I am on a Megabus heading out of the city for a much needed week of repose. It’s funny how once you begin a vacation, you can’t imagine your life without one. I am thinking now that if I didn’t have this chance to leave the city and recharge I simply wouldn’t survive. The fact is, I surely would survive and if I wasn’t on this bus I’d be gearing up for another audition or heading to the restaurant like any other day. The opportunities to relax and enjoy life which I am lucky enough to afford should not be taken for granted, and at this moment I feel lucky.
Yesterday, before working my last shift of the week at the restaurant, I was trying to remind myself of the connection between being a server and being an actor — how serving someone a meal can be the same as serving someone a story. At 4:45 p.m. I got off the subway at Union Square and walked north to 18th street, all the while promising myself I’d make tonight an experiment in finding the art in fine dining service.
Fast forward to 11:00 pm. Final seating was a half hour ago and I was just handed 5 more tables in my already crowded section. My co-workers were being cut left and right around me and my workload, rather than dwindling as you hope it will at this time of night, seemed ever expanding. I had been hustling all night and it had taken its toll on my body and my resolve. My promise to connect my work and my art seemed a faded memory, like the dream I had as a kid of being a pro basketball player — it simply wasn’t going to happen. The mental preparation I did on the walk to work was like practicing my lay-ups on the shaky, free standing hoop my father set up in the driveway of our Indiana home. I used to dread anyone I know driving by and seeing me bank the ball sloppily off the backboard in a vain attempt at emulating Scotty Pippen. Standing at dish pit, scraping half eaten halibut into a bowl of now soupy ice cream sundae, I dreaded anyone knowing that I was foolish enough to think I could find an artistic outlet in such activity.
This much I’ve learned in the past few months: I have to find a way to channel the stimuli around me into an artistic framework or I lose all sense of purpose. I have to make art all the time, otherwise the weeks will pass and a morning will come when I wake and realize I’ve gained nothing. Money in my bank account allows me to eat and pay rent and occasionally buy the jeans I like. That’s all well and good, but I have to get more than that from my job, I just have to. I’m needy that way. I’m not gonna last long doing this restaurant thing for money unless I can find a way to turn the dream of finding artistic fulfillment in the throwing away of uneaten halibut into a reality.
The easy things in life make shitty art. When you have an “easy” time rehearsing a play, it’s probably going to suck. Art is made in the struggle. The hardest things strived against in useful ways will always make significant art. There are only a few things I’ve done in my life harder than this. That’s a good sign.
Another good meeting today. This one was a singing and talking meeting. This time I used the song and the monologue, just as I did the introduction and the conversation that followed, as an opportunity to show a bit of who I was rather than how well I could act or sing. Phew, what a load off.
It’s much easier to be myself then to try to show how good I am at being myself. When I do that, I’m acting an audition. The result is much more like what I’ll actually do on stage if I get cast.
Consequently, and I owe much of this to a wonderful voice lesson I recently had, my vocal audition never felt better. I’ve never felt more relaxed, more on voice or more connected with the material. I wasn’t singing at all, really. Nor did I feel I was giving a vocal performance. I had a conversation in an imaginary world which happened to be accompanied by a pianist. Being a good sport, I decided to sing the words on pitch along with the pianist, which consequently made the imaginary conversation more vital and engaging.
The next time you watch a musical or re-run of Smash, watch for the difference between someone singing and someone acting, or talking, on pitch. (It’s what often makes Ivy better than Karen, which of course destroys the entire show.) Someone singing at you might sound very pretty, but it doesn’t grab you and it doesn’t feel real and vital. When someone communicates on pitch, with the same level of engagement and need they attach to non-musical dialogue, the music heightens the vitality of the words and deepens the emotional life of the character. Simply put, the singing becomes the result of the character’s necessity to communicate in a different way. That necessity is just as freeing for the performer as it is engaging for the audience.
My successful vocal audition today was a result of trusting my voice, demanding of myself and the material exactly what I would demand from non-musical dialogue and relieving myself of the obligation to “sing.” I acted on pitch. I’m sure I’ve been told that’s the way to sing musical theatre a hundred times. I never did it until today. Why are the simple things so damn hard?
WHAT I DID THE NEXT DAY
This post is a couple of days late, but still good.
So, if you’ve followed from last time — I failed. (See pervious post) Well, like I promised myself, the next day I got up and started again. I walked over to AEA and signed up and got ready to walk into that room and do a monologue, whether they liked it or not.
Here’s what happened. I did the worst monologue I’ve ever done and I had the best audition I ever had. I mean, really the monologue sucked, but I’ve never walked out of an audition happier. Yeah, guess what I had forgotten? It’s not about the monologue, or the song or the two of them together; not at the open call it isn’t. An audition at that stage is a meeting. We shouldn’t even call it an audition, we should just call it a damn meeting.
