Lessons in Action: An Interview with Jesse Wilson
One blustery Colorado morning at the Pikes Perk in Downtown Colorado Springs, I met with Jesse Wilson, actor, artist, human. He’s a man of many talents, many masks, and many roles. His recent TedTalks video focuses on his series for personal empowerment, Lessons from the Stage, and after watching the video, I was intrigued. His passion and surety that the technologies taught to actors could make a difference in average people’s lives seemed brilliant, and I wanted to understand what motivates him, what keeps him going, and how he even came up with the idea for his series.
As soon as I entered the shop, he greeted me with great enthusiasm. I found his conversation enlivening, and after I grabbed a mocha latte, we got down to business amid the scent of freshly brewed coffee and the murmurs of hushed table conversations.
Deen: This is Lindsay Deen, with US Represented, and I am sitting here with Jesse Wilson.
Wilson: At Pikes Perk with a cappuccino–
Deen: And a mocha. So I guess I’ll just start out by asking you about your TedTalks video, which I was excited to watch– what inspired your outlook?
Wilson: What inspired my outlook– to back up about twenty years before I did the TedTalk was a pivotal, defining moment for me in my life, going to the Juilliard School. Young, cocky, eighteen-year-old actor– you get it, right? Right out of high school in New York City, and I go to this school that just kicked my butt, you know? I’ve compared it to theater boot camp, and it was. To no fault of anybody, there was a piece missing for me that would have been pivotal in my training.
Here I am studying how to be other characters, but I didn’t know how to be myself, and it would have been really cool if I had taken a course on how to be a human being. That woulda been a hell of a roll to play, and it took me a long time to be okay with me. That is really what created and inspired the TedTalk, and the work that I’m doing with Lessons from the Stage.
I had to go back and learn the basics and fundamentals of the theater world, and I found this connection between what I had learned as an actor to what I could learn and teach others as a human being. So, much of my work is personal development, storytelling effectiveness, but it is really taking the best of what I have learned as a human being and the best of what I love about theater… and I’ve brought them together.
So, one of the biggest lessons in the theater world– and I talk about this in the TedTalk– the first thing you learn actually in acting class is how to “use” or embrace the obstacle. That makes a scene come to life. It makes a character come to life. If a director is worth his/her salt, they’ll say, “Okay, what are your pain points in the scene? What are you struggling against? What is creating resistance?”
And if you don’t have that, then you’re emotionally flat-lining. You’ve got no place to go. So, that’s the conditioning that a good actor, and a good program, goes through. That kind of thinking, that kind of conditioning, can elevate an okay actor into a really great actor. You’ve got a huge emotional or physical obstacle getting in the way of what you want.
So I stated seeing the connection there. I’m like, “Well, if that’s so valuable for actors, can that work in life?” But what happens in life? The obstacle presents itself, something uncomfortable is there, and most of us, through conditioning, go, “Well, that’s a bad thing.”
Deen: Exactly. Walk away, put it in the closet, etc. Wherever it needs to go, I don’t care, I just don’t want to look at it.
Wilson: Right. It’s embarrassing, it’s shameful, it’s uncomfortable, it makes me feel like crap—so why would I want to deal with it? Right?
Well, being a lifelong recovering “pleasure-seeker,” I get that! But it’s still there on the other side. You can run but you can’t hide. You get to the point where you’re saying, “Oh, sh**, I gotta look at some of this stuff.”
When I did, I started seeing some of this. And it’s stuff that you intellectually know, and you hear people say all the time, and it’s really true, at least in my experience. Typically, when there’s something uncomfortable, there’s something behind that that could be interpreted and used as a gift, if we learn how to use it and if we have the tools to be able to recognize its value. And so, that is a lesson from the theater that I was able to apply to my life and the work that I do with other people.
Wilson: Yes, it’s fascinating work, and I love it.
Deen: And, so the way that the work “works,” for lack of a better word, is you just go in and you’re with the people you’re coaching through things. So how does that work?
