When ever my students use “like” every other word I call it out and have them repeat their sentence with the word removed. I’m sure you’re not shocked to learn that many have no idea how unconscious their use of “like” is. It’s only after struggling to form a sentence without “like” do they admit “gosh, this is hard…” Yup. It’s hard making your words matter, but that’s what artists do, and, we are supposed to do it better than everyone else. Being specific is what distances art from general dialog. Not only are specifics the cornerstone of the Meisner technique but they are the cornerstone of your point of view. Trying to create something artistic that speaks to people cannot be achieved with general, vague meanings.
Telling a story or making an impact with your art will never be achieved by sorta writing a play, or, like acting in like a play. You have to be very clear about what you’re doing because your audience really wants to know what it is you are doing that’s different from what they can do by never leaving their house.
I call them qualifiers. Those phrases that keep you from criticism because you don’t take ownership of your point of view by saying things like; “I, like, kind of want to do this play.” You protect yourself from not getting the role. Some of you might be saying “Yes, but that’s a bit touchy, you know what I meant.” Well, , but the audience will get what I mean.” Yes, they don’t always succeed when they write something, but they sure tried to make their point clearly.
Don’t hide from your point of view and I mean you should practice this all day. Choose your words, don’t use cliches, and say what you want, all day. Practice owning your words and point of view all day. Distance yourself from the common level of communication that is based on filtering out a great deal of what is said because it’s, like, filler. It’s empty of meaning and connection. You as an artist have to hold yourself to this higher standard because, well, to be an artist you have to be braver, risking more, and do the harder thing. Owning your point of view and not sounding like everyone and anyone when you represent yourself isn’t harder, it’s a simple want to go from sorta to absolutely.
This guy goes to the Adele concert and films the whole thing, the next day his buddy says, “How did you like it?” and he says, “I don’t know, I haven’t watched it yet.”
At my actor talk with Patrick Warburton I asked him to sing his favorite Pearl Jam song in the voice of Kronk. He thought for a moment and then just before he began he said “phones down” and half a dozen phones went down. What struck me was how reflexive this action is in the young actor; film now, experience later.
If you think that filming your live events will make you a better artist, here is my warning to you…
Acting is about being more present than anyone else in the room and staying present every moment. When you film what’s happening right in front of you, you lose the immediate experiential connection to it. The once-in-a-lifetime impact is gone. The true meaning of connecting with the artist/event is gone. If you create a habit where there is always the barrier of a lens between you and a live, feeling, experience you will lose your ability to connect. No one watches their recording of a live performance after and says “it feels exactly the same as when I was standing there!” In fact it does the opposite, often it makes a great event look lame and kills your feelings about it.
As an artist your job is to communicate on a higher level than everyday chatter, to risk being very private in public. So stop documenting every moment and risk being in them. It is only by being present that you put yourself in a position to have those sparks of amazement, those epiphanies of understanding wash over you when something honest is happening in the room. Thinking you can be totally present on stage but needn’t be that way elsewhere is a fallacy. Take in what other actors and artists hand you and be influenced. Trust that what sticks in your brain is what you need from it. A spark inspiration might be found within a video replay, but the MUCH bigger risk is that you (and to those around you) are being robbed of the perfect connection we get from being lucky enough to see this stuff live and for real. It’s bad enough when you stand next to the guy who wants to out sing Bono, but having to watch the concert through his phone screen because it’s simply unavoidable is homicide sized maddening.
Actor’s faith isn’t only about what happens on stage, it’s also about the faith you have in yourself to be learning all the time.
Seth Godin has a mantra of “do the hard work.” I think this over writes the oft used; “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I just shot the second installment of a web series I created to have a place to “do the hard work.” Actors are always looking for a place to put their work, a place to deliver on all the training that really sits idle unless you are on stage or on a set somewhere. Our frustration about not being a star is because being a star means you get to go to work more than others. We don’t get to “ship.” This is a term Seth uses that is used to delineate those who think and those who do. For example there are many writers who write great books, but never get to the part where they “ship” the book to the publisher. They rewrite and rewrite, but never put the product out, or worse, wait for someone else to put out a like product to feel safe enough to ship theirs.
