Big decision alert, friends. The wife and I are pursuing graduate training. Which of course begs the question: what are the right reasons for getting an MFA in Acting?
This is important to consider now more than ever. Why? Not to offend but I do think lately, and in more and more cases, MFA training just ins’t that good. I’ve known too many actors unsatisfied with where they land at the end of grad school. I’m sure we’ve all seen MFA in the bio of an actor and wondered, “What the hell did they learn there?” Also, the industry is changing and it’s becoming more and more possible to make a career without an MFA. (Conversely, I did just hear a story about an actor who wasn’t able to sign with an agent because she didn’t have an MFA. The agent believed that CD’s were not going to take her seriously enough without one. Like everything else in this business, who really knows?)
Actors like me are coming from very strong undergrad programs. Undergraduate Professional Actor Training Programs, I call them. I came out of college ready for professional work. So I pursued it. I didn’t turn immediately to more training. At least, not the university kind. Here I am, seven years later with some good professional credits and a challenging, but ultimately successful, career ahead of me. I’ve done two professional internships at top-level regional theaters. The very types of internships where graduate students often finish their training. Why do I go back for an MFA now?
I don’t yet know the answer. Aside from the convenient-for-us New York URTA auditions, my wife and I are applying to Yale, Harvard/ART and USD/The Old Globe. That is the level of program we are hoping to attend. That is surely an important part of the answer. There is not one MFA offered in the world. There are hundreds. Which one is for us? We now begin the process of applying. While we do we will continue to ask ourselves if this is the right choice. Because no matter what your situation, age, training or plan, it is so important that you ask yourself why? Laurence Olivier famously said - and I think this one’s really him - “Have a good reason for everything you do.” That is true on stage and in life. Before I run off to Yale, or watch my wife do so, we’d better make sure we are doing it for the right reason. If done for the right reason, MFA training can be a great next step. For the wrong reason, I think it running away.
TRUTH IS NOT A TOMATO
"I haven’t become better at acting. I’ve just learned to do it faster."
This quote, or some version of it, has been attributed to Laurence Olivier. I have a feeling he is as misquoted by the acting world as frequently as Winston Churchill is by the political world. Nevertheless, this quote has always been of great value to me. It is also essentially bollocks.
(I won’t blame Laurence for it being bollocks. He probably didn’t say anyhow.)
I think of a chef cutting a tomato. There are many ways to cut a tomato and as a young chef at culinary school, our hero learns all of them. The end result, no matter the method, is a tomato which is no longer whole. As the chef gets older, he learns to cut the tomato faster. He is still using the same methods, he’s just executing them more quickly - more efficiently. He is a much better chef now, for his tomato cutting speed. He can now execute more complicated recipes. He gets famous. He teaches another chef to cut a tomato in much the same way he was once taught. He cuts the tomato much faster than his student, but at then end of the day both master and apprentice have the same product - a sliced tomato.
This is what Mr. Olivier was saying about acting. That he’s always known how to do it and he’s improved his performances over time only because he learned how to do it faster.
Again, in all fairness, he likely didn’t even say this. If he did, he was one) deflecting a compliment, and two) making a point about how a he can dig deeper into a performance over the course of a rehearsal and a run. My problem with the quote is this:
Truth is not a tomato.
You can not simply get faster at discovering and telling the truth, with the use of voice, body and imagination. (Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is the essence of acting.) Now you see that this is one of those posts where I take a very concrete idea and, by means of distortion, disprove it in order to make a very salient point. I say distortion quite literally because Mr. Olivier - or whoever - is in fact quite right but I don’t particularly like the implication.
What an actor is attempting to discover is so much more precious than time alone. And unlike a sliced tomato, the result of your time, no matter how practiced or how efficient is never, ever the same. Do don’t wind up with the same sliced tomato no matter how quickly or slowly you do it. Come to think of it, learning to slice a tomato is such a very small part of being a great chef. So learning to discover truth more quickly must only be a small part of being a great actor. No doubt, time is precious. No doubt, it must be used well or it will certainly be an enemy to your art. No doubt, Mr. Olivier was only referencing one, albeit important, but nonetheless singular aspect of his success in the art. That is important to remember, likely when paraphrasing any mis-attributed nugget of wisdom.
The Great Acting Blog: “Being Bullet-Proof To Criticism”
If somebody says they hate a piece of work you’ve done, that doesn’t necessarily mean they hate everything you’ve ever done or will do. It just means that they hated thatcertain piece of work. Most people would give your work another chance in future.…
This much is true of our auditions as well. What we deliver in the room will be stronger, more satisfying and eventually get us work if we are bold and unafraid of what our auditors think.
