By Youssef Sabet
What I’ve Learned: A Letter to Current Students
“Be proactive and find a way to do what others aren’t.”
Atlantic Full Time Conservatory Alum Youssef Sabet was asked to speak to his fellow classmates during their Final Share Day, 2020. In his own words, read below what Youssef has learned during his time at Atlantic Acting School.
Dear all first, second and third year students,
Firstly, congrats on getting through the year! And secondly thank you for having me speak to you today. Before I start I will say: I do not have all the answers so take what I say with a grain of salt. Take from it what may work for you and drop anything that doesn’t. But here goes, this is what I have learned after two and a half years at Atlantic.
Firstly, and in my opinion the most important thing I have learned is to be militant about the things that are controllable.
I like to worry about the small things to allow the big things to take care of themselves. That’s knowing my lines, arriving fifteen minutes early to class and rehearsals, reading the plays I’m working on five to ten times through, doing my vocal and speech warm ups daily or as much as I possibly can. These seem like basics, but to me they are the foundation. Once I got into the habit of doing all these things obsessively I found all the other things to take care of themselves. Obviously we all slip up on things. I’ve gone weeks at a time without a warm up, I’ve also barged into a fifteen minute rule like an obnoxious idiot whilst everyone else was embracing the peace of that room, but I’ve learned it’s about holding yourself accountable and not just beating yourself up. I like to simply acknowledge that I can do better, then I like to go from there.
Secondly, I learned that being easy to work with will do you wonders both in this program and in the professional world.
And that does not mean being a pushover to someone in power, it means working with a positive attitude with nothing in mind but wanting to improve the work. As you progress in this program, you get more chances to be directed by your teachers, unlike C1 and the early stages of C2 where there is a much needed emphasis on learning the technique and learning how to apply it. When your teachers act more as directors, it’s up to you to arrive ultra-prepared to class, like you would on a set or at a rehearsal, because, like a director, your teachers may not go into such in depth discussions about your analysis of the scene as they did in C1 and first semester C2.
I learned to get into the habit of knowing my analysis like it was a religion, to the point where you don’t need to look at your notebook when asked “what is your literal, action and want?” because if I had to look at my notebook, did I really know this analysis and this scene as well as I thought I did? To me, being easy to work with means taking a note with the attitude of “Thank you so much for helping me do better,” rather than “Are you serious right now? Do you know how hard I’ve worked on this?” This in my opinion helps the work progress much faster into something much more truthful and meaningful. I learned that all the teachers and directors we get the privilege of working with are here to help. They want to see us do well—they are not here to put us down. Once I made that switch in my mind, I found it much easier to work with my teachers and I’d actually walk out of a class with a smile on my face. When it comes to working with directors from outside of school for your plays, I learned to approach rehearsal with the same attitude: don’t be stand offish, be a collaborator. There have been a few instances this year where our directors from one acts have cast students from Atlantic productions, keep that in mind.
The third thing I want to touch on is how I learned to think about the career side of things early! I would ask yourself, “What actors, writers, directors am I drawn to? Why?” Once you figure that out, you might find a trend in all their work, and for me this was a great indicator of the type of work I wanted to do. If you like someone’s work, email them! Tell them their work inspired you, then put a feeler out there: “I’d love to get a coffee (or in this case virtual coffee) sometime, I think I could learn a great deal from you and put it into practice in my own work.” I have organized several meetings with actors, directors and producers whose work I loved and have taken something from it every time. I’ve learned to not go into those meetings with the mindset of getting hired, but instead simply to gain advise that I may incorporate into my own life. Even if they don’t get a coffee with me, most of the time I’ve gotten an email reply. If you relate to a film, email the casting director with your headshot and resume and tell them that! Maybe even send them a little video about yourself.
Be proactive and find a way to do what others aren’t. Create your own audition opportunities rather than waiting for one to come.
