My wife recently had coffee with a very successful entrepreneur, and he told her he wakes up every morning “wanting to hear ‘no’ at least ten times by the time I go to sleep.” This took her by surprise, so she followed up, and he expanded: “For me to hear a ‘no’ from someone, it means I had to have an idea or proposal or something, get it in front of someone else for them to evaluate it, and then they thought about it, even if for a second. That represents a lot of good work done. And it’s just ‘no’ for now. Maybe it’s ‘yes’ later on. Eventually, from someone, I’m gonna hear ‘yes,’ but it’s the same work done either way. The main thing is to do the work, that’s what lets me sleep.”
Soon thereafter I met with yet again another of the fifteen bazillion actors I know who display immense talent and who do pretty much nothing about running the business of getting that talent out there. So I drew a far messier version of this diagram:
My rapidly advancing age has perhaps made me downright persnickety, but for some reason my ear has become more sensitive to the increasing lack of discipline with, you know, uh, saying the words of the script, uh, and, like, only the words of the script. Right? Huh? Character name?
This is a bad habit, and particularly so with theatre scripts, which tend towards greater density of words and potential power of expression, all of which get fucked up by what my purist classical music-listening ears pick up as an increasing cacophony of contemporary verbal pollution. One hopes the writer has done a good job arranging just the right words in just the right order to bring a circumstance to life in an interesting, enlightening way. (Read Stoppard on the art of writing in Act II, Scene 1 of The Real Thing – brilliance I shall not try to emulate here.) If he or she has failed, let them fail without your additions to the equation. Then the teacher can make a clean call on it, by advising you work on better writing or somehow helping it along in some way that will benefit your training via the scene in question.
(There are related topics here – the translation used for foreign language scripts, different adaptations, different edits, combining film scenes to create a better stage scene for class purposes, the free-fire zone of rehearsals that allow exploration through improvisation, paraphrasing, etc. I’m not talking about all that. This post is really targeting the moment of performance, and the concept of largely reflexive, often unconscious verbal pollution.)
So, cutting to the chase, stop with the following:
Had an interesting chat with an actor in class the other week, who was questioning whether my taste and his taste were compatible for further training. At issue was the topic of “naturalism,” for which my from-the-hip definition would be, “that style of acting where the unadorned presence of the actor, delivering the lines of the script in a ‘real’ way, is all that is required to tell the story.”
I perhaps too often decry naturalism, not because it isn’t useful or in demand, but because it’s boring. I find the acting in most network television to be boring, and the style these days is marked by excessive naturalism. That being said, I’ve written plenty about how actors need to know what project they’re reading for, and if the show is marked by a naturalistic style, they’d better serve it up and give themselves a real shot for a paycheck.
Prior to our conversation, I’d seen this actor do a scene from Guirgis’ “Motherfucker with the Hat” and Mamet’s recent play, “Race.” I don’t believe either of those writers deals in naturalism as a style, and in both, I felt this actor’s naturalistic tendency was inhibiting the full expression of the writing. So I redirected both scenes as part of the critique, complete with line-readings, because I’m that guy – the jerk who’ll give line-readings from here to Timbuktu if that’s what it takes. The actor was not pleased – hence our conversation.
Save yourself a bunch of physical and psychic head trauma by ignoring all ‘somebody said that somebody said’ information. It’s not information. It’s likely not true, or at best only partially true. And on the rare occasions that somebody said that somebody said something positive, that’s probably not entirely true either. But let’s face it, the somebodies who theoretically said whatever they said to somebody who said it to you are rarely saying something positive. Right? It definitely seems that just about all somebody-said-that-somebody-said information is negative. When you try to verify this information, it’s like trying to pull on wet tissue paper and it’s a fucking mess and you end up with probably zero real information, a lot of contradictory information, and a shit-ton of wet tissue paper all over you. And chances are good you don’t even feel any better for all this mess, and in fact you probably feel a good deal worse.
Ask a majority of actors what’s going on with their career, and you’ll likely get a fuzzy look, the eyes will wander this way and that, some stammering will emerge about needing a better agent, or simply getting any agent, or they did some casting workshop recently. They’ll tell you about a note they sent to someone last month, and toss in a few justifications about what ‘everyone’ says the business is like, and of course the improv/on-camera/sitcom/whatever workshop their agent told them to do is a lot of fun, and, uh…. well…. It can peter out from there rapidly.
