A Week of Creative Revelry with John Patrick Shanley
Unlocking Courage, Embracing Humiliation, and Fostering Artistic Connection
Photo by Matt Miller
Early in July, I found myself idly scrolling through Instagram—my feed consisting of a digital reverie punctuated by a whimsy of funny dog videos, astrology forecasts, relationship memes and “manifestation” tips. Then, amid the parade of posts and stories, a revelation emerged. It was a story, shared by none other than John Patrick Shanley—a titan of American theater, decorated with an Oscar, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize, announcing a weeklong Actor Workshop right here in Los Angeles, at the venerable Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute. The allure? A chance to dive headlong into Mr. Shanley’s newest works, a collection of 1 Acts and a full-length play, and perform a live staged reading of the works in front of an audience.
Without pausing to second-guess myself, I submitted my materials, texted a few actor friends to do the same, and then, with fingers crossed, I ventured into the waiting room of uncertainty, hoping to be one of 12 actors selected for this artistic sojourn.
Confidence, it must be said, was in short supply. A sense of worthiness, even scarcer. After all, a full year had slipped through my fingers since I had booked a job as an actor, and the cobwebs of self-doubt had woven their intricate patterns within my mind. Questions like “Am I even an actor?” echoed persistently. Adding to the shadowy landscape, the absence of professional representation over the last 9 months further relegated me to the role of an observer in an industry and city teeming with auditions and callbacks—a passionate spectator, an outsider to my own craft. (The ongoing Strike, ironically, has inadvertently equalized the playing field and now actors with reps are reminded of what it feels like to be “out of work.” Reality check. Yes, this career is hard. It’s even harder when you don’t have a team behind you.)
The gap between my aspirations and the creator of “Moonstruck” and “Doubt” who I had studied in-depth in a script analysis class 20 years ago at The William Esper Studio, yawned vast and daunting. But, fuck it. I had to at least try, right?
Creativity frequently flourishes in the midst of uncertainty, blooming from the humble soil of unassuming origins and unprivileged beginnings. It’s nurtured by audacious leaps of faith, where even the most improbable journeys promise moments of transformative wonder. And so, armed with mere hope as my compass, I waited. And waited.
Weeks later during a bustling shift at my restaurant job in Venice, just as I was poised to approach a new table of guests, my pocket trembled with the gentle vibration of my phone. I glanced at the homescreen, and to my profound surprise, an email notification greeted me.
Its message: I had been chosen. One among the select twelve.
After receiving this notification, I embarked on a taxing three-week stretch of additional serving shifts, all in pursuit of the financial means to secure a week off without the looming threat of financial hardship down the line. (This is also the reason for my absence here on Substack.)
Before I knew it, I found myself stepping through the hallowed theater doors and plunging headfirst into a hurricane of creative and personal exploration—a journey that delved deep into the essence of storytelling and humanity, navigating the delicate balance between its brilliance and its raw, unfiltered reality. And within this artistic crucible, we basked in moments of pure comedy that is a cherished treasure understood only by fellow actors and the dedicated attendees of acting classes. (This is a unique brand of humor, a fine blend of wit and absurdity, akin to the madcap antics witnessed in Gene Cousineau’s iconic acting class in “Barry.”)
Since the pieces by Shanley have not yet been published, I believe it would be inappropriate to delve into their specific details. However, after spending a week to digest the experience, and to get back into the swing of things at my “day job,” what I’m most eager to share with you are some of the valuable insights and lessons I’ve gleaned from this experience—nuggets of gold that I hope to carry with me, not only as an artist but also as a human being, in all my future endeavors.
At Times, What Your Creative Practice Needs Most Is To Be "Unprepared"
Ninety-nine percent of an actor’s work remains concealed, hidden beneath the surface, unseen in the final performance. Talent can only take you so far. This is industry is not a meritocracy. Over the years, our craft demands relentless exploration, encompassing a myriad of classes to perfect techniques that form an ever-evolving actor’s toolkit. Beyond the spotlight, there are auditions and callbacks, lines to be memorized, and intricate script analysis and character development—an endless journey.
This meticulous preparation is the bedrock of a rich and nuanced performance, enhancing the actor and audience’s experience. It’s what makes legends like Meryl Streep become, well, Meryl Streep. Undoubtedly, her dedication to this unseen toil contributes to her unparalleled brilliance.
However, one invaluable lesson emerged from this workshop, largely due to its unique setup. With actors collaborating on the same plays, switching roles daily, and receiving assignments just the night before, the luxury of traditional preparation evaporated.
Instead, we were urged to lean into our instincts, to embrace the vulnerability of potential humiliation, and to dive headlong into the words and stories we were tasked with sharing.