Before I started my monologue I looked the casting director in the eye and said, “Hello, how are you today?” And she said, “Good, thanks. What will you be doing?” And I answered, quite honestly, “I don’t know yet.” I then asked her which of two pieces she would prefer, because in my mind what was asked for in the breakdown didn’t match what was needed in the play. She lead me in the right direction, and on I went. She spend most of my monologue looking at my resume, so maybe she didn’t even notice that it was shit.
That exchange — the exchange before I even started my monologue was the audition. That was the meeting. The rest was just fodder. After my shitty monologue she asked, “How long were you at Barter.” I answered, and told her how I’ve only been back in the city for a few months. She replied, “Well welcome back, it’s really great to meet you. Thanks so much.”
“It’s really great to meet you.”
Yeah, that’s what it’s all about folks. The open call audition is a meeting. A chance to meet someone and let them meet you!! Even if you can’t get out of bed in the morning and get a good monologue or song together, you can at least go out and meet someone. That sort of makes this part of our job seem not so bad to me.
WHAT I DID TODAY
Today I went to an audition just 10 blocks away from my apartment. It was for a few plays in the city, of which one or two had a role that I am generally good for. After a very lovely five minute stroll down 9th avenue I walked into the holding room, signed up for the next available slot which was just a half an hour away, looked around, and then I left. I walked the 10 blocks back to my apartment, changed out of my nice pants and shirt and sat down at my computer. I went about the rest of my afternoon, accomplishing a few menial tasks and then went to work.
Is it a problem that I didn’t have to strain much to travel to the audition, thus I allowed myself to look around the room, get a bad feeling and decide it just wasn’t worth it?
I audition a lot. Some people audition more, I’m sure of it, but I do audition a lot. I’ve been called back zero times since I came back to New York a few months ago. I’m equity and I’m a little rusty in the audition room and I’m often going to EPA’s which I just don’t have a shot-in-hell for in the first place. So, put in perspective my continuous strike out’s don’t bother me much. It probably has more to do with my crappy headshot and little to do with my actual audition. I realize that. But, today, I failed. No matter how I look at it. I let the system beat me. I looked around the holding room at the same 25 faces I’ve been seeing in every holding room for the past two months and I thought, “Is this one really gonna matter? We’ll all be back tomorrow.” I looked at the audition info sheet and saw that an associate producer was the only person in the room and I thought, “She’s gonna take one look at my headshot and then another look at my thin New York credits and by time she looks up my monologue will be over. ‘Thank You.’ she’ll say and I’ll never hear from her again.”
What I did today is probably the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. I gave up. I’ve just never done that before. Not on acting.
After today I promise myself I’m never going to do that again.
OKAY, THIS IS GONNA HURT
That’s what I have to remind myself.
Something on an episode of Mad Men last night, which I got to watch because I was cut from my serving job early, reminded me that the suffering and the hours and hours of working and rejecting the-more-working and all in fact the stumbles are the trappings of building a career.
If that’s not true; if success comes easily and I’m just not in on any of that, please leave me in the dark about it. I don’t wanna know. It’s keeping me going right now to know that all this is necessary.
Note: I am not truly suffering or truly in pain. I do not lack food or love or warmth. I am just striking out as an actor in a place where every ball is a curve and there are no walks. I’ll hit one outta the park soon.
P.S. to all your New Yorkers.
I don’t go Down Town enough and if you, like me, have lately been trapped between 3rd and 9th avenue, north of Houston and south of 59th, head downtown to Wall Street. Not to occupy it, though I find nothing wrong with that, but just to see a piece of New York that is unlike any other. I felt like Indiana Jones riding into the lost city.
THE SERVICE INDUSTRIES
“Will there be anything else?” Or perhaps it’s, “Can I suggest a wine for you?” But, sometimes it’s, “Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son of York.” Whatever the line, it’s all in the same language and it’s all for the same purpose.
Is that restaurant job getting you down? Is standing behind a desk or stand greeting guest after guest waring on you resolve? Especially because you are missing auditions to do it? I am a firm believer that there’s more than one reason actors do so well in New York and LA as waiters and hosts and desk clerks and reservationists. Yes, the fact is there are a lot of us and a lot of those jobs and the math simply works. However, it’s also true that we are damn good at those jobs. And, its also true that those jobs are fundamentally the same as acting. Exactly the same.
An actor serves a customer. A customer who is sitting in a theatre expecting fulfillment and an enlightening experience. The actor almost always serves the customer their truthful expression of another’s imagination. The actor serves up the playwright’s story and the director’s vision to the hungry audience. The audience has high expectations and will likely come back or bring friends only if they are truly satisfied and filled by the experience. They will surely slander your name and caution others against you work if they are not.
