THE READINESS IS ALL
In auditions we don’t fear that we aren’t good enough. We fear that we won’t do our best work. It’s not that we think we’re not good. It’s that we think we won’t be good. I actually think there’s a simple trick to ensuring we can audition fee from that fear: Prepare.
A great audition is two-thirds preparation and one-third bravery.
An actor who walks into the room familiar with the material and confident and courageous in execution will get noticed. In a situation where the end result is dictated mainly by factors out of our control, we have to zero in on the elements we can control. My practice of preparing for auditions has become, like so much of my artistic routine, about sifting through my process and finding the actions that the most impact. If given a side, becoming familiar enough with the words that I can execute an impulse without a piece of paper in front of my eyes is the most important step. That’s the groundwork for a successful audition. Without that foundation my audition will be shallow. Giving the task of ‘reading the side’ over to the character is not compelling acting. Give the character freedom to, with the words, accomplish a more daring task. Anyone can walk into a room and read. We’re special because we can walk into a room and Act.
So, it’s the Boy Scout motto for us: Always Be Prepared.
IT WORKS LIKE A BOOMERANG
Put yourself out there and it’ll come back to you. Pool your resources. Call in your favors. Pull all your strings and use all the ammunition you have.
Strangely enough, though I work in a truly collaborative field where getting a job is all about who you know and everyone seems to know everyone, I often feel like I’m doing this by myself. I’m not. We’re not.
I read a breakdown for a season EPA the other day and planned to go to the audition. Before that, I emailed my college professor because I was pretty sure she knew one of the playwrights/directors for a show in the season. She did, and she sent him an email saying he should keep an eye out for me and mention me to the artistic director. So, I went to the EPA and felt really good about it. (See my previous post.) I got a callback for the play written by my professor’s friend and I was thinking all the dots had been connected and that my professor had helped me get noticed. Turns out, the playwright forgot to mention me to the artistic director. (I met him today at the callback and we talked all about it.) I got the callback all on my own, just because the artistic director, who had never met me, liked my work at the EPA. Y’all - I have never had a callback from an EPA! I’ve been called in by casting directors I know and been called in based on my submissions, but I’ve never been called back cold from an EPA.
I don’t actually think this is a coincidence. I know my connection didn’t actually give me the callback, but I did feel great about this project and my chances and I think that effected things, in both tangible and intangible ways. I put myself out there. I pulled my strings and “the universe” responded.
Another example: Took a workshop tonight with a great NY casting director. There were 15 actors in that class who all randomly signed up with no previous connection. The casting director knew someone from each and every actors’ resume. Every one! We are not alone, everybody. This is a small little universe filled with like, millions of people who all know each other. We’ve gotta use that. We’ve gotta know we’ve got friends in this industry. We’ve got people on our side. Use them. Put yourself out there and, one way or another, it’ll come back you.
Recently I read a good book by a guy who read another good book that made him change his life. The advice he read in his good book went something like this:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
This advice made that man quit his job and go back to school, and now he has a whole new life that he likes way more than the one he had. Way to go! I’m sure that could happen for me and you and a million other people too. However, doing what makes you come alive is gonna change your everyday life even more than you entire-life life. Recently, I have done a much better job of doing what makes me come alive each day. I figure, the alternative is to do what makes me feel dead. At the very least, that doesn’t sound exciting when I run through my day over dinner.
If reading a book makes you feel more alive than not reading a book, then read the book. Since the new year, making an on-camera demo, getting together with an accompanist and booking some new head shots has made me feel more alive then not doing those things. It made my fiancée feel alive to go pick out a wedding dress. Hitherto, the wedding planning was sort of driving us crazy. I think we have learned that actually making decisions about our wedding - decisions like where it’s gonna happen, who’s gonna take the pictures and where some of our guests are gonna stay - makes us feel like we are actually having a wedding. That makes us feel alive. After a while staring at wedding photos and budgets online made us feel dead.
