Once again, hello and thank you to all creative-advice seekers. This week's column addresses whether or not actors should learn history, reviews how to deal with the monotony of long runs, and offers advice to actors in school.
I invite actors of all ages to continue write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!
Our culture -- our younger generation -- is tending towards anti-history. Since leaving the acting profession in NY two years ago, I've come in close contact with our 'up-and-comings'. Let me give you an example: I am now an advisor to young theatre students. I had a young woman in my office who was balking at the idea of having to take any history courses (some are required for graduation). I asked her to name the century (not the decade) in which the Civil War took place. She didn't know.
Blair, I am no whiz with history or any other bookish subject, but do you think it is important to know at least some of this stuff? What was a slave? Why were African-Americans not allowed to perform on the Broadway stage? I was in the original cast of Assassins, and we spent a lot of time researching the various periods that our show encompassed. As an actor, I was greatly stimulated by all of this. . . the whole company was. Theatre pieces take place [in a variety of times and places]. Shouldn't actors be curious? Shouldn't they hunger to know about other lives, other cultures, other eras? Isn't the internal life of an actor who takes the time to research the French Revolution more enriched when they are singing about the guillotine? Or are they merely mimicking an 'idea' they have about French patriotism based on how the actors behaved in Les Mis?
Ach, Blair, I'm sorry. I feel like I'm on a soapbox here, but the profession of acting does seem more and more like a cartoon to me. Actors seem more interested in being seen in something that will give them an opportunity to be considered for a sitcom then attending to their craft.
Your "soapbox" has a strong foundation, and I believe it is a subject of concern for many performing artists. I wholeheartedly agree that many actors today are suffering from a lack of desire for knowledge about things that I believe to be of value to their professional and personal existence.
In our fast-food generation, many people do not understand patience, cultivation, process. I myself have found it extremely difficult to work against this immediate satisfaction frenzy, to slow down and train myself to "smell the roses." The cultural obsession with material wealth and material success sets up a great challenge to those who want to define themselves as successful artists: It becomes increasingly difficult to remember and know that one is "successful" just because they are doing what they love and learning and growing with each job, regardless of status, pay, etc. I think it is very sad that your student did not know the dates or century of the Civil War. I agree that learning details about other time periods and studying history not only enhances acting abilities, but also imagination, knowledge of oneself through roots/ ancestral knowledge, and increases perspective on which things change in humanity, which things that need to change still haven't. . .the list goes on. In terms of performance, I believe this knowledge does enrich the inner life of the performer in a subtle and powerful way.
On the other hand, I am leery of "shoulds" in this biz. Although it would be nice if all actors felt passionate about the human race and its history, and if all artists were devoted to the journey of truly developing their craft, this type of integrity is not necessary for getting cast in sitcoms, films, or even on Broadway. But I imagine there will always be those striving for the real thing, those holding the torch of mature artistic values.
I am just wrapping-up my first semester at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts as a musical theater major. The program is a great balance of acting, singing and dancing and, although I have my problems with it, it only promises to get better. However, at the same time, I am anxious to begin acting professionally and have responded to some casting notices in Backstage and on the Web. I am also very interested in contacting agents to get the ball rolling. I guess it would be OK to continue as I am and send out material while in school, but for some reason, it has me under a lot of strain. I'm finding it difficult to balance the demands of both emotional investments. How do you think I can work this out? What is the best way to begin your career while attending college?
Chompin' at the Bit
Hey there Bit-Chomper,
I don't know the "best way" to begin your career while attending college. But I want to say that if you are finding it stressful to be in school and attempt to act professionally, don't. Slow down. You just finished your first semester in college. That's stressful enough as it is. You don't HAVE to get a head start.
I recommend focusing on school for a while--since you are paying a lot of money to get a college education--get it. College is a luxury in a way. It offers a insulated environment in which like-minded people are working towards a similar goal. Your workload right now probably consists of loads of reading, schoolwork and scene rehearsals, and if you get cast in a school play, you will have to rehearse that, too. I would think you also want to make time to have some fun. After all, it is college.
