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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Taking Control

We've all heard the stereotypes. Actors are crazy.  Actors are professional liars. Actors are self-centered.

I can even understand some of them. We can sometimes skirt the edges of sanity in our quest for "acting truthfully under imaginary circumstances". Some occasionally go over that edge. The best actors don't, but enough have done it that I get the label.

Actors are professional liars. Okay. Again, I get it. We are constantly portraying characters that, at least outwardly, have very little to do with who we are. So, obviously, someone that isn't a part of that world would conclude that we are better at lying than most. What they don't know is that most of us are TERRIBLE liars.

On to the self-centered thing. Hmmmm. This one is more problematic.  Because it rings true an awful lot. We do things that are... well... self focused, if not completely and tragically selfish. We do. You know it; I know it.

Why? Why do we do it? Why do we demand that green only M&M's be delivered by courier to our trailer out in the middle of the Mojave? Why do we play practical jokes or create drama or sleep around on set?

Here's my theory. We do it because we feel a lack of control. We are given our lines. We are told how to deliver them by a director. We are told how to dress by wardrobe, how to do our hair by the makeup department, where to stand by the DP.

So, what do we do? Do we just lie down and take it?

Ummm... yeah, we do.

Because if we're in the position where everyone is telling us what to do, it generally means that we're EMPLOYED! Employment is a pretty big deal in our profession, seeing as how 97% of us are not, the vast majority of the time.

That does not, however, mean that we need to be doormats. We are ultimately in control of our lives, as much as we like to think otherwise. We control which projects we do and which we don't. We control what our standards are: what we will do and what we won't. We are in charge of our own destinies.

If we don't like how things are going, we have the power to change them.

Now stop. If you're like most, you already had about 10 excuses flit through your head screaming at you why this statement doesn't apply to you. I know, because I'm writing this and I still did.

Aren't getting enough acting work? Make your own. Can't afford acting classes? Find other actors and create a scene study group. Pissed off because your acting career is taking off (let's talk about this later, btw) and you're getting "typecast" (important part of that word is "cast", just so you know)? Hook up with a writer and create a role that is outside of your type. For that matter, write it yourself.

In other words, take control. Or, you know, do it in passive aggressive ways later by demanding imported beer on tap in your dressing room so that people can prove to you how important you are. We don't have to buy into any of the stereotypes. None of 'em. We are who we chose to be. The kind of actor, the kind of artist, the kind of person.

As long as we're taking control.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Impulse Control

The age old debate: which is more important, raw talent or technique?

Technique includes all of the learned skills of any art form.  For acting, it's training in voice, dialects, movement.  It's learning about objectives, internal obstacles, actions.  It's experience with animal imagery, Alexander technique, Laban.  It's the knowledge that comes with work and experience.  Craft.  Oh, and please don't think that this is a comprehensive list. :)

Raw talent, at least in the way that I look at it, is you. Your personality, your charisma, your... wait for it... impulses!  It's all the things that make you unique and worth watching (and you are, by the way.  Just in case you are wondering).

Anyone that's watched kids playing on the playground knows that impulses are fun, vibrant, exciting. They're also chaotic, inconsistent, sporadic.  Technique, on the other hand, is all about structure.  Consistency.  Order.

Those two things don't seem compatible, right?  And so, actors have had a tendency over time to go in one direction or another.  The raw talent types have a tendency to be bright lights that burn out quickly, but make a pretty big impact.  Marylin Monroe, James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger are some good examples.  The technique actors tend to be longer-lived, but sometimes don't have the same emotional impact in the moment.  Lawrence Olivier, Glenn Close, Kenneth Branagh and Richard Dreyfuss are ones that come to mind for me.

So that's it, right?  We're screwed.  We either go for the gut-level talent stuff and flame out, or we distance ourselves through craft and structure for a life-long career that leaves the audience ambivalent.

Not so much.  There is a third space.  It's the space of the fully trained and connected actor.

There are examples here, too.  Sir Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Dame Judy Dench, Kevin Kline, Sir Ian McKellen and Alan Rickman are some of my favs.

How do we do it?  Well... we use the craft to inform and shape our talent.  Here's a practical example.  We use the term "action" or "tactic" to describe an impulse.  We chose active verbs like "to punch" to describe what that impulse feels like.  Natural impulses are always more vibrant than a thought-out active verb.  But impulses can be incredibly random.  What to do?

