Why I Hate That Howard Thurman Quote

You know the one. It’s ultra-popular in arts and personal coaching.    

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It makes me squint.

Thurman was a visionary activist, one of the most hard-core, rigorous minds to shine light on what it means to labor in the service of virtue. He published dozens of works, gave hundreds of sermons, and inspired thousands of the most earth-shaking social justice leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries.  He was a thinker up there with MLK, Bertrand Russell, Audre Lorde, Thich Naht Hanh. He’s this guy.


But the only quote most of us know is this “what makes you come alive” thing.

And, really, I’m not even convinced it’s his. The first place it appears is actually 11 years after Thurman’s death, as a remembered snippet of advice in the forward of a book by THIS guy.


His name is Gil Bailie, and he doesn’t seem a bad sort. Still. It’s super weird that for most of America, what we know about Thurman is this one quote, often in a cute font, on a picture of a white girl playing with a dandelion.

The reason I don’t dig this piece of coaching advice isn’t just its dubious provenance.

It’s that I think it’s incorrect.

Imagine a football coach telling the QB not to look for who’s open, but just throw with all the joy he can muster, because what the game needs is more players throwing with joy.

Imagine telling a young teacher not to bother about what a child’s skills and learning needs are, but just teach whatever feels the most inspiring to teach, because what we need most is truly inspired teachers.

Imagine telling a med student not to worry about accurately diagnosing the patient, and instead just do the surgery that really excites you, because we need more surgeons who are truly excited about their work.

I’ll tip my hat to Joseph Campbell, but often this “Follow Your Bliss” stuff is like a lollipop of motivational advice:  not a meal, not even a snack.

Why is it all over the place?

Because you’ll never go broke telling people what they love to hear.

“Put yourself first.”
“Make more time for you.”
“Listen only to your inner voice.”

Mmm, yummy, doesn’t it feel good in your ears?

And yes, there are people in the world who do need to learn reasonable self-care disciplines.  (Though, there are way more people who THINK they need to do more self-care, because they’re addicted to self-care.)

And there are indeed some people who are so bored in their jobs that they just want to run away and join the circus, so they can “come alive.”

But here’s an even better solution:  learn to come alive WHILE serving the needs of the world.

What does that mean for performers?

From a career counseling view, it’s not deciding whether I should become an aid worker or make balloon animals; it’s asking how do put my clown skills to work in the world?  How do I use music to serve the dying?  How can my graphic arts change politics or save lives?

Moreover, from a technical performance view, the “don’t ask what the world needs” line seems to tell people to ignore their audience.  But connecting with an audience really DOES matter. I don’t need to be afraid of the audience or desperate for approval, but I absolutely DO need to care about their perspective, if I hope to communicate anything.

More about Perspective Taking in another post.  For now, I leave you to enjoy this bowl of “Go 4 It” meme candy.













Cuz Thurman would totally want me to buy this beach condo. 



Inside Out

In performance instruction, especially for public speakers and direct-address presenters, let a bell go off in your head whenever you hear these types of phrases:

… so you can look more …                             <ding>

… so that you come across more …                  <ding>

… so you seem more …                                              <ding>

… what gives you away…                                                <you get the idea>

Are we teaching them to speak, or to lie?

Truthfully, yes, a large part of early performance training is about managing the symptoms of anxiety.   What do I do with my hands?   How do I stop avoiding eye contact like I’m a criminal?

How do I just look NORMAL?


Stop trying to LOOK something.

Yes, of course you want to know what you look like to your audience.  I’m a huge proponent for video*, because sometimes we’re unaware of a behavior that’s denting our communication, or maybe we’re in denial about it.  “I do what?   No, I don’t, I’m sure I’d know if I did THAT.”  One 15 second video later, and teacher and student are on page.

After seeing the vid, instead of denial or blank looks, I’ll hear:

“Wow, I felt like I was really being crazy over-expressive with my body, but I’m barely moving at all.”

“I thought I was delivering really directly, but I’m totally talking into the ceiling, aren’t I?  And OMG I’m actually backing up. Look! I’m doing it again! ”

“Ah.  Puppethands.”


So, yes, seeing yourself from the outside can be useful for spotting a problem.

But it’s not how you FIX the problem.


Oh it’s so tempting.  Nitpicking problems is so easy from the outside, and makes you feel so smart.  He’s pacing!  She’s doing a self touch!  He’s saying Umm!   She’s using high rising terminal!   See that?  Stop doing THAT!

Like the Bob Newhart sketch where he’s the psychiatrist and he tells his patient “Just STOP IT.”

Generally, that doesn’t work.

When you try to fix something with an outside-in solution, you mostly end up with an additional problem.