So I built us a place to ship. And it came down to forcing myself to set a ship date and keep asking until I had the minimum of what I needed, and then physically doing everything else that didn’t show up so I could get us started. I knew starting the series was everything. When people see a product, they will choose to join, or donate, but when it’s just a pitch…they tend to wait to see who else might get in. So the first episodes are coming out as we filmed the second set of episodes. I can tell you, I’ve never been more exhausted, and I mean the true sense of exhausted as I was from that first shoot last summer.
But! We got 3 episodes out of it and the momentum needed to start a crowdfund and get a few more volunteers and the shoot last week was completely different. The community is being built. Students were part of a show, a place to create, what they didn’t know about the process they learned by being part of it, not watching it from afar. Having a hired crew for the technical things made for quicker set ups and therefore more elegant shots. The production value of the show grew by leaps and the sense of “shipping” was everywhere. This is what actors and creatives long for…we were doing it. There were smiles all day and “thanks for the opportunity” to come be free labor on a set for a web series that will only have the audience we can build. When you give Actors/Directors/DP’s a place to deliver their pent up understanding of what makes the world worth having…you make a place where no one is working, everyone is shipping what they love.
Last week we lost Mike Nichols and deservedly the discussion about him has been loud. I watched Whoopi Goldberg attempt to make the announcement of his death the morning he died but her intense love for Mike overwhelmed her and she was unable to speak. He turned her talent into a Broadway show, that I went to, and the night I went, I met Mike in a funny way. In my audition for Biloxi Blues I said to him, “Can I tell you my Mike Nichols story?” and he answered with this boyish enthusiasm; “Yes! Tell…!” So I did. And he laughed with such a warm hearty laugh I remember feeling; “I really just entertained this guy!”
Mike fought for me to get that part. Neil Simon wanted someone else but Mike held out for me, and I can’t help but think it was because of my silly story. He gave me my first trip to the majors and I arrived terrified, but Mike knew that. Mike knew everything. He’d walk in to a scene with 7 actors and say something different, and in a way specific to each of us, and get what he wanted on the next take. Once, he said to me, “You could walk faster” which made me spin why I’d walk faster in my head over and over until it hit me; “I’m anxious to get there because…!” If he had just said “remember, you are eager to get there” I would have walked faster, but I wouldn’t have thought about why, and Mike knew that. He set me on course to find the why, not to simply please the director.
Time with him was like a class in how to be a better artist and a class act. He always let us know how lucky he felt to have us, and the script, and the budget to do something as outright fun as shoot a movie. He created a mood where the most that was at stake was a potential lost opportunity to be better on the next take. He also relied on his crew to be perfect so we could be creative. I remember him yelling between takes “It’s too damn loud in here! These guys have to work! Remember, we are the dog not the tail.”
One night we all went to dinner and Mike couldn’t shake his headache so he ate very little and got up to leave early but he pulled out enough money to cover the whole check. We all objected, he always paid for everything, but he insisted and when we asked him why he said, “Because I have the most money,” like it was a universal rule. Then there was the time he came to the set totally humbled after watching Full Metal Jacket saying, “Stanley is so good, he’s intimidating…I don’t know how he does it.” Then there was the day my Mother flew down for Mother’s day and he insisted she sit in his chair and watch the shot through his monitor while he stood near by. Then there was the time late in the shoot a background performer walked up to him and said “Hey Mike, I was thinking of going to New York to become an actor. Can you help me with an agent and all the stuff you need to be an actor?” A very matter of fact Mike said, “I have no idea how that’s done. I really don’t. I’d be no help at all.” It showed me just how easy Mike was to approach.
