Somewhere out there, somewhere magical, where everything is just so, there lies the sweet spot regarding the issue of actor behavior in a scene. My definition of this sweet spot: “Physical action enough to lend logic to the premise of the story, its location, the specifics of the characters and the scene, without veering unnecessarily towards excessive wandering, tinkering, dusting, wandering, clothes-changing, makeup-applying, wandering, trash-disposing, stuffed-animal cuddling, drink-making mania.”

Behavior should serve to give a patina of observable logic to something that should already be true (but is in fact often false). So unfortunately I’m too often witness to scenes where the communication is unclear, or wrongly evaluated, or inappropriate to the style of the piece, but boy oh boy oh boy….. Look at that set! Look at the stuff! Look at the actors move over there. And then over there. And then back again. And then sit, but then to rise again. Look at the actor walking backwards!

You could have a set designed to the nth degree, with furniture and glassware and rugs and doors and baubles galore, but if the communication sucks between the actors, no set will save us from the misery. Conversely, if the communication between the actors is honest, vivid, passionate, and clearly conveys the story to the audience,  then very few will much care about the set and where you walked during the scene.

Too often I am seeing actors wandering around their sets without a purpose other than to get an “A” in behavior. The emphasis here is without a purpose. Are you moving because there is a task to execute? Is the task logical to the premise, setting, and events of this scene? Or are you moving because you’re panicked that you haven’t moved in a while? If the script says you need to get the other character a drink, then have at it – go pour a drink, bring it back. But lately I feel a simple task like that becomes… walk to the bar, muse over which glass to use, polish it with your sleeve, look at your sleeve, have a moment (‘I made the choice that my first girlfriend gave me this shirt’), pause to choose which bottle of booze, open it meticulously, pour, sniff, pour again, wipe up a drop that spilled, start walking back, reverse course, pick up napkin, bring napkin with glass across stage…

So behavior can be your friend or your enemy – if it’s impeding the flow of the script, it’s the latter. That’s why when I come in to help out on a scene in the rehearsal process, or even during a critique, I’ll often just have the actors sit in chairs several feet apart and read the damned scene without all the behavior. When I direct a show, we’ll spend 2-3 weeks sitting in chairs reading it aloud before I block a single move. If the story doesn’t come alive in chairs, it ain’t gonna happen anywhere else. Romeo and Juliet should be passionate, funny, wild and tragic in two chairs, or else all the vine-climbing in the world will just be a waste of time.

Now this may all seem to be sacrilegious, as “Behavior” comes early on Milton’s famous Checklist For Takeoff, and anyone who ever was directed by him knows that you often had so many tasks to execute that you didn’t have time to think about acting, which was often quite beneficial to the proceedings at hand. But the behavior was linked to a logic, and it assisted the event without becoming the event. And yes, behavior can be linked to imagination – I’ve written before about a scene some students once performed from The Hobbit, where they were fantastically imaginative about the set and characters and how everyone interacted. You want to set Romeo and Juliet in a surreal underwater universe? Go for it. Behave away – in accordance with the logic of that underwater concept. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is some crazy bi-polar deal – the aimless wandering without a purpose, and its evil twin: excessive OCD-like behavior that ends up distracting from the scene, its event and the flow of the language.

So fear not, this isn’t some revisionist anti-behavior departure from the norm, and we still bow our heads before Mr. Kazan and his dictum that the job of the actor is to turn “psychology into behavior.” I would just advise nailing the communication before you obsess about behavior. It’s a matter of sequencing. Early rehearsals – set up a couple chairs 15 feet apart (so you can’t mumble) and let the script fly for a while, really get at it.  You’ll find there’s plenty of work to do there.

And then there’s this little inconvenient fact: It is very unlikely that behavior will be a part of your getting the job. Getting jobs will involve sitting in a chair, or standing on a mark, talking to a reader or talking to a camera, and summoning the event of the scene, its evaluation, the style of the piece, and doing it clearly and consistently over many auditions. Behavior will not be a part of getting the job, and yet in proper measure is part of fulfilling the job.

Life’s a bitch.