Example:  Billy Graham scared the crap out of his audiences by pointing all the time.   The gesture said:  YOU!  You’re going to hell!  No wonder he did best in large stadiums  — people closer than 20 feet were at risk of being poked to death.

Attempted solution: tell public speakers they’re not allowed to fingerpoint anymore.

Result:  a generation of politicians who knuckle point.

knuckle pointing

The gesture became so pervasive among politicians, it was known as the “Clinton Thumb” and was picked up by SNL.

The problem wasn’t that Graham was pointing.  It was that Graham was ANGRY.  The pointing was a symptom.  Replacing the gesture in our physical lexicon, then, only creates an awkward gesture, that’s out of sync with the speaker’s other communication parameters – it reads as physical fakeness. Humans pick up on physical fakeness ultra fast.

So how do we really solve the problem, if someone is too finger-pointy?   Show them the behavior, and ask them what they think of it, and then re-focus them on their main verb.   (See Pick a Verb post if you haven’t already.)  If their main verb isn’t “to poke,” then you’ll start to find other more productive avenues for what is likely just anxious energy.

That’s solving the problem from the inside out, not outside in.



Let’s try it with another common problematic piece of body language.

wtf dunno

I call these the What The Fuck Hands.  In most of the pics below, they also coincide with elbows tight to the ribs, a pose that one of my students calls T-Rex Elbows.  If you twirl your hands in this position, they look like little propellers.   It turns into a repeated filler gesture, and often starts with a little scooping-up-from-my-belly gesture.  I don’t know why speakers do it so much right now; some guy in a TED talk told us that palm-upward gestures were great, so maybe that’s why it’s all over the place.

So what’s wrong with it?

Well, nothing, when it’s telling the truth.  That’s the point.  But is it?

hands up 8

Funtime!  Caption each gesture with the truth it expresses.  Here are some options:

• They’re about this big.
• I’m juggling.
• Please, suh, just a biscuit?
•  I mean, really, WTF??
• No, YOU take it.
•  Hrm….Cake?  Or Death?
• I’m holding ten hidden pencils in each armpit – Ta Da!

So this gesture can become a problem.

But we don’t solve it by saying “stop it”.   And if we want a student to develop his own natural stage presence, we can’t really even solve it by giving him options for replacement gestures.

SO what do we do?

Let the student see himself and tell you what he thinks the gesture does.

Then re-focus his attention on his own stated priorities:

1) who is his audience – the target

2) what is his message – the ball

3) what’s the best way to get the ball to the target – aka the VERB.


To fix my problem, I don’t focus on my problem.

This is the Zen.

What is the sound one hand … not doing empty filler gestures?

The sound is “YAYYYY!”


* Use of video in coaching, while much more common than it was 10 years ago, is still somewhat controversial.   One of the best coaches I know still tells her students not to use it, because many students fixate on the wrong things – my thighs!  my nose!  my butt!  Yes, that’s definitely a hazard at first.  But it’s 2016, in the age of YouTube and Instagram.  So unless your audience and clientele are confirmed Luddites, make peace with video.  I’ll do a separate post about that, for those of us who, like me, tend to cry when seeing how terrible, awful, no good  and very bad we look on video.    

Pick a Verb 2 – Audience Boogaloo

See Part 1 of Pick a Verb, if you haven’t already started there.

So, you’ve found some evocative, immediate, playable JUICY verbs to keep you focused and present during your scene, or song, or speech.  But don’t get slack, cuz remember it aint about you.  It’s about your audience.

crowd 1

What do you want your AUDIENCE to do?  

In our Play Ball metaphor, the audience is the target.  It doesn’t matter if your ball is gorgeous and your throw is godlike;  you still lose if it doesn’t actually hit the target.  So, what does it look like when your ball hits the target, the communication succeeds, and the message resonates with the audience?

[Sidenote: Romantics will balk, saying that a real artist doesn’t care what his audience thinks.  I say to those romantics:   you’re confusing ‘artist’ with ‘asshole’.]

For an actor doing dialog in a scene, the “audience” is rarely the actual audience.  For my acting student in his Chekhov scene, his audience is actually Anya, the other character in the scene with him.  When I ask him “what do you want your audience to do?”, his answer could be,

“I want her to lean in to me for a kiss,”   or
“I want her to sigh after me as I pull away”, or maybe
“I want her to cower”,  or
“I want her to tell her family how brilliant I am.”

Here’s where finding the verb becomes a little bit magical:   technically, as soon as he begins to clarify what he wants to see her do, his eye contact immediately improves.  I didn’t have to say “wow, your eye contact is really fake looking”.   It fixed itself.   As he puts the focus off himself and on to her, that also improves his listening, body language, pacing and sense of present moment spontaneity, too –  even when there’s no real actor there playing Anya.  Verbs really ARE what’s happening*.