At times, embracing fear itself becomes the ultimate preparation. Throw yourself into your creative practice without hesitation and simply revel in the joy of it.
Make Humiliation Your Friend
What’s the worst that could happen? This was the mantra I found myself reciting throughout the entire week: “No one is dying, and no one is dead; we're okay.”
We’re often conditioned to place an immense value on how our art is received—and don't get me wrong, my ego certainly enjoys a compliment on my work. But that’s not the essence of why I’m here. I’m an actor because of the work we get to do behind-the -scenes. I’m an actor because I’m passionate about storytelling and wholeheartedly believe in its profound value and the remarkable impact it can wield on individuals and society as a whole. So, in the process of creating, why should we fret over others’ opinions of the final product? Instead, why not embrace the idea that, in order to craft something meaningful, it’s equally important to embrace the vulnerability that can stem from being... well, imperfect. Human. And sometimes, even falling flat on one’s face.
I haven’t ventured into theater as much as I’d like to—not due to lack of training or passion, as I truly cherish it. However, I also have an affection for financial stability, and making a living in theater can be an even more challenging endeavor than sustaining an acting career in Film and Television. Consequently, I’ve focused more of my efforts in those mediums.
As a result, I haven’t honed my voice to the extent that seasoned theater actors have. You see, when you’re performing on stage, everything is bigger. It’s not merely about conveying a story involving your fellow actors; it’s about narrating a tale that involves the entire theater audience. They don’t just listen; they become integral to the play and the storytelling itself, akin to additional characters. Therefore, you must project, your voice must reach every seat in every row, and the stakes are high in ensuring everyone is engaged.
But it goes deeper than that.
Growing up in a large and often raucous “American” family, with a father who’s partially deaf in one ear, I’ve developed an aversion to being loud. This isn’t to say that I’m not loud—my laughter, especially when genuine, can be thunderous, and this has been a source of personal shame that I've had to confront and work through.
As an artist, particularly one who hasn't yet achieved what some might consider tangible success, I’ve subconsciously made myself small and unassuming, almost quiet. So, it’s no surprise that during rehearsals, the constant feedback I received from John Patrick Shanley and others was to to be “LOUDER.”
As artists, we are sharing our “gifts” with the world. It's truly a profound act of generosity, and to do justice to this pursuit, we must find the strength within ourselves to be loud enough to reach the last row.
The Power of “What If…?”
Throughout the week, Shanley graciously imparted numerous anecdotes and invaluable insights into his creative process. One of the highlights, for me, was his unwavering commitment to unbridled imagination. There were no boundaries or self- censorship— at one point he told us to “think every thought,” to fearlessly delve into the vast expanse of possibilities.
He encouraged us to ask ourselves questions, to dare to wonder “What if...” and to follow the winding paths wherever they might lead us.
Collaboration Fosters Equality & A Deep Sense of Worthiness
How often have we come across the adage, “Don't Meet Your Heroes”? While it may hold some truth, when it comes to artists you deeply admire, I believe the sentiment should be: don't merely meet them; collaborate with them.
Shanley’s approach transcended the traditional role of a "teacher," elevating him, in my humble opinion, to the stature of a genuine artist. What set him apart was his willingness not to sit in a position of authority above us but to actively collaborate with us. Whether it was through his encouragement for us to openly share our thoughts, feelings, and opinions throughout the exploratory process, or by directly engaging with us during the scenes and plays, he underscored the universal nature of the artistic journey—where the work remains the same for all, regardless of individual levels of “success.”
Another highlight of the week was the opportunity to collaborate and form a genuine friendship with an actress who had played an integral role in my belief, during my childhood, that I too could pursue a career in acting. So, you can imagine my delight and astonishment when she walked through the door on the very first day. My profound respect for her unwavering commitment to her craft, irrespective of her extensive experience in the industry and her remarkable success, has only deepened my affection and admiration for her.
The 11 actors with whom I had the privilege to connect and collaborate with added immeasurable depth to this experience. In just five short days, it felt as though we had known each other for years. I am overflowing with gratitude for each and every one of them, and I eagerly await the well-deserved recognition that both the industry and broader audiences worldwide will surely bestow upon them.
This journey has instilled within me a profound understanding that every individual possesses innate worthiness in their artistic pursuit. However, it is through the act of collaboration that we can authentically forge the bonds of equality.
I’m certain there are a myriad of other aspects from this experience that I could delve into, but these are the ones that have left the most indelible mark on me personally.
As magic would have it, while I was mentally preparing to write this, I came across a quote by Mary Oliver that I'd like to share with you as I bring this to a close:
“There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” - Mary Oliver
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