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Here’s a podcast I did last month for the gang at LA Reels as part of their Great Hollywood Adventure series, wherein we cover my history at BHP, the opening sequence from “Ordinary People,” Acting / Attitude / Administration, and all that jazz…

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Utterly sleep deprived from being up until 4am (vandalism, cops, window board-up companies – fun!), I sat down for lunch a tad fuzzy. Nonetheless, my conversation with this very promising actor yielded something I thought worthy of putting out there, blog-wise: The concept of three phases of an actor’s existence in Los Angeles. (This somewhat echoes ideas from my previous essay The Wall of No, but from a slightly different angle.)

Phase One: Prologue. This would consist of the 1-5 years on average that I have observed actors simply to stumble about town without a semblance of traction. They may be in a class, but it probably isn’t one with significant challenge or discipline. The actor in early Prologue is often spinning, dazed, partying,  _____ing without much restraint.  Later in Prologue would be found that person who is disciplined, finds a decent class, and with a degree of focus sets out to assemble their skills as a professional storyteller – but who has yet to administrate. Everyone starts in Prologue – and only they determine through their actions and behavior when to emerge from this phase. Prologue is the period between arriving in Los Angeles and becoming a consistently good, professional-level actor who is responsible, focused and ready to leave something behind in favor of being in Phase Two. A lot of actors have said some version of, “Man, I’ve been in town X years now and nothing’s really happened.” My response for most is that those X years were Prologue. Those X years don’t really count on the clock of “I’ve been doing this X years.” You haven’t been “doing this.” Not really.

Phase Two: Build-out. For my money, this is the start point of a career. In Build-Out, by hook or by crook, the actor has gotten himself into a position of acting well on a consistent basis – he/she knows the task, has evolved an approach that works for them, they tell the right story in the right way most or all of the time, they’re good group collaborators and have practiced that skill as well. They’ve probably indulged 1-5 years of Prologue-y gyrations between sloth and chaos in the personal life, are ready to stop the Crazy, and get to work. And work it is. For the next 5 years or so, the actor in Build-out is serious about his or her administration, works it consistently, follows up all meetings and  auditions like a professional, and expands their list of Showbiz contacts. They stop conceiving of themselves as some Special Snowflake simply deserving of regular work because of their talent, and they stop blaming other people for their ills. And they’re probably partying less, writing fewer mantras, and simply working more. A proper Build-Out phase has attention to further development of their abilities, and a goal of 50 actions a week directed outward toward building a network, building CD/Agent/Writer/Producer/Director trust in you as a professional actor.

Phase Three: I’m Workin’ Here. Through diligent time spent on build-out, the actor has, we hope, successfully moved to Phase Three, which is marked by more consistent professional work. There are several jobs a year, let’s say. You’re making your SAG insurance minimum. Maybe you even get to give up your day job. But notice that Phase Three isn’t called, “I’m enjoying the money I make from acting here.” It’s Work. Still work. Because you have to move the career in the direction you want to go, all while continuing the actions you did during “Build-out.” But you’ve also learned to ride the ups and downs, the “you’re in first position / pinned / on avail” exhilaration that is crushed two days later when they go with someone else who won third prize on a reality show. Your sense of humor remains intact when your agent quits to shepherd goats in Scotland, or drops you and makes you think you should shepherd goats in Scotland. You might be able to get away without 50 actions a week, but I would certainly still recommend flawless followup and regular communication (3-4x a year) with everyone on your list.

My informal observation is that 80% of actors who land in LA for Prologue never emerge from that phase. They are too addicted to some form of unstructured existence, it’s all too chaotic, they just never quite become a professional about it – either from a skills or business perspective. Some brilliant actors can study for years and still essentially remain in Prologue from sheer obstinance about the issue of career administration. Of the remaining 20% who enter the Build-Out phase, almost none will be consistent for 5 years because they get discouraged, they Slouch Towards Bitterness, or other opportunities for Real Life present themselves and they’re happy to pursue those. So, that’s about one percent remaining who arrive in Los Angeles and make the full journey from Prologue to I’m Workin’ Here! May the Force be with you to be one of them.