Well, as long as our impulses are channeled through our objective, they will work.  If we are using those impulses to get what we want, it will be focused appropriately.  And there's another benefit.  Because it's channeled through the structure of craft, it doesn't burn us out in the same way pure, un-managed talent does.  We stay sane.  In fact, take a look at all of the actors I mentioned in the third category.  They are more than just "not crazy".  They are incredibly grounded (as far as I can tell, at least).

And really, that's what I want.  That's what I strive for.  I want to grow and expand as a human being while I develop in my craft.  I want to be there for my wife and my children.  I want to teach others what I've learned from my teachers, so that they can experience the joy that I have.

We don't have to buy into the "tragic artist" stereotype.  We don't have to live our lives by that false standard.  We can have our cake and eat it, too.

Oh, one final plug.  If you are going to go in one direction over another here, go with training. #justsaying

Thursday, April 15, 2010

To Follow, or Not to Follow?

Is it really even a question? (Insert bad Shakespearean follow-up joke of your choosing here)

I'm going to break from my routine to talk about something that may ruffle a few feathers in Twitter-land.  This is Twitter-specific, but the principles that I talk about here apply pretty much everywhere.  What I'm talking about is a trend that I've noticed most amongst my fellow actors, and it's one that I find a wee bit troublesome.

It's the "I have tons of followers and I don't follow anyone back" syndrome (Gotta find a shorter name for that).

I'm not talking about celebrities, here. That's a completely different topic, and one that I doubt I'll ever address in my blog.  I'm talking about working actors or trying-to-work actors or just-starting-out actors.  Us.  The family of artists engaged in performance for theatre, film and television.

I get it.  We don't want to follow 'bots.  We don't want to muddy up our stream. We maybe don't even understand exactly how Twitter really works (and that's okay, by the way... we just want to figure it out at some point, right?).

But here's how it looks, guys.  It looks like we just don't care about our followers.

Actors already have a bad rap as being at best self-focused, at worst painfully narcissistic.  Do we really want to perpetuate that?  Really?

I would guess that very few of us consciously set out to do this.  But on some subconscious level, we see the famous actors who have hundreds of thousands (or even a million plus) followers and follow 12, and we want it.  We're actors for a reason.  We seek the limelight.

Doesn't mean we have to be jerks.

I'll let you in on something.  I auto-follow.  It's my not-so-dirty little secret.  I also have an automated series of direct messages for those that start following me.

I know, there are some pretty strong feelings about that out in the Twitter-verse.  Automation=robot.  But, as you can pretty clearly see, I'm not (nor have I ever been, as far as I know) mechanical in anything other than my prose. ;)

Now, I'm not telling everyone that they should be doing this, too, but let me explain my reasons.  I want anyone that follows me to immediately feel welcomed.  I want them to feel included. And I want them to know that I'm here to interact with them.  Am I perfect about it?  No way!  Do I try to be kind?  Yes.  And I hope that it shows.

I'm here to build a community of like-minded artists.  I'm here to create ties and establish mutually beneficial friendships and acquaintances.  And maybe to help, if I can.  To encourage actors to stay the course.  To not give up.  To not fall prey to discouragement.

That can't really happen if people don't feel like this is a warm and safe place.

As for the 'bots, we can always unfollow them if they get annoying.  It's not hard.  When you do, they usually go away.  If someone gets really aggressive, block 'em!  Feel like your stream's getting too muddied?  That's what the lists are for.  Put your faves in a list so that you can check in on just them.  It's not complicated.  Even for the most technophobic amongst us.

You also may notice that if you don't follow me back when I follow you, I'll give you a chance for a while, but will ultimately let you go.  We just aren't a fit.  We want different things.  It's not you, it's me.  Okay, really it's you, but I'm not judging. ;)

One final point.  Look at other people's profiles.  What immediately comes to mind when you see that they have 512 followers and they're following 41?  Be honest with yourself.  What does it say?

I'm not asking you to buy into my philosophy completely.  I do hope that this will make you think about what you're really doing here.  Are you here for fun?  Then do what you like (even there, my thought is, "The more the merrier," but hey...).  Is it for ego?  Again, do what you like (although if you follow back, you'll find that you grow much faster).  Is it to vent?  (Ahem. Misery loves company. Enough said.)

But if you're here to network, to find other actors, to find inspiration...

Then maybe, just maybe, you'll join me on the follow-back bandwagon!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Objectives and Internal Obstacles

One of the things that I love about acting is that it helps us to learn about human nature. Some of the things we learn are a little uncomfortable, at times, but they're always worthwhile.

Here's one of the things that's absolutely true: every time we open our mouths, we have a reason for doing so. We have an objective. We want something from the other person. And knowing what that want is tells us more about ourselves than any other piece of information. Same for any character we ever play.