A restaurant server serves a customer. A customer who is sitting at a table expecting fulfillment and an enlightening experience. The server is always endorsing and delivering the expression of another’s imagination. The actor serves up the chef’s food in the demeanor and candor dictated by the management. The customer at the table has high expectations and will likely come back or bring friends only if they are truly satisfied and filled by the experience. They will surely slander your name and caution others against your work if they are not.
And remember, whether in a restaurant or in a theatre; your work is a reflection on the work of the original visionary whose vision you are bringing to the customer. Your lifeless and sloppy work on stage/in the dining room with reflect poorly on the work of the playwright/chef.
I have certainly always had a passion for food and wine. And even if I didn’t, I would be blind and foolish to not recognize the passion those around me share. The restaurant professionals I work with and for pour an enormous amount of creative energy into their work and art. It is paralleled only by the enormous creative energy I pour into mine. They believe in serving the customer just as I believe in serving the audience.
If you don’t believe that food and whine is an art, read the bios of some of the now-famous Food Network chefs and international restaurant pioneers. The people who create genres like Asian fusion and nuevo Latino. Lean about the man who invented the now dessert tray standard Molten Chocolate Cake. They are artists and their art needs actors too. I am an actor, not a waiter. But I play a waiter in real life and I’m going to give that role my all.
WHO ARE YOU AUDITIONING FOR?
I was reminded today of what an audition truly is about. Or, at least, what it certainly is not about.
Your audition is not about you, it’s about them.
Today I walked into a small equity call for an Off-Broadway show. I think this was the first call and the only person in the room was a lone casting assistant. Now, put yourself for a moment in the shoes of that assistant. Sure, I had to get up pretty early and go sign up for an appointment with 40 other guys. But, in the end, I go in and do my 2 min. monologue and then get on with my day. She, on the other hand, maybe woke up a little later, but has since 10AM been sitting in that room watching actor after actor file in and yell, or cry or throw jokes in her face. She has been watching them show and plead and beg and try to appear better than they think they are. And she’ll sit there until 6pm, all by her self. And she is burdened with the task of sifting through all of these auditions and finding two or three actors worth meeting again.
So, between you and she, whom should your audition be about?
Next time you’re in the room, whether it’s a lone casting agent of a slew of production and casting personnel, make the audition about them. Take the pressure off yourself and do something for them. Entertain them. Make them remember the two minutes you were in the room as the two minuets they were transported to another world or met a really amazing character. Give them a little truth among all the lies. Don’t bother showing them that you are able to entertain. Rather, do what they are hiring you to do — entertain them.
60 AND COUNTING
A professor of mine used to say, you can kill something but you can’t let it die. I have spent a lot of time trying to discover the difference. And I wonder, can you in fact keep something alive?
At this point, with Barter Theatre’s re-mount of The 39 Steps coming to a close, I have acted the role of Richard Hannay over 60 times. He’s been with me for about 10 months. Not really so long when you consider Broadway shows regularly rack up 100 plus performances, but it’s a goodly run nonetheless.
The adage is old at this point, but like so many acting idioms it doesn’t ring true until it’s experienced many times. No matter how much you discover, you’re only just beginning. Over 60 wildly successful performance in front of knee-slapping, cackling audiences and I have only just started discovering Richard Hannay. I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve worked very well, but only now do I see how much more there is to do.
An actor begins to discover how far there is to go when her or she breaks through the false boundaries which hem in their performance and they see the great beyond. We spend so much time just finding where our character can live, what he or she can get away with and what is true in their world. Then, once those ideas are metabolized and within our grasp, the smoke clears and we see the endless possibilities which lay in before us.
Is the day you realize you have so much further to go the day your character is finally free?
I implore you: If you are an actor or director or artist reading this and you if are serious about improving the work you do, take this to heart. It is the only thing about acting and art that I know to be true.
The journey to our greatest potential begins by discovering that we have not yet reached it. The journey continues only by trusting and releasing , not by thinking, or crafting or planing. That comes before. You calculate only to arrive at the task. You begin the task only when you stop calculating. You may end the task, but it will never be complete.
Acting is the art of turning the thoughts of the actor into the thoughts of the character. It is the practice of translating what the actor is thinking on stage into what the character is thinking in the world of the play.
It begins with the will to discover the difference. It continues with the will to continue that discovery. The beautiful part is that though you fail most of the time, art happens not in success but in ambition. Art happens in the struggle.
TEACH OUR CHILDREN WELL
I recently coached a young actor on some audition monologues. This particular actor doesn’t yet have all the skills which are traditionally lumped together to make a “good performance.” He is still green when it comes to crafting a monologue, he still gets ahead of his words and he hasn’t yet gained absolute control of his body. His voice is strong but raw, and his breath and his thoughts are not always in perfect harmony.