The downside of working with Mike this early in my career was that he ruined me for all other directors that weren’t in his league. And there are very, very, few in his league. He gave me evidence of what was possible if your director knows what he’s doing and creates the environment that we are there to make these words come alive and tell a story, and we are lucky to be doing this, today, together. I have since been on many sets since where the totality of the project’s success was lifted on the backs of the actors in the next shot, as if this one shot would make or break the whole show. Right after Biloxi I was cast in a play and the Director asked me a question about the character and I thought; “Wait, that’s a question I would ask you if I needed to, why are you asking me? Don’t you know?” and I realized she didn’t. Mike would have known, and Mike would have known that I knew, so the question didn’t have to be asked.
I am now creating my own show now, a web series, and as the producer of a low/no budget show, the usual course is to beg and pray to get folks to work with you. But that’s not what I did. I used what Mike taught me; I asked people to join me in making something based on the idea that we are all going to make this show because we all want to be working on something together. There is no salary to lure them, it has to be about working on a show that has a story they want to tell, in an environment that values their work and reminds them it’s damn fun to shoot, together, today. That’s all I have to offer so far with this web series and it has worked. We shot three episodes so far and the days were fun, the show looks good, and everyone has agreed to shoot more. Which we will do in a month.
I was lucky to know Mike, I am lucky to have had his influence. I want to think it makes me better at what I do. (This was taken on a day off when we went to Blue Ribbon Downs, a horse racing track. Pictured with us are Mike’s kids Max and Jenny and of course Christopher Walken.)
You can’t think that everyone is going to like your work. I just started my new class and in the first day talk, I ask them who they like as actors and they can always find someone and tell me why they like them. Then I point out that there are also many famous, iconic, talented actors that they don’t like. That’s the beauty of art. It’s for everyone. Many actors go to work everyday because someone likes their work enough to pay them for it, and many people watching their work think they’re awful and can’t imagine how they keep their jobs.
Uh huh…that’s how it works.
Art can’t be measured by it’s appeal to the masses BY THE ARTISTS, that kind of measuring is for the marketing department. It’s not your job to wonder if it’s good enough for everyone watching, it’s your job to wonder if you’re giving over all you have to the part. Your only shot at fulfillment in your work, is by doing authentic work. You’re happiness as an artist is in direct proportion to how authentic you are being. The struggle to find more and allow more of yourself to be included is about bravery. That’s what we do in class and every night in the play, we keep looking into what we have to offer. Talent is the thing that you can’t know, it’s the thing that makes your authenticity appealing.
If you find yourself in a place or group of friends that don’t allow, or stifle, your authenticity…it’s time for a change, or, you can go on wondering why you just don’t feel great about your work.
I’ve been at this 30 years and the fun of staying at any endeavor becomes the folks that come your way with every move throughout your many station stops. I have met the biggest stars and celebrities the biz has to offer. Carrie Fisher told me years ago; “money doesn’t change people, it just lets them be who they really are.” Yeah, I met (and oddly, had a catch with her. I had a catch with Princess Leia? Weird but true.) Carrie Fisher, and she was right. So, I find if fascinating to silently study the behavior of my fellow artists, especially veterans like me. I’m always curious about how their journey has treated them and how they then treat the world around them.
Why I’m writing about Jim J Bullock is because he taught me how easy it is make the world fall in love with you. There wasn’t a trace of anything but authenticity in his every move and manner. He was genuinely happy to be doing what he was doing every day. He had a mid-show ceremony where he’d walk to his dressing room after intermission and yell something like “Please replace my Tony!” and it made the green room die with laughter. Every day they’d wait for his fake Diva tirade concerning his missing or or moved out of place, Tony award. It became a highlight…the dancers would gather with knowing smiles waiting, and with little effort he always paid it off. One day one of the crew stayed up the night before and made him a very real looking fake Tony award and put it in his dressing room. And they waited. Looking at them sharing smiles and expectant looks, holding back their laughter, told me just how much affection he had garnered from this cast of 64. He went into his dressing room, and they quickly crowded in front of his door. He burst back out the door with “My Tony is back!” What a payoff. Then he said guiltily; “To be honest, I didn’t even know what a Tony looked like!” He’s just always himself and he’s really comfortable with that, so you are too.
