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The Working Actor

How Persistence Leads to Success (and Failure)

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How Persistence Leads to Success (and Failure)
Photo Source: Clay Rodery

I was in Richmond, Va., making a stop on my book tour for “The Dangerous Animals Club.” A sweet woman came up to the book table after my show. She pleasantly assured me she was not going to buy a book. She said she just wanted to ask me a question: How did I get into acting and how did I manage to stay in it?

How long do we have?

I was tired from the performance. She already warned me she was not going to buy a book so I didn’t want to burn up essential calories with a long response. I said, “Persistence,” without thinking. It seemed like a good answer. Not exactly original, but it still covered a lot of bases.

She laughed and shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, sure. That’s true with everything, right?”

A light went on in my brain. She was right. Righter than she knew. I said, “Yes, but not in the way you mean. Success is a product of persistence. So is failure. We become whatever we’re persistent at. I had friends who were always 20 minutes late—persistently late. You could set your watch by them. I know people who persistently sabotage themselves. They don’t prepare enough for auditions. They don’t learn their lines. They are rude to the crew. Persistently.”

Actors talk about methods. A lot of the time our “methods” of working are a series of habits, good and bad, we developed sometime in the past for odd reasons.

My first-born had colic when was he was a few weeks old. That meant nonstop crying every night. The only way to stop the crying was to drive him in the car from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Every evening I loaded him up and drove him to Santa Barbara and back. I took the scripts I was working on with me. To this day I work on my lines in the car. It has become part of my “method.”

Habits feel comfortable. I remember the words of my ex-acting teacher and dungeon master, Ed Kaye-Martin. He was a brilliant man. All who studied with him were lucky. Ed said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.”

I wasn’t crazy about Ed’s statement in grad school. I was uncomfortable all of the time and still wasn’t an artist. I see the wisdom of it now. People persistently take the easy path. It’s human nature to look for the answers at the back of the book. We often see the effort in finding better habits as a problem to be avoided. In doing so, we persistently shortchange ourselves.

As actors, we know we can become anything with enough rehearsal. Take the time to look at what you do persistently. If you don’t like how you are spending your time and your efforts, change the schedule. No matter what your passion is, the power to redraw the map of your life is the first tool of being an artist.  

Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor, author of "The Dangerous Animals Club," and teaches improvisation for Kalmenson and Kalmenson.

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