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.
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.
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.
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.
Lights up on…. An agent showcase. Over the next hour or so, fifteen scenes will be performed, about 3 minutes each. Almost all will be glib comedies with glib acting, no one giving a shit about anything other than whether this so-called ‘work’ will please… them. THEY. The all-powerful THEY, who will assess your talent, your look, and then hopefully represent you and get you auditions.
Recently a scene was performed in class. It was a two-and-a-half-minute rather glib comedically-tilted fight between a young couple at a party – an awkward compliment he had previously paid her anatomy was received poorly, she was still stewing on it, and that was the premise. Banter was exchanged, actress walks off in a huff, actor follows, exasperated, and…… scene.
Turns out one of the actors had written the scene, because they were performing in an agent showcase a couple nights later, and they couldn’t find something that would suffice for the three-minute limit. In addition, the omniscient, all-mighty THEY say it’s good to do comedy in these workshops. It’s what THEY want to see.
How does this situation make me vomit? Let me count the ways:
A student of mine sent this to me – comedian Patton Oswalt’s keynote at last year’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. It is awesome. Watch it. Live it.
“Dear Hollywood Gatekeepers, There are no more gates. We need you less & less because of the smart phone in my pocket.”
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:
From the Department of Context, a sketch of the lifecycle of a project. In boldface, the items over which actors have control:
1. Writer fills a page. And then another…
2. Project reaches casting phase.
3. Writer / Producer / Director / Casting solicits talent.
b. Agency submissions
c. Those with good personal/professional relationships.
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:
Count me opposed to the needless and introspective thought process that has been introduced to what we at the Beverly Hills Playhouse would call “Administration” – namely, those efforts undertaken by actors to sell their talent to the industry that is seeking it. (There is much in life that could fall under ‘Administration,’ but this essay is addressing career-specific actions.) The study and attempted application of generalized “Actor Marketing & Branding” have increased in the last few years, and I think not always to the benefit of the aspiring actor.
First, as I believe many actors conflate the concepts of ‘branding’ and ‘marketing,’ let’s differentiate: My shoot-from-the-hip definitions would be that ‘branding’ is the process of clearly identifying the specific features of Badass Product X and linking them with the name Badass Product, while ‘marketing’ refers to the strategy and actions undertaken to let the world know about Badass Product. For your average up-and-coming actor, let’s simplify life and assume that ‘marketing,’ ‘promotion,’ ‘advertising,’ and ‘sales’ are pretty much all the same activity: Letting the world know you exist so that producers, directors and casting people call you in for roles.
Asking how you should market yourself is a valid question with many simple answers, all requiring consistency and discipline over time.