We must also keep in mind that “being bullet-proof to criticism” is not the same as being immune to judgement. We will be judged and those judgements will affect us. Positively or negatively they are a reflection of the strength of our choices. (Really you can choose any two words to articulate the difference between useful input and not-useful input, but for the sake of argument let’s choose ‘judgement’ and ‘criticism’.) The distinction between the two can be illustrated this way:
Ever had someone say to you this? - “That monologue is so overdone. They aren’t going to want to hear it. You better choose something different.”
That is a criticism and it’s not necessairly useful to you, regarding your audition. Who knows if the person in the room cares what monologue you do. Maybe they haven’t seen it a lot. Or maybe they have, but if it’s a good piece for you and you knock it out of the park they won’t care. Taking comments like these to heart at the wrong moment will make you sacrifice your confidence.
What if at an audition you finish your song and hear this? -“Wow. Thank, that was very big! Um…can you sing something else; something with a little more subtlety?”
That is a direct judgement of your work and it’s incredibly useful, for so many reasons. Firstly, it clues you into something that your auditor wants, which is great! Now you can give it to them, and show some range. Secondly, it teaches you something about your audition material, or your take on it. What you did probably lacked subtlety. Next time you see a call for a big, brassy character, you know of an appropriate piece and approach. You also know that if in the future you want to use that piece to show some range, you’re going to have to re-rehearse it. Yes, it’s still one person’s opinion and another person might think differently, but at least it was formed by watching your work. And it’s not a criticism. Who’s to say there’s anything wrong with “very big”?
Don’t trust the haters. Nay-say the nay-sayers.
Do keep you eyes and heart open to genuine, helpful judgement which can come from anywhere that’s honest. Be careful of how bullet-proof you are because you might block the positive along with the negative.
QUESTIONING YOUR LEARNING
I will learn something new every day.
That has been my goal since I learned that constant learning is the only way to learn and that learning is the only way to grow. But reminding myself every once in a while that I should learn every day is not the same as having the presence of mind and discipline to do it.
Do I learn something new everyday? Probably. The real question is: Do I remember anything I learned the next day, and if so, can I use it to help me grow? So I must question my learning.
How do I learn every day?
What do I learn every day?
How do I retain what I learn?
How do I apply what I learn?
How does my learning help me grow?
LIFE OUTSIDE A RESTAURANT
What’s it like not waiting tables? Have I finally found the promised land of New York survival jobs? Is contentment in my life as a non-acting actor on the horizon. Nope. It’s still a job, but it somehow feels better.
If you pass through Times Square on any day but Monday, and at least for the next three weeks, chances are you’ll run into me; or you’ll walk around me, as I energetically offer you a chance to save 40% on a soon-to-be hit Broadway musical. The death of my restaurant career has thrust me outdoors into the elements. There, armed with a brightly colored hat and eye catching brochures, I battle for the hands of wide-eyed tourists and speedy, savvy locals. Just like when I started as a server, I once again attempt to squeeze from this survival job some semblance of artistic fulfillment.
Am I not supporting the arts? Am I not strengthening the theatre by getting a few more butts into Broadway seats? What is one more family choosing the theatre over the cinema because, with my flyer, they were able to save money on the tickets? Well, it’s everything. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
Back when I was doing shows 6 days a week I used to harp ad-nasium on this blog about the importance of the audience. They are why we create. Theatre is for the common man (and woman.) They come to us from off the streets and for a small sum we refuel their souls. Without an audience to hear our stories we not only have no paycheck, we have no purpose.
Am I single-handedly saving the Theatre by shamelessly pilfering flyers alongside the Naked Cowboy and an undersized, hispanic Iron Man? Hell no. I do feel like I’m part of a team again though. Everyone plays a part and every part is important, they say. From the leading player to the guy who sweeps the floor, we all play a role. But somehow the role of ‘guy who serves dinner’ was just too big a stretch. This feels closer.
Funerals are hard. Putting your life on hold to connect with the ones you love is vital. Mortality is wonderful. And I am barely worth of it.
A sad story I recently heard second hand goes like this: An actor books his first Broadway show. Meanwhile, his older sister is planning her wedding. So the actor asks his agent to please negotiate into his contract a day off to attend his sister’s wedding. The agent refuses. He tells the actor something like this: "Weddings are a waste of time. Love is bullshit and marriages are a sham. The sooner you realize that the better off you will be."
A few years ago I might have fond that opinion slightly annoying. As a newly and happily married person, I find it infuriating. Actually, the agent’s views on love and marriage don’t bother me so much as they are, after all, his own. The fact that he uses them as a weapon to fight off another’s love and family and with them corrupts this young actor’s opportunities is sickening. Stories like these make me hurt.