Oh, here's the other thing. When we speak, we're always trying to convince someone of something. Every single time. If we tell a joke, we're trying to convince everyone that we're funny or interesting. If we give an answer in class, we're trying to convince the teacher that we're engaged or that we know what we're talking about.

A typical objective statement is, "I want..." But when we add the words "to convince" it becomes so much more specific. "I want to gain her love" is a great objective statement for a character, but "I want to convince her to love me" seems so much more direct to me. It allows us to really get behind the statement and PUSH for that objective.

Now, here's the part that we usually have no idea what to do about. We know exactly what to do while we're talking, but what in the WORLD do we do when it's not our line??!!?? Yeah, I know, we're told to listen, but that doesn't seem very active, now, does it? We end up losing the thread of connection during those moments, our attention drifting off to such pressing questions as, "What am I doing with my hands right now?" You know, really important stuff like that.

Here's where we need some humanity. I truly believe that one of the things that makes us beautifully human is our ability to doubt ourselves. We're pretty sure that 1+1=2, right? But if Stephen Hawking were to prove to us otherwise with all sorts of fancy algorithms and pretty formulas, wouldn't we at least start to question it? And if we can question that, we can question just about anything.

For every objective, there has to be an internal obstacle. Something that makes us doubt ourselves, at least a little bit. Because if there weren't, I'm pretty sure we'd never shut up. Why do we listen to the other person in an argument? Because we're not completely sure we're right, and we want to hear their points (at least to be able to fight against them). When someone is so sure of themselves that they stop listening completely, doesn't it kind of feel like they've lost part of their humanity?

Right now, I want to convince you that I know what I'm talking about. But I also have an internal obstacle, which could be the fear that I won't be able to explain myself well enough, or that I'm afraid I'm a fraud. That fear allows me to do something active if we're playing out a scene. Because we're good actors and we know what we're doing, we've clarified the conflict, so our objectives are exact opposites of one another. So while you're trying to convince me that I don't know what I'm talking about, I'm playing my internal obstacle that I'm afraid I'm just a fraud. Now I'm active in every moment.

The objective grounds us in the reality of the scene. The internal obstacle humanizes us. That's not all, but I think it's probably enough for the moment. Next week's podcast will explore this in greater detail. Hope this helps! Now, go out and act! :)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Our Package

Before you get your knickers in a twist, I'm talking about our marketing package (jeesh, get your mind out of the gutter already--mine's already there and it's getting way too crowded).

"What is our marketing package," you ask?  Quite simply, it's the collection of tools that we, as actors, need to use to get ourselves and our brand out there.  Didn't know you were a brand? Well, you are, and the sooner that you realize that and start consciously controlling it, the quicker you can start seeing more rapid results.  By the way, I'm talking specifically to actors right now, but the branding and marketing is true for any artist these days.  The tools are slightly different, but the principles are the same.

So, what do we need?  Well, anyone that's serious about acting definitely needs a headshot.  No brainer, right?  Well, yes... mostly.  Most actors know that they need a headshot.  Some aren't fully aware of the fact that they need to be professional quality headshots.  There is a distinct difference between headshot photography and portrait photography.  Knowing what those differences are is what makes the difference between a good photographer and a good headshot photographer.

There are also some differences in what individual markets look for in headshots.  In LA, your headshots are now expected to be in color.  My guess is that most other places will follow suit within the next few years (it just makes sense, as skin tone and hair/eye color is kinda important info for casting purposes), but currently I know that black & white headshots are still the norm in the UK.  I'll be honest.  I'm jealous of the Brits.  I love B&W photos, and wish they were still the standard here.  But, sadly, they're not.

So, here's the deal.  Hire a professional.  Period.  This is not the time to skimp.  I know, I know.  We're all poor, starving artists.  I get it.  Honestly, if you can't afford it, get a second (or third or fourth) job, eat ramen and frozen burritos for a while.  Sell plasma.  Whatever.  Find a way to come up with the money for the shots.

Here's the other part of that:  we need to do our homework.  Want to know what professional headshots look like?  Do a Google search for headshots.  Look at different sites.  I don't mean look at one or two.  I mean look at dozens and dozens.  Hundreds of headshots.  See what it is that those shots have in common.  See what it is that appeals to you.  Then see which of those photographers work in or close to your area, compare their rates, find one in your budget range and set up an appointment.

Next on the agenda is resumes.  They are part and parcel with the headshot.  You can't really have one without the other.  It's important that your resume is formatted properly for your market.  Typically, in NYC, your theatre credits will be first, as NYC is a more theatre oriented town.  In LA, your film and television credits are front and center.

