Why Mentors Can Be Invaluable

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In order to be great at anything, you need to train yourself. That means taking classes and studying, acquiring knowledge via books and research, watching others who are great at what you want to do, and being patient with yourself while you try. You might succeed and you might fail. You may have a fear of either or both. You will have to identify your fears, confront them, and nullify them.

There are many ways to acquire knowledge and prepare yourself to achieve your ambitions in this world: established schools, nurturing teachers, reputable online training guides and simply showing up for life.

It’s conceivable to become great with you being the only one who thinks that it is possible. However, it’s not likely. How can you be that objective? How can you be sure without the assurance of someone great who has come before you? How would you know with a deep confidence and certainty?

If you’re fortunate, you’ll find a mentor. I know. I had one. Her name is Cynthia Szigeti. As of this writing her name is on the Comedy Store marquee in Hollywood prefaced with RIP because she was a legend and she is also, unbelievably, gone. She succumbed to a chronic illness Aug. 10, 2016, sending a tremor through Hollywood. She touched countless lives and trained people of note. I was referred to Cynthia by Lisa Kudrow, who I was studying with at the time. By referral, I mean Lisa said, “She’s terrifying, but brilliant,” or something to that effect. I was intrigued.

Cynthia never terrified me, although she did others. She was definitely intimidating, unapologetic, shockingly intelligent, generous, joyful, and demanding. She would tell stories that included names like Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, Martin Short, Robert Redford, and Helen Mirren. If you studied with her, your life was changed and it was that simple. Sometimes she crossed a line. Well, a lot of times. Her thought was that if you couldn’t take her yelling at you, you probably didn’t have the stones to be in show business. But if you had courage, she would outmatch it with passion and the best notes you were ever going to get and the opportunity to try again.

I learned how to improvise from Cynthia first. Then I learned how to be myself without apology. I learned how to honor my voice on stage and in life. She taught me how to teach with a deep and profound philosophy that we discussed at length every week, after class at DuPar’s. I was her apprentice before she gave me my first class to teach, and she wanted to make sure I understood people. And that one person doesn’t learn the same as the next. She’d ask me why I thought she said something a certain way to a certain student. I don’t think there was a right answer, she was teaching me to just think about it over pancakes.

Then along the way, something miraculous happened. I discovered—really felt in the marrow of my bones—that someone great who came before me thought I was great, too.

In writing this, I wanted to honor the immeasurable value of Cynthia’s influence throughout the entertainment industry. But I also wanted to share something very important: We choose our mentors, they don’t choose us. As long as you’re in a class, you’ll always have a teacher. But a mentor is a person who will lift you up and celebrate you and invest in you. They will keep an eye out for bad habits, inconsistencies, and self-doubt. They call when you don’t show up and ask why.

They will share the stories of their lives and teach you by anecdote, example, and connectivity to that which you desire. They will prepare you for all the things that don’t make sense around the thing you want to do most. That will only happen if you stay. It can’t be done at a distance and can only happen over time.

If you’re fortunate enough to find someone to call your mentor, tell them. Appoint them. Ignite them. Say it out loud. There isn’t a class you can take called “Lifetime of Support.” But you can have that when you choose to invest in a relationship and anchor yourself in an environment where you feel safe to express yourself and fail while you grow. I did that and I’m a better person for it. I told Cynthia she was my mentor; she didn’t tell me. She did, however, honor the contract in ways beyond my imagination. So if you’re fortunate enough to find somebody to say that to, do me a favor. “Say it like it’s the best thing anybody ever said!”

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher
Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher is one of Hollywood’s best known acting coaches. He is also a highly regarded writer, director, producer and actor within Hollywood’s comedy scene, earning rave reviews for 25 years.