Actors with challenges

It ultimately is your humanity, your soul – if you like that word – that will move people about your performances.  It’s nonsense to think that actors with dyslexia, learning disabilities, social disabilities, etc. can’t become professional actors.  Do not let other people make you think that you can’t do great work.  I have graduates making six-figure salaries now solely as actors who had lots of challenges that other actors didn’t have.  Maybe that’s why they have become so successful.  They didn’t make excuses or feel sorry for themselves; they put their shoulder to the grindstone, mastered their work and are now in demand.

Theater is simply harder than film

Have been musing today that the real reason that most young actors today want to do on-camera work is not because they want to make more money or be celebrities (although that is surely true for a majority of them) but because the simple fact is theater is just harder.  It’s harder to be extraordinary on stage, in real time, with one take.  It’s hard, really hard to go through an excellent Meisner program.  It’s meant to create extraordinary artists.  It can do that. It also does a wonderful job of weeding out the folks that really don’t have the talent or work ethic or passion to become great.  And that’s a good thing.

There’s a reason why my friend Ernie Losso used to say about his many years of work in LA as a producer and director, “The only thing an actor needs to be good on camera is a great Meisner class.”

And there’s a reason that LA casting directors, directors and writers STILL want New York trained actors.  They know that these people will have chops.

Of course there’s a lot of old-fashioned academic stage training that doesn’t get people where they ultimately want to be.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

The devaluation of teachers

The single most irritating thing about being a teacher is that our wider culture has an idea that teachers are “givers,” and we’re expected to give of ourselves for free.

I am constantly asked to read a script, find someone a monologue, give them some advice, watch their reel and give them feedback and put in hours coaching them for performances FOR FREE.  People actually are surprised when I say there is a fee for what I do.

I think about our public school teachers who are also expected to teach for low wages from the generosity of their hearts without regard to the fact that good teachers are professionals.  That their jobs are important.  And when you devalue them or want cheaply paid teachers, you get what you pay for.

The devaluation of teachers has been going on for a long, long time and it has doomed America.  Teachers have come to be known as mediocre at their craft – we’re seen as nice people who are willing to take a low wage because we love our students so much.

Nonsense.  The best among us have worked hard for decades to become experts in what we do.  Our salaries should match that.

So if you’re an actor know this.  You really offend your teachers, your directors - anyone who has something that you expect them to do for free.  You don’t expect doctors to look at your xrays for free.  You don’t expect lawyers to give you advice for free. 

And while I’m on my virtual soapbox, if you require a reference letter please behave professionally.  The person writing the letter should not be expected to figure out where to send it.  They should not be expected to pay for the stamp much less international expedited mailing services to get it to the institution on time.  You should be offering to reimburse them for that upfront.  And you MUST ALWAYS acknowledge the favor with something more than a one-line email that says “Thx.”  I have even had an actress who I did all of that for who didn’t even send that 3-letter email to me at the end.

Teachers are not surrogate mothers who do all of this for you simply for the joy it brings them.  Learn this now!

Why you complete training, why you repeat training

I recently watched a monologue a former student put up on Facebook.  I was crestfallen.  It was completely projected.  The use of time was completely fake.  There was nothing that wasn’t pre-rehearsed, hadn’t had the good stuff completely consciously  rehearsed out of it.  It was not connected to something deeper – although I believe the actor believed that it was.  It makes me sad.  And it’s a cautionary tale that actors lose the ability to know sometimes whether their work is good or not.  And their friends, unfortunately, will encourage the bad work because they are laymen that don’t know better.  

This is why you go back to your training.  Why you go back to your coach, instructor, mentor.  To make sure that the forces that be do not seduce you back into superficial and mediocre versions of yourself.  And this is why you finish your training and you keep working with a coach until both of you are satisfied that your skills truly are skills that you cannot be seduced away from and that they will last a lifetime.

Use of the word "exciting"

Young artists a warning for you.

If you believe that using the word “exciting” is going to make audiences want to see your production, you probably need to re-think your marketing strategy.

What I see all the time are generic phrases describing locations as being exciting, productions as being exciting, directors as being exciting, scripts as being exciting but I almost NEVER see those entities described in a way that is SPECIFIC to them and therefore interesting to me.