Pre-supposing the presence of natural or hard-won ability, a career is then built on relationships – lots of ’em, developed and nurtured over time. Actors can suffer from chronic career myopia, however, with their concept of how it’s all going centered on what happens (or not) this week, with this agent, with that audition. Ask about last week and a fog descends, and next week doesn’t exist. The sense takes hold that the actor “doesn’t know where to begin” on building (or, for some, re-building) their career. This “I don’t know where to begin” feeling remains in place even for those who are blessed with talent, worked hard to train themselves, and have a few years or more behind them in the biz.
So, here’s where to begin – three pieces of paper (or their digital equivalents), and three lists:
One of the biggest acting class cliches are actors who say they are “working on their sexuality.” The fact that 90% of those working this “note” are females, so assigned from a male teacher, well, that’s just part of the cliche.
Disclaimer: I’m from Boston, we have Puritanical roots, and I’ve often joked in class that we New Englanders don’t talk about sex even when we’re engaged in it. I can barely say the word “sexuality” without wanting to barf. So I fully admit that the following is based in a big fat eye roll about sexuality in stage and film, or at least conversation about it. It just kind of bores me as a topic. If I’m involved, well…. All is good.
So, disclaimer disclaimed, let me say that I think actors (and possibly teachers) of all genders and orientation are too worked up in general about sexuality, and this leads to all sorts of fairly useless introversion and introspection and analysis about why one’s sexuality might be “blocked,” and then crazy exercises about how to “unblock” your sexuality – it all just kind of creeps me out, frankly. As a teacher I don’t consider this my business, and it seems very indulgent and possibly damaging.
Who cares? You book it, or not, and you move on (with impeccable followup, of course).
When good actors go too long without booking, a very dangerous process can start to occur: The actor begins to think. And in these thoughts, the actor begins to diagnose. And with this diagnosis, the actor begins to remedy what they believe to be shitty acting, which is clearly shitty, demonstrably shitty, it’s shittiest shit you’ve ever seen, and impersonal to boot, not to mention glib, and unfunny, and unconnected, and fucking old, and and and and and and and…. Because if it were not so, they’d book the job – after all, they were perfect for it.
So let’s step out, rise up, and look at this situation from 5,000 feet instead of five inches.
You have your impression of the work you brought into an audition. Okay. But this may differ from the actual quality as might be determined by a person you trust – a teacher or whomever you rely on in that regard. It’s all pretty bloody subjective. All performers, however, are prone to think they sucked when in fact they did not, or that they killed it when perhaps they’ve had better days.
Oh, the perils of turning 30 in the pursuit of acting!
It’s been on my mind for a while, as I have taught long enough to have watched many young students to whom I had a strong connection close in on and cross the dreaded 30-year-old threshold. And that’s when it often starts to happen… The slow, inevitable, creeping bitterness… The career hasn’t moved as hoped. Some other classmate’s career has moved, and well, he/she isn’t nearly as talented as… No, no. Don’t have that thought! That is an unsupportive, mean-spirited thought to think, but damn it I factually am better than so-and-so and where is the justice?… Why did my teacher just suggest a scene where I play a young parent for chrissakes?…. The trips home are becoming more painful, the parental apprehension more palpable… My college friend just bought a five-bedroom house, and I still can’t afford to fix the brakes on my car…. The audition last week for that under-five corrupted my soul. That thing where I was up for the part that would have changed my life but then it ended up going to Fading Film Star was straw last. I can’t take it. My agent quit the business to become a goat shepherd in Wales one week after telling me this pilot season was gonna be mine mine mine…. Am I going to get to 40 and then quit the business, having screwed up my chance for 20 years’ career advancement in the business world?
Now, it’s not rocket science to observe the classic phenomenon of 20-something actors who hit Los Angeles (or wherever) full of vim and vigor and ready to take on the world, and then hit the wall. The wall of jadedness. The wall of cynicism. The wall of bitterness. Nor is it necessarily negative that the older someone gets while chasing a dream, the more there may be a certain urgency to it all. That urgency may be a very well-needed kick in the ass to get off the general pattern one might find that you can spend your 20s fucking off, but after that it starts to cost you. Urgency, good. Bitterness? Not so much.