It’s a little different for direct-address speakers and presenters.

Oddly, when I ask them the question “what do you want the audience to do?”, their first answer is often dishwater weak, like “I want my audience to learn that….”  Or “I want my audience to realize that…”

Try again, and think juicy –  sensory, specific, immediate.  Bottom line.  What do you want them to DO?

I want my audience to… look at me attentively?

Meh.  Too small.

I want them to …. applaud me loudly?

Inner caveman wants that, but that can’t be the real bottom line.

I want them to download my sample software.

Yes, better.  When?

When they leave this room… or how about before they leave the room!

Yup, now you’re getting it.  Action verbs are stronger, and even measurable, and business leaders love measurables.

But what if the desired result isn’t quite as measurable as “number of downloads”?     Can we still create a powerful one-two punch of juicy verbs, that have real consequences?  Potent AND Provable?

Sure, how about, “I want to put a huge crack in their reliance on old methods, so they can’t do their jobs the old way even one more day without squinting and pursing their lips”.   And we shorten that to

  1. I want to CRACK their windshield.
  2.  I want them to SQUINT at the old stuff, and LUST AFTER my new stuff.

When?   By the end of this talk, when I show them examples of old and new again.

Juicy verbs like these help us get more creative about tactics and content, more physically involved, more streamlined, more spontaneous, and more aware of actually watching the audience, to see if we’re really succeeding.

And that’s the kicker.  Cuz we might not.

That’s one reason that people sometimes choose vague, wishy-washy verbs instead of potent and provable verbs:   it seems safer.   Maybe I succeeded, maybe I didn’t, but I’ll just imagine I did, right?

Picking a potent and provable verb means I confront the possibility of failure.  And if I really fail, I might have to change something.  So yeah, that’s scary.

But sometimes my verb needs to be “Fuck it.”

verb green

*I have the whole Schoolhouse Rock Collection. It holds up well. 



Pick a Verb

Pick a verb.  Not just any verb, but do please pick one.

Okay, ummm…

Great, you picked it.

Wait!   No I didn’t!

“The Form of the Destructor Has Been Chosen.”

And just like that, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man has absconded with your speech or song or audition or whatever.

Point:   If you don’t pick your verb –  what you’re DOING in your song or speech –  then your subconscious inner caveman picks one for you.   To defend.  To escape.  To impress.  To fight, to flee and other f-words.   Is this what you want?

stay puft

No.  So pick your verb.


Why Verb

One of the things I learned from Steve Pearson in grad school in the 90’s is:  action beats character.   Character is what we are, but it’s not a verb.   You can’t DO a character.  But you can do the crap out of an action, and actors need a thing to DO, more than they need persona.

Doing before Being —- it’s very un-Zen, which is funny because Pearson is a Zen/Buddha kind of guy.  King of the neutral face, no mugging ever, no cheap tricks; it’s got to be real and simple.  Just do the thing, Erin, don’t make a big show of it, don’t shout out “Look Ma!  I’m playing Hamlet!”   This was a revelation to me at a time when my persona was still made up of mostly lipstick and jazz hands.*

His point was:  you can build characters, but that’s like building a musical instrument.  It’s part one.   PLAYING it is what makes the actual music.

Of course I challenged this idea.   Cuz isn’t drama all about faaaascinating character and intense emotion?

NO.   You actually have to DO shit.


But what if I’m kinda woo woo, and I like the idea of just BEING.  Can’t I just BE?

Yes, I can, but my inner caveman can’t, at least not in performance situations.

If I don’t pick and prioritize my verb, my inner caveman’s underlying needs and desires start to run things.  When Mr. Pre-frontal Cortex is off duty, then Mr. Limbic System takes the wheel.

For example, maybe I was hired:

  • To nail down a clean demo-recording for this composer’s portfolio of songs, with no quirky embellishments; or
  • To sell the client on this product, not necessarily on me; or
  • To wake up the conference audience in between main presenters, even if it means I look a little stupid; or
  • To tee-up a performer that might otherwise come across badly, even if the performer is my rival; or
  • To lasso maximum sales for my client, whether she plans to re-hire me or not;

But if I don’t clarify and prioritize those active verbs, my inner caveman naturally attempts:

  • To impress this audience, or that particular person in the audience; and
  • To secure my social status in this company or community; and
  • To persuade someone that I am an effective teacher, a valuable teammate, a virtuous, trustworthy, loving family member, or an attractive and entertaining friend; and
  • To prove to myself that I am right, and don’t need to change my mind about something; and
  • To have fun, and create something unusual, and satisfy my curiosity; and and and…

Realistically, am I ever going to shut off those background needs?   Nah, probably not,  but what I can do is focus myself on the higher priority verb by defining it, chewing on it, and pasting it big on the windows of my brains.