What do you do when you don't have credits?  Go and get them!!  I know that it may not seem possible to just go out and do it, but there are all kinds of student, low-budget and no-budget projects (both film and theatre) that will allow you to build up your resume and gain invaluable experience at the same time.  It's true that without an agent it can be tough (if not impossible) to get professional auditions for tv and film, but auditioning for these other projects is doable at pretty much any level.

And then on to the demo reel.  Casting directors need to know whether or not you can act.  Training is important (hugely important) if you're interested in having a lifelong career as an actor.  Here's the brutal reality:  not everyone in the industry cares.  Coming out of certain acting programs can get you in the door, but at the end of the day, it's your product that will get you called back.  And a reel can tell a pretty convincing story of what level of acting skill you have.

Here's where professional product is once again vital.  You need a professionally edited reel.  I know you think you can rock iMovie on your Mac, but unless you have extensive training in Avid or Final Cut, I would highly recommend that you hire a pro.  In fact, if your footage comes from mostly student or low-budget projects, it's even more important that the person editing the footage together really, really knows what they're doing.

I've given you a LOT of information, hopefully information that will help you to assess where you are right now, and where you want to go next.  One of the things that can be pretty frustrating about the biz is the lack of immediate feedback.  We keep plugging away, things aren't going the way we want, but we have little to no idea whether or not we're doing things right or if the tools we're using are the correct ones.

That is one of the reasons I got so excited when I talked to Lindsay Chag, a casting director that I've worked with before on several occasions, and she expressed interest in working with me on the Headshot Tuesday idea.  Lindsay has worked in the industry for a long time (20+ years) and her imdb list of credits is here:

The packages are these:

The basic package ($25) includes:
A professional casting director will critique your headshot and give you a ten point analysis:

1. Is this a professional grade headshot?  Does it scream PRO or #notsopro?
2. At first glance what category of actor do you appear to be (lead, ingenue, character, etc.)?
3. If she had been casting, which type of roles would this headshot have been good for (horror vs. comedy vs. serious drama)?
4. Are your hair, wardrobe and background reinforcing your brand or taking away from it?
5. If indicated, which other types of headshots would she recommend (Dramatic? Hair up or down? More character-oriented)?
6. Do your eyes have that 'it' factor she talked about in the workshop?
7. What specific recommendations would she make to get that 'it' factor in the eyes?
8. Had this headshot crossed her desk, would she have requested more info?
9. How could you capture her attention more thoroughly?
10.  On a scale of 1-10 (in the category YOU chose as your primary) where does she rank you?

For the advanced package ($50)...
You get all of that for 3 total headshots.
Plus you get the former Director of Acting for Film for The New York Film Academy at Universal Studios (that's me!) to review your resume and give you a five point analysis that includes:
1. Does the resume look professional? Are there spelling errors?  Formatting errors? Wacky fonts that draw attention away from you?
2. Do you have the right balance of credits? Theatrical vs Film
3. Does your resume reflect your stated goal? Character vs Lead
4. Do you have enough dialects? Special skills?
5. On a scale of 1-10 where does he rank you (with at least 5 pointers on how to improve that score!)

The complete package ($75) includes all of that plus...
Both Lindsay and Ben review your reel and give you a detailed analysis along with at least 10 practical pointers on how to tighten and punch up your reel

1. An honest critique of the skill level indicated by the acting on the reel.
2. An assessment of the next steps to take to continue to develop your talent.
3. A critique of the professionalism/production values of the reel, including the editing.
4. A plan to follow to flesh out your reel.
5. A comparison of the reel to the rest of the package (headshots, resume, biz card, etc.) to make sure your brand is strong.
6. Ways in which to utilize your reel to it's fullest potential.
7. Whether or not your reel in its present form will serve you in the industry.
8. After reviewing this reel, would you be more or less likely to be called in for an audition?
9. What can you do to improve upon that impression?
10. On a scale from 1-10, where would Lindsay and Ben rank your reel?

One of the reasons that I'm so excited to be working with Lindsay on this is that this is exactly what I wish I had access to when I first came out to Los Angeles.  I spent so much time spinning my wheels, not knowing that my package wasn't exactly what it needed to be.  And I had come out of one of the top five acting grad schools in the nation!  I knew how to act.  I did NOT know how to market.

For anyone that is interested in this amazing service, please send me a direct message at @actingnodrama or email me at actingwithoutthedrama (at) gmail (dot) com for the details.  And whether or not you decide to take advantage of this offer, please take my advice when I tell you to get professional-level products for your marketing package! :)