In C5 we are constantly asked by our teachers:”Why do you act?” “Who are five artist you’d like to work with?” “What’s a play you have to do in your lifetime?” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I’ve learned that I wish I’d known the answers to these questions sooner, all I had to do was take the time to ask myself and journal it down! It may be forever changing as I and the world around me changes, but I feel like everything I do acting-wise is directed toward those common goals. I feel like I am constantly chipping away, in a small way, at the huge goals I have. I’d suggest that over the break you ask yourself all these questions so you can come back next semester as an actor who knows what they want and need to fuel them! It makes the work much more exciting and, in my opinion, like it’s not even work, you actually have a solid purpose rather than just doing “a really cool play my friend told me about.”
Leading from that, I learned that creating your own work is a game changer! And I know writing can be intimidating—stop judging yourself like I did. I hated English at school, I spell like a preschooler and my grammar is s***, but I forced myself to write stories I wanted to tell and really did find a rhythm and my own way. Once you create your work, of course preform it either alone or with friends. Film it on your iPhone, your Nokia, whatever! Perform it at the park! Forget funding and money, just do whatever you can with what you have. Pre-Covid, Jake Fallon from C5 created this event called “put something up:” we’d all come together, generally in a whoever’s apartment was up for grabs. We’d do this once every few weeks and people could perform new things they were working on in front of a crowd. Stand up comedy, sketch scenes, songs, guitar solos, hand puppet shows, whatever—we did this all through C1 and C2. And though things have changed, I’d suggest doing something similar even over Zoom. I mean, why not? And if you’re not creating your own work, or don’t want to do that, I think you should just do everything you can to keep the practice up whilst on break. I know that was something I was terrible at doing, but I’ve gotten better at it. Read new plays, learn new monologues (we’re told to have at least 10 ready, so again why not start now?), do some scene work with a group of friends or the easiest thing: go out and watch some great film and TV—I find that I am constantly learning simply by watching.
I want to cover the most important I’ve learned – look after yourself physically and mentally.
I came into this program off the back of a lot of personal things with my family, my struggle with being Arab and my struggle with being gay, and it really used to affect me—I wanted to be someone else, I wanted a different life. Because of this, I could never fully bring myself in my work. I did a lot of work on myself starting in mid 2019: it started from eating a bit better than I did (it wasn’t that drastic of a change—I still eat a pack of Oreos a day), taking vitamins daily, exercising and being okay to talk about my emotions out loud whether that be to a friend or therapist. Finding some sort of exercise routine was a game changer for me this year. You don’t have to be an athlete either, just getting some sort of sun and movement everyday helps. I also budget in leisure time into my week. For instance, my housemate Jack and I will go for a walk and grab a latte that breaks the bank account most Fridays, but why not? It tastes better than black coffee and it makes us happy! Find the small things outside of acting, like a latte, that you like and do it! At school, if you go into everything with the attitude of “I can learn something from this” or “I can show a group of people something really cool I’ve been working on,” I don’t think you’ll ever lose. So stop trying to be the next Tony Award recipient in class like I did and just have fun. The work is ultimately better and much more fun to work on. Putting that pressure on yourself really is useless! I look at myself now, and I am extremely comfortable in my skin. I was very recently in a short Zoom play where my character was talking about being uncomfortable with being an Arab—this was the first time in my acting where I felt like I was able to give myself fully to that performance simply because I am now of the mindset that I am ENOUGH, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
I know it sounds like a cliché, and maybe a touch arrogant, but I really do love myself. Sure I get down and anxious about things, but it’s never about me anymore, it’s about things happening to me, but I think that is totally normal and we all have to deal with those things. At the end of the day we should all love ourselves—we’re all beautiful unique individuals inside and out and no one should ever tell you otherwise, especially you. There is enough noise going on around us, no need for more head noise on the inside. Lastly, treat people they way you want to be treated, don’t build yourself a reputation of being an asshole. Be someone who people love to be around and it will pay off! Now let me close this in the most cliché, actor-y way I could think of: life can be nothing but a walking shadow, it can be a poor player telling an idiotic tale signifying nothing, And by no means am I “successful” in any way, but I feel like all these things I have mentioned have allowed me as a human to signify something that is important to me, my happiness and the acceptance of myself, and that’s all that should matter! Thank you for taking the time to listen to this and, as I said earlier, take from it what works for you!
I really wish you all the best with your studies and careers.