How to Pick

When I ask my acting student what his verb is, he knows it won’t help him to say “to do a great job in this audition scene from Cherry Orchard”, or “to get into a good acting school”.

Instead he picks:  “To convince Anya that I’m the smartest person she’s ever met.”   That’s the verb that’s going to help him play this scene. Those others will actually distract him from what he needs to do.

Convince is a little flaccid, though.  So in the different beats (aka sections) within the scene, we notch it up.    “To hook her.”  “To backhand her.”  “To peg her against the wall.”  “To stalk her.”  “To shepherd her.”   “To stroke her.”

He’s not literally going to backhand her, this is all metaphorical, but notice how much easier it is to play the scene when the verb is more physical, and more sensory.   That’s what I mean by JUICY verbs.  “Backhanding” someone gives you plenty more to do than just “Telling”.   “Stalking” offers much more than “watching”.  “Stroking” is much more than “agreeing”.

So consider the last performance or presentation you did.

What was your verb?    Was it “to present”  or was it more like Unveil, Parade, Let slip, Strip-tease, Expose, Auction, Set Free, Dump, Unravel, Lay Bare, Infect …


Verbs that activate one or more of the 5 senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – those are the juicy ones that will keep you in the moment.  Why?  Because they hold the attention of Mr. Limbic System better than vague verbs like “be” and “present”.

And when you’ve got Mr. Limbic System and Mr. Pre-frontal Cortex working together, shit gets done.

Continue to Part 2, where we learn about picking the verb for your AUDIENCE.


*By the way, there’s nothing at all wrong with lipstick and jazz hands.




Placebo Domingo

Every now and then some performer on my Facebook feed gets laryngitis and makes a general appeal for everyone’s best voice-fix.   Cue the avalanche of advice.

Bay Leaves, Thyme, Rosemary
Tea – green, lemon, chamomile, peppermint, Echinacea, blackberry, goldenseal, etc
Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg
Slippery Elm
Licorice, Anise
Marshmallow Root
Megadoses of Zinc, Vitamin C, B, A, D or others.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Cider vinegar
Hot toddies
Himalayan Salt water gargle
Entertainer’s Secret, Vocaleze, Chloroseptic, Herb Pharm, King Bio, Gaia Herb, Clear Voice, Oxy Bump, or other throat sprays
Steam, humidifier
Pho, Chicken Soup, or other comfort food
Cayenne Pepper, Chilis or other spicy foods
Onion syrup (I had no idea)
Hydrogen Peroxide
Carrot, prune, or other fruit/vegetable juices
Electrolyzed water
Coconut oil, palm oil, or olive oil
Dietary restrictions including TQI, Paleo, cutting gluten, dairy, refined sugar, meat, carbs, GMO’s or non-organic, etc.
Biofeedback, acupuncture, massage, meditation, prayer and countless other behavioral modifications, some of which can get pretty wild…

Almost all of them are placebos.  I’ll say ‘almost’ so no matter what your favorite bullshit treatment is, you can decide it’s the one that really works.

I love placebos.

Placebos are powerful, with positive effects that are real and measurable, for about 34% of people.  The Stanford School of Medicine explains it here.  But wait, maybe you’re distrustful of western medical establishments like Stanford –  that’s why you’re drinking a gallon of St. Hogwort’s Secret Jasmine Yak Sweat in the first place  – so try this TED talk or this TED talk about it.  Still too establishment for you?  How about this delightful Aussie, with 3 minutes of fun animation, talking about the same thing.

The truth is, in a double-blind situation, those placebo laryngitis “treatments” would have no beneficial effect on the laryngitis at all.

But life is not a double-blind situation.

What I tell my students is:  do a little inquiry just to make sure that your placebo of choice isn’t actually harming you, and if it really isn’t, then what the hell.  Eat your special chicken soup, do your voodoo dance, fly that freak flag, baby.

Sometimes placebo effect is the best you’re going to get, so go ahead and get it.

Yes, there are downsides to placebo usage:

1) Dependency:   “No! The magic lollipop has to be CHERRY flavored! Waaaah!”

2) Actual negative side effects:   “I’ve drunk 2 gallons of apple cider vinegar.  I can’t tell if it’s working, cuz now I have cramps and reflux like you wouldn’t believe. So. Yeah.”

Remember, anything marked “dietary supplement” or “herbal supplement” or “essential oil” is in an unregulated cowboy wildwest territory where it doesn’t have to really prove anything except that it’s not immediately deadly.  That opens the door to anyone with a little psychology and some marketing chops to come in and target easy marks.