So that's plenty. For right now, be in school. Take advantage of the lessons school offers about being an performer. Later on in your college career, you can begin to build a bridge into the professional world you will be entering when you graduate. You will also have more tools and experience. There will be times in school when it may feel more appropriate to seek outside work. In the upcoming years you will feel more settled and familiar with the rhythms of school. For example, if you begin your semester and can foresee that your workload is not overwhelming, and you are not interested in the school shows or do not get cast in any shows that you audition for, then by all means, pick up the paper and start pounding the pavement.
Looking for professional work, while in or out of school, may always be stressful. But at the right time, the stress should feel manageable. It is quite enough pressure to be in a high profile program like Tisch. Have a great time.
I've been reading your column in the recent weeks and find it extremely informative. I thought I'd ask you a question myself. I'm currently doing a production of She Loves Me in a regional theater and having a great time. However, this is the longest run I've done so far (24 shows) and am having a hard time staying "fresh" in my performances. How do the pro’s do it week after week after week? I try to deliver 100% each time, but it is difficult when I'm doing the same thing every night. Any suggestions?
So glad you are getting goodies from the column.
I meet many actors who are ashamed of getting bored of the long running show they're in, like it's some actor sin to be struggling with the monotony. They always preface themselves by saying, "I know I should feel lucky to be in a show. . ." And then they express their dismay at not being a true actor: one who ideally would be able to stay fresh and love doing the same thing every night. I think becoming disheartened and bored in a long-running show is totally natural.
And I think there's a great challenge at hand. Learning how to stay "fresh" is challenging, and if you can get excited about discovering your ways of how you can stay awake and alive doing the same thing over and over, the challenge can become something to look forward to. Look for the mystery within the familiar. See if you can look through new eyes each time around, behaving as though you don't know what is going to happen next. There is so much freedom in knowing your part by heart. It allows you to trust yourself, to focus more deeply on the moment. You can explore your connection with the character by allowing your own reactions to flow through the lines, finding spontaneity within the rehearsed. It is an opportunity to deepen your insight and sharpen your skills. If you connect with your fellow actors, allowing them to spark something within you and affect your performance, you may wake everyone up out of their boredom.
As far as the pro's go, I heard an interesting response to this dilemma when someone asked Broadway star Betty Buckley her how she kept Sunset Boulevard "fresh" every night. Buckley's answer was that she views "each performance as a ritual." Buckley compares her work to meditation, and uses her work as an offering to something "higher" and as an opportunity to touch the sacred. Each performance is an opportunity to connect deeply with the character and with the audience.
What ever your preference or belief system, sit with your question and begin the search for your answer to the dilemma. You may find in certain cases, the answer is simply, "I am bored and I don't want to do this play anymore. Time for something new." Who says you have to stay in a play forever? When you've gotten all that you can out of a run, well, then the bottom of the barrel has been scraped. It's time to move on.
I always recommend you spend a few minutes grounding your energy before a show begins. Some do this through meditation, others pray in groups or alone, some do physical exercises or a combination of several things. What I feel is important is that you become quiet inside for a few moments.
I've auditioned for the Toronto production of RENT about 2 or 3 times now. The first time, I wasn't prepared so I didn't get very far. The final time that I auditioned when they were looking for 4 of the leads that had not been cast yet, I made it to the final call. The only reason that I did not get a role was that I was told I had no power in my voice. UGH ! I would really like to audition for the role of ROGER (since, from what I was told, this was the role for which I was being considered), can you give me any tips as to headshots, what to wear, a resume format or something along those lines if you get a chance.
Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Congrats on getting so far in the audition! That's amazing. I also like the fact that you learned from your first experience, then went back again and really nailed it.
Adrian, the information you are asking for is not the information I feel inclined to provide.
The truth is, if you didn't get cast for Rodger because your voice is lacking in power, no matter how good your headshots and resumes are, no matter how well you dress for the part (which I bet you can figure out how to do yourself), you are going to need to strengthen your voice.
If you feel there may be a grain of truth to the given reason for why you weren't cast, I recommend you heed it. Take voice lessons. Just like you noticed that you were underprepared for your first round of auditions, take this next level as another opportunity to develop an area which needs improvement. Ultimately, you would not feel comfortable up there on the big stage 8 times a week if your voice were not up to par with the rest of them.
Put you money where your voice is. Feel your power in your voice first, then go for it.