Wilson: There are a lot of different groups that I work with. I’m working with trial lawyers right now, using theater to help tell the winning story. And I’m– I just did a professional development workshop on Saturday training teachers, and I work with kids, and I work with college students, and I’m fortunate to work with as many different groups as I have been… but the approach is very similar, the wording, the language– I adjust it to be appropriate for the different groups I’m working with, but the principles and foundation of Lessons From The Stage are all designed to help you step into a greater role.
I maintain that we all have ideas about what we think is “Our Story.” And again, that’s the conditioning through other people’s ideas. How often do we actually allow ourselves to actually give ourselves space to go, “Okay, this is what I think is my story. Can I pull it over here and look at it from a different perspective? And now, well, maybe it’s not my story.”
When we do that, when you do that kind of work– and this is all stuff from the theater– then we get this incredible, unique opportunity to “collapse our story,” and to be able to become what I call “The Watcher.” When we become “The Watcher,” then life gets really interesting because you’re involved, but you’re detached at the same time. You’re emotionally completely there, but you’re not so hooked on your story that you’re not able to see other things around you. And that helps enormously with pain, fear, outcome– you’re rockin’ and rollin’– and then you become fascinated with your life rather than thinking, “Why is this? Why can’t my life be over here, or there, or there?” And you no longer have to live your life with your nose pressed up against the glass, looking at something else.
Deen: That’s really interesting to me because it seems that you are able to take people from a space of “Why me?” to “Yes! Me!”
Wilson: That’s perfect. Exactly. Warts and all.
Deen: So when you take people through that transformation, that change, that shift, what is that like for you?
Wilson: It’s incredible. It is. It’s beyond gratitude. It really is. It’s humbling, it’s inspiring creatively, emotionally, spiritually, whatever you want to call it. It’s where you see that– and I think it’s a line, I didn’t make it up, maybe it’s from Anthony Robbins– who said that “You had the match in your hand the whole time, and all I did was tell you to strike it.” You did it, for yourself, and when you see people in front of your eyes empowering themselves, people who came with so much fear and resistance, and you see that just collapsing, it’s great. It’s fantastic. But for me, I tell people, this is why I’ll never retire from this stuff because I teach what I need to learn. All the time. And it keeps me grounded. If I’m not practicing this stuff in my own life, I’m an ineffective teacher, I’m an ineffective husband, I’m just not showing up. I’m cut off. So I need this stuff.
So, you know, the work, the approach, is taking the monologue format. I don’t know how familiar you are with how a monologue works, but the fundamentals of the monologue, if you strip away the word “acting” and “monologue” and take away all the theater associations you have with that becomes the basis for real change to occur.
The steps of the monologue are the exact same steps that anyone can take to make radical life transformation. It’s ridiculously simple as all great ideas are.
In a monologue, there are two main principles, or foundational elements. And the first one is “What do you want?” and the second is, “What is getting in the way of what you want?” If you just take those two things, those two ideas, those two questions, and take away the acting, aren’t those the two questions that we deal with every day? We want something, and the minute that we want it, something gets in the way of that.
So, taking that and then applying it to “Your Story,” that’s the approach.
Deen: And that’s really the work, and that’s where the work happens.
Wilson: That’s right. So when people sign up for a workshop, I have them go through their obstacles, get them out on the table. Then I ask, “Now, what’s the one thing you really want to change in your life?”
Well, I maybe really want to change my job, or my relationship, or I want a new car, or—you know, we all want to change something. And those are what I call the Surface Obstacles. But beneath that, there’s something greater going on. We all want passion. We all want a sense of commitment to something greater than ourselves. When we say relationship, maybe it isn’t just about a man and a woman, maybe it’s a relationship with life.
So the tools of the theater allow you to plug into those universal things that we all want, and when you do that, now you’re collapsing your story, and you’re reaching for something that’s way bigger than that Surface Obstacle. We all want money, but more than that, we want to feel purpose, to feel alive, and so this is a step-by-step process that eventually allows somebody to step into what I call “Their Stretch.” And their stretch is something that isn’t just an immediate stamp, and here’s my outcome, now I’m a humble man, or now I’m a passionate man.