So I’m serious about making sure your placebo isn’t actually harmful.

Plenty of the products sold today – including regular vitamins – are seriously toxic at large dosage, causing liver failure, cardiac arrhythmia, seizures, and much more.  Vitamin C mega doses are shown to actually CAUSE sore throat and kidney stones, but you won’t find that info listed on the box.  FDA demands that Viagra has to give you three pages of side effect info, but Goldenseal doesn’t, Echinacea doesn’t, Yohimbe doesn’t.  Many of them have really nasty drug-interaction effects, but they don’t have to say so.

Even at moderate dosage, several of the most common and beloved herbal meds are diuretics, easily produce heartburn and gastrointestinal distress, dry mouth, constipation, diarrhea, anti-platelet effects, numbness of the tongue, and plenty more.

However – don’t panic!   Placebo-takers are usually relatively safe, since a large proportion of products labeled “dietary supplement” don’t actually contain ANY of the ingredients they say they contain.

That’s sort of a backwards double-blind, right?   Maybe we should call it a double-dumb:  if we DID put goldenseal in this lozenge, it’d make you sick, so be glad that we’re lying about that.

Okay, you say, so what do we do if we don’t want to live in placebo-world?

At that point, I’d point out that we’re always living in placebo-world, even when we’re using very standard western medicine, because …

And you’d say DAMMIT just tell me what actually works!   If I have laryngitis, what should I actually do?

Fine:   if your career is involved, go see a real laryngologist or ENT, who can tell you what’s really going on in your cords.  If your career is really involved, act like it, and don’t take advice from Facebook.    

If you’re career isn’t on the line, settle back for a few days.  Check reputable internet sources, like this Mayo clinic site, and realize that in almost all cases, the cords heal themselves without any special treatment at all.

Your brain needs the magic potion, but your cords don’t.


The Perfect Vocal Exercise

There’s no such thing, silly.  Well, maybe.

You know I take extreme joy in looking across genres, to see how the various tribes deal with voice and performance issues. Sometimes it means crossing a tribal war zone, but there’s one particular vocal warm-up exercise that shows up in pretty much every single vocal discipline that I’ve studied.

Most often we call them lip and tongue trills, sometimes lip rolls, or bilabial or alveolar trills, sometimes blowing bubbles, or the motorboat sounds, or the purring sound, or the horsey sound, or the rolling R sound.  Some add in a raspberry blow sound, or they do it while physicalizing or stretching, some vary the pitches like sirens, some hold the pitch, some use scales.

But this little exercise shows up in genres from classical to country, rock, jazz, gospel, pop and everywhere else.  It shows up with Shakespearean actors, Method actors, voiceover actors, concert tour backup vocalists, worship leaders, corporate motivational speakers, studio jingle singers, Indian classical vocalists, medieval chant groups, college a capella teams, Toastmaster clubs, Ukrainian hymn singers, and every other obscure form I’ve encountered.

4 Reasons:

1) Delays engagement of inner critic

2) Activates steady breath

3) Brings blood into the face and head; moves head/neck fluids

4) Employs a semi-occluded vocal tract – SOVT


1) Inner critic.
Say you’re in a hotel, and you wake up and go into the bathroom, turn on the light, and WHAM you’re assaulted by a giant mirror image of your morning face, under very bright light.  Only hotel light is this brutal. If you’re lucky, maybe you’re bleary-eyed and can’t see yourself that well, and if you’re really lucky, someone has already steamed up the glass and you can’t see anything but a pleasant suggestion of faceness.   Ah.

Lip and tongue trills and rolls are like that steamy mirror.  The percussion obscures the sound of your first warm up phonations, so your inner critic can’t easily jump on you for not being perfectly clear, perky, plump and gorgeous straight out of bed.

This is a crucial idea:   do not begin your workout with self-judgement; begin with a gentle habit.


2) Steady Breath.

The vibration of the lips or tongue is only possible if the breath support is relatively steady.  If the support is too weak or too unstable, the vibration sputters and stops.  Getting started again requires an extra kick start push, but if the support isn’t steady, it’ll sputter out again right away.

Some people are genetically incapable of trilling or rolling rr’s, so we use raspberries instead. But many who say they can’t do the lip or tongue trills, actually can, but just not very well.  Even one week of solid daily practice will radically improve these folks, and we’ll start to see that steady, strong breath habit become available for their speech and singing, too.


3) Fluid Flow.

It’s warming up and getting the juices flowing – literally. Vibration stimulates increased blood flow and lowers mechanical viscosity of mucous. Increased blood flow allows for greater flexibility, responsiveness, and better recovery from injury.  Juicier, more free-flowing mucous has many health benefits, but also I just enjoy a clear head when I sing, and I don’t want to have to avoid gluten, dairy, meat, dust, pollen, pets, children, soy, nuts, and naughty thoughts in order to deal with mucous.

