The Words That Hurt

originally appeared
June 12, 2014.

In improvisation, you have to be your own writer, director, performer, and editor. I have one rule: You are not allowed to be your own critic.

All actors want constructive criticism. That is the only way we can get better. However, there is a line. I have always doubted the effectiveness of acting teachers who beat their students like a piñata at a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Hurtful intentions travel faster than words. Abusive teachers are feared, but never heard.

Stanislavsky mentioned the No. 1 thing you needed to be an actor. Surprisingly, it was not truth or emotional depth. It was will—the strength to stand up and do it. When you have been hurt, when you hurt yourself, it becomes harder and harder to stand up.

As a business, acting has always accepted hurtful words as part of the territory. Like it or not, actors must come up with effective ways of dealing with misery.

All hurtful situations can generally be summed up as one: rejection. From bad auditions to getting fired, there is one terrible message: You are not good enough. The reason why this hurts so much is that it is true. None of us are good enough—especially by our own standards.

We have all had bad days. We have had moments when our focus is off, where our vision is not clear. Our own disappointments in ourselves are more potent than anything a director or producer could say.

The first line of defense is to be your own best friend, your advocate. Do everything you can do to be at your best. Know your lines. Understand the story you are telling, and your role in the story. Protect yourself. Don’t do self-destructive things like play golf without sunscreen before you have to work.

When we still come to the well of self-doubt, what do we do?

I think we have to embrace the idea that our lack of faith in ourselves can be a good thing. It is self-doubt that pushes us. It is self-doubt that makes us want to become one with the material. Self-doubt becomes the blood in our performances.

Self-doubt only becomes dangerous when we turn it into a lifestyle. Second-guessing yourself is a sign that your will is being affected. The cure? Pick one choice. Who knows? Maybe your instinct is right. Often our talent is more aware of what to do than our brains.

The action of doing that one choice becomes the permission we need to find new choices we may like better. “Doing” creates the flow that allows your talent to speak.

I have worked with actors who tie themselves in knots feeling their choice is not perfect, or the expression of their choice is faulty. There is no need. Remember, you are never alone. In film, you have other actors, a director, and editors who will shape your final performance. In theater, you have tomorrow.

Talent is a delicate creature. It needs kindness to come out into the light.


  1. stanleydwilliams on November 17, 2014 at 1:59 am

    Terrific, Stephen. This is true of life in general about so many things, like personal relationships. Do I have the self-confidence to carry on when a favorite uncle/director cuts me down? Do I have the will…to do my best? Of course, if I don’t prepare (my life/lines) in a way to do MY best, then I will have ignored a natural law, and can expect to mess up the relationship/role. But, I can then use that encounter to motivate me to change something the next time…except, meet unreasonable or irrational expectations of the uncle/director to play a character I have no possibility of doing well. But even then we can prepare by having the will…to do everything we can to be at our best. Know your lines of who YOU are, not the character your uncle wants you to play. Understand the story YOU are living, and your role in your story. This is hard for an actor. On stage or in front of the camera an actor is expected to wear a mask or play a role that they are not. But in real life that’ll never work for long before natural law catches up. The cure? Be honest… do good… and “Action!”