Answers 4 Actors

Monday, August 30, 2010

Being Wrong Can Be A Good Thing!

I am sure you are ready to totally disagree with the title of this blog. I feel your pain. I hate to be wrong, doesn’t everyone? But if you are not willing to be wrong, you will stay clear of some of your best, most exciting choices in acting and in life.

I have been reading about Leonardo di Vinci lately. One of Leonardo di Vinci’s principles is Dimostrazione - Commitment to test knowledge through experience and the willingness to learn from mistakes. So I think if a genius such as di Vinci embraced the willingness to learn from mistakes we can do so as well. As actors, and performers, we really need to learn this.

Of course it isn’t easy. Hey we don’t want to be wrong but knowing that we can learn from making a mistake makes us less afraid to try. To take chances. To embrace that we can learn so much from making a mistake, from being wrong.

Athletes learn this very early on in their training. They can’t learn and improve unless they become not afraid of making a mistake or trying something that doesn’t work. And yet we all still find it so hard to do that in our lives.

I sometimes think we should just go ahead and do something wrong early in the morning and be reminded that it isn’t so bad and then we can get on with our lives.

When I teach all day workshops in Hong Kong, it is a long intense day and we do two days in a row but the good thing is that everyone feels it is a safe place to make mistakes, to explore new techniques, and to strive for the stronger emotions in their work which means taking chances and being willing to fall off the edge of the cliff.

Putting yourself in your work can feel vulnerable but that is what we actors do. That is what artists do. Is it scary? Of course but we do it anyway. And the only way you can explore new areas of yourself is to be willing to be wrong.

I know in this day it seems that no one wants to be wrong. I find that even when it is totally clear that someone made a mistake they still can not say, “Hey I was wrong, sorry!” Why? I don’t know. If you are willing to open yourself up and try something new you may fall on your face but you can get up and learn how to make it work.

Actors, now let’s look at this concept in your acting. You are studying a role for an audition. You have learned how to analyze the scenes and hopefully the whole script. You feel that you have found the clues that writer has given you. Now you want to bring yourself to the work and to the role. Most of us will start with a safe choice. That is natural but you want to stand out, to show that you are right for the role. I have found that I must help an actor I am coaching to try the more dangerous choices to see which of them are WRONG. That’s right I said wrong. Each time you try something that doesn’t work you are actually learning more about your character and what is best for your character in this particular script.

Actors are upset sometimes if they don’t get the right answer right away. Would you tell your child to stop trying to walk when he falls down. Of course not. You would encourage him to try again. So you need to encourage yourself in your work.

It may seem odd to you but I find that you can actually learn what you must learn more quickly if you try immediately some extreme choices but only if you are willing to see what does NOT work.

It is like the often-told story about Edison. This legendary allegory tells about how it took 2000 steps to figure out how to create the light bulb. Edison said, “…I found 2000 ways not to make a light bulb.” Now I don’t know if this tale is true but the moral of the story I do believe in. The story is used to remind all of us that we must not be afraid to be wrong because we learn what does NOT work and then we can move on to something that WILL work.

As actors we need to remember that learning what does not work is just as important as finding out what will work. If we are afraid to be wrong we will never find the best answer to the question, the best choice for our character. The most exciting “watchable” action. But we must not be afraid to be wrong.

As actors we must remember that sometimes the character is more believable if he or she makes mistakes. So we should embrace those imperfections of our characters and actually look for them. Seek out where your character is weak, or not very good at something. It makes that role seem real.

Real People are not perfect.
Real People stumble.
Real People have areas in their life where they are blind to what everyone else can see clearly.

Sometimes the pressure is so tough for actors because you start to believe you will have only one chance. I am not going to tell you that doesn’t happen, yes it does. But the one word in that phrase I question is ONLY. You don’t get only one chance. There will be another chance on another role or another opportunity. So why not make the most of this opportunity in front of you today.

You, Actors, who allow the pressure of the audition or the fear that you have only one chance are allowing your mind to concentrate on the wrong thought. I remind actors that the one thing you have control over in an audition is: “I have control over showing you who this character is if I played him/her.” If you keep your focus on that, you will do your work even if they only allow you one shot.

The other way to improve your ability to make strong choices under pressure is to PRACTICE. Just like professional athletes, you practice so much that it just feels normal to do your work even when it is really important and you are nervous. That way when it is a “big game” your body and mind are so used to doing your job that they will lead you. But that takes practice, lots of practice.

So don’t be afraid of being wrong or making a mistake.

Practice your craft so your mind and body will do what you need to do even in your

Celebrate being wrong because you are one step closer to the answer you are looking for and the pleasure you will feel in doing a wonderful performance and audition makes it all worth it.

By Jeanne Hartman, author of The Right Questions for Actors and professional acting coach in Hollywood and Hong Kong. You can find her new book at