Try this fun one:   on one big breath, move back and forth from lip to tongue trill, and then do them at the same time.  It’s like a lawnmower running inside your head. Serious vibes.  All natural, organic and responsibly sourced.  Also free.


4) Semi-occluded … whatever the hell…

It’s a thing, okay?  SOVT – semi occluded vocal tract.   It’s a super trendy thing in voice training, though the core of it has been around for a long time.  I’ll try to explain it cuz it’s not magic.

Occluded means blocked, so exercises that aren’t mouth-wide-open can be considered to be semi-occluded.  If that blockage is strong enough, like let’s say your lips are closed into an “oooh” shape, that closure actually starts to balance the pressure from the air coming from the lungs.

You know how when you change your showerhead, that can really change the effect of the water pressure?  It’s like that.

Physiologically, if you sing a big wide “AHHHH” and then close into an ooh shape, your vocal cords tend to get better closure on that ooh, and your laryngeal muscles don’t work as hard. Good closure means breathy voices may sound less breathy, and you might be able to sing for longer without feeling as tired.

The main proponent of Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract exercises is vocal researcher Ingo Titze. He’s a superstar in academic voice pedagogy, and if you see people using straws in voice pedagogy, they’re probably Titze fans.*  Straws work okay, but I like trills better because they incorporate the steadiness of the breath.  Students who use straws have to be reminded not to let the air slip out through the nose, whereas trillers don’t have to be told.  Also straws cost money and my lips are free.

Maybe the only perfect warm-up exercise is the one that you actually DO on a regular basis.  But lip and tongue trills are pretty perfect. They’re like the Swiss Army Knife of vocal warm-ups.  I’d totally take them camping.


rollin my rrrs

*Dr. Titze is also brilliant and sweet, too, I just saw him at the Art and Science of the Performing Voice conference, and he’s all that, for real.  I just don’t need the straw.




Have you seen presenters and performers with these?   It’s not their fault.  They tried hard, and studied what coaches most often say about gesture.

They learned they absolutely MUST use hand and arm gestures. They learned they should stay inside the shoulder-to-waist box. They made sure they didn’t point. They made notes in their text about where to gesture. They learned their palms should be face up. They avoided mime, too much repetition, pumping, pocketing, crossing, hip-holding, behind-the-backing, and a ton of other no-no’s.  They learned plenty.

And yet they still look like a clock-work Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents.

They have Puppethands.


Like the marionettes from Thunderbirds Are Go, like C3PO, like Barbie. Puppethands attract attention because they fail to move in natural coordination with head/neck movement, their articulation is stiff, and their dynamics don’t really make perfect sense with the timing and emotion of the voice.

Anyone can get them.  Not just puppets.

So do these unlucky performers need to learn even more precise rules?  Should they practice more to make it look realistic?

Nerp.  “Looking realistic” just aint enough.  The human brain currently assesses movement with a higher level of sophistication than we can describe it.  So no matter how many rules you follow, movement tells the truth.

Check out these clips of video games and androids. These are so freakin’ cool. And the stillshots look amazing, right?   It’s the movement that tells us that what we’re looking at is a fake. Lifelike, yes. But we can do better than “lifelike”.

Beyond the movement issue, we recognize fakey gestures because outside-in coaching just doesn’t work as well as inside out.

That means stop trying to “seem” more this, or “look” more that, or “come across as” something.  It’s pointless.

But I seem nervous!

–    Because you are.

But I don’t want to seem nervous!

–    Why not?

… and here’s the fork in the road.  Either the answer is “because it will make me look stupid,” or the answer is “because this message needs to get to this audience.”

Which road do you want to travel down?

The coaching that goes down the Not Looking Stupid road focuses on externals about the speaker. And since they don’t really work, the road eventually dead ends.

The road called Audience Gets Message is more a verb than a noun. It’s movement, and it requires us to focus more on the message and the audience than on ourselves. The Audience Gets Message road leads forward to the goal and well beyond it in all directions.  It allows for innovation, rule-breaking, weirdness, and non-standard but effective new kinds of communication.

But if I look stupid, they won’t hear my message!

–  Are you sure about that?

Usually, when we are outside-in oriented, we don’t actually pay attention to the audience, not really.  So, ask who IS this audience, and what do they think is stupid?   Tell me about their specific context, their needs, challenges, strengths, and expectations.

But how do you fix puppethands?

Start by not treating yourself like a marionette with a superego hanging out above your body.  Instead, get right down inside your body.  And now take a look at this audience, right now.


I know, it’s MUCH more frightening.

More on that in posts to come.

