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The Essentials

Performer and coach Tahlia Norrish talks about taking ownership of what’s in our power as actors, letting go of the things we have no control over, and knowing the difference between the two.

Imagine how much more progress we could make if we stopped giving energy to anything and everything outside of our control.

Last year I wrote a piece for Spotlight about the importance of defining the terms of our own success. This is the vital first step in any pursuit (for what is action without clarity?) but for it to really take root, also requires an acknowledgement of what’s within our control, and what isn’t.

As actors, there are so many factors beyond our control. Getting from A to B can often feel like an uphill battle, regardless of how clearly defined that endpoint is, and this can be immensely disheartening.

I’d like to offer a different way of navigating this via an unusual metaphor: the actor’s sandpit. I know, but bear with me. For our purposes, this ‘sandpit’ refers to a clearly outlined area of things within our control and the recognition that everything outside our neat quadrilateral border is not in our control. The liberation you’ll feel when you consciously decide upon your own measures of success will increase tenfold when paired with this thought-experiment. You have my word.

What’s Outside Our Sandpit i.e. Things We Can’t Control

We’ll start with what we don’t and can’t control, as this is by far the larger list. This won’t be exhaustive by any means, so please feel free to add your own.

Let’s begin with the big ones. We can’t control:

  •  booking a role
  •  signing with a particular agent or manager
  •  getting an audition.

That’s right actor friends, none of these things are in our sandpit.

We could fail to book a gig or audition because of any number of variables: physical traits, those already cast, the existence of a fellow actor who’s seemingly born to tell this story etc. And as painful as not securing that coveted part is (and it is), agonising over the result is futile and unproductive.

Similarly, signing with representation that we have our heart set on is also beyond our sandpit. The agent or manager may already have someone who covers our casting, requires clients with larger social followings and press exposure or hell, they may just be having a bad day when our email happens to appear in their inbox.

It’s sometimes hard enough to deal with things outside our sandpit in everyday life (e.g. the weather, the flow of traffic, the opinions and actions of other people etc.) but it can feel even more disempowering when we add industry politics and all the other frustrating elements of our craft to the mix.

Allow yourself to let these things go. It’s time to focus on our square metre of sandy ownership.

What’s In Our Sandpit i.e. Things We Can Control

This may seem to leave us with very little within our power, but that is really the point. There’s a reason why horses are given blinkers when racing: it narrows their focus and concentration.

Broadly speaking, there are two main areas of our sandpit:

  •  our attitude
  •  our preparation.

These are the things we should be channelling our brilliance into and really knuckling down on. Imagine how much more progress we could make if we stopped giving energy to anything and everything outside of our control. Yeah, a lot.

We’re always able to choose our perspective, and that in turn has massive repercussions. You may be familiar with Viktor Frankl’s astute quote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

You can undoubtedly call to mind people whose energy is so positive and productive that you can’t help but be attracted to them, and on the other hand, you can probably also think of a person whose insistent negativity unconsciously repels. We have this choice within our day-to-day lives, and also within our careers. Choose wisely.

Likewise, our preparation is a section of our sandpit no-one can take from us, and we should actively defend. What does our ongoing training and skill development look like? How up-to-date are we about our industry? Are we taking ownership of our marketing, networking, and content creation? These actions are on us and us alone.

Diligently dedicate yourself to getting your sandpit in order. Make it the best damn sandpit you are currently capable of creating.

It’s important to stress that this isn’t passivity […] but actually true responsibility. Taking aggressive accountability for what’s in our sandpit, whilst having the grace to release what isn’t.

The Practice

This isn’t a new idea. Shantideva, the eighth-century Buddhist master, once wrote: “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?”

It’s important to stress that this isn’t passivity – just simply letting whatever happens happen – but actually true responsibility. Taking aggressive accountability for what’s in our sandpit, whilst having the grace to release what isn’t. Easier said than done? Absolutely, but that’s why this is a practice and not a quick fix.

Regardless of our religion or spirituality, the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr is a poignant reminder: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference”.

Ultimately, when something fun and shiny is thrown into our sandpit (hello, Netflix TV series!), we’ll be far better placed to direct all our genius and flair to that. Which in turn will encourage more fun and shiny objects to be thrown our way.

Chances are that the more we put our head down and focus on cultivating the most flawless sandpit around, the larger this sandpit will naturally grow. Excellence begets excellence. Give yourself the best chance of showcasing this by focusing on what it is you can affect.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for sticking with me. I admire your open-mindedness, and sincerely hope you find some value behind the metaphor and practice. Enjoy the liberation this figurative structure gifts you. There’s real joy in letting everything else just be.

Go make some sandcastles or sand-angels if the mood takes you, but treat your sandpit as your temple. At some point, others will inevitably be drawn to the rare beauty of a carefully curated square of sand, and that will be your time to shine.

Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie-Brit actor, writer, and current MPhil Candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Sport Sciences. After graduating from The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Distinction, Acting and Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (First Class Hons, Acting), Tahlia founded The Actor’s Dojo — a pioneering coaching program centred on actor peak performance and holistic wellbeing.

Headshot credit: Ben Wilkin

Image by Dallas Reedy via Unsplash.