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In case you haven’t heard, The Biz is full of gossip. People sleep with each other. Then they break up. They do stupid shit at parties. They get married. They get divorced. They are “difficult.” People talk about people. It’s a shocker. In another stunning development, because of the many intense, small and ever-changing ecosystems in this business  (read: film sets, play rehearsals, and acting classes), you could find yourself in a holy-smokes relationship in no-time-flat, invested fully in any number of ways, discover within eight weeks that this investment was perhaps ill-advised, and yet somehow you keep doing it again and again and again. New people, intense feelings. New people, intense feelings! Quite a ride. It’s part of The Deal,  part of why a lot of people love the business – they thrive off a bit of emotional chaos and the highs and lows of it all. Artists can be manic high-low people, fueled by emotional responses, and it all fits together a certain way.

I’m not judging. Been there myself many times. But the downside:  the number of hours of work, focus, administration and creativity utterly lost to the distraction, emotion, and heartbreak that revolve around what is too often just petty stupid f___ing gossip.

And nights are dangerous, aren’t they? The downside part of the Showbiz Holy-cow Intensity Thing tends to be particularly downside-y as the hours creep. The later it is when you’re sending a text, the more trouble you’re asking for, right? The emotions, the neediness, the loneliness, the gossip, the ratio of bad decisions per 100 – it all skyrockets between 9pm and sunrise.

So, while conceding utterly that Showbiz relationships can be intense, needy, short-lived and overly emotional, I offer the following two Advisable Policies For Life in Showbiz:

1. Keep all business communication (including that regarding class, rehearsals, etc.), and all communication from the new people in your life, to business hours. Set ‘em as you wish. 9am-to-5pm. 9am-to-6pm. Whatever.  If you’re communicating, particularly by text or email, after 6pm – it had better be with your significant other, or someone you’ve known for years, so (we hope) the trust and the parameters have been established. If you have to communicate outside that group after 6pm, ensure it is utterly dry business communication. All incoming communication from fellow students in class, people who might want to get you in bed, people who are seeking to get you out of bed away from whomever you’re in bed with, solicitations to gossip…. All these communications go unanswered until 9am the next morning (if even then).

2: Share nothing of negatively-tinged emotional content via text or email, don’t initiate or attempt to resolve emotional topics by text, email, social media. You could apply this universally and probably live a much happier life, but let’s say this should absolutely apply to anyone who isn’t either a significant other or someone you’ve known for years where, again, the trust and the parameters have been set. I fail on this many times a year, so I know the terrain as well as anyone, but I have learned the hard way to try my best not to communicate electronically about emotional subjects or thorny business issues.

The amount of friggin’ drama I have confronted over the last two years, mostly in relation to class dynamics between students (and too often between students who really barely know each other – the new people-intense feelings “friends” that are so frequent), that has been fanned and set ablaze through overly emotional text and email messages (usually sent after 9pm), has been utterly dumbfounding. Text is good for: “Confirming rehearsal at 8pm?” or “Can you buy eggs on the way home?” It’s really, really, really BAD for: “Listen, the way you spoke to me today was very hurtful, and frankly, just speaks to the kind of person I’ve always suspected you were. And by the way? EVERYONE thinks this about you.” Ugh. It’s comical. You might think I’m making it up, but I would guess at this moment, a lot people who are reading this essay now wonder whether the NSA has provided me personal access to their electronic communications. That right there is a hybrid of some text/email in the chain of every gossipy junior high school-level blow-up that has occurred in the last ten years or more.

Try it for a month. From 6pm-9am the next morning, the only people you communicate with by text/email/social media are romantic partners, family, or people who have been solid friends for, say, at least two years. And don’t get negatively emotional via electronic messaging of any sort.  

I think you’ll find the emerging quiet a bit more conducive to the work you need to do.





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Here’s an interview I did for Destination Hollywood Radio, in which I discuss my history at the BHP, the BHP Approach, specifics on career administration, actors v. writing, actors v. agents, and why Brits and Aussies deserve the work they’re getting. They did a partial transcription, and below that is the link to the full podcast.

Acting Training for Professional Storytellers

For almost 4 decades the Beverly Hills Playhouse has helped actors hone their craft of professional storytelling. Recently, DHR’s Patty Lotz sat down with Beverly Hills Playhouse Owner/CEO Allen Barton to talk about the “new normal” for actors in this Internet age and BHP’s unique approach to acting training that addresses Acting, Attitude and Career Administration. Here is an excerpt from the podcast interview:

DHR: Here you are the Owner/CEO of the Beverly Hills Playhouse. You stepped into some huge shoes.