It’s watching actors around you with a great life point of view that yields great information about how many different ways you can make this life as an actor work for you. I love learning lessons like this because I’ve been in the presence of the other side of it where I’m learning what not to do from someone I’m working with. The lesson is good to get, but getting it hurts. Crossing paths with Jim J Bullock gave me more good life notes and they were fun to get.
I read a book that came to me in the most reliable way…it was left in my space so long that I took it as a sign to read it. It was a book written for the business world. Marketing. But…it came to me so I knew I had to read it, right? We love when information finds us in a romantic way, don’t we? One page into this book he writes, “this book is about love and art and change and fear.” Ummm…that’s every thought and feeling I have every day, but anyone can write these provocative lines to capture a readers attention, how would he pay this kind of sentence off in a marketing book?
It’s called Linchpin by Seth Godin and the book absolutely connected the dots for me on so many things. Terribly unlikely that so many lovely actor epiphanies would come from a book that’s trying to illuminate business folks to the new economic model that’s happening right now. It’s called Linchpin because it’s about making yourself indispensable. Making yourself an un-dismissable Linchpin to your community. We actors are always being told that it’s the real standouts among us that get noticed, and, then we are told what to do to stand out. This has always struck me as just a marketing ploy to sell actors another class.
But haven’t you always felt that if you were really brave enough to be yourself, that you should stand out? And if you don’t stand out, that must mean you have no real talent? This is what we are sold and this is when we start to employ gimmicks and stunts to get noticed. It feels awful while you’re doing it, but, getting a job by way of gimmick is always better than not working, right? So “whatever it takes!” is usually the thought.
As a consideration on this dilemma, here are two art definitions Mr. Godin puts forward in his book;
“Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.”
“Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”
This is a marketing book? A business book? People in business think of their work as art? That definition knocked me over because I didn’t see it coming, and, it created an awareness in me. Art, any art, should be for the purpose of changing the world. The whole world, your immediate world, the world of your neighbors, friends and cast mates. What if you took that point of view and stopped thinking of changing the world by getting rich enough through your acting career to donate to charity or start a foundation. What if you set out to change your world with every act of art you create? Gifting the world with change is a heady thought isn’t it? We don’t think that way because we have been trained to only see massive things like Star Wars as how art changes the world.
But I want to be an indispensable artist. Do I have the courage, the arrogance, the personal investment to try to change the world…?
Mr. Godin says very clearly…yes…
As part of surviving the single worst year of my entire life, I decided that getting on stage this Summer, might help remind me of what it is I do, and why I do it. Sure this sounds dramatic but when you have had your whole life’s trajectory altered, you lose your compass and the feeling of simply floating though days becomes the norm. To ground yourself you search for benchmarks that give you some clarity. I thought doing a play might help.
When I looked around at where I might go to get on stage this summer I happened on auditions for Bye Bye Birdie at our cavernous theatre here in Thousand Oaks and it was being done by the theatre stalwart Lewis Wilkenfeld.
He runs Cabrillo Music Theatre and he is the real deal. A true theater baby. He’s the guy that can recite all the roles in any of his shows, who played the role, exactly how much it will cost to rent that beaded headress (and from who), where the theatre company is on fundraising and remind you of your call time. He simply never says “I don’t remember” to any question asked about the show or season or year. And, while running the theatre, he also directed our show…It’s remarkable. So, in an effort to keep his theatre going, click here and donate. If they don’t reach their goal, his 20 year theatre company closes it doors …and that would be truly, truly, tragic. So send him anything you can. The company is worth it.
I auditioned and got a role. An ensemble singing and dancing but small speaking role of the Mayor. I was great with that. I don’t sing that well but in a group…? I’m genius!
The dancing was handled by the great John Charron and he handled me with the right level of discipline for my obvious stage dancing limitations. Lloyd Cooper was the music director and he could not have been more helpful and complimentary of his singers. Thirty years of rust had to come off, and it felt like this group would accomodate that.