What is so beautiful about art and what is so often overlooked is this idea called process. I believe it’s that whole line: the journey is the destination. So it’s sort of like the search for what you want to be is often greater than being the thing that you think you are.
The tools of theater allow you to swim and to search, and most programs that I’ve seen have great intentions, but they don’t allow the participant to really swim and search and dig through this stuff. That, to me, is one of the most fundamental parts of creating good art: the search.
Is that making sense? I hope I’m not–
Deen: It is making sense! I think even somebody who is painting, or somebody who is forming a dance, or any kind of art– there’s a search for the content. And there’s a search for yourself inside of it, and that’s what makes art so beautiful… that’s what draws people to art.
Wilson: The search, the journey, the seeking, that is what makes life fascinating. Because if it was just some “Boom, here it is”– no. The work that I do, hopefully, is a springboard to a new way of living your life. It isn’t just, “here’s my pill,” and I don’t even know how that works. But to be fascinated, especially in the discomfort, to become curious rather than angry, to become a listener rather than someone who is in combat mode… That’s the ideal.
Deen: Exactly. I think in modern society, we do face up against a lot of things where we just get defensive.
Wilson: All the time.
Deen: We put our walls up.
Deen: And so, the work that you do, it allows people to see their walls, to see where they’re stopped, and see all these things that are in their way, and say, “Oh, I’m hitting a wall against that thing. What do I do?” And then you have a technology to help them not only view it and be there with it, but then go beyond it.
Wilson: Yes. And isn’t it interesting that when you get fascinated with something, those walls tend to disappear?
Deen: Yes, with the whole “curiosity” thing.
Wilson: Yeah. If I’m curious enough, that means that I’m diffusing the fear, the threat… It’s no longer an enemy. It’s a participant and an ally. And now let’s go onto the next big idea. And let’s look at that, and at that, and that. I don’t know why else we’re here, I mean, on this planet— I really don’t– but to become fascinated with those things we find deplorable.
Deen: Exactly, the things that make us extremely uncomfortable.
Wilson: Right, and to me, that’s theater. So all these things that made so much sense to me in acting class, I could never apply to real life. You know, acting class, that was a safe little world or bubble. Out there, in relationships with everybody and everything, that was the real challenge. And then, of course, the one biggest relationship that you can’t escape…
Deen: Is with yourself. What am I gonna do about that?
Wilson: Exactly. I couldn’t apply any of that stuff I learned in acting class to that, to life. You know, Shakespeare talks about “all the world’s a stage,” you’ve heard that so many times, right? Well, that’s exactly it. It’s like, okay, if I take that literally, I mean, literally– it sounds great when Shakespeare says it, but if I really think that, if right now, right here, in this coffee shop, is the world stage, then what is a stage? What happens on the stage? The actors have “their entrances and exits, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages”– you know, this is, and I don’t want to call this a performance, but I mean, we’re on… right now.
Wilson: I do believe your life is not a dress rehearsal. So if we’re all in a play, if we’re all in the story, why not make it a frickin’ great one?
Wilson: What the hell are you waiting for?
Deen: I completely agree. It’s funny because the whole idea of the world being a stage– like how interesting is that idea now with technology and the cameral world? We’re always being on camera, recorded, by our government, by our friends, by whoever happens to have a cell phone. As actors on the stage, as players in the game, what is our role? So what do you think, as a whole, humans’ role in this grand production is?
Wilson: You know, I could say something really big and profound… I could say love, but what does that mean? I don’t know. I think, to live to be happy, joyous, and free. I think so. I think, too, to not be inhibited by fear, and to certainly to serve, and to help other people find the light in their eyes, but I think to be happy, joyous, and free… Honestly, that would be… That’s the bulls eye.
Deen: That’s beautiful, because, really, what else do humans have? We have a planet, we have ourselves, and we can either be miserable, or we can be happy, and figure out what that looks like.
