Well, at long last, after almost 27 years at the BHP, including 18 years of apprenticeship with Milton, 15 years of teaching, and 8 years writing essays for this blog, I have endeavored to capture the whole enchilada of that experience into a book that has just been released: “The Oasis of Insanity.”
The Official Blurb reads, “Upon the recommendation of a pretty girl, a young Harvard grad reports to a small theatre on a chilly November evening in Los Angeles to begin an acting class. So begins his unique apprenticeship with a brilliant and temperamental teacher, an apprenticeship lasting fully 18 years until that young student takes over the school upon the master’s death. The apprentice is Allen Barton, today an established Los Angeles director, teacher and playwright. The master is Milton Katselas, one of the most renowned acting teachers of his era. The school is the Beverly Hills Playhouse, the famed training ground for thousands of working actors over the last 40 years. ‘The Oasis of Insanity’ is Barton’s story of his coming of age under Katselas’ unique tutelage, as well as his own valuable guidebook to the study and pursuit of acting in the 21st century.”
Part 1 is an episodic memoir of my time with Milton, which I hope is in equal parts an entertaining, informative and honest appraisal of one of our field’s great teachers and provocative personalities. Part 2 is a collection of essays — many rewritten, reorganized, condensed, or expanded from this blog — and many written brand new for the book. They have been organized into four groups: On Acting, On Study, On Administration, and On Life as an Actor. As a whole, I hope the book presents accurately the current world of the actor, inclusive of the culture and history associated specifically with the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
E-book downloads are available currently at Amazon and iBooks, with paperback-on-demand available as well at Amazon .
Actor training in Los Angeles over the last fifteen years has been pixelated more and more into a dozen subcategories of “skills,” inclusive of improv, audition technique, comedy technique, camera technique, commercial camera technique, camera audition slate-your-name improv sit-com technique, how-to-shoot-your-demo-reel classes, how-to-market-yourself-on-social-media seminars, on and on and on. The price tag for some of these items can be $500 or more, and I would submit to you that the most certain result of any of these “educational opportunities” is that whoever is delivering it gets their $500 or more, per student. And then once you’ve spent your $500, say, on some workshop, they’ll come to you with the next level. And the next after that. And then there’s a weekend intensive by so-and-so, and you don’t want to miss the weekend intensive with so-and-so, because so-and-so is so brilliant.
Jesus I suck why the hell do I continue to pursue this when I could go get a masters or apprentice for a producer or something or go back home where people are real and there’s actually weather okay shut up already you need to be positive you need to channel your confidence this is what your therapist has been talking to you about this endless tidal pull towards insecurity where did that come from my parents or an early piece of shit love affair there’s no need for it I need to grow the fuck up and stop dramatizing my pain except I’m an actor aren’t I isn’t that the point to dramatize my inner pain for the world to recognize as their own pain this makes my pain infinitely more noble and in fact it’s my duty and my responsibility to feel my pain and parade it for others like a freaking pain peacock but holy shit I’m nervous and I’m not sure my pain is what is needed at this moment because fuck it’s stupid fucking comedy and I hate reading for shit like this it’s not what I work on in class why am I taking Continue reading →
Picture this utopian vision: You go about your days much as you do currently, but with a massive decrease in the level of distraction, agitation, and possibly narcissistic levels of self-importance. In the place of this chaotic noise, you will have free space to… Think! Dream! Plan! Write! _______! (<—- fill in with some remotely useful verb)
How can you achieve this relative nirvana? [Drum roll, please….]
DELETE SOCIAL MEDIA APPS FROM YOUR PHONE.
I’m old enough a fogey that Facebook is really the only social media that I use regularly. I’ve never gotten into Twitter, and could barely tell you the difference between – or relative utility of – Instagram, Tumblr, SnapChat, etc. I saw a play recently in which a character referred to Tinder as “the apocalypse,” and from what I’ve heard, I would probably agree. In any case, earlier this year, consumed by frustration stemming from the toxic political contretemps occurring on old-fashioned Facebook and its formerly somewhat entertaining NewsFeed, I deleted the app from my phone. And lo and behold… Peace! It wasn’t until I deleted the app that I realized how reflexively I checked it during the day, anytime I was standing in line, or during a break in class, or at a red light, etc. And each time I checked I would get irritated about something, or I’d get caught up in reading comments to something I had posted, contemplating my response to this person or that as I went to my next appointment, frantically taking the phone out in a spare moment to counter quickly some bonehead’s stupid comment, lest s/he think I would let such fallacious aburditude sit there unremarked upon! And even when I wasn’t in the mood to light it up on politics, I’d just start clicking the link to some interesting story, which would take me to another link, which would prompt a Google search to ‘fact check’ a bit of what I was reading before… In general my mind would become engaged in all manner of useless activity, taking up a significant chunk of free thinking time.
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.