Pay attention to what you write.  And try to give us details that help us understand what it REALLY is that might make us feel excited to come see you or your work.

Dream killers - stay way from them

It’s not your job to change the negative atmosphere around you. It is your responsibility to manage your own feelings and know that where you are is not forever.  There are people who are dream killers. Don’t try to convince them of anything. Don’t waste your time trying to change them.  My advice – stay away from them as much as you can and keep your eye on your long-term goals.

Lesson from Pilates

I was working with my Pilates instructor on a very bad flare-up of my sciatica. 

I did not want to do any back bend work – I was afraid of it.

My instructor guided me through back bend work because she felt it was what I needed.

Boy was she right! 

Sometimes it’s what we’re afraid to do that we need to do most.

   Google “NC Pilates."  Amy Michaels and Marie Sherr – wonderful teachers.

When that goal no longer motivates you

Don’t understand why you’re not enthused about shooting your new webseries?  Wondering why you don’t feel like going out and auditioning?  Everyone goes through those down times when we can’t figure out why we aren’t more excited about the stuff we could be doing for our careers.  Wendy discusses this and has a new resource that may help.

What Acting Isn't

A few nights ago I went to a theatrical performance where nearly everyone was very ineffective.

This is because everyone was so busy pretending (and many not pretending very well) to be a character.  The result was that it was uncomfortable to watch and that no matter what the script was about, completely unmoving to watch.

The next morning I attended a church service.  A young woman got up to read the scripture lessons.  Now I’ve also seen many people in church feel the need to “read expressively” or something like that where their phoney voices made it very difficult to actual hear what they were saying.

This young woman just read clearly.  She understood what she was saying and delivered it simply; she was connected to herself and her text.  And it was very easy to listen and very moving to hear.

I thought ‘if the actors from the previous evening were in this room and I had the opportunity to speak to them, it would be easy to help them understand that if they gave up all the pretending their theatrical performances would be impressive instead of embarrassing.’

Alas, I do not that have that opportunity.

Acting is not pretending.  If you can find a class that will teach you how to do what the characters do, actually feel what the character might feel because you are the one in the situation not the character, if you can find your way to a director who won’t let you step outside of yourself and act sort of ridiculous, you can change from being an amateur to being a real actor whose work is not just worth seeing but hiring.

Breaking the 4th Wall

When a reviewer suggests that a young theater company is doing something “new” by breaking the fourth wall, I LMAO and also feel a bit of anger rise.

Darlings (she said in a patronizing tone) people have done this for decades if not centuries.  Please know your history.  You believe you are making “contemporary” theater or that your work is “edgy” because you have some nudity in it or that your ideas are “brilliant” because you are under 30.

The truth is that none of that is true and when reviewers buy your press (where you’re sure to use words like “exciting” and “amazing” when that is also not true) they show their own lack of knowledge, experience and just – well, good sense.

Breaking the 4th wall is not a new concept.  It’s not exciting.  It’s not amazing.  Whether the show has any merit at all will be determined not by these externals (which quite frankly to some of us are boring as hell we’ve seen them so many times) but by how affective your story/reality really is, whether you really have something to say and how connected your actors/performers are to that message.

Sure, go ahead.  Try a “new” form.  But best to be really thoughtful about how you describe it and not become too arrogant until you can be really sure you’ve created something breathtaking. 

Cheap talk and hyperbole

If you wish to be taken seriously, you must be a person of your word.  I’m not referring to being trustworthy or doing what you say you will do.  Obviously those are important character traits to have.

I’m speaking about not stating things without giving them some thought first.

I really wonder about my students and what they actually know when they make statements like “the film is amazing” or “I’ve got a brilliant idea” or “so and so is a tremendous artist” when the truth is that none of that is true.

The proof is in the pudding and if you tell us the pudding is awesome and then it’s not you’re the one that looks bad.

It’s great to be supportive but when you make statements about the quality of something you should be thoughtful because that statement tells us about your ability to see clearly.  It tells us about your own standards and whether or not you have seen enough to even make a judgment about these things.  And it reflects poorly on you accept the 5 stars someone gave you without really wondering if you deserved it. 

