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  • Sonya Cooke

Rest: "Professor Cooke, did you really just say that?"

Actors today rarely know when to take a break. And the moment they do, suffering from FOMO, they thrust themselves into yet more creative activity in order to stave off the fear of doing too little. This pandemic, however, has forced us all into some degree of inactivity, if only we would relent. (The image of my toddler running laps inside his crib at naptime comes to mind.) And now we are compelled to examine our compulsions: when it comes to creative work, “When can I/should I/dare I rest?”

It appears the former stigma of the lazy actor has finally faded. Long gone are the so-seeming days of complacent actors waiting by the phone for their agents to call. In order to make it in the industry today, actors find themselves living in a blur of productivity and networking. I keenly remember this time in my life, and I still can relate (one form of workaholism only transforms into another.) And certainly, most Americans have the same work-obsessed affliction. It’s just in the case of actors, who already seem to dwell at the bottom of the food chain, that the desperation seeps even deeper. As a result, actors struggle to identify when to slow down and rest.

I must admit that I condition my actors to work hard, often employing a comparison of dancers or musicians who daily dedicate hours upon hours to their craft. Acting is inherently collaborative, yet gone (or rare), too, are the days of traveling troupes, repertory seasons, and full-time acting companies. Therefore, modern day actors very frequently live a life of isolation. (Another image: this one of an aspiring actor making the long drive from North Hollywood to Santa Monica for auditions, all alone.) And thusly, it can be challenging, if not impossible, to motivate or inspire an actor to put in the craft hours that their creative colleagues are capable of achieving. And so, I find myself rallying my students to cultivate their individual discipline, so they are not only professional actors, but competitive actors. Roughly biannually, I find occasion to reverse course on this Energizer Bunny march toward success.

In the past weeks I’ve found myself having conversations with students on the merits of rest. I just completed final grades (thank god) for my three courses at Louisiana State University. And across the board, the students and faculty are exhausted. The trauma of the pandemic has hit everyone, and we are all depleted. I don’t care how many sourdough loaves folks on Facebook have baked, the creative source has been tapped. NOW is the occasion to stand back, take stock, and recharge during the precious days, weeks, or months students have between this moment and the next obligation. During our closing sessions, students asked questions about how to stay busy or how to keep growing over the summer months. Students love to be told “Do more, read this, create that,” and, absolutely, very frequently that is the right and best direction to take. On the other hand, the suggestion to rest often is met with resistance. “How could I deserve to rest? Won’t I fall behind?” They look at me questioningly, “Professor Cooke, did you really just say that?”

There is nothing wrong with choosing activity; what is troublesome is when one takes up a project based on fear of inadequacy, as opposed to genuine desire. And sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish the two. Ultimately, actors must appreciate their limitations. Returning to the image of the toddler: my son may feel totally inspired to chat with his stuffed animals all naptime long, but then he is a terror by dinnertime. Actors are not unlike little tots; they may be teeming with present energy, but the wise better self can see further down the road when that actor collapses from exhaustion.

The amazing truth is rest is vital for the growth of the actor. I often witnessed my colleagues come back from summer break transformed. While they pounded their heads against the wall all spring, by fall they were released from that stress and simultaneously better actors. Taking a break allows for letting go to occur. And when the actor experiences some degree of sustained surrender, the lessons they struggled to learn for months on end find their way into the subconscious. And that is where we want the work to reside. From the subconscious it is no longer work; it is now our improved mode of operation.

All this to say, take a break, actors, when and where you can. Trust that it is truly the best thing you can do for your acting (if no other reason is compelling.) Listen deeply for the genuine call to be productive. Do not leave or short-change your rest out of an anxious urge to find your worth in activity. If you rest, you will be able to work as hard as any other artist in hot pursuit of their greatness. Until then, absorb the riches of your education by taking some time to rest.

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