Wilson: The scientific answer would be, some even might say, that we are here to create, and to procreate, but not just physically with other humans, but to create and procreate ideas, and to grow. That’s our basic function as human beings. We can either create horrible things or beautiful things, but that’s what we do. We usually tend not to just keep doing the same thing again and again– we keep wanting to improve.
What I’m fascinated with are those things that get in the way or conspire against those abilities, our inherent ability to create something amazing within ourselves, and I believe everybody has that ability. Yet we have this thing called fear, called the human ego, that separates us from ourselves. I can keep going on. I did the whole high school thing, sitting on a log with a joint, and that certainly has its place, you know, you’re off in the woods going, “What’s my purpose?” But to love and to be loved, to laugh, to have great friends, great movies, to not be shackled by fear… That’s my thing, honestly, is how can fear serve me?
Deen: Yes, because we live in a society that is very fearful, I think. What do you think our fear-based society can actually offer people, and how can they use it?
Wilson: Well, fear is inevitable. What I tell students, every student, is that, and I wish to God I could say I made this up, and I don’t remember who says this, I need to find this quote, so maybe some of the readers can find this, but, “Fear is like fire. It can either warm your house or destroy it depending on how you live with it.”
When you learn to use fear as an ally, as an assistant, as an athlete becoming a better athlete in the race, or a performer who has recognized that stage fright is actually an inherent part of getting a fantastic, knock-out performance, then you’re living with and working with fear, and fear becomes that ally to allow you to step into a greater role rather than pretending that you’re not supposed to have it. It’s the human ego, and you cannot escape the human ego.
Some people might say, “I’m going to be totally ego-less.” Well, that’s like saying, “I’m going to be skinless.”
Deen: And walk around without any skin ’cause I don’t want this skin-bag.
Wilson: Yes, it’s how we work with it. I think fear is a very healthy and necessary feeling. And there’s a part about fear that turns us on, too. If we didn’t have fear, would we feel so compelled to take that leap in conversation, or meet that person we really want, or go after the job you really, really want?
When we make that leap, our shoulders get tense, our breathing gets tight, our heart starts pounding, and all the rituals and things that we go through to get to the other side of fear… but I think that’s exciting. I think that’s really cool, because then, when you’re on the other side of it, you’re like, “Oh, I did it, man!” You make the phone call and say, “Wow, look at what I did!” Or you write in your journal and say, “I broke up with that dude, that schmuck,” or “You know what, I love her, but I can’t be with her anymore.”
That’s all using fear properly. That’s good stuff because I believe we create our own resistances in order to experience overcoming them. And I do believe that we are catalysts in those painful experiences. A huge part of life, if you want to look at it, is about celebrating the moments when those walls crumble. There’s always more walls, of course, but it’s thrilling to break through them.
Deen: It is. I think that on the other side of fear really is excitement. And every time I’m afraid of something and it gets to that point where it’s excitement, I’m like, “Yes! Oh!” But I really do think that fear is something that stops us, because, “Oh, I’m so afraid!” When was the first time that you really noticed the difference or connection between fear, excitement, and action?
Wilson: That’s a great question. I love that question. I don’t know if there was ever that one, ah-ha moment, now that I think about it. It’s like that cartoon strip where the guy goes to see the Dali Lama, or some spiritually wise being.
He climbs us this mountain top, and he sees the high, holy one sitting there, very passively smiling, hands folded in his lap, and the seeker asks, “How did you get to where you are? This place of love and acceptance? I want to be like you! How did you get to this divine state?”
The high holy one looks at the seeker and says, “Well, I f****d up a lot.”
Deen: (laughter) Exactly.
Wilson: So, to make a long story short, you get your a** handed to you enough times, you start doing something differently.
Wilson: You know, you ask yourself, “Do I want to keep living in this hamster cage? Or, maybe I can try this?” And, that’s what I did. To me, I saw the same uncomfortable things showing up and surfacing in a lot of different areas of my life where, again, you can run but you can’t hide.
Deen: And the one person who was always there was you.
