My acting career was a white-knuckle ride. Whether I was auditioning for a B-movie or acting in a TV guest shot, I felt deep down that I did not belong in the entertainment business. Acting was not my calling. Rather, it was a lifestyle choice that by sheer chance had chosen me.
I possessed only modest talent, suffered from a debilitating lack of confidence, and accepted whatever roles came my way. My insecurity and lack of conviction made me jittery, sometimes even panicky on the set. I attempted to ‘take the edge off’ with a variety of substances (well, it was the 80s), but chasing chemical highs and lows only added to my general unsteadiness. Thankfully, friends, family and a sense of humor helped me to weather the storms.
But there were brief moments when I tasted the joy of acting. Those moments came in my acting classes with Harry Mastrogeorge. When I left the entertainment business, became a mom, and then began intensive training with infant expert Magda Gerber, I was often aware of an intangible feeling of familiarity with many of Magda’s theories. I later realized that Magda’s child-rearing ideas felt familiar because they recurrently brought to mind the methods of my favorite acting teacher. The core values these two approaches share struck a chord in me. Two parallel lessons stand out among the many…
The first parallel between Harry’s acting lessons and Magda’s child care philosophy is that they both are gimmick-free approaches that require us to trust simple logic. Harry Mastrogeorge eschewed artificial acting techniques like “substitution”: dwelling on the death of your dog to drum up tears for a scene that has nothing to do with your dog (or any dog); and “repetition exercises,” which involve two actors repeating the same words to each other until they connect emotionally—“How are you? How are you? How are you?!
And Harry had the least patience of all with the idea—encouraged by some venerable acting institutions– that an actor has to have a real-life experience to be able to be immersed in a role. For instance, to play a homeless person, an actor should live on the streets for a week. But there were some obvious limitations to this method; to play a vampire (as so many do these days!), would you have to bite necks and drink real blood? Harry was inspired by Einstein’s quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And Harry would often say, “On the wings of your imagination you can create anything!” He wanted us to approach a scene with “childlike innocence,” to “play make-believe” and he taught us that acting was no different than “Cowboys and Indians.”
He instructed us to prepare for a scene by spending hours daydreaming, imagining each detail of the situation from our character’s point of view as prescribed by the writer, until we began to believe our make-believe. Then, when it was time for us to act we would submit to the situation we had spent time imagining. It was a challenging process, but it was simple and uncluttered. Harry’s approach gave the actor independence because it could be used when acting in any scene anywhere, while other techniques I’d been coached in had to be altered and rethought for every role.
Magda Gerber’s approach to child care is also free of gimmicks and quick fixes. A parent is asked to forego most of the equipment that we are told by others we need. Bouncy seats, walkers, jumpers, infant swings, musical mobiles are unnecessary and unproductive at best, and can even be detrimental to our ultimate goals for a child. We are taught to observe our baby’s self-initiated activity in a peaceful environment rather than resort to artificial stimulation to entertain, teach, or coax a response. We trust a baby’s inborn capabilities to daydream and create play. If imagination is more important than knowledge, isn’t listening to the songs of birds, gazing at clouds, or touching spots of shadow on a wood floor vastly more important than memorizing a word on a flashcard?
Magda gives us a basic strategy: pay full attention to a baby during ‘caring’ rituals like diapering, feeding and bathing, and then allow him to spend the rest of the day playing without interruption. The job is still challenging, but the logic is common sense. We don’t have to start suddenly doing different things for our child and rethinking our role because he is, for example, now six months old and ‘should’ be able to sit up. Trusting a child to develop at her own pace, respecting the child’s inborn abilities and developmental timetable is the overall approach. This basic trust doesn’t alter, regardless of the child’s age.
A second parallel lesson that both Harry and Magda taught me is the importance of self-reliance and intrinsic motivation. Both teachers espouse approaches that rely on inner-direction. Harry never allowed students to applaud each other after a scene. He did not want us to think in terms of performance or product, but to simply focus on our imaginary experience as completely as possible. It was extremely annoying to a people-pleasing, validation-hooked person like me when he would say, “Janet, tell me about your experience,” rather than, “That was good,” “You were fantastic,” or “That sucked.” But those stamp-of-approval kinds of responses only reinforced and perpetuated my dependence on feedback from others to function as an actor.
Playing to an audience is bad acting, and Harry wanted us to intuit for ourselves when we were truly involved in a scene, when we were not, and when we were “in-and-out.” One of his mantras was, “If you believe it, the audience knows it.” Harry believed that when an artist of any kind works to please an audience, it’s the kiss of death for his creation. Masterpieces are made when an intrinsically motivated artist expresses himself and creates to his own satisfaction.
Children are born intrinsically motivated, but can be conditioned to be outer-directed by our responses. Magda Gerber taught me the value of preserving inner-directness in a child, and this resonated, because it was an attribute I struggled to regain for myself. Magda believed in the importance of acknowledgement and encouragement, while urging caution with respect to praise.
In Magda’s book Dear Parent, Caring For Infants With Respect she suggests that, rather than praise, we act as a “sportscaster” and describe the child’s actions. When an infant rolls from his back to his stomach for the first time after days of struggle we want to yell, “Hip-hip hooray! Good job!” But when we look into a child’s eyes with a joyful smile and simply say, “You rolled over!” we see in the child a glimmer of self-satisfaction and he keeps ownership of his accomplishment.
Children naturally wish to please us; indeed, pleasing an adult caregiver is vital to an infant’s basic survival. Tempering our responses is sometimes necessary if we believe in the value of inner-direction.
It is important to protect our children from becoming “performers,” hooked on praise and external rewards. Being told we’re great doesn’t ever make us believe we are great; it only conditions us to look to others for approval. We grow in self-confidence when we stay in tune with our capabilities, when we overcome struggle and adversity to finally accomplish a goal, and when we survive failure. And, after all, aren’t self-reliance and self-confidence one and the same?