Take responsibility for making yourself come alive. Look around you and find the thickest, highest wall you see. The wall that is standing between you and that life you want at that moment. Then knock that wall down. Even if it won’t fall. The act of bashing your fist against it will make you feel more alive than staring at it. You don’t need a whole new life to be happier than you are right now. You simply need to live more of the life you already have. There are things you can do right now that will make you come alive. You, and the world, need you alive. You are no good to anyone dead.
By the way, I don’t remember the book the guy read that made him come alive but the book that that guy wrote is called Wild at Heart. (It is amazing. If you are a man or know someone who is, read it.)
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.
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.
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.
KEEPING EVERYTHING ‘IN’
If you know Cabaret, you know that when Cliff first sees Sally dance, he sends her a note via one of the Cabaret boys. The script is not explicit about what the note says. During the run of my production I’ve written many things on the note. Everything from:
Come here often?
I liked your dance.
Do you ever read these?
(The latter being less than useful. Read on…)
Tonight I experimented with asking myself what Cliff might really write on the note. Why did it take me a month to ask that question? Up to this point in the play Cliff is pegged as an American immediately on a couple of occasions. He resents this. So, a question he might ask Sally as a conversation starter is:
What Nationality do you think I am?
Consequently, after Sally reads the note and comes over to talk to Cliff, the lines are as follows:
Cliff: Hello Sall: Oh, you’re English. Cliff: I wish I were
I know that asking Sally in the note where she thought I was from certainly affected the way the scene was played. It did for me anyway, and I’ll go ahead and speak for the actor playing Sally and say it did the same for her. Never has that exchange been so full of life or so truthful.
What’s the lesson?
Keep everything in the world of the play.
This gets harder and harder as a run goes on. It becomes easy and even theraputic for an actor to let loose and have fun on moments or bits of ad lib that don’t affect the audience directly. It’s easy to whisper to your cast mate, (as the actor, not the character) “Wow, the tempoes are fast today” or “This is our best audience yet”. That is all well and good for the actor, but how does it serve the character? Furthermore, how does it serve the audience? Keep everything in the world of the play. Whisper as the character. Make that note your character writes to another character say something that will benefit the truth of the moment. Don’t write some silly bullshit which might make your fellow actor laugh, but will only serve to pull them out of the world of the play. Staying in is hard enough. We need to help each other out.
Imagine the stage is blank and empty. There exists a sort of long box stretched from stage right to stage left — a rectangle whose ends lie somewhere off in either wing. It’s an incredibly thin box, but it’s enough for a person to stand in. The lines separating the box from the rest of the stage, up and down, are thin, almost invisible. But, they are definite and immovable. Up stage of the box is a world of realistic nuance and life-like emotion. Down of the box is the world of conventionally accepted theatrical reality; there is where we live most of the time, indicating the emotional lives of our characters and demonstrating to the audience that which appears generally real, but lacks specific truth.
In between these two extremes, confined up stage of conventionally accepted theatrical reality and down stage of real life, is theatrical truth. It is couched precariously between these two worlds. It is a slippery sort of reality which can be accessed only through truthful exploration of the character and the text. We live between these two fine lines only when we learn to fend off the temptations which lie on the other sides. We live between these two fine lines by using only what is absolutely needed and needing only what is absolutely necessary.
Existing between these fine lines is the goal of every actor, whether the lines lie on a stage or a film set. But, the are o so easily stepped over. The temptations of ultra-reality and theatrical pandering are so great the we somehow give into them unknowingly. Standing in the box, our minds need slip away for only a moment. When we reemerge we find that the truth is either far behind us, or buried so far below that it can’t be seen. So, fending off the temptations requires a special and unflinching focus.
That is why I write this blog. That is why I repeatedly foster these images and endlessly beg questions. I hope that if I chase long enough off stage, the chase will become a way of life on stage. If I imagine hard enough , maybe I will find it impossible to overstep the fine lines which separate all of us from our best.