Wilson: Exactly. That’s the one person I couldn’t quite escape. And, so I decided to say, “Hello, Jesse. Nice to meet you. Let’s take a look at you.” I did a lot of work on that. And honestly, it was because of pain. I wasn’t like, “Yay, I want to work on me!” No. I don’t think anybody makes any real life change when they’re really inspired. I think it’s great to be inspired, that’s a wonderful thing, but, again, it’s like smoking a jay in the woods. It doesn’t last for very long. Eventually, it fades, and so that was my experience. I got it handed to me. So I had to look at things differently.
It was very clear. I can either choose that road, or I can choose this road. That road, on the left side, was very destructive and full of ego and fear… very unhealthy life stuff was going on on that road. Or I can choose this road. And to look behind that road to see behind it was something really great, which is reflected in the path of this road. And how I got to this road was to go through and look at a lot of that stuff very objectively, get real and honest about it. That’s how the work that I did streamed out of it. Lessons From The Stage.
So, isn’t that interesting, that the very thing I found deplorable on that road, became the very thing that I’m doing now. Out of the ashes…
Deen: And going through the fire, for real.
Wilson: I’m living proof. I tell people to “use it.” The thing that I found deplorable was the thing that gave me the most creative freedom. I wasn’t fighting my life anymore. Sort of like when you tell on yourself and nobody else has got anything on you.
Deen: Yes, I’m gonna tell one on myself now.
Wilson: This is me.
Deen: This is me.
Wilson: You know, I wrote a children’s book about perfectionism, and I wrote a novel about dealing with disillusion and the idea that I was supposed to be somebody else to live a great life. I thought, “Why not just tell the truth on yourself and use it, for God sakes, just use it. If the pain is there that often, you might as well. What the hell else are you going to write about?”
So, I became The Watcher, and I became fascinated. I’m not saying that I’m out of the woods– I don’t think you ever really are. There are some things I would love to go away, but because they’re not, I might as well use them.
Deen: So, I don’t want to get super personal, but what kind of things do you really find yourself coming up against… what are your obstacles? Maybe one example? And then, how do you turn it around and use it to your advantage?
Wilson: Well, one among many is this idea of love and how it works in relationships. It sounds so great to say, “unconditional,” but what does that really mean, to be unconditionally loving? Man. That’s a struggle.
I’m in my second marriage, and I love her to death. (That’s a scary phrase, actually, “I love her to death.”) I live a great life, but there’s a part of me that could destroy that because of the human ego. So much of what I teach and write about is the understanding and the awareness around what love is. I’m fascinated by that, and I’ve struggled with that in relationships. I went through a marriage where I was fortunate enough that we ended it amicably. After eleven years, we threw down the swords and said done.
I’m actually writing my second novel, which is about love and the idea that to love something, you have got to be able to let it go. And I guess some people would call that detachment… I definitely think it takes more love to let go than it does to hold onto something. But what we do in love often is “mine, mine, mine, mine, mine!”
Deen: It’s like Smeagol… Gollum.
Wilson: Yes! She’s the ring, and I’m Gollum, absolutely. Were all in this Gollum-like state. So after my first marriage, I got really honest around this idea of love and relationships, and I became fascinated with it… so I began writing about it. There’s certainly a lot of material, beginning the moment I was born to now. A huge amount of comedy, as well.
Deen: You can’t have love without comedy. Shakespeare totally got that.
Wilson: So there’s a biggie, right there.
Deen: Thank you. And I think the idea of letting go, too, is something that I really heard as a resonating theme throughout all these experiences and really throughout looking at the obstacle and moving through it– you gotta let go of whatever that thing is that’s keeping you in the obstacle.
Wilson: It’s so easy sitting here over coffee to just say, “You just gotta let go of old ideas.” But the ones that are really entrenched, to let go of that, it can be death, and it is a kind of death.
Deen: A death of the self.
Wilson: Letting go and being willing to try something different is the bravest thing that anyone can do.