The first thing that struck me was how damn talented every kid in the room was. Our first rehearsals were singing rehearsals and though there were 15 adults, the rest of the 64 member cast were kids, and I mean 8-22 year old kids. Lloyd would simply say “lets sing from number 22 and..” and he gesture and the piano would play…and everyone would sing the right notes, the right words and… man was I out of my league. I hummed a lot and listened a super lot…and eventually sang and hit mostly right notes. The bizarrely talented Anne Montavon gave me a compliment the other day when I was knocking my singing, saying; “everything I’ve heard you sing sounds good…what are you worried about?” and this girl can flat out sing. It made me feel like I belonged. Like maybe I was the only one worried about my singing ..hmmm…strangely reminiscent of the early days as an actor when I always felt like I didn’t belong just because I was new.
The acting part was easy but the choreography was also a whole new language for me. I watched in awe of how the dancers just took in the steps and did them, and every change, every subtle nuance asked for by the choreographer was welcomed. They just did it. I’m used to people arguing with changes, and it seems dancers get that change makes things better. The two things I learned is that when dancers get to dance, they really love their lives. Everyone arrived happy and stayed that way. I’m used to actors who arrive already brooding for the tortuous task of digging deeper meanings out of their brains in rehearsal. But dancers express by moving. Which bring me to the second thing…it seems dancers never really tire, they just keep dancing until the clock says stop. At the end of every routine they’d be panting, and I never once heard a groan when John said “let’s do it gain!”, not once. They’d just leap in again, as hard as they could. It blew my mind to see such excitement, every time. Then…on the breaks they’d mark all the moves by thinking through the moves over and over, flapping arms and jutting feet, locking the moves by muscle memory. Sure this is normal for you dancers, but it was so damned interesting for me to see such constant need to master the moves. Actors think a lot, dancers move a lot…the difference was fun to watch.
My lessons have been plenty. The company of people each needed to do their part to make the whole thing work. Yes there are leads but really they don’t carry the show, they carry the story, but the music and the dance (and of course the two very important scenes featuring the Mayor) carry the 3 hour show. Everyone has to do their job, and do it with a level of enthusiasm that makes the audience get on board and enjoy the ride. I’m so used to the Stars, subtly (and not so subtly), reminding everyone in the cast that the show wouldn’t be on the air,(or have a green light) if it weren’t for them. Here the company is a company.
We have 6 more shows. I will write more about Jim J Bullock and some of the others in the cast that have influenced me, but for now I want to say that I have come to adore this group of “kids” who by simply being the artists they are, and by accepting this rookie into their world, have helped me more than they know and more than I’ll ever tell them. My time with them has helped in righting the ship. I’m getting clarity about why we do this, the value of what we do and most of all how damn fun it is to be in a room with like minded people. I’ve spent too much time with people that didn’t have my best interest in mind, and boy it damaged me. So I thank you Cabrillo Music Theatre and cast mates, for restoring my faith in the process of creating and all the care and kindness shown to a guy who took 30 years off between shows.
Consider this idea I found online this morning…advice from a CEO on how to be successful. Measure yourself in how many No’s you’re getting. Not many? You’re not trying hard enough.
NewsCred CEO Shafqat Islam: If you’re not being told ‘no’ constantly, you’re not pushing hard enough.
“Multiple people have told me this, and I don’t know if I can credit it to a single person, but one thing that I think about is if you’re not getting told ‘no’ enough times a day, you’re probably not doing it right or you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough,” Islam told Business Insider.
“I think that’s a good piece of advice for anybody building a company because you hear ‘no’ so many times,” Islam adds. “And I think that’s normal, that’s a good thing, that you’re trying to trying to do something that’s disruptive, that’s groundbreaking, that there’s going to be naysayers.”
This is from a business article and it’s not a direct parallel to our industry but it’s close. If you’re not hearing no…then you’re not trying. I heard Mark Walberg in an interview mention that he was “trying for 4 years to get the story of Irish Mickey Ward made”…which became “The Fighter.” Everyone hears no. But if you’re not getting a lot of them you’re either gotten a “yes” and you’re working…or you’re not pushing yourself to get into a position to hear a no.