Master of Auditions

[This is one of several posts about the Theatre Puget Sound unified general auditions, which presented ~400 actors to ~40 auditors, agents, and directors over 4 solid-packed days.]

Last week was the first time I’d sat through the TPS Unified General Auditions.

On Day1, I sat up close.   I couldn’t see the 40 or so other auditors behind me, but I could hear them.  When an actor would finish, sometimes there was a chorus of appreciative “Thank You!” or maybe just a few thank you’s, or sometimes, very little response at all.

Except one voice, which said the same warm, professional “Thank You” after every performer, without fail.

To the brilliant guy who just moved from Chicago, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the novice in the tiny dress and too-tall shoes, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the guy who was two beats ahead of the pianist, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the many people doing terrible Southern accents, and the people who lost their lines, or tried to walk out the wrong door, or became hypnotized staring into the spotlight, the voice waited patiently, and then said “Thank you.”

I didn’t know whose voice it was, but I deeply appreciated its capacity.  The Universal Thank You symbolizes my core feeling for all artists:  underneath all the variations in style, skill, look or experience, there is still an inherent honor in auditioning.

Even the worst audition is an offering to some obscure sort of god, so we show some respect.


On Day2, I changed seats, hoping for a better view of the performers’ eye focus.  Soon I realized my new seat had landed me next to the mystery “Thank You” voice.  She seemed a friendly, open and very normal person.

But over the next few days, I decided she’s not normal, she’s a Zen master.

She’s the long-time casting director for one of the most important theaters in the region, having held her position through 6 different Artistic Directors.  I felt stupid for not knowing who she was.  She knew who I was, though, from work I’d done — get this — 17+ years ago:  “I recognized that jawline,” she said.  Good lord, that’s a brain for remembering people.

I asked about which of the 6 Artistic Directors she enjoyed most.  I knew full well that some of them had rough reputations.   She was gracious about all of them.

Wait, to be in theater and not be tempted to gossip?

A fellow behind us complained about this or that auditioner, in the casually feline way some theater folks do; she neither agreed nor rewarded the commentary with attention.

The fellow in front of us slyly mocked what he saw as low-stakes delivery from the actors; she smiled at him, but added nothing.

One session block was particularly difficult, with very few skilled performers and very little interesting material.  My eyes were drooping, but hers never did.  I asked her if this was normal, this quality-lull.  She said “In every set of generals, there are days where you just see more people who haven’t yet developed their technique.”

…Haven’t yet developed their technique.

Holy shit, how light a touch is that?  How many times have I used a hammer like “that guy can’t act his way out of a paper bag”  or “she stank up the place” or just rolled my eyes and quipped “Oh, honey, no”.    Maybe not recently, because I’ve mellowed over the years, and never in FRONT of the performers,  but third person/different room?

Sure, I’ve said that stuff, I’ve done that.

She doesn’t do that.  She’s a pro.

She’s not trying to prove something, or win something, or demonstrate social dominance.  Instead, she’s doing her job, as effectively and pleasantly as possible, integrating what I think are crucial elements of professionalism and mastery for so many fields:

A head for remembering people
A discipline of attentiveness
Discretion about colleagues
The flexibility to work for different people successfully
And most importantly to me:
                              A habit of respect for the people taking the risks.

So, to the Zen master casting director I got to sit next to:

Thank You.

Thank You, Next

It’s audition season where I am. Colleges, regional generals, conservatory, etc. It’s an exciting time of digestive distress and dreams crushed underfoot.

It even has a smell, and it’s rarely a pleasant one.

Back when I was auditioning regularly, my searing question was “What are the auditors thinking?”  Just like the number from Chorus Line – how many people does he need? – but also, do they need my type, what sort of material do they like, or hate, and do I stand any chance at all?

But the answer mostly came down to:  “You’ll go batshit trying to figure that out.”

Today, as a coach and director, I can tell you there are many things I was terrified that auditors were thinking about me when I was auditioning — things that now, as an auditor, I’m not thinking at all.

I’m not thinking:

  • Ugh, this song again (or the variant: ugh, this monologue again)

As an actor, I used to search all over to find audition pieces that were unusual. No old chestnuts for me, I thought!   Well, it was a waste of my energy.  A director who’s been in the field for a while can read your skills, whether you’re skating your freestyle or the figure 8’s in your compulsory exercises. If you can totally nail something from the overdone monologues list, it’s like you just served up the best cheeseburger in the world. Okay, so it’s a cheeseburger.  But you NAILED it, right?

Something else I’m not thinking:

  • This fool doesn’t even know he’s out of his league.

