Watch how you present yourself

Way back when I studied at the National Theater Institute, I remember our instructors warning us (especially the women) against being too sexy in how we presented ourselves.  Many years later I had an actress studying with me in New York dismiss my concerns at her overly sexual photos by saying “Sex sells."  It does.  It can also prevent people from wanting to work with you.  (To my knowledge, the sex she was selling never got her a role in anything professionally.)

Yes, we are drawn to attractive people who we feel sexually attracted to.  But actors need to understand the difference between being attractive and our being able to see that you can be very sexy and your presenting yourself like you’d be trouble.  At the O'Neill (NTI), they explained that producers and directors do not want to have to worry that an overtly sexy woman (read "or man”) will cause problems or distractions with their behavior during the run of a show or film shoot.  They don’t want trouble.

Since that time, I have seen this happen – not just distractions but I’ve seen groups destroy themselves because of actors who were more interested in their love lives than the projects in which they were engaged.

I’m looking around Facebook and seeing young actresses with highly suggestive (read “tacky”) photos of themselves taken in their bedrooms or in skimpy clothing straddling a chair or twerking and I feel sorry for them.  Because while sex may sell, no one in the industry is ever going to take these women seriously.  No one.  Only those who are selling a form of performance that doesn’t require a BA in acting (read “BA in anything”).

I see this among many, many young women (and some men) who should know better.  They have gone to good schools. They’ve been in legitimate acting programs.  And yet, here they are with email names and head shots and Facebook photos that display everything else about them except their acting skills.  They don’t look great to work with.  They don’t look confident.  They don’t look talented.  They don’t look intelligent.  They don’t look skillful and competitive.  They don’t look like themselves.

We all like to put out photos that make us look good.  Fine.  Look good.  Look great.  But do not put on that suggestive air that is better reserved for your lover.  Be beautiful and confident and smile.  And dress just a little bit more conservatively.

Our grandmothers were right when they said “leave something for the imagination." 

The Voice -- yours, not the show

More and more I believe that the area that most actors neglect in their preparation for film and TV careers is their voice.  Musical theater actors get it but of course their vocal work usually is around singing and frequently they’ve got really weak speaking skills.

Having a great voice is a gift and some folks can easily be heard and their voice is “easy on the ear."  I have a good friend who’s voice is fine for her private life but not very flexible for her acting because she has a strong regionalism.

If you want to work more, perhaps the thing that you need to work with a voice coach to develop a voice that is easy to listen to, easy to imagine in any number of roles and can be heard effortlessly.

Your voice also connects the text to your inner life and if you do proper vocal training you should find that your voice does not prohibit you from doing anything in your acting but actually encourages all experiences to come through to your audience.

Find a good Linklater class and stay with it long enough for the changes you need to take place.  They won’t happen in weekend workshops; they may not happen for quite a long time.  Our vocal patterns and constrictions begin when we are very young and so we’ve used them or been used by them a very long time.  It’s hard to break those habits.  You also can’t break them alone.  So stay away from CDs that suggest that you can do proper vocal work on your own.  You can’t.  Not until you have worked in person with a great teacher. Then, once you have progressed to an advanced stage, sure, you can use tapes to stay in shape. 

If you’re in New York, there’s no one better than Joanne Pattavina.  Look her up.  I went through a lot of voice coaches at my studio waiting for Joanne to be able to teach for us.  She is the real thing.

The state of musical theater

Before I begin, I did not see Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music.  I am, however, interested in all the conversation surrounding her performance.

I watched the beginning of the New York Thanksgiving Day Parade where they showed a scene from Cinderella.  I was annoyed.

There is no reason why all musical theater shouldn’t be utterly breathless to watch.  I don’t think it’s about someone not being a triple threat.  I don’t think it’s about snobbery of the musical theater community. 

I think that we have become so accustomed to musical theater that is based in gesture and the broad imitation of a real human moment that musical theater actors and directors simply don’t know how to make the singing and acting come from an ability to bring imaginary circumstances alive the way an actor would in a Tech II emotional prep exercise.

There is simply NO REASON why it can’t be done.  We’ve seen it happen.  In the greatest musical theater performances the actors are completely connected and the music and their singing amplifies the connection.

I believe it’s a matter of everyone still accepting the old musical theater form that plays to the huge house without understanding how you can do that and still be emotionally full and vulnerable and alive.

I know a musical theater teacher who has a little flip chart with scores of photos of gestures that his students can choose from when they are choreographing their songs.  And he believes this is perfectly valid.  My God!  Send us back into medieval times why don’t you! 

And audiences who love musical theater love it (I get it) for what it was circa 1960 but the art form has moved past that.  It can be better than straight theater.  (The way some of the most moving drama I’ve ever seen is older Pina Bausch performances at BAM.)