I’m embarrassed when I see young actors engage in hyperbole like this.  They look dumb.  They have no idea – simply no idea how they really come across.  They don’t take the time to reflect on “do I really believe what I say?”  "Did I really deserve the praise being offered?“

Best not to put too much stock in the reviews you get either way; better to just keep doing the work.  And best not to throw around grandiose reviews of others’ work – sometimes when you haven’t even seen it – just to make and keep friends.

Actors:  Be a person of your word.  Be thoughtful.  Mean what you say.  Otherwise, your words just stop counting.

"Vote for my project! I know you haven't seen it but who cares!"

Many years ago a young actress wanted coaching on an audition for a very “in vogue” theater company.  I said to her, “Well, they’re going to interview you too so what is it about their work you like?"   Response:  "Oh, I’ve never seen their work but everyone says they are THE company to get into.”

I hate this. She hadn’t even seen their productions. How could she expect to appeal to them?

No wonder a less talented actress got the callback – one who actually knew all about them and who had seen their last three productions.

Now what I see a lot of – especially on Fbook – is “vote for my project” in this contest or that one or for this festival or that one without our being able to actually view what we’re voting for.  Because we’re virtual friends we’re just supposed to vote for them.

I’m sorry.  I try very hard to be a woman of my word.

What happened to EARNING it for Christ’s sake?!  More and more the internet becomes a numbers game rather than helping the real cream get to the surface.  (Well, we all already know this, I suppose.)

I’m not talking about Kickstarter campaigns or things of that nature.  I admire and am happy for folks that secure financial support this way.  But this other thing – nope.  At least on the The Voice, as much as the masses are frequently poor at differentiating mediocrity from true talent, you get to hear the people sing and compare them before you vote.

The true danger is when an actor wins the numbers game and then believes it has to do with the quality of their work rather than their capacity to drum up oblivious “Sure, I’ll click on anything” voters.  It just can’t last.  At some point your mediocrity catches up to you. 

At least this is what I have seen.

"Can you feel that?"

Recently a Pilates teacher said this to me and I really didn’t know what she was referring to. I was reminded of sitting in on a body awareness class for actors some years ago where the teacher asked the students “Can you feel that?” And I remember a different class when a movement teacher once asked “Feel that?” and then nodded her head as if she had made everything perfectly clear.

The problem is that in none of these cases did the teacher make it clear what “that” was. I watched students look around rather apprehensively but they dutifully nodded their heads because I’m guessing they certainly felt something and, more importantly, wanted to please. But who knows if what they were feeling was the right feeling or in the right place.

I’m trying to make it a point to understand what my teacher is looking for in specific terms rather than feeling that pressure to make her feel affirmed. I believe I said, “Well, this is what I feel and here is where I feel it. Is that what I should be feeling?”

And sometimes we aren’t going to be aware of what we feel when we’re doing something new. We’re just trying to figure it all out. It takes some time before we’ve done something enough to then actually be in touch with it all.

I’m never impressed when this question is asked again and again without any specific backup, so for me it’s a signal that maybe this teacher isn’t so great. What I do know is we should ask the follow up question or say, “I have no idea what I’m feeling right now I’m just trying to do the exercise.” Honesty helps both the practitioner and the student be present and have a constructive experience.

A note about bios

I’ve been reviewing various sites to find a particular instructor and in doing so have found that people really don’t know how to write an appropriate professional bio.  (Gee, I better take a look at mine now that I’ve said that.)

If I want to hire you for something that you are supposedly a master at, please don’t tell me that you were “thrilled” to continue your training with so and so or that you were “excited” to be able to take blah-blah-blah workshop to become certified in whatever.  These words are about your feelings and not your expertise. 

If you’re a professional, you need to leave these phrases out of your bio.  I know in programs people want to write “Sarah is thrilled to be working with this company again” but even there I usually ask my cast to leave those sentiments out.  Those feelings are better expressed privately.  I certainly am not impressed when I am doing my research to select a professional to provide services to me.

So those of you who might be writing up your own bio or website for something that you do well please keep it professional and don’t tell us about your feelings.  It makes you seem very amateurish.