But, golly is it exciting to watch him act. All the aforementioned skills will come in time. I remember when I was his age I had a little better handle on my voice and body and craftsmanship, but I can assure you it was not nearly as exciting to watch me work. What he has already discovered, and what I have only recently started to fully embrace, is that the foundation to all good acting it is to hand it over to the character. He knows that his best work comes when he doesn’t concern himself with how he sounds or looks. His best work happens when he doesn’t try to show the audience what he is doing, but instead lets the character actually do it. He knows already the difference in his acting between what appears to be real and what is actually true. I think I would give up all my outwardly sharpened skills - my glossy diction and my adept sense of structure - if I could go back 10 years and ground my acting in truth first.
I was trained well. Despite the monumental efforts by my early teachers to make me understand that acting is greater than the sum of its parts, it’s taken me many years to grasp the intangible foundation that makes all acting worth watching. In retrospect I wish that I had found the foundation before the structure.
BACK TO BLOGGING 2012
Back in rehearsal. Awesome. This time we are re-mounting The 39 Steps and I’m reprising the role of Richard Hannay. Here’s what struck me as we put the show back on its feet after closing the initial run about 5 months ago:
The character’s problems are so much more clear to me now. I remember rehearsing this play for the first time last June and I would catch myself ‘acting’ because I hadn’t discovered enough for the character to do deal with. How silly that all seems now. Coming back to the show, all the problems I discovered during the run are still in my bones, and I’m discovering new ones. So, how do we begin discovering more problems for the character earlier int he process?
I wonder if more homework is needed for this to occur. I’ve lately rehearsed by releasing my character freely into the play and trusting that he’ll discover all his obstacles and problems organically, simply by living truthfully in the world. This works to an extent, but it is slow. I now believe it’s necessary for me, the actor, to intellectualize the possible problems and obstacles presented by the given circumstances early in the process, maybe before rehearsal. Then, more problems will be more available to the character during his initial journeys into the play. Of course, the character is still free to discover different obstacles once in the world. I just don’t think I’ve been preparing my characters enough. I’m suggesting to myself this:
as I work on a play, I should list the problems, as many as I can come up with, which the character might be dealing with at the beginning of each scene, french scene, or even moment. No problem is too small. This is a great task to assign to one of your first reads of the play. Think of every problem the character might struggle with during any moment, whether it be psychological, mental, physical or an obstacle of the heart or soul. Give your character a lot of problems to choose from for those crucial first rehearsals.
I wish I could start every rehearsal process the way I’m starting this one. I know my character and his internal world so well now. There’s no reason why I couldn’t have known him a lot better a lot sooner.
HAPPY NEW YEAR
I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year.
I’ve missed you all and I am preparing for some really great new adventures in 2012. I’m not good with resolutions, but I’ve taken about 3 months off from this Blog and I’m ready to get back to it.
I’ll spend some time catching up with all of you. I feel like we can fall asleep in life very easily. Waking up is hard when you don’t know you’re sleeping.
This has come to be spoken of a lot the last few days and I think it needs mention again.
A character is defined by what they do.
So, how do you build a character?
Pursue that action. Do it fully. Everything else should inform that and everything else will fall into place.
We’re never going to stop selling candy. People like it. It’s pleasing, addictive and easy to swallow. However, too much of it and you get a stomach ache. Worse still, eat nothing but candy and you’ll die. We live on steak and vegetables. We will pay more for well cooked stake or a vegetarian chili than we will for a Snickers bar or Twizzlers. Even the finest chocolate can not sustain us.
It gets difficult for me, day in and day out to not give the people what they think the want and instead fight to give them what they deserve.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that pleasing an audience isn’t all that hard to do. Actually, that is a statement of relativity. Pleasing an audience can be very hard, however it is often hollow. Far more difficult is the task of giving them what they deserve. Though it may not always make them stand up and cheer, the truth of the moment is always more satisfying. It is ultimately what keeps people coming back to the theaters and t.v. sets across the country.
Don’t throw candy at the audience. Don’t ask them to stand up and cheer. Furthermore, don’t be disappointed if they don’t. The last time you cooked yourself a satisfying and nourishing meal, did you applaud your efforts? However, you might look back and applaud yourself for the lifetime of healthy eating which kept you living well into old age.
I think that trick is this:
It can look really exhausting to fake it. ‘Putting on a show’ can appear very impressive and an audience will be inclined to cheer the effort. The truth, however, is just that… truthful. I think ‘the truth’ is usually what people have witnessed when they say, “Wow, they just made that look so easy.”