So the concern everyone seems to have over Carrie Underwood’s performance should broaden into an outrage that bad teachers and directors and producers who only understand worn out prescriptive formulas are the ones being hired.  It begins with them.

Mandela

I made the mistake when I first met him of asking him the question, “How did you make it through all those years of suffering? And how did you survive?” I think that’s the word I used. I said, “How did you survive all those years?”

And he abruptly shifted. He’s a big man, and his shoulders came back, and he had this almost scowl on this face. He said, “I didn’t survive. I prepared.”

And I’ll never forget that. The idea that when life gives you something that’s outside of your control, it’s not about how to survive it. It’s about how you use it—how to use the cards that have been dealt you.    - Anthony Robbins

The power of courtesy and having done your research

A few days ago I received an email from a prospective student that almost knocked me off my chair.  It began by saying that she had read my website and wanted to thank me for my contribution to the arts.

Imagine this in contrast with 90% of initial emails I receive from potential students who begin by saying “Can you tell me about your program and tell me how much the classes cost and what they’re like?"  (To which I respond in my head, "Ah, no.  You should’ve already done your due diligence and read my website before contacting me with these questions.)

The first example is someone who has great business savvy (and who hopefully believes what she writes) contrasted with the majority of actors who expect everyone else to do their work for them.

Let’s fast forward when these actors get to LA or wherever they want to work, and they are competing for a role against 1,200 other actors who have been submitted.  Who has the acumen to knock 50% of her competition out before she even gets to her first callback?

This isn’t about flattery.  This is about knowing that everything you do – from your email name, to your Facebook page, to how you walk into an audition, to how you greet people, etc. is going to have an impact on your success.  Lazy actors who don’t know how to present themselves to an acting teacher are never going to know how to make it in the big bad world.

I want to work with that first young woman.  She’s smart. She’s with it.  She knows who I am and what I’ve done.  She’s got so much more on the ball than most of the actors who contact me that she is going to triumph in my audition class.  I can’t wait to work with her.

Isn’t this the kind of response you want from potential directors and producers?  PRACTICE BEING THAT ACTOR NOW.

You took a Meisner class once... and you think that is enough?

It takes time to become a great golfer.  It takes doing it over and over again.  It takes time to become a great violinist.  You must practice for hours and hours.  The better your mentors, the better you become.

If you’re an actor, you simply can’t become great or get better if you’re taking short-term workshops, auditing classes or reading books about acting.  You have to practice over and over in front of someone with superior knowledge, experience, talent and the ability to communicate all that in succinct and effective ways.  You need to work with a mentor until everything you do is effortless even under the most pressured audition or performance.

The best actors understand this.  They are addicted to getting better and will sacrifice to achieve. They will work on something until they master it.  UNTIL THEY MASTER IT.  They know one day they will be tested.   And when that time comes, they will be completely and utterly ready.

How Time Exists in an Actor's Life

It’s so easy to feel like one is late in getting to the party with so many actors who made it because they started as children.  And managers and agents are always going to try to convince you to just get out there and not waste any more time.  But every now and then, you’ll come across an excellent casting director who wants nothing to do with actors who haven’t taken their training seriously. I’m thinking of someone in New York who blasts actors who don’t train or those who list a series of short workshops on their resumes in lieu of real training. 

But life is long.  And believe me when I tell you that if you are 21 and already feel like you can’t commit to longer term training that if, in doing so, you really get good then you will end up surpassing all the other actors who rush out into the world because they want to “try their skills in real-life situations” (sounds good, right?  wrong) before they are ready.  At 34 you may look back and realize you’d never have made it if you hadn’t committed to that two-year program.  At 40 you’ll realize how much it still means to you and if you’re still doing extra work then you’ll feel really dumb that you could’ve gone through that training ten times since you rushed out at 20.

Yes, you DO have to hurry up and get out there AND you have to be brilliant.  So try to slow down a little and be thoughtful and take a deep breath and work slow and steady.  And take time off.  I recently spoke to a grad who told me things were going so much better since he relaxed and let the universe guide him a bit.  But also use career coaches to guide you.  Make a five-year plan.  But know that we frequently don’t or rather we can’t get done all that we hope to.  But if you are ambitious and have a strong work ethic, your work will take you somewhere.  And class time counts as work.  Learning any new skill that will help you as an actor counts as work.

Managing your relationship to time, not falling apart during the slow times or neglecting important growth opportunities during the busy times are some of the hardest things about living an actor’s life.  It is a balancing act.  Balance it by building confidence.  Build confidence by putting one good block on top of another.  And train like an athlete.  Think like an athlete.  You cannot afford to get soft.  You cannot whine.  You’ve got to get stronger and better.  And you have to put in time.

When making your own film...

PLEASE pay attention to what your extras are doing.  In fact, try not to cast extras.  Try to cast ACTORS for all roles. 

Nothing dummies down a piece of film more (and you’ll see this a lot on TV) than to have extras, say an angry mob, who are not angry, incapable of being angry and completely disinterested in what the whole scene was about anyway.