Shortly after hearing this rumor my wife’s great grandmother - her ‘GG’ - died. I only met her once, but after attending the funeral services I wish to God I’d married my wife a few years earlier so that I could have known her better. GG was a true matriarch of a large West Virginia family. A family rooted in coal and raised close together in modest, warm homes. Her children and grandchildren grew up in the shadow of the Cross of Calvary hung high on the walls of a traditional Baptist church. She was woman of great faith, possessing an unyielding passion for Christ and her family. I don’t presume to do her proper homage here, but her faith and the strength of her family are important. Rather, they became important to me as I gathered in a church with 4 generations of her family. By their side were the generations of churchgoers who had grown with GG in faith, some for as long as they’ve lived, for my wife’s great grandmother spent nearly all of her 97 years of life in not only the same town, but the same church.
As I sat in her church and heard her family and friends recall the life of my wife’s GG, I received an unparalleled lesson in faith. I was taught that faith is not only about God and Jesus, or the promise of everlasting life. It’s about family. It’s about knowing that the life you live now will be worthy of leaving behind. Every moment that we live on this earth stays on this earth and remains for those we leave behind. Not only if I were to go today, but if I go in 50 or 60 or years do I have time, even now, to find the faith it will take to build a life worth leaving behind? That is why mortality is wonderful. It is because we must that die that how we live matters.
What I’ve learned these past few days has taught me that I am woefully unprepared to be mortal. It has also taught me to further despise, resent and pity the agent who so coldly reproached love and family. No matter your religious background or spiritual beliefs, what are we if not lovers and believers? And what is there to love if not family and faithful friends? At my funeral I don’t want anyone recalling how I never missed a show to attend a wedding. I wouldn’t want to leave behind a life where the people I loved came second.
I say, go to your weddings and your funerals and your mitzvahs. Honor those who are in love and have loved and who love you. Have faith in them and share in their faith in you.
Or don’t. And I mean that. It’s up to you what you leave behind.
WHAT KIND OF TRAVELER ARE YOU?
You know your destination. Now ask yourself: how will you travel and what does that say about you? Taking the long way is often worth the time, worth the journey and I suspect will make you live longer. Our lives, as artists and job seekers, are filled with shortcuts. They seems to be the end goal behind most new creations, inventions, apps and even entire businesses. I read yesterday about a new company which designs software for the sole purpose of eliminating office tasks, or “work about work”, as they call it. Their platforms will do a business’s busy work, allowing employees to spend more time on the sales, developments or innovations that actually generate revenue.
So much of an actors’ “work about work” has been eliminated over the past 20 years that it’s hard for someone as young as me to even understand what it must have been like to pound the pavement in 1995, let alone 1985. We no longer have to travel to a CD’s or agent’s office just to read a script or get a side. It is emailed to us. We longer always have to physically mail-in submissions. Sometimes we can submit entirely with our computer. In fact, we don’t have to even show up at auditions anymore. (We usually do, but there are alternitaves.) Not actually being present to audition is a new short cut that is becoming more and more popular. The advent of incredibly affordable HD video cameras and accessible, user-friendly editing software makes it so easy to put yourself on film. Actually it’s so easy that as I write about it I am feeling embarrassed by the lack-luster, outdated material on my website.
How great does it feel, then, to really show up? How cool is it to prepare for days for a single audition, get in your car (because you don’t live in New York at the moment) and drive three hours to visit a treater? What happens when you take the time to meet the group of people auditioning you? What does it say about you if you really put time into the act of getting a job, as opposed to simply pressing send on actor’s access?
Actually showing up is becoming the long way. For those of us who don’t have good representation yet the long way is still a necessity. I want to try and enjoy the journey. Maybe it’s because I am a little removed from “the scene” at the moment that the long way feels so good, but I hope I can still appreciate it when I’m back in the city
It’s really great to be able to post a video audition, link someone to my website or have an electronic service submit for me. If these shortcuts didn’t exist there would be no long way to appreciate. Without these great options I wouldn’t be able to distinguish myself as an old-timer by mailing a physical headshot and cover letter. I am learning that it’s important to recognize all the paths, how they are different, where they lead, and what they say about the traveler.
BENEDICK & SONS
I am an idiot, everyone.
(Many of you may want to stop reading here. You’ve heard enough, but I urge you to continue.)
How long have I been a great fan of the character Benedick in Much Ado? How long have I loved the song Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons?