In my book I say the best revenge against a bad review is the comfort of knowing you put yourself in a position to be on stage or in a film or show…so that the reviewer had something to review. You did the right thing, you risked and got a place to go show off. It’s the same idea and it seems being successful in the start-up business, the principle applies as well. You’re not finding enough opportunities if you’re not hearing a lot of no’s.
An episode I did of Major Crimes airs tomorrow Dec 2nd at 9pm. Here’s why it was more than just another job.
For reasons I’m not going to expand on, this last summer was the single worst period of my life. In the middle of this I got an audition for Major Crimes, which in itself felt like a miracle because so much bad news was coming at me for so many months. The role was a really nice one and it was something I could really have fun doing, and as I reread it I decided that although it wasn’t necessarily scripted that way, it had room for me to use all the bad news of the last 6 months to my advantage and really, really live this part out. I decided that the Dad I was playing would be completely off his hinges when asking the police how they could fail at their jobs.
In the audition I sat down and there were easily 7 people in the room including Michael Robin the show runner and director of this episode. The scene they chose was of course the “big” scene for this role and I held nothing back, I did what we’ve all been taught, I used all the frustration and anger and rage about what life had dealt me and…it felt great. I did feel a bit guilty that these folks thought they were seeing a Dad who wasn’t going to go easy on the police for letting a bad person out of jail, when they were really seeing a Dad who was simply unloading 6 months of pent up feelings. The scene ended and I knew when I made this plan reactions to my choice could go either way, but I also knew that the safe choice wouldn’t challenge me as an actor. Michael Robin spoke, “That was F*#!& brilliant.” Now, usually when you hear big complements in auditions it’s your consolation prize, it means you won’t be getting the job and it’s a bittersweet moment. I sat there totally fulfilled that I executed my plan exactly the way I wanted and I knew my work was good, it was also therapeutic.
Now, had this been a sitcom audition, surely I wouldn’t have gone this way, but that’s also part of my message here; to get an audition that can use exactly what’s going on in me at a time when I needed the job, but moreover I really needed the confirmation that should still be trying to get work as an actor, to get an audition where I could really use what I had…it simply felt like the acting gods stepped in and sent me some much needed good news.
Michael Robin then asked me to make two adjustments and do it again…and all I could think was “It’s too good to be true…I get to unload all this crap I have in me again? Ha-le-lu-yah!” And I did. I was hoarse by the time it ended and it felt great. Michael Robin again complemented me and I left wearing the first real smile I’d had for many months.
It took a few days but word came that I got the role and I’d be going to work the next week. I was quite fragile but when you get a job, you put on your actor chops and go to work with the knowledge that you’re the guest and the set doesn’t work to make you fit in, you fit in to the set. I say this because I have been a guest star on many shows and it’s not always a nice experience, but at an impossibly difficult time in my life…I really, really needed the job to take care of me. It’s a lot to ask, but I did. So, the acting gods sent me Michael Robin, GW Bailey, Tony Denison and Clare Carey. GW and Tony are old friends and they immediately embraced me and made the days fun and warm and easy, but Michael and Clare were new to me. Michael Robin is just the best of the best that I have met doing this for as long as I have. His manner is easy and inclusive and appreciative and skilled and above all, he loves the work. I never felt like he was simply “making the day” as so many directors in TV do. He thanked me constantly for every little choice or change I made and asked if I wanted anything else in the scene and never blankly turned down an idea from anyone about anything. On the day when Clare and I had to do the explosive audition scene, we talked about how fun it is to get these jobs and then how hard it is to be that emotional for 8 hours. She too handled me with the care of a saint. Then, at about 6 pm I sat down between takes and Michael Robin came over to me and said “I bet your throat is sore, can I get you some ice cream?” The director/show runner was waiting on me. I said yes and he returned a few minutes later, handed me the ice cream and said, “I appreciate you going where you have to go for this role.” That…just doesn’t happen.
I used what I had and I got what I needed. It can happen. Perhaps it’s a sign of better things on the way, perhaps it’s just news that Michael Robin is the best boss of all time, either way I am so grateful for all of it. If you watch perhaps you’ll send along a review. I’m curious how it will turn out and how it will be perceived.