Deen: I agree. I think you have to let go of something to truly appreciate it. If you’re sitting there holding onto your pretty little crystal figurine, you’re never going to set it in the sunlight and let it shine all by itself.
Wilson: That was great. Beautifully said. You know, I have another friend who said, “Thank you, God, for what you’ve given me, and thank you for what you’ve taken away.” Be grateful for both of those. That’s huge.
Deen: It’s a beautiful idea, not just a beautiful idea but a beautiful practice in life. And I think we’re seeing more and more of this kind of conversation happening because we’ve got people like you out here in the world really making a difference with individuals.
Wilson: The world needs it.
Deen: Yeah. . . . Art is an expression through which people can really get into themselves, get above themselves, and get over themselves. Teaching people how to do that, whichever method works best for them, if it’s writing, acting, painting, sculpture…
Wilson: It’s fascinating to me because the real change with me happened when I worked with the prison group. They had absolutely no interest in acting. I mean, come on, Juilliard? We’re tattooed out gangsters, man. It was a scary environment.
Deen: They were kids who were incarcerated, right?
Wilson: Yeah. So, next stop was the big time for them. It’s weird. If you say, “The Arts,” to a lot of people, I think there’s a kind of attitude. Yeah, go off in the woods and contemplate your inner navel, and it has no connection. It’s nice to take some poetry workshops every now and then, but, where does that show up in my real life?
And while working with this group, I saw there was certainly much more to the arts than entertainment. It can change lives. It needs to change lives. And it has a relevance as real as this table, and it has a practicality as practical as the air we breathe. It’s not about expressing so much as being… changing your state emotionally and physically to walk into the role you were meant to be on this planet. And if we don’t have an awareness around that, if we don’t have people teaching that…?
Deen: Then where is humanity really going to go?
Wilson: And that’s why we see what we’re seeing– because we’re cut off. It’s not because we’re choosing a different road. It’s because we don’t have an option to choose. We’re conditioned to go down that road. It’s taught in pockets, but it needs to be much bigger than it is. . . . And I think a lot of people think you have to be an artist to do that, you have to be good at drawing, acting, dancing, all that stuff. But that’s so not what it’s about. I mean, I love working with artists and people who are there and want to go further, but it’s really a turn-on for me to work with people who have no connection with theater.
The workshop I did in September in Manitou– we’re getting ready to set up a whole series of 2015 Lessons from the Stage weekend retreats and intensives– with the exception with one person in the group, no one had any connection to the theater. These were business professionals who wanted something different in their life and were intrigued enough to give it a shot.
This woman said, “If you’d walked into this workshop, you’d never know that these weren’t theater people because of the openness and the sharing.” And the stories that came out of them and the changes that occurred– it was better than anything I’ve experienced within the theater. That, again, was another confirmation to me. You don’t have to be an actor, dancer, sculptor, to work with and communicate with the arts. The Arts are designed and built to teach something that goes way beyond the stage, the art studio, or the dance studio.
Art is about life.
Deen: Yes, it is. Well, I just want to thank you for sharing your insight, for sharing your world with us, and really just making it real with your words, painting a picture.
Wilson: It was great. I love this. This is fun.
Deen: This is Lindsay Deen, signing off for US Represented.
As we finished our conversation and left the coffee house, I mulled over Jesse’s last words: “Art is about life.” I couldn’t agree more. The value of studying art lies in the processes and spaces through which the study takes the artist. In the process is where the student learns the practice, the patience, the skill to create something of great beauty.
Teaching art, really teaching it as something effective to use to cope, to create, and to make the world a better place doesn’t occur in the modern American educational model. Really, art education seems to be at odds with our current educational system. A bit odd, really, when you think of how important creativity is for our country and our children as they grow into their futures. Where else, other than art, can one truly delve into one’s creative impulses and learn to harness them? I had no answer for this question. Still, programs like Jesse’s can make a huge impact in a culture where we often fail to teach children how to explore their own creativity. My artist’s heart rests easier at night knowing he’s out there, possibly masked at times, fighting the good fight and bringing theater, the true art of performance, into our everyday lives.