One of the crucial virtues for actors and artists is the ability to punch up, that is, to compete above your weight class. So, when someone comes in completely under-prepared for the level of gig at hand, I think “The bawls on this guy!  Good for him.”  I won’t actually hire him, unless there are truly no better options, but I try to be as respectful as possible, because this guy could turn up again later – better, bigger, networked, and he may remember me.

Another thing I’m not thinking:

  • NO one would ever cast this guy.

Oh yeah they would. Time teaches you that. The guy might not make a living as an actor downtown, but there’s someone, someplace, in some tiny theatre in Yelm or wherever, who’s going to be grateful for him. He may actually draw standing ovations for their Christmas production, bringing their budget into the black and saving the theatre from closure. So be respectful.


Now.  Just because I’m not thinking snotty 7th grade mean-girl thoughts about auditioners, that doesn’t mean other auditors aren’t.

I had a student last week come back from a college audition where the auditor had whined, “I only asked for 32 bars, but you sang me the whole song…”   My student had done 28 bars, precisely.

That auditor was a dick.*

Some really are. Some are playing Nero, relishing the thumbs down, because they’re dented inside. Some are marking time, sneaking some Candy Crush, just meeting a union requirement and not really listening at all. And some are normal people, but forgetting to be kind, forgetting that they are the stewards of an entire community.

So this is what I’m thinking now, thoughts not pointed towards the actors and singers, but toward the directors and gatekeepers on the other side of the table:

When we sit as auditors, we do more than cast this show or fill that class roster.  We create the storyline of a whole industry.  Is it humane?  Is it sustainable and healthy?  Is it worth caring about?

Or is it a gladiatorial arena, where we pitch our own citizens into the fire to make us feel warm… for a minute, or two minutes, or 32 bars?


* Either he was a dick, or he can’t count to 32.   Or both.

thumbs down

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

It says “Blessed are the weird people, the poets and misfits, the artists, the writers, and music makers, the dreamers and the outsiders for they force us to see the world differently.”

blessed are the
Wait, were you trying to be nice?  Because I’m not a misfit.

I drive a minivan.  When I pick up my kids from soccer, I’m not an outsider.

I’m not weird for blogging, or writing songs, or performing.

But what I can see clearly from this graphic is that whoever made this oppressive little meme thinks that art-making is “other”.    See where it says THEY force US?  Who’s US?   What kind of sad, sterile world does Us come from?

This graphic isn’t just back-handed.   It’s a freakin’ hot mess of unproductive bias, posing in quaint fonts and biblical sentence construction.

What if I said:

“Blessed are the powerless, the women and the children, the victimized, the weak and suffering, the unheard and unheeded, for they remind us to use power gently, and to listen.”   Who’s the Us, there?   What’s normal there?

Try this one:

“Blessed are the pole dancers, the whores, harlots, and hussies, the girls in high heels, the women who wear lipstick and work that walk, the sluts and showgirls, for they remind the rest of us that life can be fun.”   Who’s the Us, in that one?   And how does that Us think the world works?

Or maybe:

“Blessed are the hillbillies, the farmers, the country folk, the sons of the soil, the rednecks, the field workers, hay balers and fruit pickers, for they toil beneath us and keep us fed.”  Who’s the Us there?

How about this one:

“Blessed are the under-privileged, the black and brown people, the criminals, the drop-outs, for they – “  blah blah blah I don’t even want to hear the rest of whatever you’re saying.

But I bet you meant well.  Right?


I’ll try not to believe that the person who made the “Blessed are the Weird” graphic was turbo-patronizing me as an artist in order to consciously squish me down.

Maybe the graphic-maker just yearns to do something artistic, but doesn’t feel able, because he or she thinks art is only for very special people.  (…those dirty, stinky, weirdos, but nevertheless…)

Let me help with that.

In my workshops we start by saying Art is a Human Birthright.  It’s not something that only a few people do; it’s basic to human nature.  Human groups on isolated islands will invent it without being taught, along with other basic human activities like sex, politics, cuisine, construction, athletics, haircare, spirituality, play, and plenty of other behaviors.

Art is normal.  Like throwing a ball to your dog is normal, yelling at the quarterback is normal, trying out new recipes and building your back deck – all normal.

“Blessed are the people who cook food –”  Because you DON’T ?

Grow up and learn to cook.  Sure, some people do it so well they get paid for it, but cooking is part of being a normal adult, male or female, rich or poor.  I will gladly help you learn, I’ll eat your first attempts and make encouraging yummy yummy noises.  And I’ll try hard not to make you feel bad for having thought it wasn’t your job.

That’s the point: don’t leave these activities for other people to take care of, and certainly don’t justify it with some condescending stereotype that probably derives from rich white guys in the 1800’s.

If you’re human, you’re an artist.   If you’re a misfit, don’t blame art.