deplete your energy.” Work appeared that would have fulfilled some achy part of my ego (crying: “feed me!” as it does until the end of time), but I couldn’t afford the time it would take. It didn’t pay, it didn’t offer valuable benefits like experience and exposure that I wasn’t getting elsewhere. What’s the moral of the story? I said no because I was busy.

I was doing the work. I was still training in acting class with multiple rehearsals every week, and attending workshops, networking events, seminars—even if it required traveling to New Mexico and back in just one day to save money. Changing the style of my hair, selling things I didn’t need in order to update my wardrobe, figuring out how to actually do makeup: because there are a lot of actors out there, and if you want to stand out, I learned, you have to look the part.

I didn’t have a single meaningful audition in the year 2017. No hi-lighted sides to post on Instagram, nothing to cite when friends asked what I was up to but: “the same old grind.”

What’s the moral of the story? I had to stop acting professionally for a full year in order to do the footwork to get auditions for the jobs I want. I invested my time in the silent and egoless work—not what I wanted to do — the things I knew would make me best-suited for the work I wanted to get. And then something clicked. I had to get specific, dig deep, and figure out what kind of work I actually wanted to do in order to go fight for it, and I needed my discovery session with Jodi to do it.

I’d always heard: opportunity will find you, but it better find you working.

Then there’s this other thing, though, now that the opportunities knock away. This strange, crippling fear of taking any action lest it has some terrible unforeseen consequences. Anonymous fear has come like a dark wool cape, wrapped around from both sides so you can’t see anything but the floor.
I think it was my dad who said: “Bravery doesn’t feel like bravery when you’re doing it. It just feels scary.”

I learned how common that fear is, how even already-toweringly-successful people felt the same paralyzing fear. Jodi asked me to find the image of freedom — the opposite of that fear.

I saw a flash of silk-like light, streaming from the shoulders, open heart forward, on-a-mountain-or-the-bow-of-a-ship-or-something-style.

So when the fear would come, I’d pull my heart forward (I’m a certified yoga teacher, so you can trust me on this one), feel the wool cape fall away, the silk blow back behind me, and ask what the fuck I would do if I wasn’t scared of anything.

That’s not to say the fear doesn’t still come a-knocking. “Feel the fear, find the courage,” quotes my dad again and again, so I keep the practice of the wool and silk in my pocket, for when I need it. And that one’s free — you can have that, I promise it works for me.

As we completed our Discovery session, Jodi asked me to figure out my own definition of success as an actor. I’m still answering that question, but I do know this: I’ll do the work, feel the fear, and find the courage. Because the universe wants me, and you (and you and you!) to succeed. So I’ll try my best not to let it down.

Ellen Humphreys

yogi • actor • content producer✨ trying to be a great person. doing mostly good. LOS ANGELES - SANTA FE | follow along @outboundyogi on Instagram

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