(If you already know where this is going, you again may want to stop reading, and I can’t urge you otherwise. You get it. You got it before I did. Read on anyway).
What is so phenomenal about the use by Mumford & Sons of the lines from one of Shakespeare’s truly great characters is that in the context of the song the words truly transcend their original meanings. What confirms the unique power of the words to begin with is that if you start with the lyrics and then go back to the text, their meaning is transcended once again.
I’m not going to go into the play and the song and analyze them line for line, as so many have done before me. Yeah, read around a bit. I am certainly not the first guy to be fascinated by this. You can read the play for yourself and you can listen to the song for yourself. I’m not going to draw your conclusions for you.
Much Ado About Nothing - William Shakespeare
Sigh No More - Mumford & Sons
But I do want to mention from where I first drew the connection. It wasn’t the wildly more well known verses "Sigh no more, ladies sigh no more", or "Oh, man is a giddy thing." I never did realize they were Shakespeare, despite that I had read them numerous times. However, the less well known line "Serve God, love me and mend", which opens the song, finally caught my ear. That line, spoken by Benedick to Beatrice in act V, cuts very quickly to the heart of what Much Ado is about. Serve, Love, Mend. Despite the giddy, unforgiving, deceitful and impure nature of both men and women, particularly toward one another, God and Love will mend. That is what the play is about. And the song Sigh No More is about seeking the mend. It is about seeking God and seeking love to become "more like the man you were made to be."
I didn’t realize what the song and the play were truly about until I experienced them both together. I’m not trying to conclude some grand Wizard of Oz/Pink Floyd connection between the two. It is just a great illustration of how when an artist collaborates well with another artist they both end up stronger. It also illustrates why we still do Shakespeare. Even our pop-artists can’t keep away from him, and that’s been true of Rock ‘n Roll for generations.
WE ARE AS KNIVES
Allow me to extend a metaphor. (This came to me while shaving.)
When we are sharp, we are exacting, precision tools which can save a life as deftly as take one.
When we are dull we are dangerous, sloppy, unspecific and arrogant. We will betray you and slip, and we will rarely deliver what we promise.
Artists, like knives, must be sharp to be useful.
Also, like knives, we do not sharpen merely with use. We don’t sharpen with work, or even with practice, alone. A knife doesn’t sharpen as it cuts a carrot and artists do not sharpen jus because they do art. We also don’t sharpen today by doing the same things we did yesterday.
Sharpening is a ritual of diligent and constant effort. For knives the ritual is a precision battle with a stone. For the artist, the ritual is learning. Artists can only sharpen by expanding their understanding of the world, increasing their contact with what is unknown or foreign, and putting old ideas into battle with new ones.
Artists must continue to learn because otherwise we will become dull, which will make us not only boring but dangerous. And not the good kind of dangerous which eradicates bigotry or illuminates ignorance. The bad kind or dangerous, which corrupts truth and disenfranchises entire generations.
When I want for inspiration I remember that we must learn from the artists who have come before us and died before us.
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Art and knowledge. I imagine only together.
A productive day doesn’t need to be a big day. Small, positive choices are a a big deal. Yesterday I slept until almost 11am and had probably the most productive day my week.
(If we assume that waiting tables, while important for my back account, can not be considered productive. Particularly because it is an obligation. Deciding to go to work doesn’t count as a positive choice. That’s too easy.)
Inspired by my recent subway reading, it took me less than an hour, while I was doing laundry, to knock out post cards to everyone on my Theatrical CD target list. Less than hour. The postcards done, along with a rather frustrating but still productive trip to my crowded gym, the completion of said laundry, the dishes, and then an evening in with Zero Dark Thirty, left me feeling very satisfied.
Was this a frantic, busy and exhausting day? Hell, no. It was my day off! In fact, it was the last day off I will have before leaving NY next week. But, I could accomplish any of these tasks any day, along with a full shift of work, or an audition, or a class. I could throw some wedding planning in there. I can be as productive as I was yesterday, any day. Less than an hour spent reaching out to my target list. That was all it took to get me going.
Be decisive and bold regarding the decisions you make each day. Positive attitudes can be born as well as chosen. If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, feeling negative or unmotivated, one small positive, productive decision can turn it all around. And I mean small. Wash the dishes, organize your sock drawer, complete one submission, one postcard, one positive tweet or Facebook post or blog. Read one chapter of a book that’s inspiring or entertaining you. Start simple and start small. The big stuff will come along in turn.
By-the-by: Whether you care about the Oscars or not, the fact that Zero Dark Thirty lost to Argo is nothing short of a travesty. I mean, really? I know I’m behind the times, and I know we all love Ben Afflek right now, but…I mean, really? Zero Dark Thirty is a damn good move.