AB: Yes. You know your history. Milton Katsalas was probably one of the most legendary acting teachers here in Los Angeles for a long, long time. And I came out here right out of college.

DHR: From where?

AB: I grew up in Boston and went to Harvard University and then came out here because I wanted to be in the entertainment business although I didn’t really know in what capacity. But a girl who I had a big crush on who was staying out here… she studied at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. So she said “You should study at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, it’s a really cool place.” I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about Milton, but I knew this pretty girl was telling me to go study so…(laughs). Many actors have started studying for such reasons.

So I started as a student here in 1990 as an acting student. I pretty quickly moved into directing, and got to know Milton early on because I’m also a pianist. When I was a young student here he was working on a workshop production of an opera he wanted to direct with professional opera singers. They needed a rehearsal pianist so my name came up because I play piano. So I played rehearsal piano for him for this opera he was directing and he and I got to know each other and we got along and I just understood his thing, his “way.” So we just started to working together because I was broke and couldn’t afford the classes. So I just started coming here to the office at the school and said, “Hey, do you guys need any help? I will perform some services in exchange for tuition.” And they asked if I could alphabetize the student files so I said yes, I went to a good school and I know the alphabet. So I would disappear into the basement and come up 2 hours later and say OK, the files are organized.

I became what I called the Vice President of Stuff & Miscellany. I would just show up and they would think of things for me to do. Fix the computer. Hook that thing up. Can you figure out that problem? Can you solve this, solve that? And I kept on doing that just to help make some money to pay for my tuition. Meanwhile, I was studying very hard in class. I became a director and Milton was guiding my work as a director. And I was his gopher and helper and when he was directing projects I would go and help him out. There was no plan, it just what was happening day to day. This happened year after year after. I just got to know how the entire organization ran from top to bottom. So accidentally I just absorbed a Ph.D. amount of knowledge about how to run this particular acting school, how the teaching gets delivered, and how the students respond to that teaching. So I ended up becoming the CEO, runing the entire business for Milton in 2003.

DHR: Tell me about your style of teaching.

AB: Well it’s Milton’s approach and basically it’s the idea of teaching acting with 3 prongs: there’s the acting part of it, there’s attitude, and what we call administration. Administration means what are you doing to actually make your career happen. So we’re talking to actors across all three of those topics. So our classes are not just “Hey, in this scene I think this particular character should do this and that.” You can talk to actors for years about this kind of improvement in their work and they will actually move nowhere, because they leave the class and they’re critical of their agents, they’re bitter about the business, they’re living some sort of chaotic existence and they actually do nothing to run the business of their career, which is they’re a professional storyteller. That’s what I try to tell the actors. You’re a professional storyteller. That’s your job. You help tell stories. And you’ve got to market that skill. You’ve got to get to know people in this town. So what is unique is we cover not only how to act but how to be a professional actor.

DHR: What I’ve noticed is that interaction between actors and agents and people have changed due to the internet. There’s been a major change. What do you suggest to the actor to still continue to connect with people because it seems like there are a lot of closed doors?

AB: Well there are 2 aspects to this. One is that the whole industry model is breaking down before our very eyes. All of the gatekeepers who have been keeping their gates for decades are finding that there is no gate to keep. So the business has completely changed. You have vastly huge distribution channels where there used to be 5. All these windows are opportunities for story telling which means basic supply and demand. There’s a huge amount of story telling. There’s a huge amount of supply, thus the money comes down. Which I think is good. So it’s probably less likely that your average actor is going to make a huge amount of money. But I think it’s good in the sense that…let’s find out who’s good at telling stories and telling them well. And if you’re good at that, I still think you can make a decent career in this business. So, the model is broken apart and I think that’s actually to the advantage of the actor.

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Ah, yes. I gotta get my shit together. It’s not exactly a new expression, but I dearly wish it would expire, like I gotta shoe my horse or I gotta go to Strawberries and get the latest LP.

I gotta get my shit together. I need a break. I feel dispersed. I’m uninspired. I need to go make money for a bit. I need to go to Joshua Tree. It’s all of a piece. The Grand Justification. Because, of what is this “shit” comprised? Money, relationships, car repair, dental work, I’m-writing-a-script, spiritual advancement, a place to live, the new job…. On and on. There’s nothing in the world that won’t fit under the generous, welcoming umbrella of I gotta get my shit together.  And no one is immune. Not a human walks the face of the earth who doesn’t have some shit that needs  getting together.

