Carl Menninger studied theatre at a prestigious university whose graduates are fixtures in show business. But when it came to the business half of the profession, like most newly minted actors he was woefully unprepared.
To help other young actors avoid that experience, AU’s director of theatre, musical theatre, and dance at the College of Arts and Sciences cowrote Minding the Edge: Strategies for a Fulfilling, Successful Career as an Actor (Waveland Press), with award-winning actress Lori Hammel.
Though it’s aimed at young actors, Minding the Edge is a useful self-help guide for all types of creative artists. Its exercises help artists define their ambitions and talents and guide them toward mastering the business end of any creative profession.
According to Menninger and Hammel, there are really three edges that need minding:
- The abyss is something you don’t want to fall into. For an actor, that can mean focusing on your goals and not becoming so comfortable with a day job and social life that your true work begins to suffer. “If you’re not minding that edge you go into free fall, and the next thing you know at 30 you’re still waiting tables; you haven’t spent the energy and time pursuing your goal,” Menninger said.
- Keep your edge, translates to “staying on top of your game.” That might mean taking voice or dance lessons, or persistently auditioning for parts, whether they’re dream roles or not.
- Don’t be an edgy person. Most people want to avoid high-maintenance diva types, so “don’t become the gossip, the person who snaps at people, the toxic presence in the room,” Menninger cautioned.
Which brings us to Neg-a-Tors, defined by Menninger and Hammel as: “external negative forces, people, thoughts, and opinions that bring us down.” How do you deal with these negative forces?
“We come across them all the time, and they’re tough. I try to kill it with kindness because it irritates them,” Menninger said. If you find yourself thinking, ‘That positive guy really irritates me,’ you’d better ask yourself, How ridiculous is that?
“Artists can be very self-absorbed. To some extent you have to be; you’re fighting your own fight out there,” he said. “Remembering that everyone, including you, is contributing to a larger whole in creative endeavors requires a shift in mind-set,” Menninger explained.
Discipline and motivation are underlying themes of the book.
Because a creative artist’s work life is less formally structured than most other professions — finding the self-discipline to be proactive about your career after college (going to audition after audition, spending the time to make contacts after a day’s work) goes against a lifetime of conditioning. From the time you start acting you’re in a “reactive paradigm — you master tasks, await assessment, enjoy successes as you master harder and harder tasks — but you’re always reacting.
Then you graduate from college and “everything changes, you become a business owner,” Menninger noted. “That’s really what an actor is, a business owner. That takes a discipline of thought and action.”
It comes down to motivation.
You have to ask the “important questions, like: ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is it I’m selling?’ and ‘What’s motivating me to do this?’ That’s the big question.”
If you answer, money or celebrity, you’re probably in the wrong business.
“Money is nice, but you’ll get derailed if your motivation isn’t ‘this is what I love and when I’m doing it I’m in the zone; when I’m doing it I feel creative, smart, engaged, empowered,’” Menninger said. “If that’s not what’s driving you to be an artist of any kind, it’s going to be harder — unless you get an incredibly lucky break.”