Read with me the words of Charles Swindoll. Following up on my last post, THE RULES, I want to share here the source. If you have read his book Great Attitudes! 10 Choices for a Successful life - which I haven’t - or are a follower of Dallas Travers, then you might be familiar with this quote. I discovered these words through Dallas in her book, The Tao of Show Business.
Anyway, I can’t put it better than this:
"The longer I love, the more I realize the impact of attitude on my life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the face that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.”
This really is our superpower. Attitude and imagination are without a doubt the most important weapons we have against anything and everything that ever stands in the way of our dreams. I feel sufficiently armed.
It it a great myth about this profession that you have to be lucky to succeed. Some people get lucky. Not all of us will.
Yesterday, I had a one-on-one session with a talent manager. It was just a quick 5 minute audition and convo. She looked at my headshot, asked a few questions, which I answered poorly, and then I was on my way. I left feeling a bit dejected and frustrated. I thought I would walk in there and give a great audition. Then she’d say, “Wow, you’re great and you have a lot of great training. You’ll get noticed in no time! :)” Have I learned nothing in the past year?
What I did learn yesterday is that I have a lot of work to do. Actually, not a lot of work in terms of volume, but in terms of specificity. I am at one place in my career and I want to be in another. For almost a year I think I’ve been spinning my wheels, getting no traction. Now I look around and realize, I’ve burned a lot of gas but I haven’t put any road behind me. I’ve actually been slowly realizing this for a number of months now. Consequently, during that time I’ve taken a number of small steps, hoping to they might move me forward. What I’ve really been doing with those small steps is dancing around, not getting much of anywhere. My steps haven’t moved me forward because I haven’t really know in which direction I wanted to go. Thus, I’m stuck in the same spot, feeling winded.
I’m about to take some time off from New York and prepare to get married. (A worthy cause, I think.) For some people, leaving the city at a time like this would be crazy. For me, I know I’ve got some pieces of my life to put into place. I want to make sure my fiancee becomes my permanent partner, because without her I am lost. So, before I leave I want to look back on the last year, hindsight in hand, and think about what I could have done better. (In hopes of actually doing it better from now on.)
Here’s some of what I’ve learned about building an acting career in New York City:
- I am all for auditioning and getting seen as often as possible, but attend open calls and EPA’s sparingly. Before you go to an audition, ask yourself 1) Is this is a job that will further my career? 2) Is the role a good fit for me? 3) Do I stand a chance of getting the job? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then ask yourself if there’s a more productive way to spend your morning.
- Set specific short-term and long-term goals. Start with the long-term, and then set a short term goal that leads in the right direction. I have never been good at specific goal setting. If I had come to New York 15 months ago and said “In the next year, I want to have a role in an independent film!” I might very well be auditioning for one tomorrow. Instead I’ve spent my time haphazardly auditioning for theatre jobs I didn’t stand a chance of landing and wondering when I was gonna meet some get some work and TV/Film people.
- Based on your long-term goal, make a focused industry target list and stick to it like glue. (How did I do this so poorly?) When I moved back to the city last year I didn’t have a clue who I wanted to meet. So, I spent a lot of time meeting the wrong people. And, the people I did meet I didn’t keep in touch with, probably because I didn’t know what to do with them. If I wanted to be in a Off-Broadway show, I should have been focusing on 5 casting directors who cast the most shows of that kind. Then, I should have submitted, auditioned and networked with them like crazy. Instead, I went to EPA’s that worked well with my work schedule and met casting directors at Network sessions that I could afford. Thus, I don’t really know anyone that well.
(I know there are more things I did wrong - and more things I did right! - but those three things are really nagging at me now. The aforementioned lessons are well to be learned sooner rather than later.)
I am not saying don’t go to auditions. I am not saying don’t be flexible and meet many people when you have the chance. I am saying be focused and be smart. Market yourself in a specific direction. It’s too easy to wander in this career. We actors are an intellectual people, too prone to thinking ourselves in circles. We have to be pragmatic and business like, otherwise we rely on luck and happenstance. Luck and happenstance are essentially like trees made of money. If they do exist, great. We’ll be happy when we see one. It’s best, however, to assume that they don’t
I’m sure so many of you reading this have already made these discoveries. (And mistakes.) I know so many have shared these lessons with me, many times in the past. I suppose it really does take a village, as they say. I’ve always taken that to mean an entire village has to tell a child what they’re doing is wrong. Eventually, after leaving the village, the child learns the lesson the hard way. Only then does the child actually learn. Thus it has been with me.