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Allow me to rage, give voice to thoughts hushed and guarded, unexpressed, trapped, traversing the crania of teachers of serious acting, for fear of grave offense against what THEY say, for fear of pissing off a longtime student who has wandered or wants to wander from serious acting training, and by serious acting I mean training geared towards creating a serious actor, which is to say not someone without a sense of humor, no, no, not that, definitely not that, god have mercy, forbid it, but rather one whose sense of humor is not necessarily the issue per se, that is to say, the thoughts of those of us trying to train a skilled actor who simply can have a real shot at a career in film, television and theatre, an actor who is skilled in both comedy and drama, and can honestly investigate a writer’s premise in any style and any form and do so richly and believably and consistently for as many performances as you’d like, in as many or as few takes as is your preference, on as little notice as you’d wish. Got it? So here goes: Fuck improv training.

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[I posted this entry in 2010, but the topic keeps smacking me in the face, so I thought it was worth revisiting with an edit, update and repost.]

It doesn’t quite work, because “Cynema” and “Cinema” are homonyms. Visually – okay. To the ear, it needs to be “Cynical Cinema.”

cynical, adj., 1. concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards, 2. distrustful of human sincerity or integrity

cynema, n., filmmaking motivated by cynical inclinations as to what will move the creators’ careers forward, at the expense of coherence, humanity or passion; cynema is often characterized by slavish devotion to a style, it rarely demonstrates any devotion to a focused story, it is marked by poor craftsmanship, improvisation in lieu of writing, a desperate desire to be funny (often by imitating others’ humor), emphasis on the ‘mockumentary’ form, hitting visual punchlines, etc.

We’ve all had enough of it, right? How many invitations have we received to look at vimeo, youtube, whatever, to see the latest work by an acquaintance, and you want to throw heavy objects at your fragile computer? If I never see another stupid fucking unfunny mockumentary again in this lifetime or any lifetime to follow, it will be too soon. Stop it! If you aren’t going to be funnier than Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman (or that delicious Extras skit between Gervais and McKellen about acting), don’t do it! And trust me, you probably aren’t funnier than those films. Those are professionally funny people, and in this business if you haven’t been paid to be funny, there’s an awfully good chance that if you tried, you simply aren’t funny enough to be paid for it.

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I’ve emphasized in plenty of entries here how important I think it is that actors follow up on all professional interactions. Auditions, callbacks, meetings, on-set work… Fact is, once an actor knows how to act, the business they’re really in is the name-collecting and followup business. In A Universal Career Jumpstart, I put down three lists I think every actor should draw up and add to on an ongoing basis. Setting to the side any and all internal work the actor might do to keep themselves moderately sane, and all the forward-gazing goals, mantras, and conceptualizing, if an actor can do these two things – act well and follow up – those two skills alone, pursued with discipline over time, will beget more acting work.

So. What to say to these people? Not for me to dictate, as clearly it’s too context-dependent. BUT, I can say this: Communicate on a peer-to-peer basis. By this I mean that too much of the correspondence I have occasionally been able to review comes from a lowly, I’m-just-aspring, you-are-a-god-and-I’m-out-of-work, look-how-clever-I’m-being-to-get-your-attention place. That stuff reeks of insecurity and low esteem. Don’t do it.

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An actor is a prism. The writing is the light.

Each writer, being utterly unique, will create a different variation of light.

Each actor, being utterly unique, will refract light in his or her own distinct way, before even thinking of making a choice about the matter.

A director’s job is to look at the light, figure out which prism does the best job refracting that particular light, and manipulate a bunch of prisms during rehearsal or shooting so in combination they create a light show… like that. No… Like THAT.

So one thing you can do is ensure you, the prism, are clear, not cracked, not sharp to hold, that you’re easy to move this way and that, and that the light shines through you in a nice vivid way. Meaning: say the damned lines correctly and in order, and of course imbue them with reality and emotions appropriate to the situation of the story and the tone of the script, and style of the writer. Once you do that, the nature of your instrument – including age, voice, look, body, ethnicity, etc – will either contribute to your being right for the part or not. So the part of that equation you really control is the “imbue them with the reality and emotions appropriate to the story point and tone of the script and style of the writer.”

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