Fuck the Star Meter. Stop looking at it. Never think about it again. Fuck how many followers you have on some social media platform. Stop looking. Never think about it again. Figure out what you love to do. Take some steps to ensure you’re good at it. Proceed.
Ten years ago I taught an actress who was then probably around 25, maybe younger. She worked her ass off in class, but at the time I thought her casting was such that she needed to stick it out, get older, and then she’d really be in demand. As it happened, she stuck it out, and has been booking more and more in her thirties. She recently booked her first recurring television job by offer alone, news of which reached me through the grapevine. This textversation followed (edited for clarity):
Me: That doesn’t suck.
Actress: Right? Crazy. Wardrobe already called. Script drafts in my email and I’m still like… Did that really happen?
Me: Told you all those years ago: You just needed miles on the odometer.
Actress: Praise be to perspective. Thank god for living with a writer/director. Seeing his side, I’m a million times more chill now. And when my actor friends call me about stuff, I’m like, “None of what you’re talking about matters. None of it.” I thank you highly for trying so hard to get me to understand. But there were so many things before the things before the things before the things to understand, before I could understand the things you were trying to get me to understand.
It’s an unfortunate responsibility to have any affiliation with a playwright. The necessary support level is high. It’s like having some exotic pet. Or a boat. Apparently they say the two happiest days in a man’s life are the day he takes ownership of a boat, and the day he sells it. In the performing arts community, there is a perilous ongoing dance between obligation, desire, responsibility and friendship that can have some severely negative consequences if someone’s foot flattens another’s toe. So let me offer some thoughts on this dance from the playwright’s perspective.
In my opinion, playwrights are on the line for their work in a way more closely aligned with painters, composers or novelists than screenwriters, even though many playwrights also work as screenwriters (big screens and small). Just as with every note you hear in a piece of music, or every word you read in a novel – every word spoken in live theatre is controlled by the playwright. I think it was Coppola who said that most movies are written on the hood of a car – lines are improvised and changed between “action” and “cut” over multiple takes, and that’s after several writers were hired over many drafts. In the theatre, the words have been dissected and doubted, tossed aside and resurrected, agonized about over a couple years by one writer in solitary confinement – it takes at least two years to develop a decent play, and many great plays out there have taken far longer than that.
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!
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…
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.
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.
Here’s an interview I did for Destination Hollywood Radio, in which I discuss my history at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 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.
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.
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.