More and more I notice when the background is not supporting the foreground.  So, watch for that guys.  It can really make a huge difference in the quality of those types of scenes.

Is the coffee hot or are you acting like it's hot?

I remembered a funny incident in my New York studio a number of years ago.  The show we were doing was set in a diner.  We served real food and real coffee, all hot. 

An industry professional, who shall remain nameless, asked me why the actors didn’t act like the coffee was hot.  I replied, “Because it was hot” and left it at that.

I remember being in a sense memory class where we were asked to act like the mug in our hand held hot coffee.  And I remembered what Sandy Meisner used to say, “Why don’t they just put hot coffee in the cup?”

We are sometimes at the mercy of people who have not caught up with the times but I’ll still put my money on just serve it hot and don’t worry about the folks like that industry guy who wanted to see it acted.  If you have to one day fake something like that – or are made to fake something like that – I’m still sure your Meisner training will make you better at it than all the poor folks who are still trying to “feel the snow.”

What does it take to become a master. Clocking hours. Thousands of hours.

Make the most of your acting class – rehearse.  One of the main weaknesses I see today in actors in class is that there is no longer a commitment to rehearsing outside of class. The more you rehearse outside of class, the more you commit to a high attendance standard and stop making “valid” excuses for missing classes, the more you commit to the class as your career, the more you’ll get out of it.  Why pay money for training and then sabotage it by spreading your attention thin.  Take classes when you are willing to set aside the time to really master something.  If you continue to take workshops, classes and perform in student productions without a total focus on getting better at one thing, the longer you will perform like an amateur. Mastery is what gets you further in the long run.

Acting teachers and directors are professionals. Treat them accordingly.

A note on teachers and instructors – many of us have 25+ years of experience and are professionals, and we deserved to be paid for our expertise.  Many actors expect us to work for free – reading scripts, reviewing reels, searching for scripts and monologues for them, etc.  Hey guys, you need to pay for these services.  Teachers are not volunteers who you can expect to do your work for you.  Hire them for consultations, for coaching, etc.  Treat the industry with the respect you would treat people in medicine or law.  Get with it!

Why else is this important?  You need to build habits now so you won’t embarrass yourself with other people in the industry later.

A little humility please

Lately I’ve seen a lot of overly heartfelt gratitude expressed by actors to those that saw their show or contributed services or money.  It actually has the odd result of not seeming humble but arrogant – arrogant or terribly insecure, which so frequently go hand-in-hand.  A sort of “I’m just overwhelmed by how great you think I am,” kind of thing.  If you’ve done well, you deserve the response you got and shouldn’t be so overly grateful. It can come across as self-indulgence.   I saw this after 9/11 from one of the CEO’s of a company who lost many people in the towers.  He made it all about himself.  His impassioned speeches to the media were so self-focused that many, many in his industry were completely disgusted by him – although I bet he doesn’t know it.  So actors, be grateful, fine.  But stop being so self-indulgent in how you express it.  Learn simple confidence and learn to express yourselves without the hyperbole.  We get it!

Keep it to yourself

 Tiny etiquette suggestion – stop nodding your head when another actor in your class or rehearsal is getting notes.  It comes off like you saw that and you are in agreement with the director.  It’s also obnoxious to your fellow actor who doesn’t need you to see you nodding in agreement over his or her notes.  Maybe you do understand the note, and it’s an innocent acknowledgement of that.  Keep it to yourself.  (Ironically, the last three actors who did this consistently in rehearsals and classes with me were the ones who thought themselves to be superior to some of the other actors when actually they were doing weaker work.)

Watch out for scams.

Actors are perhaps the next most vulnerable people after senior citizens for vultures preying on their hopes and dreams.  I see now that among all the other bogus offers and products being sold to actors that someone is now selling line rehearsals ‘with professional actors.'  Line rehearsals!  What next?  There are people out there who will stop at nothing to take your money and make you believe that their product will get you into the industry.  Be smart, guys.  Do not get caught up in the scams.

Transforming talent into skill is what good Meisner teachers do

“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.


I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. You know, while the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working. While the other guys’ eating, I’m working.”

– Will Smith

You can't do your best work when you are audience-focused

Our best work as actors demands, DEMANDS that you are able to put your attention and focus 100% where it belongs – on your scene partner, what you are doing and what you are hearing and seeing.  Nerves cause actors to be self-focused.  So get into training and keep training yourself to get your attention off yourself.

Last week I saw a trailer that some actors made for an upcoming production that was in a word EMBARRASSING.  Here’s why.  They were so sure that they were funny; they were so obviously playing to impress us, to humor us, to sort of say, “look what amazing character work I am doing,” that it was awful.  These folks would not get hired but unfortunately their teacher/director is back in the mid-20th century and thinks that is acting.

It’s not.