An Actor’s Credo: Why what we do matters
This is a guest post by Matthew Arkin
This year, many of us are facing financial uncertainty unprecedented in our lifetimes, both for ourselves and the nation as a whole. This can lead to a lot of questioning and soul searching, particularly for those of us who have chosen to follow a career in the arts, a career known for financial instability even during the best of times. Sometimes the voices in our heads can get very loud. We might look at our wallets and ask, “What am I doing with my life?” We might look at our work and ask, “Does any of this really matter?”
So now that the holidays are over, and we are getting back to day-to-day business, I’d like to share some of the thoughts that percolated through my eggnog-and-shopping-crowd addled brain throughout the season.
For me, at times of stress, general questions about goals and ideals in life become more focused into questions about the value and purpose of what we as actors do with our careers. After all, we’re really just storytellers, purveyors of entertainment and diversion. There are serious problems in the world. What are we, artists, doing about these problems? We’re not curing cancer, or housing the homeless, or feeding the hungry.
Or are we?
December, 2001 in New York City. The first holiday season since the towers came down. 9/11 had thrown everything into sharp contrast for me, and like so many others, I was having a crisis of faith. I wasn’t sure what I could grab onto to keep me steady when the world was rocking so violently. Prior to the attacks, my role as father and provider gave me an identity. After the attacks, when my then wife and my child were feeling afraid and insecure in a world that had always seemed safe to them, that role felt more like a burdensome weight than an anchor that kept me moored in a turbulent sea. I was being looked to for strength, context and answers that I didn’t have. At the time, I had not developed a strong spiritual practice or connection to anything, and so I didn’t feel I had those things to give. And though finances were pretty good — I was working steadily as an actor, lots of theater, a recurring role on a television drama, tons of voiceover work — a career in the arts is always tenuous. It was an unsettling time.
One day I was making my rounds in the city, pondering these questions. Cheerful holiday advertisements were a painful and hollow contrast to the questioning and mournful mood of the city’s residents, who were not yet ready to celebrate, so soon after the tragedy. Riding the subway, hurrying to my next appointment, the rattle of the cars was a welcome relief after the cacophony of carols blaring from every open store, shallowly proclaiming the joy of the season. I got off at my stop and was walking down the platform toward the exit when a young woman caught my sleeve and said, “Excuse me, but I have to tell you that you saved my marriage.”
I stopped short, confused. I must have looked dumbfounded. I had never seen her before. I may have said “What?”
“I’m sorry,” she continued, “I saw you on the subway, and I just had to let you know.” We stood there on the platform as trains came and went, and she told me her story. She and her husband were both actors. They had been married for a couple of years, both of them struggling to make a living at their craft, studying, holding down menial support jobs so they could go after their dreams. After a while, things had started to go better for her. She was getting a good amount of paying work, and no longer had to do anything else to bring money in — was, indeed, too busy to do other things. But the same was not true for her husband. Instead, for him, things were getting worse. Nothing was happening in his career, and he had to devote himself more seriously to something else in order to make the necessary amount of money. Construction, I think it was, or perhaps carpentry. Although he was happy for her, it was difficult for him, watching her success grow, and he became demoralized. He was working so hard, for longer hours and for so much less money than her, at something with so much less “prestige,” whatever that is, and his ego was taking a hammering. There was tension between them. She suggested counseling, for him and for them as a couple. He was resistant. The tension grew into friction and, as she put it, their marriage was circling the drain. Still he would not agree to counseling, and she started to wait, with resignation, for the end.
Then one day a friend offered them two tickets to “Dinner With Friends,” a play I was doing in New York at the time. It is a wonderful play about, among other things, the difficulties a marriage can face as romance melts into comfort and then congeals into mere routine. They took the tickets, and at intermission, in the lobby, this young woman’s husband broke down in tears, told her he had been a fool, that he had been forgetting what they had, that he would do whatever he could to save their marriage. They got into counseling, and now, two years later, she told me, they were going to make it.
Now I am under no illusions about this story. I know that I didn’t save this woman’s marriage, any more than the paramedic who uses a defibrillator saves someone’s life. Hundreds of people save the life of a heart attack victim — all the people who play a part in the system: The donor who buys the defibrillators for the hospital, the councilman who votes for the funding for the paramedics, the man who invented defibrillators in the first place. But the point is that without each link in that chain, the heart attack victim dies. Likewise with the events that saved this woman’s marriage. I was merely doing my job to the best of my abilities. I was playing my part in a process — I was a link in a chain.
I believe that the work that we do as actors and writers sends energy out into the universe, and we can never know where that energy is going to go, or what it is going to do when it gets there. Meditating on this simple fact can be very freeing in your work. It will help you to get your focus off of yourself. It will make your work about something outside yourself, and your petty concerns. That will make you a better actor. It is ironic, but true, that the less you think about yourself, the more of yourself you can bring to your work. Of course, so many of the jobs that we do to survive seem to have no redeeming value other than the money that they bring us. This is true even of many high paying acting jobs: the Tide commercial, the 3 episode arc on Gossip Girl — probably not going to save a marriage with either of those. But again, links in a chain, and work that enables you to go out and pursue all the other jobs that do have the potential to be a gift in someone’s life. Think of the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who does liposuction, breast augmentation, botox and collagen injections, and then volunteers at a low income medical care clinic and fixes a child’s cleft palate. One job supports the other, and a life is changed.
A friend of mine once told the following story, particularly apt to this discussion. When she was a student in college, her family situation was difficult, and her social life at school was not going well. She was afflicted with a serious illness from which she would never recover, leaving her with some permanent physical challenges. As the holidays approached, her sense of loneliness and isolation increased to the point where she resolved to end her life. She gathered the necessary supplies, and was setting them up on the table in her small apartment, with only the noise of the television to keep her company. At around one o’clock in the morning, as she was preparing to take her pills, the opening credits of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life began to roll. She had never seen the movie, but she watched it then, start to finish, and when it was over, she flushed the pills down the toilet.
The Talmud tells us “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” I think about this often. Now of course we never know how our work plays out in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know, for instance, if the people whose marriage I “saved” will go on to have a kid who discovers the cure for cancer. But I also don’t know that they won’t. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I did my part. It’s not up to us what happens after we have followed our dreams and done our best. What is up to us is the decision to use the gifts that we are given, and trusting that a power greater than us has a design that we can’t see.
When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like beasts, only for the day. Today we live, but tomorrow today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story. – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Matthew Arkin is an actor, author and acting teacher. He received a Drama Desk nomination when he originated the role of Gabe in Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner With Friends. His Broadway appearances in The Sunshine Boys and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and he has extensive stage, television and film credits. He teaches Technique and Scene Study in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.matthewarkin.com, or subscribe to his Technique and Scene Study Newsletter.